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Essay: Reintegrative shaming is the key to controlling crime

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If harsher punishments worked, arguably America would lead the world in crime reduction.  But despite a prison population that doubled between 1980 and 1990 (Christie, p.229), the crime rate in that country continues to increase. In fact, only one country in the world has actually managed to reduce their crime rate – that country is Japan, having also lowest per capita imprisonment rate in the world.  The Japanese have attributed their success to the process of reintegrative shaming, a process of confession, repentance and absolution. Where deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation are all seen to have been less than successful, any solution to crime control demands our consideration.  This essay looks at one such solution, a theory of restorative justice, and examines various strengths, weaknesses and criticisms of such a theory.

According to Braithwaite, shame plays a key role in the regulation of social behavior (Braithwaite, 1989).  The majority of people have an ‘anxiety response’ to deviant behavior and this response makes most criminal behavior abhorrent to them.  It is fear of this response, not the threat of the criminal justice system, which stops people from committing crime.  Such internal control is a powerful tool that begins in the family, where “morals are clearly drawn and evil deeds identified”.  But even when this internal control fails us, a second form of shaming – external, social disapproval by persons whose acceptance we value, serves to reinstate our conscience to where it should be. In a British survey, 55% of the young people interviewed ranked the most important consequences of being arrested as what their ‘family’ or ‘girlfriend’ would think about it, with a further 12% ranking the shame of having to appear publicly in court as the most important (Braithwaite, p.393).  This suggests that people are deterred less by the threat of official punishment than the threat of public disgrace. The loss of status, respect, and affection is significant to them, but it is not a threat that public officials can make. It can only be made by those who have a significant personal relationship with the offender.

Reintegrative shaming is a theory of restorative justice.  Rather than punish offences, it aims to ‘heal wounds’, reintegrating the offender back into the community rather than make them an outsider.  Braithwaite explains, shaming can take on two forms.  A person can be shamed when their behavior is labeled criminal and in this process, they are socially excluded.  Reintegrative shaming in contrast focuses on forgiveness, apology and repentance – it works by playing on a person’s conscience, and building a relationship of respect and approval when the offender is ‘restored’.

The best expression of positive shaming understands that the deed and the doer are not one and the same. There is recognized a difference between condemning what someone did, and condemning the person. The process of shaming aims to instill that the offender is better than what they have done wrong, but maintains that what they have done wrong needs to be denounced, whilst who they are must be affirmed and supported.   In Japan, shaming ceremonies achieve the initial stage of disproval but these are followed by ceremonies of repentance and reacceptance.

A further example of the application of this approach can be found in New Zealand where family group conferences are held prior to sentencing – these meetings involve those who are affected by the offence committed, the offender, the victim and their families.  The offender will have the shame of facing their victim and usually of apologizing and ‘making amends’, but will also be offered support, encouragement and recognition that they are in need of ‘care and protection’ too (McLaughlin, p.286).  This can be contrasted with shaming trends in U.S. courts where offenders are labeled and stigmatized into outcasts who become more likely to commit more crimes.  In such cases, punishment becomes a barrier between the offender and the punisher by transforming the relationship into one of power assertion and injury. Offenders who experience disintegrative shaming in the US are, unsurprisingly, highly likely to recidivate and to become members of criminal or deviant subcultures.  This seems quite logical because as social rejects, they find solace in groups where they receive some form of social support and self validation.

Braithwaite argues that reintegrative shaming operates in two ways.  Firstly it deters criminal behavior because our conscience will prevent us from acting in a way that meets other people’s disapproval who are close to us.  Secondly, shaming and repentance builds the conscience which deters future criminal behavior, both for those offenders and those witnessing the offender’s shame.  The theory places emphasis on the interdependency of individuals and identifies shame as the emotion that regulates this interdependency. Where interdependency is well regulated in society through the use of shaming practices like in Japan, the number of deviant acts and thus the rate of crime should, in theory, be low.

