01: Introduction

Ostracism (being excluded or ignored), a social control mechanism used to enforce conformity (Wesselmann, Nairne, & Williams, 2012, p. 312), has attracted much attention from researchers during the last decades, due to its profound negative impact upon targets. Social exclusion is ubiquitous (Williams, 2007, p. 428), it can be found in interpersonal relationships, where it is often colloquially referred to as ‘silent treatment’ or ‘the cold shoulder’, institutions such as schools (‘time-out’), solitary confinement in prison, ‘silencing’ in the military field, governmental ‘banishment’ and in religious communities (‘excommunication’). Ostracism is also found in the animal kingdom, where weak members are forced to leave the group to increase the others’ survival chances against predators. Experimental studies have shown that humans are so attuned to social cues of exclusion that even subtle signs, such as a lack of eye-contact from a passerby on the street, can lead to negative short-term effects (Williams, Bernieri, Faulkner, Gada-Jain, & Grahe, 2000, p. 23). These short-term effects include worsened mood and poses a threat to four fundamental human needs: belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence (Carter-Sowell, Chen, & Williams, 2008, p.143). Chronic or acute ostracism is linked to physical health problems, depression, aggression, learned helplessness and increased mortality (Wesselmann, Nairne, & Williams, 2012, p. 314). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that the pain targets experience under ostracism, referred to as social pain, activates the same brain region as physical pain. Researchers explain this finding in terms of risk to survival. Ostracism constitutes such a danger to our survival, that our brain has developed an overlapping alarm system, which allows us to detect even the smallest signs of ostracism so we can respond to it instantly. Humans’ need for inclusion and belonging is so strong, that adverse experiences of ostracism are even present when the source of ostracism is a despised out-group (Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007). The same team found that even when participants were offered money for being ostracised, they still experienced negative feelings from being excluded.

Smart Richman & Leary (2009, p. 365) have found that people’s responses to ostracism can vary between prosocial behaviour, antisocial behaviour and social withdrawal. Antisocial behaviour has received much attention, especially as antisocial behaviour seems counter-intuitive to re-inclusion, and thus threatens an individual’s need for belonging, and in extreme cases chances of survival (Williams, 2007, p. 425). Warburton et al. (2006) study on antisocial responses to ostracism shows that antisocial behaviour is linked to thwarted needs of control and the target’s likelihood to respond in an antisocial manner increases when targets perceive re-inclusion in the group as improbable. Another fact that may lead to an increase of antisocial behaviour is when exclusion is viewed as unfair or unjust (Smart Richman & Leary, 2009). Several studies have found links between ostracism and violent crimes, such as men murdering estranged ex-partners, school shootings, men raping women who reject their advances (Barnard, Vera, Vera & Newman, 1982; Crawford & Gartner, 1992; Leary, Kowalski, Smith & Phillips, 2003). It should be noted, however, that it is unclear whether antisocial behaviour leads to rejection in the first place, or if ostracism leads to aggression and antisocial behaviour, as studies have found evidence for both directions (Smart Richman & Leary, 2009, 368).

Although ostracism has received much attention over the past decades, most studies have exclusively focused on short-term effects of exposure to ostracism, predominantly under experimental conditions (Williams, 2007, 429). Studies investigating individual’s long-term real-life experiences of ostracism have been relatively few. Therefore, the goal of this study is to examine how people who have been ostracised for an extended period, experience ostracism and how they make sense of being excluded or ignored by others.

The current study explores individuals’ experiences of religious ostracism in the form of case studies. Participants in this study are former members of a religious community that practices disfellowshipping and social exclusion- the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Active members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged by their community from having ‘unnecessary contact’ (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p.37) with members who have left the movement of either free will (‘disassociation’) or have been disfellowshipped (disciplinary sanction for unrepentant sinners). ‘Having unnecessary contact’, including acts as little as greetings, may lead to disciplinary actions taken against members who willfully engage with former members (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2015, p.37). The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a world-opposing religious movement (Wallis, 2003), also known by its legal entity ‘The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’, who regard people living outside of their community as ‘wicked’ and governed by Satan (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, p. 186). Therefore, members are encouraged to form friendships only with other Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower, 2015, p. 24). Being shunned by their religious community, therefore, severs their existing social ties and leaves them socially isolated in a world that they perceive as evil and dangerous. Current Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s rules dictate that only baptised members can be disfellowshipped or formally disassociate themselves. To be ‘eligible’ for baptism, the interested party must be a disciple of Christ. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society further specifies the meaning of ‘disciple of Christ’:

‘The principal application of the term is to all those who not only believe Christ’s teachings but also follow them closely.’ (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2015, p.3)

Thus, while the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society does not specify an age of baptism, interested parties are ought to understand the group’s teachings and behave according to them.

