Degradation Ceremony

An Overview and Examples

Martin Shkreli's perp walk is a classic example of a degradation ceremony.
Martin Shkreli is brought out of 26 Federal Plaza by law enforcement officials after being arrested for securities fraud. Getty Images

A degradation ceremony is a process that serves to lower a person's social status within a group or within society in general, for the purposes of shaming that person for violating norms, rules, or laws, and to inflict punishment by taking away rights and privileges, as well as access to the group or society in some cases.

Some of the earliest documented forms of degradation ceremonies are within military history, and this is a practice that still exists today (known within the military as "cashiering").

When a member of a military unit violates the rules of the branch, he or she may be stripped of rank, perhaps even publicly by the removal of stripes from one's uniform. Doing so results in an immediate demotion in rank or expulsion from the unit. However, degradation ceremonies take many other forms, from the formal and dramatic to the informal and subtle. What unifies them is that they all serve the same purpose: to lower a person's status and limit or revoke their membership in a group, community, or society.

Sociologist Harold Garfinkel coined the term (also known as "status degradation ceremony) in the essay "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies," published in American Journal of Sociology in 1956. Garfinkel explained that such processes tend to follow moral outrage after a person has committed a violation, or a perceived violation, of norms, rules, or laws. Thus degradation ceremonies can be understood in the context of the sociology of deviance.

They mark and punish the deviant, and in the process of doing so, reaffirm the importance and legitimacy of the norms, rules, or laws that were violated (much like other rituals, as discussed by Émile Durkheim).

On some occasions, degradation ceremonies are used to initiate people into total institutions like mental hospitals, prisons, or military units.

The purpose of a ceremony in this context is to deprive people of their former identities and dignity in order make them more accepting of external control. The "perp walk," wherein a person suspected of committing criminal acts is publicly arrested and led into a police car or station, is a common example of this kind of degradation ceremony. Another common example is the sentencing to jail or prison of an accused criminal in a court of law.

In cases like these--arrest and sentencing--the accused or convicted loses their identity as a free citizen, and is given a new and lower criminal/deviant identity that deprives them of the social status they previously enjoyed. At the same time, their rights and access to membership of society are limited by their new identity as an accused criminal or a convict.

It's important to recognize that degradation ceremonies can also be informal but still quite effective. For example, the act of slut-shaming a girl or woman, whether in person, within her community (like a school), or online produces similar effects to the formal kind. Being labeled a slut by a cohort of peers can lower a girl or woman's social status and deny her access to her peer group.

This kind of degradation ceremony is the modern day version of the Puritans forcing people who were thought to have had sex out of marriage to wear "AD" (for adulterer) on their clothing (the origins of Hawthorne's story The Scarlet Letter).

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.