Shame In Criminological Theory Research Paper

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The end of the 1980s marked a rediscovery of shaming in criminology. Criminological theories, and most particularly John Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming, reintroduced the concept of shaming into the criminological debate. At around the same time, criminal justice systems experimented with new interventions, such as restorative justice and shaming penalties, which both draw on notions of shaming, albeit in very different ways. While these developments are principally concerned with actions that are taken by authorities, or broader communities, towards offenders, they also highlight the importance of shame as an emotion. Use of the word shaming implies that the corresponding emotion is in some way critical, but what shame is and what its benefits are for social control are less clearly articulated. The application of shaming within criminal justice is not without controversy, and the merits of shame as an emotion have provoked considerable debate. The concept of shame management and an ethical identity conception of shame have both been proposed to clarify the nature of the emotion as well as its implications for criminology.

The Rediscovery Of Shaming In Criminology

The relevance of shaming to the regulation of crime has a long history. Shaming is central to accounts of social control in anthropological descriptions of Polynesian and Asian societies as well as analyses of European criminal justice practices in earlier centuries. Equally well documented is a move away from shaming practices in European-based criminal justice systems during the century and a half until the 1970s. However, in 1980s and 1990s, interest in shaming underwent something of a revival, most particularly through the publication of reintegrative shaming theory, the rise of restorative justice, and an interest in the judicial use of shaming punishments.

Reintegrative Shaming Theory

A focal point for the revival of interest in shaming was publication of John Braithwaite’s (1989) book Crime, Shame and Reintegration. In this book it is argued that institutions of criminal justice as well as criminological theory have underestimated the importance of social disapproval. Braithwaite argues that to understand crime rates, we need to look beyond official mechanisms, such as penalties that are imposed by criminal justice systems, to the degree to which societies express disapproval of crimes. Strong social norms against criminality, which arise through community activism, are seen as critical to low crime rates because they engender a culture in which crime is unthinkable because people come to see it as abhorrent. The concept that is central to Braithwaite analysis is shaming, which he defines as “… all societal processes of expressing social disapproval which have the intention or effect of invoking remorse in the person being shamed and/or condemnation by others who become aware of the shaming” (Braithwaite 1989, p. 100). An important characteristic of this definition is that it does not limit itself to demeaning or humiliating forms of disapproval but seeks to encompass the full spectrum of ways in which disapproval might be expressed.

The fundamental distinction the theory makes is between stigmatization and reintegration. Stigmatization occurs when disapproval is directed at the person as well as at the offensive behavior, when the person is not treated with respect, when there is no ceremony to decertify the individual’s deviant status, and where deviance is allowed to become a master status trait. As with labeling theories, it is predicted that stigmatization of offenders leads to greater re-offending. Being charged with a crime, found guilty of it in a court, and then sanctioned imposes a deviant identity on an individual because it ceremonially changes the position of the person within society and has important social implications, such as reduced employment opportunities. This critique of criminal justice asserts that once imposed, a deviant identity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and is almost irreversible: marginalization reduces the individual’s access to legitimate opportunities while increasing perceptions of injustice and the attractiveness of supportive subcultures.

However, in identifying reintegrative shaming as an alternative, Braithwaite diverges from the labeling tradition by rejecting the idea that stigmatization is an inevitable product of social disapproval. Reintegration can be seen to have occurred when shaming is respectful, distinguishes between the person and their actions, concludes with forgiveness or decertification of deviance, and does not allow them to take on a negative master status trait. One context in which this often occurs is in family life and the disciplining of children, where research shows that authoritative approaches are more effective than either permissiveness or authoritarianism. Another example Braithwaite cites is Japanese society, which is both high in shaming and high in reintegrative traditions and which has a remarkably low crime rate.

