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Thursday, 15 March 2012

A question of shame

I was recently very excited by the ideas put forward in David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday's recent book Cultures of Shames: Exploring Crime and Morality in Britain 1600-1900 (Palgrave 2010), which came to my attention frustratingly late in the day for the purposes of revising Sex Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880.

I found their critique of a prevalent assumption that a modern 'guilt' culture (in which internal constraints influence behaviour)  prevailed over an older 'shame' culture (in which community rituals of shaming enforced social norms) very illuminating. When one thinks about it, of course shame is an enduring human emotion and not just about traditional practices within small communities such as preaching over unmarried mothers or raising 'rough music' against transgressors against community standards. Within a given context, a raised eyebrow might induce tremendous social shame.

 Their argument that
Shame... could borrow from old established ideas and idioms while still using the most modern forms of communication technology and social networks with astonishing effectiveness. We would further argue that any definition of shame must clearly appreciate the importance of dynamic interactions between people, institutions and ideas within its influence.
seems compelling to me. Their recuperation of the importance of shame could engage in productive dialogue with Anna Clarke's very useful concept of 'twilight moments' in sexual behaviours (for surely a lot of that is about shame), and also cries out for further consideration of the role of the media in creating shaming narratives.


  1. Dear Lesley,

    Delighted you found our work stimulating. It is generating a lot of interest both here and in the US. Our publisher is also keen soon to do a paperback. We are mindful that the shame into guilt paradigm is so overdrawn and simplistic that we want to take it further. Palgrave have already given us contract to take our explorations fully inot the twentieth century. I (or indeed we) would look forward to discussing these developments with you at some point.

    David Nash

    1. That's very exciting news. I'm glad to hear the book is going into paperback, because it deserves wider circulation than it's likely to get as a high-priced hardback.

      I'd be delighted to discuss these developments with you - I can be contacted at the Wellcome Library.