Social Stigmas Research Paper Starter

Social Stigmas

Social stigma is a negative response to individuals who have characteristics that are different from the social norms. This article addresses the sociological function of deviance, looks at Erving Goffman's types of stigma, including his six dimensions of stigma, and his discussion of the stigmatized and stigmatizers. It considers labeling theory in understanding stigma further and discusses several stigmatized groups in an attempt to understand the extent these negative labels can be damaging. Postmodernism is looked at as a critique of the interactionist approach.

Keywords Achieved Stigmas; Actual Social Identity; Existential Stigmas; Labeling Theory; Normals; Postmodernism; Social Identity; Social Information; Spoiled Identity; Virtual Identity

Day to Day Social Interaction: Social Stigmas


A stigma is a negative label given to someone because of characteristics that go against the dominant norms of a society. These characteristics might be physical, ideological, or stem from some action the person has done or not done in the past. The stigmatized person is labeled as inferior and "marked" in society. Stereotypes, or generalizations, accurate or not, must be created and embraced in order for stigmas to be maintained. Placement in these negative categories almost always ensures a loss of status in the society. The stigmatized include those who have physical (e.g., visible birthmark, hunchback) or personal traits (e.g., men with high voices) that are different not because of anything they have done. Stigma also can follow those who are considered deviant because of something they have done, such as the criminally deviant. Stigmas can be applied to people with certain health conditions (e.g., leprosy, AIDS) or are used to exclude minorities.

Our use of the term stigma comes from the same ancient Greek word that meant "tattoo" or "mark." These marks were used to identify slaves, criminals, and others considered socially or morally inferior and resulted in these people being socially ostracized or outcast.

Several social theorists have argued that stigmas have some serious social consequences in that they require the process of creating a category into which the stigmatized person is placed (Becker, 1973). When the group is created (e.g., schizophrenics) and the person is stigmatized into the category of this mental illness, others begin treating the person differently, expecting different, irrational behavior. This results in great frustration for the stigmatized, who may become defensive and seem to be reacting irrationally. This reinforces the notion that the person is different and seemingly justifies the placement of the person in the category.

This self-sustaining system is part of a larger discussion of the creation in the eighteenth century of asylums. In his compelling work Madness and Civilization: Birth of the Asylum, Michel Foucault (2001) details how, before modern medicine created its particular system of categorization, those we now call mentally ill were considered touched by some force unknown to people, whether it was God or the devil. But as Enlightenment ideas began to be used to understand the world from a position of reason, explanations that were based in science were considered. Four categories of mental illness eventually emerged: depression, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, and paranoid schizophrenic. While the categories were originally designed to help treat mental illness, they also created labels that, once applied, become very difficult to remove.

In this same vein, many sociologists have identified a stigma as a label that seems almost irreversible. In other words, once the stigma has become visible, it is very difficult to remove. Of course, it is possible for the individual to move to a different social setting, where the stigma becomes hidden again. But if the stigma is revealed, the person will again have to live as an inferior person. There is a great deal of research on the negative effects of incarceration in this regard. Being a known felon is a stigma; the felon must report his status to employers, and other members may be aware of the person's past. The burden of this stigma is exponential, meaning it grows disproportionately to the felon's postprison experience. If the felon cannot work because the stigma of incarceration insinuates he is not trustworthy, he cannot exist in mainstream society and must find other ways of making a living. Not being able to find a job may lead the felon to engage in illegal means to live. If nonfelons will not accept the felon as a normal member of the community, the felon often looks for assistance among those he knows and among groups with which he may retain some status, which is often other felons.

The Sociological Function of Stigma

One way to explain the way stigma works is to take the view of the structural-functionalist. These theorists believe that stigma, like all other elements of a society, has the function of making the society operate more smoothly, and this happens when people in the society feel connected to one another. In other words, structural-functionalists explain such phenomena as being part of the way societies work and attribute negative elements of a society as contributing to the overall order of a society. For functionalists, stigmata assist in reinforcing unity in societies, the most important element of a society. They show the majority society that they are part of the "in-group" and, by creating an "out-group," make it clearer what that "in-group" is. The idea is that there are members in a society who are deviant, whether by way of something they have done or by way of something they have no control over, and that seeing this gives other people a better overall idea of how to behave. Put another way, each society has accepted ways of acting and appearance, and these are clarified and emphasized by holding up examples of what not to be or how not to act.

Émile Durkheim, the French structural-functionalist, was the first to explore the sociological concept of stigma in the late nineteenth century. In his larger look at deviance in general, he wrote:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes or deviance, properly so-called, will there be unknown; but faults, which appear venial to the layman, will there create the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousnesses. If then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal (or deviant) and will treat them as such (Durkheim, 1982).

What Durkheim means is, if there ever were a society in which all members conformed perfectly to the norms and values of a society, there still would be those who, by no fault of their own, would be different from others and, because societies need some type of benchmark for behavior, would create deviance out of some difference found in some members. So, by stigmatizing others, a greater sense of unity is achieved between the other conforming members in a society. In fact, Durkheim says that by making some behaviors or physical characteristics deviant, a sense of moral unity, or solidarity, is created.

This notion of creating a sense of unity by having a group of "outsiders" to hold up and show what not to be is reiterated by sociologist Gerhard Falk, who, in his work Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders, related the idea that all societies will always stigmatize some conditions and some behaviors because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating "outsiders" from "insiders" (Falk, 2001). Falk also distinguishes between different types of stigma by way of making it clear that if a person is perceived as being responsible for the difference, the social reaction is altered. Falk puts stigma in two categories: existential stigma and achieved stigma. Existential stigma is one that a person is born with, such as ethnicity, sexuality, physical deformity, or any other characteristic over which the person has no control. This is distinguished from achieved stigma, such as criminality, body alterations, or any other attribute that comes out of conduct by the individual (Falk, 2001).

Erving Goffman

A complementary explanation for stigma is set forth by Canadian social interactionist Erving Goffman. In fact, the most well-known work in sociology on the topic of stigma is Goffman's Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. As an interactionist theorist, Goffman believes human beings have a "self" that is defined by the larger social world. Further, the self, or the perception of what each person perceives him- or herself to be, is the result of interactions each has with others, out of which the individual comes with an impression of what others think of him or her (even though it may not be accurate). In fact, according to interactionists, our sense of self is embedded in what we think others think of us. Goffman said that we need to put on a convincing act—that we are actors on various stages and we need to make a believable impression. Individuals work very hard to make an accurate impression on others, what Goffman called "impression management" (Goffman,...

(The entire section is 4074 words.)