Silence and shame, ethics and the living

PhD student, Adeline Moussion explores questions of when and how silences resulting from shame can be used as data. This blog post is part two of a series on Ethics and Historical Research Practices.

Cora’s remarks about Elizabeth’s photograph examine ethical uses of data within the reach of the researcher’s tools, technological possibilities and institutional position. When analyzing silenced groups in order to deconstruct shameful experiences, does theoretical understanding mean overstepping people’s constraints over data produced if they are grounded in shame? As Ruth Behar writes, science can ‘drain the shame out’ of social phenomena (Behar : 1996), but here, the question raised is that of the scientific handling of dominated subjects’ agency regarding dynamics of power the research seeks to challenge.

Depending on how human expression is defined and when the object of study is silencing, in itself silence resulting from shame is data. What silences tell us ranges from what is unsayable depending on one’s social status, to what socially-hearable discourses are available, to how shame is produced. Reproducing shame-dynamics can be done both by voicing silent stories or by reenacting shame via anonymization procedures. Reproducing ‘intimate’ data is also not necessarily of theoretical help for concerned subjects nor for academics and can enact culturally determined ‘appropriations of suffering’ (Kleinman & Kleinman: 1996) relating more to consumption than understanding.

Signage inside a church in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Signage inside a church in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash.

Research on violence carries a specific sensitivity because of its correlation with suffering and shame but does that specifity apply when researching domination? Conflating dominated-status with victimhood and attempting of compassionate research enacts contemporary sensibilities in addressing social suffering and power imbalances. So that it is not in compassion that the ethical lies – which is the product of a determined socio-cultural response to some people’s expressions of pain, which are morally charged and vary depending on social status. An advocacy-centric approach should be wary of conflating domination with suffering and of responding to it with ‘empathetic’ theoretical practices which are cultural ways of responding to victimhood.

Cora’s definition shifts from the duties to the dead, to the endorsement of Ricoeur’s ‘debt to the dead’ and to a ‘post-mortem exploratory’ seeking ‘homage’. This seems to replicate the idea that data are descriptions and that understanding is an imitative practice. Reproducing one’s perspective acknowledges indeed its legitimacy but raises the possibility of representing experiences in a redundant way. Knowledge production is a social action which dialogues with social sensibilities and individual experiences. This implies the possibility of misunderstandings or participants’ dissatisfaction with what has been written (Scheper-Hughes: 1983, 2000).

When studying domination, offering epistemic justice – and not just “homage”– means to intervene on it in intersubjective and theoretical ways. The ‘homage’ and debt-paradigm to the subjects studied imply an empathetic norm seeking more than understanding and relies on determined notions of ‘humanity’. Were I to work on a silenced far-right women group, I wouldn’t feel empathy with them, but that does not mean that they are not enacting one kind of humanity, nor does that prevent me from enabling them to engage with what I examine. Dialogic accountability referring to actual individuals comprised in social analysis is to be taken as a heuristic device rather than just as a political way of reversing power imbalance or humanizing and dignifying dominated subjects. Participants’ reactions, even contradictory or emotionally charged, provide new data allowing to deepen the understanding, so that more than or power-mitigating, this is of heuristic importance.


In the first part of this series, PhD Candidate Cora Salkovskis discussed the historian’s ethical responsibilities and duty of care to the historical actors whose stories they uncover.

Cora Salkovskis
‘Anonymity, Ethics, the Dead and the Psychiatric Historian’