Stockholm Syndrome as Vernacular Resource

Adorjan, Michael, Tony Christensen, Benjamin Kelly, and Dorothy Pawluch. “Stockholm Syndrome as Vernacular Resource.” The Sociological Quarterly 53, no. 3 (June 1, 2012): 454–74. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2012.01241.x.
First coined in 1973 to describe a pathological response on the part of individuals involved in kidnapping or hostage-taking situations, the label “Stockholm syndrome” has since been used in a much broader range of contexts including reference to wife battering and human trafficking, and in debates about gender and race politics as well as international relations. Tracing the domain expansion of Stockholm syndrome since the 1970s, we examine how the label offers claims-makers a device for neutralizing the arguments of those with opposing points of view, and, in so doing, reinforces collective narratives and “formula stories” of victimization.
Quotes from the paper:

The strategic use of the label can be seen in debates about battered women where experts and advocates point out that battered women often deny, minimize or rationalize their abuse, or assume at least some of the responsibility for the violent dynamic in their relationships but insist that these are merely “cognitive distortions” connected with Stockholm syndrome (Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2006). The Stockholm syndrome label positions women who deny, minimize, or rationalize their abuse, and those who opt to stay in their abusive relationships and who try to defend their decisions as reasonable as traumatized and sick. The invocation of the label does not leave room for consideration of women’s own experiences of their relationships with their partners or the ostensible reasonableness of their decisions in some cases to stay with their partners. At the point at which a woman begins to defend her decision to stay, the content of what she has to say becomes irrelevant. The mere act of trying to explain or defend her position identifies her as a sufferer of Stockholm syndrome. Those who know better, it is presumed, and those with expertise in family violence and years of experience in advocacy work have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of battered women and, in the interests of their “cure,” to ensure that they understand their perceptions as delusions. Graham et al. (1988), for example, have argued that helping battered women to understand the dynamics of Stockholm syndrome gives them the perspective that they need to “let go of the battering relationship at a cognitive and emotional level, and prevent relapses” (p. 217).

Another area where strategic use of the Stockholm syndrome label applies is the debate over prostitution and the prostitutes’ rights movement. According to those who argue that prostitutes are victims of Stockholm syndrome, prostitutes and their defenders may claim that prostitution is a choice made freely, but “no one really wants to have sex with five, ten or twenty strangers a day, every day” (Parker 2002). No “reasonable” person with realistic options would choose prostitution. Parker (1998) argues that “Stockholm syndrome often is the real reason for what others see as the ‘choice’ to stay in the sex industry.” Prostitutes are not really making a choice when they get into or stay with prostitution. Those who understand their decisions as a choice that they have freely made and defend their decision as a legitimate one are not acting or responding reasonably. No less than the hostages in the Kreditbanken robbery, they are captives of their pimps and/or of a system that perpetuates their oppression. With no possibility of escape and as a survival mechanism, they internalize the perspective of their oppressors and turn against those who desire only to rescue them.


Stockholm syndrome is increasingly being used in social problems discourse and political debates to discredit the claims of others. We have tracked its history from its origins in the context of kidnappings and hostage-taking incidents through to its application to a broader range of behaviors where individuals are described as being so oppressed or traumatized that they cannot think straight or express their own agency. While there are elements of this history that can be described as domain expansion, we have shown that the use of the label to describe the collective responses of entire social groups appears to represent a more diffuse type of expansion.

Used in social problems discourse, the Stockholm syndrome label can be understood as a rhetorical power play, an effort to discredit counter claims-makers. The label offers claims-makers a way to neutralize the arguments of those with opposing points of view. It does so by medicalizing the alternative and problematic perspective of the other (Conrad and Schneider 1980). The label promotes particular formula stories—those constructions of conditions and events that claims-makers seek to institutionalize as “what we all know to be true.” The label, its construction of social reality, of what is real and false, of who sees clearly, and whose views are distorted become part of our own taken-for-granted assumptions about the world. The invocation of the Stockholm syndrome is meant to establish the point of view of the social actor invoking the label as “the truth,” and all competing claims as suspect, illegitimate, or nonsensical.

We are not the first to draw attention to the implications of framing “problem” behaviors, reactions, responses, or positions in medical terms.Conrad and Schneider (1980) pointed out that among the consequences of medicalization is the individualization and depoliticization of any meaning those behaviors may have. They illustrated the point using the example of political dissidents in the Soviet Union who were declared mentally ill and confined to mental hospitals. This strategy neutralized their dissent rendering it, officially at least, merely symptomatic of mental illness. An equally powerful example of the way in which medical labels can depoliticize individuals’ responses isThomas Szasz’s (1981) analysis of the drapetomania and dysaesthesia aethiopis labels. First described in the prestigious New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal in 1851 by Samuel A. Cartwright, drapetomania refers to a disease characterized by an effort on the part of the “Negro” slave to escape from his/her white master.

The strategy of using medical (especially mental illness) diagnoses as a tool for silencing others, neutralizing counterclaims, depoliticizing debate, or pre-empting it altogether continues with a growing range of mental illness labels available to be used by social actors against those with different experiences, views, beliefs, and ideologies. It is sometimes easier with the benefit of historical perspective to see the strategic and political uses of these labels. To the extent that more contemporary versions, like Stockholm syndrome, gain currency, it is harder to see that these labels work in the same way and are intended to accomplish the same political ends. The labels, their constructions of social reality, of what is real and what is false, of who sees clearly, and whose views are distorted become part of our own taken-for-granted assumptions about the world. Our intent in this article is not to challenge the Stockholm syndrome label nor its use in any particular social problems debate but to draw attention to how the label works to generate those assumptions.

While we have framed our analysis of Stockholm syndrome in the context of the constructionist literature on social problems, the ideas we have explored here have relevance to a broader range of discussions and debates in sociology. The way in which the Stockholm syndrome label is used to construct individuals and groups as victims of their experiences, and the way in which those so labeled either take on or challenge the attribution makes Stockholm syndrome an interesting case to examine in relation to debates about “victim contests,” where the concern is with the extent to which political discourse has become essentially about claims for and against victimization and victim status (Cole 2007). The strategy for neutralizing opposing claims that Stockholm syndrome represents can also be looked at in relation to the growing literature on “culture wars” (Hunter 1991), where the interest is in better understanding how moral entrepreneurs compete to define familial, educational, religious, and cultural mores. In the context of the culture wars, the use of the Stockholm syndrome label in social problems discourse can be seen as a strategy of moral regulation. The Stockholm syndrome case can also be considered in relation to ongoing sociological interest in the social construction of the mind (Coulter 1979), and how interpretations of mental states coincide with interpretations of personal and social problems (Weinberg 1997; Fox 1999). Further exploration of these points of connection may be useful in establishing the relevance of the concept of vernacular resources beyond the social problems literature and in refocusing attention on generic processes of reality construction foundational to the sociological enterprise.


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