"Shame" and Its Agents
In chapter 8, shame (aibu in Swahili) is seen to operate in some ways similarly to the terms concerning social relationships. On the one hand, there are a small number of specific understandings that are used as the basis for evaluating all group members as such, regardless of the other statuses they occupy. These universal values are closely associated with the community's most respected and prestigious men whom I call "the arbiters." The concern with being positively assessed with respect to these understandings leads to considerable homogeneity of behavior in certain public domains despite the undoubted differences that exist among those involved. The specific understandings that lie behind these instances of conformity (e.g., that public nakedness is possible only for psychotics and is deeply shameful even for them) are universally shared and almost never violated.
An important thing about this limited but public and ongoing conformity is that it implies a broader and more general agreement concerning understandings than may, in fact, exist. By following a few, limited understandings whose behavioral manifestations are obvious, group members reassure one another that they are quite similar in the things that matter most.
This reassurance is important because, in fact, group members differ both in the understandings that guide their own behavior and in those that serve as the basis for evaluating that of others. By following a few universally
shared understandings, the implication is transmitted that similar agreement exists as concerns the foundations for all behavior. In fact, a far more substantial number of understandings than the few that are universally shared serves not only as a guide to one's own behavior but as the basis for judging most of what others do. Which of this larger number of understandings is used to guide behavior and assessment of others' behavior depends both on the statuses of the evaluators and the statuses of the evaluated. It is fairly obvious that how an individual acts toward another depends on both of their statuses. The same is true of how individuals evaluate one another.
Everyone in the society serves as what I call a "sanctioner," and the judgments of these sanctioners depend on the relationship between them and the individuals who are the targets of their evaluations. This leads to the same behavior being quite differently evaluated depending on who performs it and who is evaluating it. The evaluated suffer shame if they are negatively judged by either arbiters or sanctioners, so that shame serves, as the values attached to and expressed in relationship terms do, to encourage conformity both to generally held and universally applicable understandings and to those that apply quite specifically to particular statuses.
It is important to note that the understandings underlying evaluations by sanctioners are often general rather than specific. The broad and nonspecific nature of the understandings used in these judgments limits the amount of sharing required and, at the same time, encourages flexibility. Further, since these general understandings are part of statuses, they apply differentially to the same individuals as they move from one situation or relationship to another with the changes in statuses such moves often entail. This protean applicability of general understandings promotes both the maintenance of status differentiation and the distribution of culture among actors and across situations while requiring a minimum of sharing of specifics.