In arguing for the positive effects of reintegrative shaming, Braithwaite highlights two mechanisms. One of these is that reintegrative shaming is an effective deterrent, particularly when it comes from those who the individual is close to, because it poses a threat to relationships that are valued. Yet, reintegrative shaming also transcends the rational actor model of deterrence. The second mechanism, which Braithwaite suggests is more important, is that reintegrative shaming communicates that certain behaviors are morally wrong and thus builds internalized controls or conscience. Braithwaite (1989, p. 72) argues:

Shaming is more pregnant with symbolic content than punishment. Punishment is a denial of confidence in the morality of the offender by reducing norm compliance to a crude cost-benefit calculation; shaming can be a reaffirmation of the morality of the offender by expressing personal disappointment that the offender should do something so out of character.

Restorative Justice

Shaming has also been an important concept in the development of restorative justice programs, which exploded in popularity during the 1990s, and is now found in criminal justice, child protection, school, and prison systems in many parts of the world. Restorative justice is an alternative to the criminal justice system that redefines the goals of justice as well as the way in which it is carried out. A defining principle of restorative justice is that an offense creates an obligation for offenders to repair the harm that has been caused (Zehr 1990). Unlike the principles of traditional justice that emphasize the importance of consistent and proportional punishment, the aim of restoration focuses attention on apology, reparation, and reconciliation. While Braithwaite’s concept of shaming can be applied to many different kinds of interventions, restorative justice quickly came to be seen as the principle way of implementing reintegrative shaming. The broad goals of restorative justice as well as the practices associated with it are consistent with reintegrating offenders, and there is evidence that offenders perceive it as more reintegrative.

The dynamics of restorative justice interventions, such as family group conferences, victim offender mediation, or healing circles, are rich contexts for shaming. Family group conferences, for example, involve semiformal meetings between the offender(s), people who are close to them, the victim(s), and their supporters. The focus of a conference is on finding out what happened and how the incident has affected all of the parties as well as coming to an agreement about what needs to be done to repair the harms that are identified. As a consequence, they involve communities in the kinds of conversations about the negative consequences of crime that Braithwaite argues are critical to developing individual conscience and commitment to the law. Empirical observations suggest that shame dynamics do play an important role in conferences and that well-run programs have the potential to assist in resolving these feelings (Retzinger and Scheff 1996).

Judicial Shaming

Finally, the explicit use of shaming by courts has also seen the rise of “shaming” practices that are completely contrary to the restorative approaches discussed above. Recent examples have occurred, particularly in American criminal justice, where shaming has been used in the court system as a deterrent or punishment for convicted offenders. Offenders have been ordered to complete “shame sentences” relevant to the crime they commit instead of spending time in jail. Shoplifters have been ordered to stand out the front of shops holding signs declaring that they stole, drink drivers are ordered to attach “DUI” stickers to their cars, while those convicted of soliciting sex are ordered to sweep the streets. An explicit aim of this kind of shaming is to humiliate offenders (see Kahan 1996). The significance that feelings of shame hold as a deterrent is exploited by these approaches, but the shaming they impart is explicitly stigmatizing. Another area of American criminal justice which reputedly incorporates shaming are boot camps where offenders are subject to military-style discipline but are also publicly confronted with their offense.

Concerns About Shaming

While awareness of shaming has increased, so too have concerns about the explicit use of shaming to control or respond to crime. Shaming punishments, in particular, have been seen by some as a regressive step which demeans the dignity of offenders while failing to protect basic human rights or allow for rehabilitation. Massaro (1997) argues that this “modern” kind of shaming is one that outcasts certain segments of society in a way that does not protect the individual and undermines the dignity of the whole community. In addition to arguing against the decency of this approach, she argues that the complexity of the emotion of shame is such that courts are ill-equipped to employ shaming and that the effect on offenders would be difficult to predict. Martha Nussbaum (2004) identifies five arguments in the literature against the use of shaming punishments: that they are an offense against human dignity, that they are a form of mob justice, that they are unreliable, that they don’t hold the deterrent potential that they are supposed to, and that they are potentially net widening.

