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Guilt Working Group

Concepts of guilt and practices that depend on them have been with us for many centuries in law, economics, religion and other spheres. Yet in comparatively recent times, they may have become newly problematic. From the late nineteenth century, accounts of the origin of society began to appear that ascribed it not to progress or to the establishment of justice, but to guilt. 

Freud’s ‘scientific myth’ of the sons killing the father is, perhaps, the best known of these. Durkheim and Girard are also among those for whom guilt is socially foundational or constitutive. An enquiry into the significance of guilt in modern society and governance might start from this modern reinvention of guilt as a kind of originary sin.

The relation between modern guilts and other forms and discourses of guilt is rich and strange. Though discussion need not be confined to modern guilts, guilt emerges as a concept central to many of the categories and distinctions of both of modern governance, law and politics and of modern self-understanding. Yet it is also transgressive of them - not least the distinction between modern and premodern. Its meaning is not definitively revealed within any one domain, and yet its various meanings arguably decline to remain distinct from each other. 

It might seem, therefore, that this hybrid or Hydra-headed guilt needs to be tracked across several domains, including theology, law, literature and culture, anthropology, visual arts, economics, psychology, social science and philosophy. In its troubling complexity it invites interdisciplinary debate. The purpose of the working group is to foster that debate.


  • Sam Ashenden, Reader in Politics and Sociology, Department of Politics, Birkbeck. Co-convenor of the Guilt Group.
  • James Brown, Associate Research Fellow, Department of Politics, Birkbeck. Co-convenor of the Guilt Group.
  • Penelope Lawrence, Graduate Student, School of Law, Birkbeck
  • Ian Magor, Graduate Student, Department. of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck
  • Jean Matthee, Artist
  • Piers Myers, Visiting Research Fellow, School of Business, London South Bank University
  • Carlos Reyes-Manzo, Visiting Fellow, Department of Politics, Birkbeck
  • Naomi Segal, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study
  • Philip Spencer, Visiting Professor, Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, Birkbeck


Events organised by the Guilt Working Group are included in the BISR events programme.


Listen to podcasts of previous events organised by the Guilt Working Group.



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