The social sound of silence: Toward a sociology of denial

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A foremost manifestation of the social construction of silence is the phenomenon commonly known as a conspiracy of silence, whereby people collectively ignore something of which each one of them is personally aware. Whether it takes place in an alcoholic family, a corrupt organization, or a country ruled by an incompetent leader, such “silent witnessing” involves situations where each “conspirator” is aware of something yet nevertheless unwilling to publicly acknowledge it. Essentially underscoring the difference between knowing and acknowledging, conspiracies of silence thus highlight the fundamental yet undertheorized tension between personal awareness and public discourse. Whether they are generated by pain, shame, embarrassment, or fear, conspiracies of silence revolve around undiscussables, let alone unmentionables, that are “generally known but cannot be spoken.” In other words, they revolve around so-called open secrets that, unlike ordinary ones, are actually known by everyone thereby constituting “uncomfortable truths hidden in plain sight.”. Being both aware and (at least publicly) unaware of something at the same time implies a certain amount of denial, yet studying conspiracies of silence requires approaching this notoriously elusive concept from a sociological rather than a more traditional psychological perspective. Whereas psychologists are essentially interested in the intrapersonal dynamics of blocking information from entering individuals' awareness, a sociology of denial would highlight the interpersonal dynamics of keeping it from entering their public discourse.. The simplest way to refrain from publicly acknowledging something of which one is personally aware is to remain silent about it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationShadows of War
Subtitle of host publicationA Social History of Silence in the Twentieth Century
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9780511676178
ISBN (Print)9780521196581
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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