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“Dignity is being treated like you matter, like a person,” one participant told us. The Dignity Initiative helps the development sector put into practice the widely-held value that respecting people’s dignity is essential.
To describe how dignity shows up in people’s lives, the Dignity Initiative developed a framework based on three pathways to respecting people’s dignity: representation, agency, and equality. This framework was informed by principles and theories from Western philosophy but also by other moral traditions from around the world. Yet it is not enough to skip from theory to prescriptions of what works. We must collect empirical evidence as to how the theory resonates with people’s real lives.
Does this framework hold true in the real world? Are certain pathways more important than others? How do different populations experience dignity and respect differently? To answer these questions, the authors report here on experiences of respect and disrespect among 4,374 participants in the United States and their implications for research and practice. Over six surveys conducted between 2020 and 2022, we asked people to provide open-text responses sharing stories of times they felt they were treated with respect or disrespect. We then analysed these using qualitative coding techniques. This builds on the quantitative results from these studies, previously reported here. (More details on the methods employed are at the end of this blogpost.)
Overall, we find in this study that popular understandings of dignity fit within our theoretical framework – but with very significant nuances.
Our previous theoretical work has argued that there are three equal pathways to respecting people’s dignity. Our US participants suggested that the three pathways are not equal after all; in the US, representation is especially important.
We define the ‘representation’ pathway in our framework as people feeling seen in their interactions with service providers, and seeing themselves represented. In our current empirical project, we find that in open-ended responses discussing times when their dignity was affirmed or offended against, US-based respondents most often referenced experiences that related to the representation pathway. Dignity was strongly associated with being seen and being heard by others, including service providers and their organizations. For instance, one 27-year-old female respondent talked about the frustration of not being seen: “My husband and I are currently buying a home, it is the first time I have felt that people don’t respect me as much as a man. They go to him for all of the decisions and talk to him as if I am not there.” Another respondent, a 41-year-old man, recalled bitterly the privacy violations of his encounters with law enforcement – privacy being intimately connected to the right level of ‘feeling seen’: “Probation for low-level crimes is invasive and can be disrespectful to the individual. Being observed urinating for a drug test is dehumanizing and invasive. I have no choice in the matter or I’ll be violated even further.”
Overall, people invoked the agency pathway less than representation, and the equality pathway less still. When it comes to agency, our respondents defined dignity as: being in control of what happens to you; standing up for what you believe in and not being swayed or controlled by others; having choices as well as having those choices respected by others; being able to give consent by having an input into things that happen to you; being afforded rights and freedom to do as you please; and being empowered. Under equality, respondents describe dignity as being fair and treating people the same regardless of their race, gender, religion, and belief system, among others. These again provide pointers about the exact way to respect people’s dignity via the (less central) pathways of agency and equality.
This US data points us toward the conclusion that the three pathways of how to show respect will not be coequal in all places. The three pathways model is a useful starting point, but it should be employed in concert with an understanding of the nuances of how people understand dignity in the particular situation under study. Careful qualitative descriptive research, using the culture-person-situation framework in each new context, is an essential precursor to properly understanding and affirming people’s dignity.
As we examined these results, we noticed a second important difference between how philosophers talk about dignity and how ordinary people do so. We have previously defined dignity as “a trait universal to all humans, which is inalienable, inherent, and unearned. Recognizing the dignity of a person requires us to treat them in a way that respects their dignity. When we fail to show that respect for dignity, the disrespected individual can appeal to the wider society for redress.” Standard theories of dignity tend to agree – they say that everyone has dignity no matter what—but few of our ordinary participants endorse this view in full.
Similarly, standard theories of dignity, drawn from Western philosophy, talk about dignity as being about our respectful relationships with others. ‘Self-regarding’ concepts of dignity as related to self-respect, self-worth, self-confidence, and integrity don’t show up as much in this literature. A large majority of our American participants concurred—but many also employed a self-regarding definition alongside the first definition. Dignity is truly ‘multivocal,’ as Mika LaVaque-Manty puts it; when people invoke dignity we mean many things at once. Some respondents indicated being respectful towards others as a way in which they preserve their own dignity, as well as the dignity of others.
Those working on dignity will have to make deliberate judgments about the balance they strike between particular and competing philosophical traditions, and popular definitions, without losing the clarity of a clear definition—or getting bogged down in unresolvable debates.
