In cultural anthropology, a shame society, also called shame culture or honour-shame culture, is a society in which the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism. A shame society is contrasted with a guilt society, in which control is maintained by creating and continually reinforcing the feeling of guilt (and the expectation of punishment now or in the afterlife) for certain condemned behaviors, and with a fear society, in which control is kept by the fear of retribution.
The distinction between shame and guilt as methods of social control has long been recognized. The terms were popularized by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, who described American culture as a "guilt culture" and Japanese culture as a "shame culture".
Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.
The society of traditional Japan was long held to be a good example of one in which shame is the primary agent of social control. The first book to cogently explain the workings of the Japanese society for the Western reader was The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict. This book was produced under less than ideal circumstances since it was written during the early years of World War II in an attempt to understand the people who had become such a powerful enemy of the West. Under the conditions of war, it was impossible to do field research in Japan.
Without being able to study in Japan, Benedict relied on newspaper clippings, histories, literature, films, and interviews of Japanese-Americans. Her studies came to conclusions about Japanese culture and society that are still widely criticized today, both in America and Japan.
Paul G. Hiebert characterizes the shame society as follows:
Shame is a reaction to other people's criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. (Hiebert 1985, 212)
To the Roma, though living as local minorities in mostly Christian or Islamic societies, the concept of lajav ("shame") is important, while the concept of bezax ("sin") does not have such significance.