It should be noted that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only religious organisation that practices shunning. In fact, most faith communities practice some form of excommunication and shunning. The current study focuses on Jehovah’s Witnesses for three reasons; the first reason concerns the researcher’s personal experience of being visited by proselytising Jehovah’s Witnesses in her childhood home. The second reason concerns access to the group. Due to the high local presence (Edinburgh, Scotland) of this particular religious community and recent international media coverage of the group the researcher postulated that access to former members would be possible. The third reason is regarding the safety of the researcher. It became apparent that some groups could potentially pose a risk to the researcher, as they were opposed to research being conducted within their community.


The current study was originally designed to answer the following question:

  1. How do former Jehovah’s Witnesses experience and make sense of being ostracised?
    During the process of interviewing participants and analysing the research material, a series of sub-questions emerged:
  2. How did former Jehovah’s Witnesses cope with the adverse effects of being shunned by their former community?
  3. What challenges did former Jehovah’s Witnesses face in their recovery of emotional well-being, intellectual freedom and ability to function outside of this group?
  4. How did the experience of being ostracised impact affected individuals in the long-term regarding their relationships with themselves, others and religion?

It should be noted that this study focused exclusively on second and subsequent generations (born and/or raised) of Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been disfellowshipped. This criterion has been used for homogeneity reasons. Including first generation members would lead to an increase in heterogeneity, as factors such as the age of joining the movement, life before joining, social ties available outside the movement before joining, etc. would have to be taken into consideration. Moreover, members who were born or raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses may be at additional disadvantages when leaving the community, as they have been brought up with the group’s beliefs and may thus not have the same understanding of mainstream society, as members who have previously lived as part of mainstream society. Additionally, the decision for studying disfellowshipping, as opposed to disassociation, is based on the fact, as discussed earlier, that disfellowshipping is a punitive action imposed by the organisation on an individual, whereas disassociation is seen as an action taken by a person that no longer desires to be part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Therefore, even though disassociated members, also referred to as ‘walkaways’, experience similar treatment in terms of ostracism, their decision generally involves planning and preparation. Disfellowshipped members, on the other hand, may not have the desire to leave the group and may furthermore be surprised by this disciplinary action, thus rendering any preparation and planning impossible. Therefore, the mechanisms and effects involved in disassociation may be different from disfellowshipping, and for the sake of homogeneity, individuals who disassociated have been excluded from the study.

As described, the main aim of this study is to explore people’s personal experiences of ostracism in the context of a religious community. However, the social phenomena and social inquiry relating to the present study is much broader. While the present research does not allow for a full exploration of these key issues, it raises concerns and questions on an individual and organisational level. What is ethical conduct in organisations, where is the line between ethical and unethical recruiting, organisational exploitation of members, covering up and/or encouraging illegal activities as part of and/or in the name of organisations?

Questions on an individual level include, but are not limited to the parental right to subject children to a particular lifestyle, religion or community, statutory interventions in cases where children are subjected to dangerous or even deadly practices by parents, such as refusal of blood donations. These are all issues that touch upon key interests of criminological inquiry.

Moreover, these questions present challenges for policy makers and legislators on how those issues are best addressed, in the interest of safety and protection of vulnerable people and the general public. How can legislators and policy makers protect people from becoming susceptible to these group influences? Moreover, if people become victims, how do we support them? Should we, or can we even, rescue victims or do we need to wait until victims want to leave themselves? How do we support them, once they have left? What are the victim’s needs immediately after leaving and what are their long-term needs, in terms of physical and psychological recovery? Moreover, on an organisational level: How can we deal with these organisations? Should they be criminalised, and if yes, based on what criteria? As discussed further below, these organisations are not only religious in nature, but include a much broader set of organisations such as psychological high-control groups, commercial high-controlgroups, self-improvement high-control groups, human trafficking high-control groups, political high-control groups and even one-to-one high-control relationships (Hassan, 2013, 3). Given the broad range of these organisations, how can we encompass all these diverse backgrounds in one single definition or criteria? Furthermore, there are questions regarding the detection and investigation of illegal or harmful group practices. These groups most often operate secretive, with active members being highly devoted to the group. Members are often actively turned against mainstream society and thus will be suspicious of anyone investigating their group. This means that group members will not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement or other statutory services. It may be possible to gain information via former members of these groups; however, their testimonies are influenced by their personal experience. Also, not all groups are publicly known. Some groups only have a handful of members, or even just two members, as in the case of high-control one-to-one relationships.

The current study is an exploration of personal experiences, and thus, it cannot provide answers to these broader questions. However, this study is an attempt in uncovering some of the issues, that researchers, policy makers, legislators and other statutory services including mental health professionals will need to answer in order to provide support and assistance to this unique group of individuals.

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