While it is not surprising that questions have been raised about these overt forms of humiliation, the appropriateness of shaming within more reintegrative forums such as restorative justice has also been questioned. Maxwell and Morris (2002) and others have argued that overt disapproval is not an aim of restorative practices, suggesting instead that they are oriented towards exploring the consequences that an offense has on its victims, with the aim of provoking empathy. They argue that shaming is a dangerous proposition in restorative justice because even with the best of intentions, shaming might be interpreted by offenders as stigmatizing. Shaming a young offender may exacerbate problems rather than prevent re-offending, particularly if offenses have been committed as a consequence of low self-esteem, which has occurred as a consequence of an absence of emotional support or a difficult past.

This critique of shaming is based in part on doubt as to whether shame is a positive emotion for offenders to feel. A number of scholars have argued that the more important mechanism in restorative justice is the eliciting of remorse, which occurs as a consequence of the offender coming to understand the impact that their actions had on the victims. Empathy, as understood by Maxwell and Morris, aids in this process. Shame, on the other hand, is said to be a dangerous emotion to invoke in offenders because it is a threat to the offender’s sense of self-worth and is potentially destructive. These questions reflect a broader debate about the virtues of shame as an emotion, in which there is a clear division between scholars who are pessimistic about the role the emotion plays and those who are more optimistic.

Conceptions Of Shame In Criminology

As just illustrated, various ideas about shaming, both positive and negative, are based on assumptions, often implicit, about the nature of the emotion that shaming invokes. This raises the following questions: what is shame, and what are its characteristics? While it is not possible to provide a neat typology because of the disparate manner in which theoretical approaches to the emotion have advanced, three broad characterizations of shame have been identified in the literature (Harris 2001). Each of these characterizations is reflected within criminological research.

Shame As A Social Threat

The first of these conceptions of shame conceives of the emotion as a response to social threat, which is precipitated by the individual’s perception that they have been rejected or disapproved of in some way. This conception of shame is apparent in early anthropological perspectives which describe shame cultures as those that rely for social control on the sensitivity of individuals to negative perceptions of others, rather than through the development of conscience. This idea has been elaborated in various ways in contemporary research. While these approaches have varied in their explanations of why people are sensitive to social evaluation, they all emphasize the need to be accepted by others either because the need to have strong personal ties is a basic human motive or because there is an evolutionary need to maintain status or because shame is related to the person’s perception of his or her own self-worth. An important characteristic of this conception is that it describes shame as exterior to individuals and as constraining. The individual feels shame as a result of another’s decision to reject. If others do not reject in the face of the same actions, no shame is felt. Shame, or the fear of shame, is described as a powerful motivation for the individual to continually monitor and work on personal relationships and to comply with social expectations at a broader level.

As a consequence a fear of shame has been seen as a strong motivator for law-abiding behavior, and this assumption is explicitly made in early anthropological research on shame cultures. More recently, criminologists have drawn on this understanding of shame to argue that informal social sanctions represent a significant deterrent to crime (e.g., Grasmick and Bursik 1990). A number of empirical studies, which place shame within a rational choice perspective, suggest that expectations of feeling shame are associated with lower self-reported projections of offending and in some cases that the effect is comparable with, or greater than, official sanctions.

Shame As Personal Failure

A second way in which shame is described in the literature is as a response to perceptions of personal failure. This is based upon the proposition that shame occurs when an individual perceives that they have failed to live up to an ideal or standard that they uphold and that the consequence of this is the perception that the “whole” self is a failure. This proposition has been explained using a number of theoretical frameworks including psychoanalysis, attribution theory, and affect theory. Shame is contrasted with guilt because the focus of attention is the self rather than an act or omission. Unlike the social threat conception described above, perceptions of failure are not necessarily prompted by disapproval, but can occur in isolation and in relation to personal ideals.

