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Keywords:

  • medicalisation;
  • shyness;
  • social phobia;
  • social anxiety;
  • identity

Abstract

Shyness has become an ‘unhealthy’ state of mind for individuals living in contemporary Western societies. Insofar as its behavioural ‘symptoms’ imply a failure to achieve certain cultural values, such as assertiveness, self-expression and loquacious vocality, shyness is increasingly defined as a problem for which people can, and should, be treated. This paper first critically discusses the idea that we are witnessing a new ‘cultural epidemic’ of shyness, as evidenced by increasing rates of diagnosis for Social Phobia, Social Anxiety Disorder and Avoidant Personality Disorder. It then examines three main dimensions of the medicalisation of shyness: biomedical and genetic approaches, the therapeutic interventions of cognitive-behaviour therapy and ‘shyness clinics’, and the disciplinary regimes imposed by self-help books and websites. Within a cultural climate of pervasive anxiety and privatised risk, the medicalisation of shyness suggests a powerful new way of defining and managing certain kinds of deviant identities, but we can also find some evidence of resistance to this approach.