Social Stigma: Defining Ourselves in Culture
Enter an elevator, and what is the first thing you do? If you are like most people, you probably walked onto the platform not uttering a word. Then, after you found an empty spot to stand in, you turned to face the doors, but instead of watching those doors, you probably pushed the button for your desired floor, then proceeded to watch the lighted indicator lights until the desired floor was reached, at which time you left the platform to go where you wished. Good enough?
The next time you get onto an elevator, try an experiment. The next time you enter an elevator, instead of remaining silent, greet everyone with a hearty wave of your hand, loudly saying, “Hi, everybody!” Then, don’t turn around. Remain standing facing everyone else on the elevator…and smile. And if you really have a lot of nerve, ask everyone how their day went.
Congratulations. You have just violated several social stigmas.
What is a Social Stigma?
Social stigma is defined by scientists as the disapproval of, or discontent with, a person on the grounds of characteristics that distinguish them from other members of society. Stigma can be attached to a person who differs from social or cultural norms. Social scientist Erving Goffman defined stigma as “the process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.” [Erving Goffman (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-671-62244-7
Goffman goes on to define the three forms of social stigma, including, “The fact of mental illness (or the imposition of such a diagnosis); a physical deformity or undesired differentness; and an association with a particular race, religion, belief, etc.
A social stigma can be the result upon a person or group from a perception or attribute, rightly or wrongly, of mental illness, physical disabilities, diseases, illegitimacy, sexual orientation, gender identity, skin color, nationality, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), or criminality.
What is a Stigma?
The word stigma comes from the Greek word which originally meant to make a mark on someone, to use a brand, tattoo, or other mark to designate an undesirable person. This type of marking was most commonly done to slaves, prisoners, or traitors in order to show them as morally unclean or polluted persons. Stigma is also the source of the word stigmata, which is used to identify the nail marks in the palms of the resurrected Christ. Healthline Network Inc. 2007
Examples of Social Stigma
Social stigmas can occur in many different places and for many different reasons. Even more interestingly, as cultural mores evolve, social stigmas can change, and often very quickly. A good example of this is the furor that has been created over the rights of homosexuals throughout history.
There was a time when homosexuality was something that although it existed, it was practically never discussed or even acknowledged. In recent years, homosexuality has become more openly acknowledged and in some cases, even celebrated, as in the case of certain public figures who have recently “come out.”
Homosexuality is only one instance of a social “stigma” that was generally considered so until it has devolved as an issue. There are others practiced today that are still generally very much on people’s minds. These include stigmas the occur with culture, obesity, gender, diseases, and race. A huge problem with the issue of social stigma is that many people who have become victims of this phenomenon feel as though they are not a real person or never were one. Frosh, Stephen. “The Other.” American Imago 59.4 (2002); 389-407. Print.
Social stigma can become a label that brings association of a person to a set of unwanted characteristics that can eventually form a stereotype. In some cases, these stereotypes are eventually removed, but sometimes, once once people identify and label a difference that others have assumed, that’s the way they remain, often for life. That person will remain stigmatized until the stigmatizing attribute is removed through one method or another. A considerable amount of generalization of people is required to create groups, meaning that you put someone in a general group regardless of how well they actually fit into that group. However, the attributes that society selects differ according to time and place, just as we saw the case above with homosexuality. What is considered out of place in one society could be the norm in another. When society categorizes individuals into certain groups the labeled person is subjected to status loss and discrimination until that sign is lost. Society will start to form expectations about those groups once the cultural stereotype is secured.
Stigma often affects the behavior of those who are stigmatized. Those who are stereotyped often start to act in ways that their “stigmatizers” expect of them. It not only changes their behavior, but it also shapes their emotions and beliefs. Members of stigmatized social groups often face prejudice that causes depression. These stigmas put a person’s social identity in threatening situations, like low self-esteem. Because of this, identity theories have become highly researched. Identity threat theories can go hand-in-hand with labeling. [Erving Goffman (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-671-62244-7
Members of stigmatized groups start to become aware that they aren’t being treated the same way and know they are probably being discriminated against. Studies have shown that “by 10 years of age, most children are aware of cultural stereotypes of different groups in society, and children who are members of stigmatized groups are aware of cultural types at an even younger age.”
The stigmatized are ostracized, devalued, rejected, scorned and shunned. They experience discrimination, insults, attacks, and are even murdered. Those who perceive themselves to be members of a stigmatized group, whether it is obvious to those around them or not, often experience psychological distress and many view themselves contemptuously.
Although the experience of being stigmatized may take a toll on self-esteem, academic achievement, and other outcomes, many people with stigmatized attributes have high self-esteem, perform at high levels, are happy and appear to be quite resilient to their negative experiences.
There is also “positive stigma”: you may indeed be too thin, too rich, or too smart. This is noted by Goffman in his discussion of leaders, who are subsequently given license to deviate from some behavioral norms, because they have contributed far above the expectations of the group.
From the perspective of the stigmatizer, stigmatization involves dehumanization, threat, aversion and sometimes the depersonalization of others into stereotypic caricatures. Stigmatizing others can serve several functions for an individual, including enhancement of self-esteem, control enhancement, and anxiety buffering, through downward-comparison—comparing oneself to less fortunate others can increase one’s own subjective sense of well-being and therefore boost one’s self-esteem.
Social psychologists of the 21st century consider stigmatizing and stereotyping to be a normal consequence of people’s cognitive abilities and limitations, and of the social information and experiences to which they are exposed.
Goffman considered individuals whose stigmatizing attributes are not immediately evident. In that case, the individual can encounter two distinct social atmospheres. In the first, he is discreditable—his stigma has yet to be revealed, but may be revealed either intentionally by him (in which case he will have some control over how) or by some factor he cannot control. Of course, it also might be successfully concealed; Goffman called this passing. In this situation, the analysis of stigma is concerned only with the behaviors adopted by the stigmatized individual to manage his identity: the concealing and revealing of information. In the second atmosphere, he is discredited—his stigma has been revealed and thus it affects not only his behavior but the behavior of others. Jones added the “six dimensions” and correlate them to Goffman’s two types of stigma, discredited and discreditable.
There are six dimensions that match these two types of stigma:
- Concealable – extent to which others can see the stigma
- Course of the mark – whether the stigma’s prominence increases, decreases, or remains consistent over time
- Disruptiveness – the degree to which the stigma and/or others’ reaction to it impede social interactions
- Asthetics – the subset of others’ reactions to the stigma comprising reactions that are positive/approving or negative/disapproving but represent estimations of qualities other than the stigmatized person’s inherent worth or dignity
- Origin – whether others think the stigma is present at birth, accidental, or deliberate
- Peril – the danger that others perceive (whether accurately or inaccurately) the stigma to pose to them
Erving Goffman (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-671-62244-7