Review of Robert Fuller and Pamela Gerloff. Dignity for All (2008) to be published in PsychCritiques

Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism, by Robert W. Fuller and Pamela A. Gerloff. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2008. A review by Thomas J. Scheff to be published in PsychCritiques

A New Voice in Social and Behavioral Science

The emotions that Freud found in his early work on therapy and sexuality, shame and disgust, apparently surprised and puzzled him. The first of these two emotions played a large role in his study of hysteria (Freud and Breuer 1895). Freud suggested that shame was the main cause of hysterical neurosis. However his attention quickly shifted away from shame to guilt, which became the principal emotion in the work he did for the rest of his life.

In terms of a broad understanding of the shape of everyday life, Freud's shift may have been unfortunate. Guilt can be a continuing presence in some neuroses, but it figures only intermittently in ordinary lives. Shame and embarrassment, on the other hand, may be virtually omnipresent, whether in the form of the emotion itself or, more frequently, anticipating it and struggling to avoid it.

At least that idea haunts the work of Erving Goffman, the sociologist of social interaction. In his best known work, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1969) and in many other books and articles, Goffman gave detailed descriptions of the plight of the harried individual constantly trying to stave off embarrassment or humiliation by "impression management" (Chapter 6, 1969).

One of the reasons that Goffman is widely read and appreciated is that most of his work offers many telling examples that the reader can easily identify with. He offers portraits of Everyperson trying their best to make good impressions, but alas, often our best is not good enough. These examples apparently strike a familiar chord with his readers.

His use of examples is also problematic, however, because it is usually difficult to determine what point he is making. Goffman often attempts to define his concepts, but he seldom states a general thesis (Scheff 2006). This gap may be narrowed by the Fuller and Gerloff handbook to be reviewed here and by Fuller's earlier books (2003; 2006). Gerloff, an educator and journalist by training, has helped Fuller summarize his approach in brief, emphasizing its practical implications.

Unlike Goffman, all of Fuller's work is not only illustrated by examples, but his theses are explicitly stated. Even more unlike Goffman, Fuller teases out both the theoretical and the practical implications of his approach. Although Fuller developed his ideas independently of Goffman's writings, his work is quite parallel, but much clearer.

I believe that Fuller has made a powerful contribution to our understanding of some of the enigmas of our time, one that has the potential to help us surmount them. He has had an illustrious career; first as physicist, then President of his alma mater, Oberlin College, as a citizen diplomat in Russia during the Cold War, chair of the board of Internews, and many other distinctions. His assessment of the problems of inequality and violence may be a still greater contribution. During the Cold War, his person-to-person contact with Russians of many ranks in different contexts helped him develop his own social psychology of cooperation and conflict.

There are two main components in his approach: rankism, on the one hand, and dignity, on the other. The term rankism doesn't concern rank per se, only the abuse of rank. Some systems of rank are inherently abusive: white over black, male over female, hetero over homosexual, Christian over Muslim, extreme nationalism, and so on. But even legitimate systems of rank, those in most organizations, are often abusive; if not in principle, then in practice.

Fuller's principle concern is with dignity, which is identical to what Goffman called "face" and facework, as in saving or losing face. This perspective offers what seems to me to be a distinctive solution to the problem of inequality. That is, it doesn't concern economic rank or political hierarchy directly, but dignity and its opposite, humiliation, the term that Fuller uses rather than Goffman's embarrassment. This focus, as will be suggested below, may help with a problem that probably cannot be understood in strictly economic or political terms: gratuitous and/or interminable conflict.

Fuller's analysis begins with what he calls micro-inequalities, the withholding of dignity by one person from another. At work, if your boss continually interrupts conversations to take phone calls, it is a slight, a small indignity. But slights add up. If they are frequent enough, one can feel like a nobody. The boss may not intend it, but to be slighted consistently is humiliating.

Much of Goffman's work concerns this same issue. It also is crucial to his impression management. One seeks to manage the impression one makes on others, in order to maintain one's dignity, and at times, the dignity of others to avoid embarrassment or humiliation. Goffman was concerned only with face-to-face interaction, but Fuller extends the dignity/humiliation process up to the traditional problem of macro-inequalities between groups.

All contact between persons and between groups has an effect on the bond: it is either maintained, strengthened, or disrupted. Helping the other person or group maintain their dignity maintains the existing bond or strengthens it. Disrespect disrupts it. There are no exceptions: contact cannot occur without maintaining or changing the bond. Secure bonds lead to cooperation, disrupted ones to conflict. When the bond is entirely broken, as is often the case, others can become mere objects.

Fuller's approach is powerful in several different ways. It is applicable to many ostensibly different issues: race, inter-ethnic and inter-nation relations, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. It also implies a theory that may explain gratuitous and/or interminable conflict between individuals and between groups.

For example, the Serbian attack on the Moslems in Bosnia in the 1990's can be traced back to a defeat of the Serbs by Moslem Turks hundreds of years earlier. The Serbs took this ancient defeat as a humiliation, and harbored vengeance until it became possible. Similarly, France plotted for many years to regain their honor (read dignity) after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and Hitler won over the German people by promising to regain the honor they lost in the defeat in 1918 (Scheff 1994). Humiliation spawns humiliation, and it can strike deep. The dignity/humiliation framework seems to reach into the very core of human conduct.

Finally, Fuller uses terms that are understandable by everyone. Audiences all over the world have responded enthusiastically to his speeches. Indeed, his work could provide the foundation for a social movement to create dignitarian organizations and, ultimately, to build a dignitarian society. For these and other reasons not mentioned in these brief comments, Fuller's ideas are well worth our attention.


  1. Freud, S. and J. Breuer. 1895. Studies of Hysteria. New York: Avon (1966).

  2. Fuller, Robert. 2003. Somebodies and Nobodies. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers

  3. ___________ 2006. All Rise. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  4. Goffman, Erving. 1969. Presentation of Self in Everyday Life New York: Anchor

  5. Scheff, Thomas. 1994. Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, and War. Boulder: Westview. Reissued in 2000 by iUniverse.

  6. ______________2006. Goffman Unbound: A New Paradigm for Social Science. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers