In cultural anthropology, a guilt society, or guilt culture, is the concept that the primary method of social control in a given society is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the individual believes to be undesirable. It is possible to classify societies, specifically apollonian ones, according to the emotions they use to control individuals, swaying them into norm obedience and conformity. According to this classification, a guilt culture is an alternative to a shame culture. Shame cultures are typically based on the concepts of pride and honour, and appearances are what counts, as opposed to individual conscience in guilt cultures. The distinction was first coined by E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).
Anglo-Saxon England is particularly notable as a shame culture, and this trait survived even after its conversion to Christianity, which is typically a guilt culture. Other examples of shame culture under Christianity are the cultures of Mexico, Andalusia and generally Christian Mediterranean societies.
Origin of term
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".
A prominent feature of guilt societies is the provision of sanctioned releases from guilt for certain behaviors either before the fact, as when one condemns sexuality but permits it conditionally in the context of marriage, or after the fact. There is a clear opportunity in such cases for authority figures to derive power, monetary and/or other advantages, etc. by manipulating the conditions of guilt and the forgiveness of guilt.
Paul Hiebert characterizes the guilt society as follows:
- Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order. (Hiebert 1985, 213)
- Silver, Alan Jews, Myth and History: A Critical Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Belief p.161
- Lloyd-Jones, Hugh (1983) The Justice of Zeus
- De Mente, Boye Lafayette (1996) There's a Word for It in Mexico pp.79-80
- E. R. Dodds (2004)  The Greeks and the Irrational
- Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles (1998) A Beowulf Handbook p.285 quotation:
The introduction of a new state-sanctioned (or ruler-sanctioned) religion does not necessarily effect radical changes in a culture's basic structure of values. Not only Beowulf but the Maxims of the Exeter Book — "Dom bib selast" (Fame is best, 80) — and The Battle of Maldon attest to the vitality of the shame culture and its values in Anglo-Saxon England long after the Conversion. The theme of "worship" (i.e., Anglo-Saxon weordscipe [honor]) running through Malory's stories suggests that the ethos of the shame culture survived both the Conversion and the Conquest.
- Satlow, Michael L. (1995) Tasting the dish: rabbinic rhetorics of sexuality p.142
- Odd Magne Bakke (2001) "Concord and Peace" p.305
- Ezra F. Vogel, Foreword, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1989)
- Ying and Wong. "Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt". Cultural Influences.
- Hiebert, Paul G., Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.