Shame and Medicine Exeter
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It’s a shame about shame research

I was honoured to be invited to the Researching Shame Conference in Birmingham on 5th June 2024 on account of research published more than a decade ago exploring whether shame is a concomitant of poverty.[1]  Although learning a great deal from my day’s re-emersion in the scholarly world of shame, I left the conference feeling somewhat disappointed by academe.

Professor Nicolay Gausel speaking at the conference observed that the word shame can only be understood in the context of the sentence in which it is embedded and that dictionary definitions are inadequate.  What struck me from the presentations on the day was that shame can only be understood in the context of the disciplines addressing it.

Contributors from each discipline defined shame differently such that they were often talking past each other.  Indeed, it seemed that the individual abstractions of shame occupied separate conceptual worlds that were hermetically sealed from each other and invariably distant from the world in which people live.  This points to a need for more interdisciplinary research on shame since disciplines arbitrarily dissect the world resulting in partial and disjointed accounts of any phenomenon.  One can only hope that such interdisciplinary research will be able to engage more fully with the world that people without academic gowns experience daily.

My approach to scholarship has changed greatly since conducting the research on shame.  Partnered with the international non-governmental organisation, ATD Fourth World, I have been involved in the co-production of knowledge with people directly experiencing poverty.[2]  In the process, I have been accused ‘like other social scientists’ of stealing the experiential knowledge of people living in poverty for my own use.  While aware of researching the relatively powerless on behalf of powerful governments, I had previously convinced myself that developing better policy would benefit everyone.  I felt ashamed (or was it guilty?) when reflecting on how little policy change had resulted from my research.  To be shown that, in addition to theft, my disciplinary training was distorting and even inventing knowledge was first, thought-provoking, then life changing.

Viewing the conference discussions through this latter lens is what triggered my disappointment.  Only two people in the room, Professor Will Bynum from the platform and one person from the floor, shared their own emotional experience.  Both, to my mind, revealed the pantomime in which the rest of us were engaged.  From the floor came the question ‘how can the complexity of my life be captured in a single number?’.  It cannot be.  But, while everybody in the room would probably have agreed, this realisation was typically forgotten in the execution of research.

From the platform came the realization that the interpretation of data is inseparable from the personality, life experience and empathy of the researcher doing the interpretation.  This, of course, is the perspective of hermeneutic phenomenology.  But in adopting this approach, Professor Bynum shared life-changing events in his professional life, events that had engendered shame.

The implication of hermeneutic phenomenology, taken as a critique, is that social science, as practiced, differs little from the story telling of the novelist; the rules may not be identical, but they vary in degree rather than in kind.  Both are creative abstractions that merely reflect a unitary world, the existence of which is itself open to debate.

Beyond these two glimpses of humanity and real life, the conference discussions took place in a space untarnished by reality.  While homage was paid to standardized definitions, in their operation there seemed to be no agreement as to the meaning of shame.  At times, shame appeared to be medicalised into a disease to be cured while, on other occasions, shame was promoted as a device to instil social norms.  More often shame was simply operationalized as indicators or scales, and these then treated as definitions of shame.  Clinical interventions were advocated based on the mathematical manipulation of indicators with little attempt to decode the abstraction into something having the complexity of the real-world experience of emotions.

Drawing on disciplinary backgrounds, concepts were imposed on the world rather than being drawn from it.  If dictionary definitions had been abandoned, they had been replaced by Venn diagrams that create an illusion of certainty akin to that of state boundaries drawn on maps.

Confused, as already admitted, by the distinction between guilt and shame, I left the conference no wiser.  To the extent that shame attaches to the person, while guilt has to do with responses to bad behaviour, the discussion most often focussed on behaviour and on guilt.  Hence, the conference said little about the shame experienced by people suffering poverty caused by structural forces over which they have no control – and that include the selfishness of the powerful who label and arguably keep them poor.

Distanced from the real experience of shame, academics seem willing to engage in shaming behaviour in the name of science.  Individuals, chosen because of their vulnerability, are asked to complete questionnaires designed to get them to relive and report shameful experiences or shameful actions.  To the extent that shame is experienced as pain – as is generally agreed to be the case,[3][4] participants involved in these experiments are likely to be subjected to harm.  This kind of research is shaming and surely shameful.  While there is no suggestion that experiments are conducted without approval by ethics committees, given the confusion evident at the conference concerning the concepts in play and their connection to real world phenomena, it seems likely that ethics committees are ill-informed of possible risks.

International human rights guidance expects governments to ensure that people in poverty are actively engaged in all aspects of the policies that affect them – including in research that informs such policies.[5]  The guidance is mostly honoured by its omission but, as an aspiration, it not only seems morally appropriate but also a corrective to academics losing sight of reality.  Maybe it would have enabled scholars at the conference to better to understand what it meant to feel as ‘small as a pea’ – a puzzle quickly bypassed when it arose – and to know better how to describe what it is that people call shame.

The Birmingham conference, important and interesting as it was, reveals a real need to engage lay persons as partners in research on shame.  They were present in Birmingham only as research subjects.  Sometimes, they seemed to be discussed as objects.


Robert Walker

30th June 2024

Professor, Jingshi Academy, Beijing Normal University and Professor Emeritus, Green Templeton College, Oxford University.

[1] Erika Gubrium, Sony Pellissery and Ivar Lødemel. 2013. The Shame of It. Bristol: Policy Press.

Robert Walker. 2014. The Shame of Poverty. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Elaine Chase and Grace Bantebya-Kyomuhendo. 2015. Poverty and Shame: Global Experiences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Rachel Bray, et al. 2020. Realising Poverty in All its Dimensions: A Six-Country Participatory Study. World Development, 134.

[3] Annette Kämmerer. 2019. The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame. Scientific American, 9th August,

[4] Shame can additionally cause pain to be invalidated by professionals: Brandon Boring et al. 2021. Shame mediates the relationship between pain invalidation and depression. Frontiers in Psychology,3rd December, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.743584

[5] Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona. 2012. Final draft of the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, submitted by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, New York: United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Twenty-first session, Agenda item 3.

Olivier De Schutter and Luis Felipe López-Calva. 2024. Unveiling Blind Spots and Critical Insights to Fight Poverty Effectively. Washington DC: The World Bank, 13th February 2024;

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