Properly respecting people’s dignity is something we should care about intrinsically. Yet respect for dignity also matters because it leads to other positive consequences we should care about. We studied what people said the consequences of these experiences were.
First, our findings challenged the idea that, over the long term, disrespect casts a longer shadow than respect. When people experienced this disrespect, they told us they experienced a whole range of negative emotions—and when they experienced respect, they did not merely feel neutral about it, but actively felt experiences of delight and other positive emotions. We might assume – and at the Dignity Initiative, we had believed – that the most important priority is to reduce the frequency of disrespectful experiences, rather than increasing the frequency of positive experiences. Indeed, respondents tended to recall disrespectful experiences in greater detail than respectful experiences, offering longer answers. Yet when we asked people to tell us for how long the effects of the experience they described lasted, where a 1 score indicated effects lasted “not long at all,” and 5 indicated that they were “still affected by the experience.” We found that the effects of respectful experiences were more likely to persist into the present than those of disrespectful experiences. If we want to ensure people experience respect, we may do so not by reducing experiences of disrespect, but also by making sure dignity is affirmed.
Word clouds of the emotions respondents associated with experiencing respect and disrespect
Second, our findings push against any assumption that groups acclimate to dignity denial. Rather, people who have experienced more chronic inequity, low representation, or restricted agency may bear the benefits or scars of dignity-related experiences for longer. For example, we find that women felt that the effects of dignity-related experiences persisted longer than did men. As another example, people who identified as historically excluded minorities felt the lingering effects of disrespect for longer than people who did not. While more needs to be learned about these differences, they suggest that people who have historically been denied dignity more as opposed to less may not have developed some immunity to disrespect. Rather, its effects can be longer-lasting, and thus, of profound concern.
Third, we find that dignity is affirmed or denied differently as we age. When we are under 30 years old, dignity affirmation or denial is a matter of interpersonal acceptance or rejection: dignity is affirmed when others understand us, but denied when they insult or ridicule us. After that age, we find dignity affirmation in action or a refusal to act: dignity is affirmed through the help or support of others and denied when others disregard or ignore our requests. Above 60, though, we see another shift: at older ages, disrespect is not even about rejection of our opinions, but rather, lies in a complete lack of acknowledgment. For older adults, it seems to be invisibility, not attack or action, that threatens our sense of dignity.
A close look at qualitative data shows that people’s experience of dignity differ in key ways from our prior theoretical assumptions. We conclude that we cannot simply read about a culture’s philosophical and moral traditions in order to comprehend how dignity is popularly understood; we must study attitudes as well. This points us towards the importance of judicious choice of definitions in conducting research on dignity, remaining conscious of the many popular and philosophical traditions to choose from. In the US, representation is more important than agency and equality in predicting experiences of dignity, reminding us that in each new context and situation, we must carefully study how the three pathways manifest themselves, without assuming they are always coequal. Finally, we find that there are equally lasting consequences of both respect and disrespect, contrary to our expectations. We learn that people do not get used to dignity denial—but how they experience it varies as they age. Qualitative descriptive research of this kind helps us advance the Consensus Research Agenda on Dignity.
Between 2020 and 2022, Cait Lamberton and Tom Wein conducted six studies in which online participants in the United States were prompted to describe experiences of dignity. This research was funded by the Wharton Dean’s Research Fund and the Wharton Behavioral Lab.
The exact questions asked varied across surveys. The surveys and anonymised data for all studies are available here.
Participants were then asked some quantitative survey questions in a variety of study designs. In this post, we report a qualitative analysis of the experiences they shared in response to these open-ended questions, to which people typed out answers. Quantitative results from these studies were reported in Wein, Ghai, Lamberton & Saldanha, 2023.
In total, 4,374 participants took part in these studies. Human subjects research approvals were obtained from the Institutional Review Board of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Analysis was conducted by a team of four coders. Emergent themes were jointly reviewed, and a codebook was drafted and iteratively updated. A full second round of coding was then conducted by the lead analyst, Meltreen Sikele Wanyonyi. Themes were discussed and reviewed by members of the research team, including Mallika Sobti, and were then reviewed and interpreted by the wider research team, including Tom Wein and Cait Lamberton, to agree primary conclusions.
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