Stigma

I’ve recently finished reading Erving Goffman’s Stigma (1963), a fascinating book that investigates the concept of stigma as well as the impact that it has on social situations. Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I was struck by two of its main thrusts: the unusual way that stigmas are formed and how stigmatised individuals behave.

Enough so to write a rare blog post on them.

A Recipe for Stigma

To start at the beginning, what constitutes a stigma?

In his book, Goffman argues that a stigma can be classed as any abnormality (whether physical or mental) that marks a person out as different from other people. However, the concept of stigma has worn many guises over the years depending on the cultural norms of the time.

Goffman writes that, in Greek society, stigma was initially a form of punishment inflicted on people in order to mark them out as someone who possessed some form of unfavourable quality:

signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor – a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.

 

Although stigma began to accumulate positive qualities with the advent of Christianity, it quickly reverted back to representing purely negative associations. At the time of writing, Goffman states that the term stigma was used to describe “the kinds of disgrace that arouse concern”, focusing more on “the disgrace itself than to the bodily evidence of it”.

According to Goffman, an individual can develop a stigma in one of three areas:

  • The stigma associated with “abominations of the body – the various bodily deformities”.
  • The stigma associated with “blemishes of individual character”, such as “weak will, domineering or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid belief, and dishonest” behaviours, such as “mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts and radical political behaviour”.
  • “The tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion” that Goffman states “can be transmitted through lineages”.

So, how do these stigmas come to be?

Goffman argues that society has a clear set of criteria for categorizing people based on their appearance and behaviour. These categorisations mean that, when we enter into any social situation, we carry with us a checklist of the ways we expect the people we are engaging with to behave.

Stigmas, then, occur when the way we expect someone to behave contradicts with the way that they actually behave.

So, what is particularly interesting about this idea? Well, to me, the whole concept of stigma seems to stem from the awkwardness we feel when we realise that our assumptions don’t quite match up to the reality in front of us.

Although we are encouraged to recognize everyone’s individuality, what Goffman appears to be suggesting is that we are not as accepting of this idea as we would like to think as, when we are faced with our own shortcomings in this respect, our first impulse is to stigmatise those that reveal this quality to us.

The Two Masks of Stigma

After spending the first few pages defining exactly what is meant by “stigma”, Goffman spends the remainder of his book investigating the ways that stigmatised individuals behave in social situations, especially when they are faced with those Goffman deems “normal”.

 

Covering

The first option available to a stigmatised individual is to engage in what Goffman calls “covering”.

Engaging in covering behaviours enables the stigmatised individual to reduce the tension felt both by themselves and others in social situations by concealing the more prominent aspects of their stigma in some way. This aim, Goffman writes, can be achieved through plastic surgery or education and makes social situations easier for the stigmatised individual by ensuring that they are not spotlighted in any way.

Although covering enables the stigmatised individual to freely engage in social situations, it can also cause significant problems.

Engaging in covering behaviours requires a significant amount of preparation. Goffman argues that, in order to pass as “normal”, the stigmatised individual must have an in-depth understanding of every social situation so that they know what attributes to cover in order to successfully conceal their stigmatised identity.

However, despite their best efforts, Goffman goes on to argue that it is impossible for anyone to successfully cover completely as some stigma symbols will ultimately seep through. Instead, Goffman appears to be suggesting that covering is merely a dance of politeness whereby the stigmatised individual attempts to reduce the awkwardness of the situation while the others involved pretend not to notice any stigma symbols that are not quite concealed.

Accepting

The alternative to covering is for the stigmatised individual to demonstrate acceptance of their stigma and all it entails. Although it can be argued that this option is far more positive, Goffman argues that it entails just as much work as covering as the stigmatised individual has to work harder to convey their normality to the others involved in the social situation despite their stigma.

Accepting is not only positive for the stigmatised individual, but also for everyone else involved in the social situation. Goffman attributes this positivity to the tension that is broken when the stigmatised individual confesses to their stigma as it demonstrates that they are “detached, able to take his condition in his stride”. This behaviour not only sets the social group at ease, but also gives the stigmatised individual “superior control in the situation”, enabling them to regain the power that social perceptions of their stigma removed from them.

Although acceptance appears to be the most beneficial option, Goffman also explains that acceptance can be just as labour intensive as passing. Although accepting would enable the stigmatised individual to regain some degree of control over the situation and enable the others involved to learn the reality of the stigma itself, Goffman stresses that this goal can only be achieved if the stigmatised individual uses “the language he employs with his own”. Adopting this language would enable the stigmatised individual to demonstrate the most appropriate way to communicate with others in a similar situation.

In addition to paying careful consideration to their language, Goffman states that it is important that the stigmatised individual must accept any attempts to make them feel better – even if these attempts encroach upon them – in order to save face for the others involved. Goffman states that:

The stigmatized are tactfully expected to be gentlemanly and not to press their luck, they should not test the limits of the acceptance shown them, nor make it the basis for still further demands.

The Implications

So, why is all of this worthy of a blog post? I guess what really caught my attention was that, in each case, the emphasis to manage the social situation was placed on the stigmatised individual who was expected either to manage their own or others’ behaviour, which seemed a touch unfair.

Even Goffman acknowledges that accepting a stigma means that “normals” “will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance” is, suggesting that the main focus of covering and accepting is to reduce the awkwardness faced by “normals” when confronted with something that challenges their worldview.

Instead, Goffman argues that:

The stigmatized individual is asked to act as to imply neither that his burden is heavy nor that bearing it has made him different from us; at the same time he must keep himself at that remove from us which ensures our painlessly being able to confirm this belief about him.

Therefore, the stigmatised individual is expected to behave in ways that protect their “normal” counterparts whilst simultaneously still being classified as “spoiled” by the same people. As Goffman writes,

[the individual] is advised to reciprocate naturally with an acceptance of him that we have not quite extended him in the first place.

I’m not sure about you, but this expectation seems incredibly unfair to me.

I’m currently trying to raise money to cover the course fees for an M. Phil in Applied Linguistics so that I can study the language of mental health in the media. You can find out more here.

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