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  • Review of Shame: A Brief History by Peter N. Stearns
  • Samuel Clark
Review of Shame: A Brief History
By Peter N. Stearns
University of Illinois Press, 2017. 186 pages.

In this stimulating book Peter Stearns provides a short examination of the history of shame, primarily in Western Europe and the United States, but in some other regions as well, including Ancient civilizations and Asia. His main purpose is to contribute to the existing literature on shame by presenting an historical account that will demonstrate how shaming has changed—but equally how it has persisted and what new forms it has taken. He contends that an historical analysis calls into question the common distinction we make between shame-based and guilt-based societies, and the notion that any transformation that has taken place is simply one of the outcomes of "modernity." He holds that we need to examine carefully a variety of cultural changes if we want to understand the history of shame.

He devotes the most space to comparing agricultural societies with industrial societies, but he also gives some consideration to pre-agricultural societies. He traces how shaming has declined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focussing primarily on its decline in the United States. In broad terms he believes that the major source of the decline was a cultural shift toward a greater value being placed on individualism and individual dignity. As a result, considerable opposition to shaming developed, especially to the way in which it was being used to punish children and those convicted of crimes, and more recently to belittle the obese and the physically or mentally challenged. These campaigns were embedded in larger reform movements that emerged in different periods.

Neither the cultural changes nor the campaigns against shaming have succeeded, however, in eliminating it in Western societies. A number of traditional targets of shaming continue to be victimized. Despite reform movements there is still shaming to punish the criminally convicted and even school children. The military has long been the scene of shaming and continues to be so. And poverty or lower working-class occupations remain a source of shame because there is now a greater tendency in the population to place the blame on individuals.

In addition new targets of shaming have been found. Not only is obesity a current target of public contempt, but also sexual abuse or sexually inappropriate behavior and paying for sex are now shamed in a way that they never were before. Shaming has also become common practice in competitive sports. And new tools of shaming have emerged, the most savage and undisciplined of which are social media—what Stearns refers to as the modern equivalent of public stocks.

One of the strengths of the book is the attention he gives to the social functions of shaming. Traditionally a major function was shoring up communal solidarity by enforcing communal norms. He contends that this "need" for shaming was greatest in agricultural societies as compared with pre-agricultural and industrial societies. In agricultural societies communal solidarity is relatively important and other methods of reinforcing it relatively weak. In large and more diverse urban environments, in contrast, shaming to support communal solidarity is less effective and less necessary. Closely related to this transformation was the evolving role of shaming in social discipline, that is, persuading people to be obedient, cooperative, inoffensive, and so forth—a need that historically did not decline during the Early Modern and Modern periods. Indeed, to a degree Stearns concurs with Norbert Elias that in the Early Modern period it increased among elites as a result of what Elias calls the "civilizing process."

To posit that something can be functional does not, however, fully explain why it occurs. We need to determine the mechanisms that bring it about. Top of the list for shaming are the motivations that lead people to engage in it. Stearns makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of what motivates shaming. He presents considerable evidence that people recognized its functions and intentionally engaged in it or advocated it with these functions in mind. Religious leaders were among those who advocated it...

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