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WHEN it comes to the meaning of the emotions, “shame” is “shame,” whether it is experienced on the East Coast of India or on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, by a man or by a woman, in 2004 or in 1789. That proposition—that “shame is shame wherever you go”—may seem self-evidently true; nevertheless, it is a disappointing conclusion if you are an anthropologist or cultural psychologist interested in the way human mental states differ across cultural groups. It is a conclusion I plan to contest, or at least qualify, in this essay. When it comes to the study of the meaning of emotions, such as “shame,” what does cultural psychology have to contribute, if anything? Can one hope for more than just a frequency count account of cross-cultural variations in emotional functioning, something a bit more “meaning centered” than “there’s lots of shame in the East, less in the West”? In this essay I try to describe what a deep cultural psychology of “shame” might look like. Shame is Shame: The Analytic Appeal Imagine an American anthropologist who returns home after years of field research and reports the following: “Among the Oriya-language-speaking Brahman families I studied in a Hindu SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) Toward a Deep Cultural Psychology of Shame* RICHARD A. SHWEDER *I wish to express my gratitude and thanks to the Carnegie Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation for their generous support of my research and writing. Thanks as well to Jon Haidt for his thoughtful comments on the essay. temple town in India, ‘shame’ does not have the same meaning that it has in our culture. For those Brahman families, ‘shame’ is the good feeling people have when they manage to acquire the things they most want in life and their acquisitive success is displayed to other members of their community. The word for ‘shame’ in the Oriya language is lajya (or lajja).” I think I know how I would react to such a research report. I would probably find the first sentence quite appealing, because, as a fellow anthropologist interested in the study of the cultural psychology of other peoples and of mental differences across groups, I would be theoretically open to the possibility of crosscultural variations in what members of different cultural communities know, want, value, and feel, which would suggest to me that there might be cross-cultural variations in the “emotions” as well (see for example, Briggs, 1970; Geertz, 1973; Goddard, 1997; Kitayama and Markus, 1994; Kleinman and Good, 1985; Lutz, 1988; Lutz and White, 1986; Markus, Kitayama, and Heiman, 1998; Mesquita and Frijda, 1992; Parish, 1991; Rosaldo, 1984; Rozin, Haidt, and MacCauley, 1999; Russell, 1991; Schieffelin, 1985; Shweder, 1991, 1993, 1994, 2003a, 2003b; Shweder and Haidt, 2000; Wierzbicka, 1990, 1999). Reading on, however, I would surely feel disappointed. The sentence in the research report where we are told what “shame” really means to Oriya Brahmans would strike me as (either) confused , unintelligible, incomplete, or perhaps incoherent. I would think to myself: one does not have to travel to South Asia to understand that acquiring the things you most want in life, advertising your success, and feeling good about it, are not recognizable components of, or expressions of, the abstract idea or concept of shame. With much regret, I would have to conclude that the adduced definition of Oriya Brahman “shame” is not a specification of a shame-like mental state at all, and therefore could not possibly be comprehended as a culturally distinct elaboration of the idea of “shame.” I would wonder whether the anthropologist might have confused a particular type of action 1110 SOCIAL RESEARCH (the public display of good feelings about personal success), which might be judged to be shameful by Oriya Brahmans with the meaning of the idea of shame itself. I might recall my own first trip to India, when I met an Oriya Brahman who had seen the movie My Fair Lady and who expressed his loathing and horror at what he took to be the dishonorable way Professor Henry Higgins—singing “we did it, we did it” to Colonel Pickering, his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1100-1129
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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