02: Literature Review


This chapter includes an exploration of current literature surrounding ostracism and the religious practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The subsections will include a discussion on the history and consequences of ostracism across different religious communities. Another subsection will discuss the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their practice of disfellowshipping. The final subsection will examine theories that guided conceptualization that include systems theory and the Seminal Transactional Model of Coping.

History and Consequences of Ostracism

Religious communities have been utilizing ostracism, or the complete shunning and withdrawal of social, spiritual, and physical interactions with individuals, throughout history (Miller, 1988). In Christianity alone, ostracism is found in communities like the Amish, Mormon’s, Protestants, Evangelical groups, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (McGinnis, 2015). Each group defines ostracism in its own way and will uniquely shun members according to their religious beliefs. While ostracism has existed throughout human history in many forms, religious ostracism involves negative consequences for an individual’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Humans are notoriously social beings and have a variety of needs that are filled by interacting with others (Wesselmann & Williams, 2017). There are different ways that an individual can experience ostracism, two of which are distinctly described as rejection-based experiences or ostracism-based experiences. Rejection-based experiences are a milder form of social exclusion that refers to using dehumanizing language, discrimination or microaggressions (Wesselmann & Williams, 2017). Ostracism-based experiences are much more extreme and involve a total exclusion of an individual that includes being intentionally ignored, non-verbal cues intended to make that individual feel invisible, and ultimately physically disregarding the person when in their presence (Wesselmann & Williams, 2017).

Effects of Ostracism

Humans most basic needs of self-esteem, control, meaningful existence, and belonging are all severely affected by the exclusionary processes of ostracism (Williams & Nida, 2011). Ostracism heavily affects these needs, and individuals oftentimes find themselves unable to cope due to the long-term exposure of ostracism. This results in a diminution of resources and inability to recover from the ostracism (Williams & Nida, 2011). This diminution leads to feelings of alienation, helplessness, and depression (Williams & Nida, 2011). Prolonged exposure to ostracism can also lead to an individual believing they do not belong anywhere, chronic low self-esteem, helplessness, a loss of purpose and questioning of existence (Williams & Zadro, 2001). Not only that but feelings of depression are common and in extreme cases, even attempted suicide are long-term reactions to ostracism (Williams & Zadro, 2001).

In studies involving over 5,000 individuals, those suffering through only two to three minutes of ostracism produced intense feelings of sadness and anger (Williams & Nida, 2011). When ostracism occurs in families, negative outcomes like physical symptoms including nausea or upset stomach and health issues are common (Poulsen & Carmon, 2015). Individuals are sometimes unable to form new social bonds because of insecurities and oftentimes find their social lives strained leading to suicidal ideations (Poulsen & Carmon, 2015). Interestingly, some of the short-term effects of ostracism include tendencies of individuals to work harder in group settings and tend to conform to others (Williams & Zadro, 2001).

Ostracism has damaging and long-term effects but depending upon the individual’s immersion into their religious identity, the severity of the damage can differ. For instance, if the individual is newly converted into the religious group, they may only suffer the loss of few friends (Miller, 1988). In other cases, individuals who are a part of high-cost and high-intensity religions who may have multiple family members and an extensive social network within the religion, the consequences of shunning are much greater because their entire social network disappears (Miller, 1988). This type of social death may lead to that person’s inability at reconnecting or recovering the lost relationships and results in continued loneliness and social isolation (Wesselmann & Williams, 2017).

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Practice of Disfellowshipping

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a high intensity religion that requires a powerful and all-inclusive personal commitment to Jehovah or God in the form of following an extremely strict moral code (Hookway & Habibis, 2015). To Jehovah’s Witnesses, fraternizing with the outside world is a threat to members faith because scripturally the bible states, “Do not be misled. Bad association spoils useful habits” (1 Corinthians 15:33, New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures). Members must distance themselves from worldly practices like participating in politics, gambling, holidays, birthdays, drug-use, sex outside the marriage and masturbation (Hookway and Habibis, 2015). Any fault or inability to follow the rules, results in the practice of disfellowshipping.

Jehovah’s Witnesses practice their own unique form of social death called disfellowshipping. It is a practice of excommunicating members who have sinned and is preached as a loving provision to protect God’s flock (Watchtower, 2008). Once a member is disfellowshipped, the entire community including family members must shun this individual until they are reinstated (Hookway Habibis, 2015). Reinstatement is determined at the discretion of the elders and the disfellowshipped person must demonstrate that they have a truly repentant heart (Watchtower, 2006). The disfellowshipped person must “realize the gravity of his sin and the reproach he brought upon Jehovah and the congregation” and “the sinner must repent, pray earnestly for forgiveness, and conform to God’s righteous requirements” (Watchtower, 2006, para, 9). This process can take anywhere from 6 months to years depending upon the body of elders assigned to the judicial committee, a group of three elders that determine the brevity of the sin and whether the individual is repentant and should be disfellowshipped or not.

Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage members to avoid higher education because it leads to too much temptation from the outside world (Friedson, 2015). In the religious doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses, members are told to not only suppress their sexual behavior but to also suppress sexual feelings that may be homosexual in nature (Lalich & McLaren, 2010). Members are taught that homosexuality is an inherent choice and that individuals can reject their homosexual identities completely (Lalich & McLaren, 2010). In a recent release of an educational video in 2017 by the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society’s Governing Body, titled “Be Loyal When a Relative is Disfellowshipped”, parents of disfellowshipped children are encouraged to be firm in the shunning of their children because they will reap the rewards and blessings from Jehovah. The Jehovah’s Witness Governing Body has no intentions of changing the damaging practice of disfellowshipping but is instead doubling down and encouraging members to continue to shun their disfellowshipped family members and even those who never converted.

Studies Involving Ostracism and Jehovah’s Witnesses

There have been few studies involving the specific act of disfellowshipping practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. A most recent study conducted in Australia, focused on the process of disaffiliation among former Jehovah’s Witness youth, and discovered that the process was difficult and painful (Hookway & Habibis, 2015). An interesting discovery in the Hookway study was that the respondents retained some Jehovah’s Witness beliefs but rejected the religion due to an inability to follow the strict moral code (Hookway & Habibis, 2015). The study did not interview members who had been disfellowshipped and did not investigate the effects of disfellowshipping or disassociation among those who no longer practice the religion.

Another study conducted in 2010, focused on the lives of homosexual former Jehovah’s Witnesses. Central themes that were discovered through this study were concealment strategies of individual’s homosexuality, in order to pacify family members and continue living an ultra-Jehovah’s Witness life (Lalich & McLaren, 2010). Participants who confessed their homosexuality were met with very public disfellowshipping and in one case the individual lost contact with their family for over 15 years (Lalich & McLaren, 2010). The study briefly touches on the effects of disfellowshipping but mostly focuses on the reidentification of gay and lesbian former members of the religion.

Research is available for many other religious communities that practice ostracism as a form of social punishment and exclusion. Studies have analyzed exit interviews of other groups like Mormons, Fundamentalist Christians, Amish, Orthodox Jews and more. Each religion practices their own form of religious ostracism ranging from just religious shunning to full ignoring of individuals in a form of social death (Wesselmann and Williams, 2017). For example, the Amish practice a form of ostracism called Meidung that only lasts six weeks and if the member being shunned does not return after mediation, then full and complete shunning commences (McGinnis, 2015).

In a study addressing the challenges and coping strategies of those who have left an ultra-Orthodox community, it was found that individuals struggled to maintain connections with their spouses, children, and community at large (Berger, 2015). Participants had difficulty navigating the social challenges that presented itself when interacting with those who still were observant of the ultra-Orthodox faith (Berger, 2015). One of the strategies utilized to cope was to live a life pretending and making an appearance of being still orthodoxy (Berger, 2015). There is a significant lack of studies that delve into the specific disfellowshipping and ostracism experienced by those ones who decide to exit the Jehovah’s Witness religion.

Theories Guiding Conceptualization

Two theories utilized to guide and conceptualize research are systems theory and and the Seminal Transactional Model of Coping. Systems theory, including family systems theory, explains how individuals work within the systems they work in, such as their family systems (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2016) Within the Family Systems Theory, ostracism and other forms of exclusion, regularly can occur within a family’s system (Poulsen & Carmon, 2015). The negative effects of ostracism are felt by both the individual being ostracized and the source of ostracism (Poulsen & Carmon, 2015). This theory has helped guide research to determine why families ostracize, and to visualize the effects of ostracism. By utilizing systems theory in this research study, hopefully it can be determined how disfellowshipped person’s systems are affected by ostracism, and if they have developed new family systems to cope.

The Seminal Transactional Model has theorized coping as a very complex process that occurs within an individual’s transactions with people and environments (Berger, 2015). According to this theoretical framework, there are three forms of coping, and the first is an appraisal-focused coping which is changing the thinking surrounding the situation (Berger, 2015). The second form of coping is known as problem-focused coping which involves an individual’s effort to modify the situation (Berger, 2015). Finally, emotion-focused coping looks at how the individual attempts to modify how they tolerate and regulate their emotions regarding the situation (Berger, 2015). This model was used to conceptualize the research regarding how those apart of an Orthodox community cope with the challenges of leaving. The same model can be applied to conceptualize this research project and determine the different coping strategies by those experiencing ostracism from their families and former religious community of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


This study will explore the challenges and significant coping strategies used by former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been disfellowshipped or dissociated. Both disfellowshipping and disassociation results in shunning from family members and social circles who are current Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are such a high intensity religion that requires an individual’s complete emotional, physical, and social involvement, the transition out of the religion can risk an individual losing their entire support system and network. The effects of ostracism have been studied in other religious communities and in families yet there is little research on the specific practice of disfellowshipping.

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