Research that explores the impact of a disposition to feel shame as defined by personal failure has been applied to criminology. June Tangney and her colleagues, in particular, have argued that a disposition to feel shame is far less adaptive than a disposition to feel guilt because shame involves an overwhelming negative evaluation of the self that prevents individuals from responding positively. An extensive program of research shows that individuals who are shame prone are more likely to feel anger and hostility, are less likely to feel empathy for others, and are more likely to suffer from psychopathology (see Tangney and Dearing 2002). When applied to inmate populations, shame proneness is correlated with substance abuse and does not seem to play the same protective role that guilt proneness does (Tangney et al. 2011).

Shame As Ethical Threat

The third conception of shame cuts across these two literatures by incorporating the notion that shame occurs when wrongdoing is recognized by the individual and their community. Shame in this view is connected, unlike embarrassment, with serious transgression as well as the idea of fault. The individual feels shame for having intentionally committed a wrong. This is implicit in William’s (1993) description of the precondition for shame being one in which a respected other, defined in ethical terms, would think badly of us. Taylor (1985) argues that shame is tied to the loss of self-respect, which defines what the individual feels is tolerable and what is not. Thus, unlike the social threat conception, shame is seen as occurring in response to the violation of internalized values, and the discomfort associated with the emotion concerns perceptions of the self. However, in emphasizing the ethical character of the emotion, this approach acknowledges the degree to which individual rely on others in forming their beliefs about what is right and wrong. Judgments about what is shameful are not externally imposed or arrived at in isolation, but they are socially negotiated.

This conception of shame is most clearly represented in criminological theory in Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming. Reintegrative shaming according to Braithwaite is “conceived as a tool to allure and inveigle the citizen to attend to the moral claims of the criminal law, to coax and caress compliance, to reason and remonstrate with him over the harmfulness of his conduct” (Braithwaite 1989, p. 9). This suggests that shaming is important because of its educative value in developing or reinforcing beliefs about what is wrong. While the theory suggests that shaming can have a deterrent effect, as an informal sanction that threatens the loss of respect by valued other, this is considered secondary to its moralizing qualities. Braithwaite argues that the primary reason individuals do not commit crime is because they have commitments to shared moral norms and social institutions. Punishment is irrelevant to most people because committing serious crime is simply unthinkable to them. The socialization of children in families and schools about moral norms leads to a broad consensus about what acts should be crimes. In social contexts where there is a broad consensus that particular behavior is wrong and individuals are interdependent because of strong communities, those behaviors will be shameful. Individuals will feel ashamed for violating these values because, consistent with an ethical conception of shame, they have subscribed to these values.

Another approach that has likewise focused on shame’s moral qualities is Wikstrom’s (2004) situational action theory of crime, which argues that the emotion is a protective factor in preventing offending. Shame in this framework reflects the individual’s commitment to do the right thing, which in turn influences their perception of the choices available in a given context. A number of studies have shown that juveniles who report that they would feel shame in front of others (e.g., friends) if they committed a crime also reported lower levels of delinquency.

Shame Management: The Different Faces Of Shame

Evidence that feeling bad about one’s actions can have both positive and negative consequences has turned attention to understanding why shame is a constructive emotion in some situations but is counterproductive in others. Why do we hope that some individuals feel shame for offenses they commit, yet also experience unease at the idea of imposing shame within criminal justice? A long tradition of research on shame emotions has explored variation in how individuals experience the emotion, and this, like more contemporary research on dispositions, has recently been drawn on to explore the notion of shame management (Ahmed et al. 2001). This theoretical perspective suggests that when confronted with feeling ashamed for their actions, individuals can manage or respond to the emotion in different ways and that this has important implication for criminal justice institutions.

Evidence of differences in shame experiences was first captured in the seminal work of psychiatrist Helen Block Lewis (1971). In her research with patients, Lewis identified three different forms of shame. The first, “acknowledged shame,” involves the recognition that one feels shame and awareness of the feeling associated with it. “Overt-unidentified” shame describes the experience of feeling the negative emotion associated with shame but not recognizing it as shame and thus mislabeling it. “Bypassed” shame involves an awareness that an event may be shameful and doubt about how others see the self, but the emotion is bypassed leaving the person with “… an insoluble, plaguing dilemma of guilt thought which will not be solved” (Lewis 1971, p. 134).

