Shame: A Brief History – Peter N. Stearns

I’d never given much thought to the history of emotions so when I came across this “work of emotions history” I was intrigued.

This study seeks to sum up most of the existing historical findings, with related insights from other disciplines, while also extending historical analysis particularly around developments in the United States over the past two centuries.

In exploring the history of shame, the author touches on its psychology and includes references to sociology, anthropology and philosophy. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all mentioned.

In China, it has been estimated that up to 10 percent of Confucius’s writings center around the importance of shame.

This book differentiates between guilt and shame throughout history, contrasting guilt-based and shame-based societies. It focuses on shame and shaming in a number of contexts, both public (from stocks to Jerry Springer) and private. Anticipatory, reintegrative and punitive shame are addressed, with examples given from around the world. The focus, however, is on Western society.

Precisely because shame takes root in a fear that others will turn away from us and find us wanting, we keep our shame to ourselves – we fear that revelation will actualize the very rejection we worry about.

I found the information connecting shame and the criminal justice system particularly interesting. The role that parents, schools, religion, sports, politics and the media have played over time in redefining shame were also addressed. The disparity that has existed as a result of gender, race, culture, sexuality, disability, poverty and social status were discussed. The anonymity of the internet along with the history and current prevalence of slut shaming and fat shaming were also mentioned.

One of my pet peeves, that I mostly come across in textbooks, is when the author spends a significant amount of time outlining what will be explored later in the chapter or subsequent chapters, or recapping what’s already been explained. When I first picked up this book I gave up before I reached 10% because I was so frustrated by constantly reading passages that included:

The third major section of this chapter explores

The overall goal of the chapter

As Chapter 3 and 4 explore

It got to a point where it felt like their main purpose was to add to the word count and I came close to discarding the book a second time because of it. When the actual information was provided I found it quite interesting, despite some sections that were very dry. It definitely had that textbooky feel throughout the book (it’s published by a university, after all) but when I came across passages that weren’t telling me what I was going to read about later I enjoyed them.

I disagree with the author when they claim that shame is only a human emotion, that animals “lack appropriate awareness of hierarchy”. If you’ve ever caught a dog doing something they know they shouldn’t have been, then I think you’d also beg to differ.

The footnotes, which include references, are quite extensive, making up over 10% of the book.

Content warnings include mention of death by suicide, mental health and sexual assault.

Thank you to NetGalley and University of Illinois Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Shame varies as an individual experience and its manifestations across time and cultures. Groups establish identity and enforce social behaviours through shame and shaming, while attempts at shaming often provoke a social or political backlash. Yet historians often neglect shame’s power to complicate individual, international, cultural, and political relationships.

Peter N. Stearns draws on his long career as a historian of emotions to provide the foundational text on shame’s history and how this history contributes to contemporary issues around the emotion. Summarising current research, Stearns unpacks the major debates that surround this complex emotion. He also surveys the changing role of shame in the United States from the nineteenth century to today, including shame’s revival as a force in the 1960’s and its place in today’s social media.

Looking ahead, Stearns maps the abundant opportunities for future historical research and historically informed interdisciplinary scholarship. Written for interested readers and scholars alike, Shame combines significant new research with a wider synthesis. 

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