Shaming relies on the understanding that people offend because of some deficiency or lapse in their conscience, and that public humiliation will act as a deterrent.  But Katz, in illustrating the ‘moral-emotional’ dynamics of crime and deviance, gives examples of those who will handle humiliation in different ways.  He speaks of young people ‘running on the edge of shame’ for its exciting reverberations – or those fighting to scare humiliation off by becoming someone who others fear will humiliate them.  Shame is not always, therefore, an effective deterrent because in some cases, there is no loss of status, respect, and affection – in fact, the example Katz gives of Bernhard Goetz shows how some criminal behavior can be celebrated (Katz, J. 1988).

A further problem can be found in defining which behavior that is ‘shameful’ is not consistent.  Hirschi explains, some offences have not always been condemned and in time, other offences (for example, the smoking of marijuana) will likely be promoted as socially and legally acceptable.  Other offences are permitted in some contexts and not in others – for example, murder is sometimes acceptable (wartime conditions) and other times not – it may further be classified as into categories of murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary (constructive/by gross negligence) manslaughter some of which have defenses and all of which are treated and viewed differently.  There is a lack of certainty here providing a related source of confusion and this would suggest that our conscience has to change according to where we live, what time period we live in and what the local/current social setting is (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1994).

Shaming also has the sense that the offender is calculated, capable of making a rational choice and relying on his conscience to deter him from committing a crime, knowing the possible outcome.  Hirschi argues however that offenders do not have such self control – in fact, it is their very lack of self control which causes them to commit crime.  Similar to Braithwaite’s theory of conscience, he argues that self control is established early in life.   However, he describes it as a ‘persistent underlying trait possessed in different degrees’ by people, and that once people have the knowledge of the consequences of their behavior and the habit of acting on it, no further reinforcement is required.  Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming works in a different way – the offender’s conscience has lapsed because (like lack of self control) he lacks proper grounding in childhood – however, the shaming process helps to ‘mend’ this deficiency, addressing the problem and helping to build the conscience.  Unlike Hirschi’s theory, reinforcement is required – the ongoing knowledge that others will disapprove of offending deals with this.

Sykes & Matza present another problem for Braithwaite’s theory – what if the offender does not feel shame for his behavior?  They explain a five stage process of neutralization whereby the offender learns to justify his actions, rather than learning the moral values and attitudes held by the rest of society.  An offender might deny responsibility for his actions, blaming ‘unloving parents, bad companions or a slum neighborhood’.  This presents a problem for reintegrative shaming because the whole point of exercises such as the family group sessions are to admit responsibility and to accept the blame.  Further, an offender may deny injury – for example, believing that the person to whom the property belongs that he has destroyed can afford it (e.g. if it is insured).  This view is sometimes reinforced by unclear boundaries, such as accepting such acts as a ‘prank’, making what constitutes deviant behavior even more unclear (Hirschi).

An offender may even deny that his behavior is wrong in the first place, believing in some way that the victim deserved it.  Without a sense of remorse, it is impossible for the offender to feel any sense of shame or for the act to affect his conscience.  If the victim is seen as the wrong doer, in his eyes, the offender has not committed an offence at all!  Reintegrative shaming would in this case not be effective.  Further, the offender may believe he must act in devotion to some higher cause – his religious beliefs for example – at the cost of breaking the law.  Reintegrative shaming again has no role here – no amount of public humiliation will make a difference to a religious extremist’s sincere beliefs and in fact, since he believes he acted correctly, shaming will have no effect on his conscience.

The offender may resort in what Sykes calls, condemning his condemners – shifting the focus from his deviant act to those who punish him for it, claiming they are motivated by personal spite, “corrupt, stupid and brutal”.  On this point, it must be remembered that Braithwaite claimed reintegrative shaming would only work where there was a bond between those doing the shaming and the offender. He accepted that the shame of public officials would not be sufficient – the people ‘shaming’ would have to be those close to us or those whose respect we most sought (Sykes & Matza, 1957).

