A shame society is one in which the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining control over adults is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.
A shame society is to be distinguished from 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. This book was produced under less than ideal circumstances since it was written during the early years of World War II in 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.
Nevertheless, depending on the study of members of that culture who were available for interview and study in the West, namely war prisoners at detention centers, as well as literary and other such records pertaining to cultural features, Ruth Benedict drew what some regard[who?] as a clear picture of the basic workings of Japanese society. Her study has been challenged and is not relied upon by anthropologists of Japan today.
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. (Hiebert 1985, 212)
To the Roma, though living as local minorities in mostly Christian or Islamic societies, the concept of lajav ("shame") is important, while the concept of bezax ("sin") does not have such significance. This concept probably stemmed from millennia of living on the edges of other civilizations.
- Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1946.
- Hiebert, Paul G., Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985
- Christopher Shannon, "A World Made Safe for Differences: Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," American Quarterly 47 (1995): 659-680.