One of the important findings from this work for understanding the implications of shame is that unacknowledged forms of shame are associated with feeling of anger and hostility towards others. Scheff and Retzinger (1991) extended Lewis’s analysis by arguing that shame is a signal that the bond between the individual and others is threatened. When feelings of hurt associated with rejection are not acknowledged by the individual, as is the case in unacknowledged forms of shame (bypassed and overt-unidentified), then this emotion becomes redirected as anger towards the self and others. According to Scheff and Retzinger, this is the cause of humiliated fury and helps to explains not just individual anger but also conflict between nations. In both Lewis’s and Scheff’s accounts of shame, it is evident that when shame is not acknowledged, it manifests itself in an unhealthy reaction.

Eliza Ahmed and her colleagues (2001) have described the various manifestations of shame through the concept of shame management. This captures the notion that when confronted with a shame-inducing situation, individuals can manage the negative feelings in a variety of ways and that this is influenced by both individual characteristics and the social context. Acknowledged shame occurs when the individual accepts that they are responsible and thus acknowledges the emotion. It is argued that when shame is acknowledged, the person is more likely to make amends, feels less anger towards others, and is more likely to discharge the negative feelings. In contrast, unacknowledged shame, which Ahmed describes as displaced shame, occurs when the person does not accept that they are responsible. Failure to resolve the emotion, because of the tension between the disapproval of others and this denial of responsibility, results in shame being displaced into anger towards others.

There is growing empirical evidence that shame management predicts both bullying and criminal behaviors. Ahmed’s own research in Australia and Bangladesh shows that children who are bullies are more likely to displace shame compared to children who haven’t bullied, who are more likely to acknowledge shame feelings (Ahmed and Braithwaite 2006; Ahmed et al. 2001). These results have been partially supported in a study by Ttofi and Farrington (2008) which showed that displaced shame was a predictor of bullying, but did not demonstrate the expected relationship between shame acknowledgement and lower bullying. A similar result was found by Murphy and Harris (2007) in the context of white-collar crime. In this study, shame displacement predicted recidivism, but the relationship between shame acknowledgement and recidivism was mediated through a measure of remorse.

This research on shame management has significant implications for reintegrative shaming theory and has prompted a revision of the theory (Ahmed et al. 2001). While the revision does not alter the theory’s prediction that reintegrative shaming reduces offending (while stigmatic shaming increases offending), it does clarify why this is the case as well as the role that shame plays. The original formulation of the theory implies that the benefit of reintegrative shaming is that it leads to greater feelings of shame in offenders. However, the implication of shame management is that reintegrative shaming reduces offending in most cases because it allows offenders to manage feeling of shame more constructively. Reintegration is more likely to result in offenders acknowledging shame, feeling remorseful for what has happened, and making amends. Stigmatization, on the other hand, is more likely to result in offenders displacing shame and feeling anger towards others. Thus it would seem, somewhat ironically, that the benefit of reintegrative shaming is that it allows offenders to resolve and diminish any shame that they feel.

The implication for criminal justice procedures that have drawn on reintegrative shaming theory, like restorative justice, is that the kinds of shaming or disapproval that are effective in those setting do not involve explicit attempts to shame offenders (Retzinger and Scheff 1996). Overt forms of disapproval, such as a focus on participants expressing their dislike of the behavior, may undermine the offender’s ability to acknowledge and resolve feelings of shame. This may be exacerbated in those situations where it is culturally inappropriate to overtly disapprove of another or where offenders have already acknowledged wrongdoing. Processes like family group conferences instead focus on discussion of the consequences of the offenses for all parties. By focusing on how people have been hurt, they avoid stigmatization of the offender and allow them to express remorse and to make amends. Both of these behaviors, as well as acknowledgement and forgiveness by others, are important mechanisms for resolving shame.

