The social and sociological significance of ‘guilt’

Exemplification of ‘guilt’ in the historical context of post-war Germany

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Within this research essay a range of different aspects concerning the notion of guilt will be considered. These will include a discussion about the concept of guilt as well as its application in a societal context.

To begin with the notions and definitions of guilt as used in several disciplines of the social sciences will be examined. This is to draw a distinction between the various assessments of guilt within the social sciences and to clarify the sociological approach within the following analysis. In a next step the common conceptualisation of guilt as an individual emotion will be opposed to the assessment of guilt as a group or collective emotion. Theories and study findings will be used to illustrate the conditions and prerequisites for the experience of collective guilt as well as the occurrence of guilt as a result of group identification. In addition a further distinction of guilt regarding the means of responsibility will be drawn.

After having analysed the different notions of guilt theoretically, the concept of collective guilt will be examined in its appearance in German society after the Second World War. By examining Germany’s history and the shifts within society it will be highlighted how the societal conditions and the perceptions of guilt influence each other immensely. Although including other nations’ perception of the German question of guilt the main attention will be given to the German recognition of collective guilt from immediately after the war into the present. Attention will also be given to the result of the recognition of guilt for the transformation of Germany’s society and politics.

It will be shown that guilt, although commonly conceptualised as an individual emotion also has to be considered as apparent in group and collective settings. This claim of broadening the sociological conceptualisation of guilt to the collective level will be validated by analysing and examining Germany’s history after the Second World War. Moreover the importance of the wider context in which emotions occur and in which they are perceived dependently will be demonstrated. Although focusing mainly on a sociological assessment the approaches of other disciplines have to be taken into account if the phenomenon of German guilt is to be explained.

Conceptualization and theorization of ‘guilt’

First of all two general perceptions of guilt will have to be distinguished since ‘guilt’ especially when used within everyday contexts can have different meanings. One that will reappear in the exemplary analysis of German history later on but will not be conceptualised in detail is the notion of legal guilt. When relating to legal guilt “one refers to factual culpability for crime; this aspect of guilt versus innocence is determined through a system of laws in most cultures and is judged in courtrooms” (Kochanska and Zahn-Waxler 1990, 183). Legal or criminal guilt is in general assigned only to the individual. When considering the emotion of guilt however, this conception is not applicable as a person can be legally guilty without having any particular feeling, let alone guilt.

Therefore only guilt as an actual feeling or expected feeling will be addressed in the following discussion. The emotion of guilt as a concept is harder to grasp as it can be described from different perspectives depending on the different disciplines. When trying to define the emotion of guilt it is therefore considered helpful to draw on these different perspectives of the social science disciplines. By drawing a distinction the sociological approach on guilt will also become more visible. In Greenspan’s philosophical definition guilt is seen as an “‘internal sanction’ of the moral code involving some form of discomfort at the thought that one is responsible for a wrong” (Greenspan 1995, 109). Philosophy’s main interest, thus, lies not in the feeling of the emotion itself or the context in which it occurs but in the underlying patterns of moral standards. Central in this idea is the consciousness of the individual about itself in relation to others whereas guilt is regarded as the recognition of the individual of the moral violation of internalized standards. Philosophy hence concentrates on underlying morals and standards as being the core for the feeling of guilt, applicable within a sociological approach is the notion that the individual is trying to live by standards that are constructed within a society and have to be seen in the context of interaction with others. In this respect guilt has therefore always to be seen as culturally and contextually specific.

The internalization of standards also plays an important role in the psychological approach to guilt. When addressing the matter of guilt the effects of socialization for the individual become basic. In their study about the role of guilt in family socialization Abell and Gecas argue “for the importance of guilt and shame for the process of socialization via the role of these reflexive emotions in individuals’ conformity to moral and social norms” (Abell and Gecas 1997, 99). An effective socialization is seen as the individual’s motivation “to behave in accordance with society’s values and norms because these have become important parts of the individual’s self-concept” (Abell and Gecas 1997, 99). The emotion of guilt in this regard is described as “a negative, self-evaluative response arising from behavior observed to be in conflict with one’s understanding of and commitment to social norms and relationships” (ibid, 103).

However, within the discipline of Psychology itself the assessment of ‘guilt’ is not concurrent. The field of Social Psychology has an approach that comes closer to Sociology as it also considers the interpersonal nature of guilt. Undeniably “the main interest of psychologists is the subjective feeling of guilt, along with its causes and behavioral consequences” (Baumeister et al. 1994, 245). The social psychologist Baumeister and colleagues however “propose that guilt is something that happens between people rather than just inside them” (Baumeister et al. 1994, 245). They consider that “guilt is an interpersonal phenomena that is functionally and causally linked to communal relationships between people” (ibid, 243) thus taking a social, societal level into account. They distance themselves from predominantly intrapsychic notions of guilt as discussed earlier by saying that “in contrast to some theoretical traditions that regard emotions as primarily intrapsychic responses and treat guilt in particular as a matter of self-evaluation against abstract standards, [they propose to] examine guilt as result and mechanism of human relatedness” (ibid, 243).

In their definition the focus is not only on the individual feeling but on the cause of guilt being based in the interaction with others. “By guilt we refer to an individual’s unpleasant state associated with possible objection to his or her actions, inactions, circumstances, or intentions” (ibid, 245). In particular guilt is “an aroused form of emotional distress…based on the possibility that one may be in the wrong or that others may have such a perception” (ibid, 245). This is not to deny intrapsychic processes but it suggests that “the causes, consequences, and functions of this intrapsychic response have substantial, interpersonal aspects” (ibid, 245). The connection between the cause of guilt and the interaction with others is being drawn by the statement that “people are innately prepared to feel empathic distress in response to the suffering of others, and guilt combines empathic distress in response to the suffering of others, and guilt combines empathic distress with a self-attribution of causal responsibility for the other’s suffering” (ibid, 246). The feeling of responsibility for the suffering of someone else is therefore seen as important for feeling guilty for an action or inaction. The notion of personal responsibility will be further addressed after clarifying the sociological approach to guilt.

