Shame Society

chrysanthemum and the sword

In cultural anthropology, a shame society is the concept that, in a given society, the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

A shame society is contrasted with a guilt society in which control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt (and the expectation of punishment now or in the hereafter) for certain condemned behaviors.

The society of traditional Japan was long held to be a good example of one in which shame is the primary agent of social control. The first book to cogently explain the workings of the Japanese society for the Western reader was ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.’ Produced under less than ideal circumstances during the early years of World War II, it was an attempt to understand the people who had become such a powerful enemy of the West. Under the conditions of war it was impossible to do field research in Japan. Therefore, war prisoners at detention centers were interviewed, and literary and other such records pertaining to cultural features were examined. Although it has received harsh criticism, the book has continued to be influential.

Contemporary Western society uses shame as one modality of control, but its primary dependence rests on guilt, and, when that does not work, the criminal justice system. Paul Hiebert characterizes the shame society as follows: ‘Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.’ Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation.

Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others. By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honor restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation, including committing suicide if necessary.

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