An Ethical-Identity Conception Of Shame

A critique of the empirical research on shame is that it fails to adequately explain the complex relationship between the individual and the social contexts in which shame occurs, either conceptualizing shame as a response to values that are extrinsic to the person (social threat conception) or having little to say about the social context at all (personal failure conception). Neither of these conceptions adequately accounts for repeated observations that shame is both intimately tied to identity and sensitive to disapproval of others. To better explain the social context in which shame occurs, as reflected in the empirical research conducted on shame management, an ethical-identity theory of shame has been proposed, which draws on both the ethical conception of shame discussed earlier as well as insights from social psychology (Harris 2011).

The central claim of this approach is that the defining characteristic of shame is that it occurs when we experience a threat to our ethical identity. The precondition for this to occur is an awareness that we violated an ethical value that we subscribe to: we realize that we have behaved in a way that we feel is wrong or at least have significant doubts about how acceptable our behavior was. Even though shame is experienced in reference to internalized values, it is also sensitive to the opinions of others, firstly in making us aware that we might have violated a value that is important to our sense of self, but also because the opinions of others (those whose views we respect) contribute to our interpretation of our behavior.

Research on social influence and conformity suggests that a simple dichotomy between our own and others’ values is too crude. A long history of research in social science demonstrates that values, attitudes, and beliefs held by individuals are influenced by others (Turner et al. 1987). Others’ opinions are important because, as is illustrated by social identity theory, our values, attitudes, and beliefs, all part of our identities, are often shared with others. We expect to agree with those people whom we see as similar to ourselves, and it is disconcerting when we do not. The reason why disapproval results in shame is because it acts as a form of social validation, either reinforcing the belief that what we did was shameful or undermining the assumption that it was not.

Shame is linked to identity because violating one of our values only leads to shame if it undermines our sense of who we are. This threat to our ethical identity occurs because there is a reciprocal relationship between our values and who we think we are. Holding certain values is at the heart of personal or social identities because identities are defined in large part by sets of beliefs (e.g., “being nurturing” would be an important value if “mother” was an important identity). It follows that when we become aware that we have acted contrary to our values, our identity is called into question. The painful feelings of self-awareness, anger at our-self, and confusion that are associated with shame occur because the contradiction between our values and our behavior cannot be easily reconciled.

An important characteristic of shame is that it motivates us to resolve this dissonance between our actions and how we think of ourselves, and we are able to do so in a variety of ways. We can resolve the threat to our ethical identity by diminishing the significance of our behavior (either by concluding that there was a good excuse or reason for what we did or by making up for it in some way); we can respond by perceiving ourselves as having an alternative identity that is consistent with our behavior and in doing so rejecting any disapproval, or we may perceive ourselves as defective because we have failed to live up to our values.

It is hypothesized that the way in which we resolve this threat to ethical identity will also be influenced by the social validation we receive from others. This explains why individuals react differently to reintegrative shaming and to stigmatizing shaming. Disapproval of our behavior that is reintegrative, when it comes from those whom we respect, can reaffirm a positive ethical identity and thus encourage us to apologize and repair what we’ve done so as put our misdeeds within a larger positive story about our-self (Maruna 2001). Stigmatization makes this less likely because the message from others is that there is something defective about who we are. In this situation we are more likely to defend our ethical identity by deciding we had a valid reason for our behavior, we might feel very bad about our-self, or we might even decide that we have fundamentally different values to those who disapprove of us and embrace a deviant identity.


An important issue that has been at the center of emerging research on shame is whether it should be understood as a productive and useful emotion that allows offenders to reconsider their behavior or whether it is a dangerous and unhelpful emotion that may even promote greater offending. This question has been complicated by the various notions about what shame is and the various ways in which it has been incorporated into criminological research. However, it does seem clear that the answer is unlikely to be simply one or the other. This is unsurprising once we accept that shame is integrally connected to our belief systems, to our identities, and to our relationships with those around us. Research on shame management and an ethical-identity conception of the emotion of shame have sought to delineate the various ways in which individuals can respond to shame and have examined the consequences of these responses for both the individual and society.


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