When considered sociologically, emotions are seen as being based on the specific context and wider circumstances. The sociological interest in an emotion as stated by Fischer, Manstead and Parkinson is “to understand emotion from the ‘outside’, by examining the everyday social settings in which it operates” (Fischer, Manstead and Parkinson 2005, 20). The focus consequently lies on emotions as always being “produced in particular contexts that give them their meaning and shape the way in which they unfold” (Fischer, Manstead and Parkinson 2005, 20). A sociological perspective on emotions although being based on the personal feeling as addressed before, does not emphasise the individual but the wider context of the occurrence of emotions. In regards to the particular emotion of guilt this means that the philosophical and psychological approaches are useful for understanding and conceptualising the actual individual emotion of guilt but these only provide a base for the further sociological analysis of guilt in a societal and historical context also paying attention to the particular circumstances in which they occur.

In the further analysis studies and findings from the field of Psychology will be used to support the assessment of collective guilt and guilt by association. However, bearing in mind the different approaches of the disciplines, the study findings will only be used to back up sociological claims of a group and context focused approach. Therefore, only the relevant aspects will be considered whereas their focus on individualistic patterns will not be illustrated in detail. What is to be explained by the analysis is what Dan Diner calls the “constant sense of guilt” (Diner 1997, 302) that has permeated German society from directly after the Second World War up until the present. Exceptional is that the emotion of guilt can be found on a societal level and is also felt by individuals which bear no immediate personal responsibility. How this “specific collective consciousness” (Diner 1997, 301) of guilt is possible and what consequences it has will be illustrated using theoretical approaches as well as contemporary research.

Drawing on the conceptualization of guilt it has been illustrated that “guilt is expected to occur when there is a discrepancy between how one thinks one should have behaved and how one actually behaved” (Branscombe et al. 1998, 872). It is important to acknowledge that “these views concerning emotional responses are exclusively focused on how individuals experience guilt as a consequence of a discrepancy between their own moral rules and their own (imagined or actual) behavior” (Branscombe et al. 1998, 873). Branscombe and her colleagues add another side to the matter of guilt by a study in which they examined “how group members react to having different aspects of their own group’s history toward another group made salient” (ibid, 872). Opposing the notion that guilt is felt in response to a perceived individual wrongdoing their findings show that the “behavior of one’s forebears can lead some group members to experience feelings of collective or group based guilt” (ibid, 872) even though the individual group members “could not have personally contributed to their group’s negative history” (ibid, 872). Yet still focusing on the individual level of guilt, but without the possibility of personal responsibility the findings are summed up with special regards to Germans’ feeling of guilt saying that “it is clearly impossible for some people (e.g., postwar Germany) to have actually made any personal contribution to the group’s negative history (i.e., war atrocities), but they may still feel guilty when the behavior of their ancestors is made salient” (ibid, 873).

The conditions for feeling either personal or collective guilt are illustrated by Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy by assessing that “while personal guilt may indeed be due to discrepancies between the self’s action and various possible standards, we propose that collective guilt can occur when the ingroup is perceived as having treated an outgroup unjustly or as having violated moral standards” (Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy 2002, 50). Underlying this assessment is the theoretical approach of self-categorization which proposes that “by having categorized the self as belonging to an in-group and others as belonging to an out-group, the individual learns…the ingroup norms, and behaves in accordance with these norms” (Fischer, Manstead and Parkinson 2005, 95) and that therefore “group level emotions cannot occur without first categorizing the self as a group member (Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy 2002, 50). Consequently, “emotional responses to social events depend on how the self is categorized” (Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy 2002, 50). Considering this notion it is claimed that “individualistic responses to event outcomes are expected when the person categorizes at the personal level, whereas collective or group based responses result when the self is categorized as a member of a group” (Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy 2002, 50). On the basis of this theoretical approach Brancsombe and her colleagues conclude in regard to guilt “that people can experience feelings of guilt on behalf of their group when the behavior of other in-group members is inconsistent with norms or values of the group” (Branscombe et al. 1998, 873).

However, as will also be seen when analysing Germany’s history of post-war guilt in more detail, “groups have a variety of means available to them for avoiding the conclusion that their group’s history is immoral” (Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy 2002, 56). One possibility “involves the perpetrator group claiming that it was more victimized than the other group” (Branscombe, Doosje and McGarthy 2002, 56) thereby drawing attention away of and extenuating the group’s own immoral actions. As a consequence “such shifts in the standards that is used to compare the ingroup’s actions against allows people to strategically avoid experiencing collective guilt” (ibid, 56). What results from these behavioural patterns is the assessed probability that “negative group-image-threatening emotions such as guilt and shame are only likely to be experienced by people who are willing to admit or accept that their group has done something wrong in the first place” (Branscombe et al. 1998, 879).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The social and sociological significance of ‘guilt’
Exemplification of ‘guilt’ in the historical context of post-war Germany
University of Auckland  (Department of Sociology)
Sociology of Emotions
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ISBN (eBook)
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912 KB
guilt, Schuld, kollektive Schuld, Deutschland, 2. Weltkrieg
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Johanna Niehues (Author), 2005, The social and sociological significance of ‘guilt’ , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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