Roelen, Keetie; Devereux, Stephen (2017). 'Shame and a good life' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Shame has long been present in debates about development and poverty. In 1776 in the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith referred to the necessity of having a linen shirt for leading a good life not for their ability to protect the body but because of the shame attached to not wearing a linen short, essentially placing shame at the heart of an early concept of relative poverty. More recently, Amartya Sen has famously argued that shame is a key capability and that the lack thereof represents absolute poverty. Others (including Rawls) have considered shame from a moral vantage point and in relation to their role in regulating pro-social behaviour. In the last two decades, the field of social psychology has explored shame from the emotional perspective and its qualities as a personal affect.


Despite longstanding conceptual considerations of shame in understanding poverty[1] and debates about its moral, social and emotional qualities, the role of shame in poverty reduction policies remains largely unexplored. Notions of shame – either denoted as shame or referred to as stigma or lack of dignity or respect – feature in many studies and policy evaluations, yet few studies have considered the interaction between shame, poverty and policy as its core focus.


This paper has two objectives: Firstly, it aims to provide a conceptual framework for understanding the interactions between shame, poverty and policy. Notably shame is considered to be both intrinsic and instrumental to poverty; shame undermines the human right to dignity and respect and subjective wellbeing and also represents a capability deprivation or a breakdown in conversion factors (impeding the conversion from capabilities into functionings). Secondly, the paper explores these interactions with a focus on social protection and welfare policy, with a case study of social grants in South Africa.


There is some evidence from South Africa highlighting how poverty-induced shame can undermine capabilities and conversion of capabilities into functionings, and how implementation of social grants may reinforce this dynamic. Women who receive social grants experience shame on three levels: firstly because they are poor (“Poverty is seen as undignified and shameful”); secondly because they are dependent on support (“poverty forces them into degrading and embarrassing dependence on others”); and thirdly because they are stigmatised for collecting social grants (“Those who don’t have the grant look down on those who get the grant, they are saying they are lazy, they don’t want to work…”)[2] There are also documented cases of social grant recipients being ill-treated by programme staff, which reinforces their sense or inferiority and lack of dignity and respect[3]. The set of material, relational and subjective insults to wellbeing can exacerbate social inequalities and hierarchies, undermine aspirations, and compromise individual and collective capabilities[4].


The paper concludes with reflections on next steps for research and policy in reference to the role of shame in promoting good lives. These include the need for clarity of language, the need to move beyond the ‘shamee’ and ‘shamer’ dichotomy and the need for exploration of policy options. As such, this paper cuts across the conference themes ‘Just societies, inequalities and agency freedoms: operationalising a capabilities approach’, ‘Empowerment for social change’, and ‘Policy analysis and evaluation by reference to capabilities and agency’, and grounds its conceptual framework in the capability approach, among others.

[1] See Walker, R. (2014). The Shame of Poverty. Oxford: Oxford University Press for recent research on the ‘poverty-shame nexus’.

[2] Hochfeld, T. and Plagerson, S. (2011) Dignity and stigma among South African female cash transfer recipients, IDS Bulletin, 42(6): 53–59.

[3] Wright, G., Noble, M., Ntshongwana, P., Neves, D., and Barnes, H. (2014) The Role of Social Security in Respecting and Protecting the Dignity of Lone Mothers in South Africa: Final Report. Oxford: SASPRI.

[4] Conradie, I. (2013). Can deliberate efforts to realise aspirations increase capabilities? A South African case study, Oxford Development Studies, 41(2): 189–219.

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