This leads us to Becker’s assessment of crime – the view of the outsider.  Once a person is an outsider, he no longer has the shame of those ‘straight’ family and friends who care about him to play on his conscience – he finds support amongst gangs where criminal behavior is respected.  But Becker argues that there was never any deviance in the first place – because deviance is created by society in response to acts, and social groups label people as outsiders.  Since different social groups have different rules, it is possible to break the rules of one group by abiding by those of another.  He therefore argues that, considering there is no one standard of deviance, it is impossible to assume we are dealing with a homogeneous category of people.  Crime cannot be caused by any one internal factor, since the definition of crime is constantly changing and depends on where you are (Becker, 1963).   This is quite similar to Hirschi’s argument that the definition of deviant behavior is inconsistent.

Reintegrative shaming is about labeling the act criminal rather than the person, and so excluding the act, not the person.  But what if it is not clear which acts should be subject to shame?  Becker gives an example of the treatment of an unmarried mother, who receives more ‘shame’ in comparison with an unmarried father.  The article may have been written in 1963 but certainly today, there are differences in the way society treats certain social groups, with some crimes being labeled as ‘racially motivated’, other crimes receiving (apparently racially influenced) penalties.  Becker explains, deviance is not a simple quality, and indeed, separating the act from the person is not going to be a simple task.  Without clear definitions, it is hard to see how any such policy can be applied effectively.

In conclusion, shaming as a tool for controlling crime faces as many problems as any other method of tackling crime.  A lot of work needs to be done in order to restore the mutual trust between those given responsibility for applying it, and those offenders receiving it.  Further, it is questionable how restorative justice could work in the community in many instances where the crimes are just too emotionally provoking – for example, those of pedophilia (McLaughlin, p.284).   Braithwaite contends however that reintegrative shaming is effective in both complex urban societies and simpler ones, offering a crucial resource in crime prevention against anything from young offenders to large corporations (McLaughlin p.286).  But Braithwaite admits, it is not complete – some are beyond shaming and, he believes, therefore beyond punishment.  He concludes these are most likely pyschopaths, those who have lost the control techniques learned as a child (Braithwaite, p.395).  Shaming is therefore not an alternative – it is an addition to other sanctions (and to illustrate, Japan also has jails!).  It is therefore, a key method for crime control and one that has shown much success in experiments, but it will never be a complete method, and seemingly, traditional retributive sanctions will always be necessary.


Becker, H. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963) New York, Free Press in McLaughlin, E., Muncie, J & Hughes, G Criminological Perspectives – Essential Readings (2nd Edition, 2003) Reading 20, Sage, Open University

Braithwaite, J. Shame and Integration (1989) Cambridge University Press in McLaughlin, E., Muncie, J & Hughes, G Criminological Perspectives – Essential Readings (2nd Edition, 2003) Reading 34, Sage, Open University

Christie, N. Crime Control as Industry: Towards GULAGS, Western Style? (1993) Routledge, London in McLaughlin, E. & Muncie, J Controlling Crime (2nd Ed, 2001) Open University

Hirschi, T & Gottfredson, M. R. The Generality of Deviance (1994) New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers in McLaughlin, E., Muncie, J & Hughes, G Criminological Perspectives – Essential Readings (2nd Edition, 2003) Reading 14, Sage, Open University

Katz, J. Seductions & Repulsions of Crime (1988) New York, Basic Books in McLaughlin, E., Muncie, J & Hughes, G Criminological Perspectives – Essential Readings (2nd Edition, 2003) Reading 16, Sage, Open University

McLaughlin, E. & Muncie, J Controlling Crime (2nd Ed, 2001) Open University

Sykes, G. M. & Matza, D. Techniques of Neutralization (1957) American Sociological Review in McLaughlin, E., Muncie, J & Hughes, G Criminological Perspectives – Essential Readings (2nd Edition, 2003) Reading 19, Sage, Open University

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