Newsletter #1 – Public Shaming: Past and present

The inaugural workshop of the University’s new Interdisciplinary Research Forum (IRF) took place on 20 February 2020.

The event was organised by Professor Svetlana Stephenson and Dr William Hughes, who were among the presenters, along with Professor Julian Petley from Brunel University and Professor Simon Hallsworth, formerly of the University of Suffolk. Academic staff and PhD students from a wide range of disciplines attended and were actively involved into the wider debate that took place after the presentations.


Introducing the workshop, Professor Don MacRaild, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange at London Metropolitan University, discussed the role and importance of interdisciplinary research in developing the University’s research agenda and reputation. The new forum is a key instrument in bringing researchers together from different disciplines and supporting a vibrant research culture.

Background to the topic

Public shaming has existed for a long time, and despite social, economic and political changes, it still plays a major role in contemporary societies. Issues including character assassination and public shaming by traditional and social media, as well as increasing use of rituals of public shaming in informal and formal justice, make this subject an important focus for social research. Public shaming has been seen as a positive tool of community reconciliation and mediation. Yet, it can also cause negative consequences for individual identity and reputation. The use of public shaming in the justice system has brought concerns about increasing 're-emotionalisation' of criminal justice in democracies that undermine the established principles of rational legal process.

In this forum, the topic of public shaming was examined from a range of perspectives and historical periods and using a variety of empirical data. The main question that evolved during the discussion, is whether the time has come to re-assess the role and consequences of public shaming today? The main highlights from the presentations are set out below.

Presentations and discussion

The first presentation was given by Svetlana Stephenson, who addressed public shaming in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. On the basis of oral history, she addressed organised shaming meetings from a micro sociological perspective and showed that these meetings broke with routine conventions of civility and took the participants into the realm of interactional violence. Instead of reinforcing social bonds, they created division and reinforced the power of the political authorities. Svetlana discussed examples from her interviews with participants in, and victims of, public shaming meetings in the period.

Julian Petley then analysed the shaming of those in the public eye, and other popular target groups, by sections of the British press. In his presentation he suggested that shaming and scandalmongering, instead of reinforcing the common system of beliefs and values, serves biased political agendas and undermines the public’s trust in politics.

Simon Hallsworth used the case study of an artist, Maggi Hambling to explain his concept of 'exclusionary shaming', a mechanism by which a community wounded by the violation of its deeply held collective sentiments attempts to heal itself symbolically through the visceral eviction of the offender who is shamed. He talked about his analytical framework that explores the choreography of the shaming performance, in particular the shift that occurs during the ritual where people leave the world of the homogenous and enter into the domain of excess.

Finally, William Hughes presented a part of his PhD thesis that examined the interactive dynamics and personal experiences of men attending probation domestic abuse perpetrator programmes. He showed that the men attending the programmes referred frequently to the threat that such attendance posed to their public gendered identities. Shame emerged as a key theme in their accounts. This sense of shame was bound up with ideas about gender, and more specifically, complex and contradictory ideas about how men are expected to behave. Within group sessions, shame usually manifested as resistance, where participants denied that they were suitable for the course or minimised their behaviour. He suggested that navigating this resistance, and understanding its origin, can be a key challenge for facilitators of domestic abuse programmes.

In a lively debate following the presentations, audience members made a number of suggestions for areas of further research relating to the topic. These included the psychology of shaming and the influence of parental shaming on children; how public shaming allows participants to avoid individual moral responsibility while at the same time projecting an image of moral superiority; the way in which shaming provides a route for redress to marginalised groups and individuals; the roles and responsibilities of organisational authorities in places where shaming occurs; and the potentially positive benefits of public shaming for community reconciliation following conflict.

Next event

The next workshop in the series will be led by Professor Alistair Ross and will address the topic of Varieties of Nationalism and Diaspora: lifecycles. The event will take place on Thursday 2 April 2020 between 5pm to 7pm, followed by refreshments. Details are still to be confirmed.

Ellada Larionidu
PhD Candidate, School of Social Sciences