What is Stigma

When it comes to a radical praxis, many assert that the core of oppression is found in the relationship between men and women.

That is incorrect. 

It lies in the way that women are stigmatized, and in the way that we pile additional stigma on persons for multiple intersections — such as the way that trans women are told they are not women, but subjected to the stigma of being women nonetheless in addition to other stigma.

Stigma (Social Stigma) is the extreme disapproval of or discontent with a person or group on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society.

Stigma may then be affixed to such a person, by the greater society, who differs from their cultural norms.

Social stigma can result from the perception of

  • mental illness,
  • physical disabilities,
  • diseases such as leprosy (see leprosy stigma),
  • illegitimacy,
  • sexual orientation,
  • gender identity,
  • skin tone,
  • education,
  • nationality,
  • body morphology (fatness, thinness,etc)
  • ethnicity,
  • ideology,
  • religion (or lack of religion) or
  • criminality.

Attributes associated with social stigma often vary depending on the geopolitical and corresponding sociopolitical contexts employed by society, in different parts of the world.

Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places.

Social stigmas can occur in many different forms. The most common deals with culture, obesity, gender, race and diseases. Many people who have been stigmatized feel as though they are transforming from a whole person to a tainted one. They feel different and devalued by others. This can happen in the workplace, educational settings, health care, the criminal justice system, and even in their own family. For example, the parents of overweight women are less likely to pay for their daughters’ college education than are the parents of average-weight women.

Once people identify and label your differences others will assume that is just how things are and the person will remain stigmatized until the stigmatizing attribute is undetected. A considerable amount of generalization 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. 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.

Society will start to form expectations about those groups once the cultural stereotype is secured.

Stigma may affect 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 (i.e. deprejudice).

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 Theory.

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.

Stigma, then, is the phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute which is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity. It comes in three forms:

  1. Overt or external deformations, such as scars, physical manifestations, or of a physical disability or social disability, such as obesity.
  2. Deviations in personal traits, including mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, and criminal background are stigmatized in this way.
  3. “Tribal stigmas” are traits, imagined or real, of ethnic group, nationality, or of religion that is deemed to be a deviation from the prevailing normative ethnicity, nationality or religion.

a stigma is an attribute, behavior, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a particular way: it causes an individual to be mentally classified by others in an undesirable, rejected stereotype rather than in an accepted, normal one. Goffman, a noted sociologist, defined stigma as a special kind of gap between virtual social identity and actual social identity:

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. […] When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his “social identity” […] We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands. […] It is [when an active question arises as to whether these demands will be filled] that we are likely to realize that all along we had been making certain assumptions as to what the individual before us ought to be. [These assumed demands and the character we impute to the individual will be called] virtual social identity. The category and attributes he could in fact be proved to possess will be called his actual social identity. (Goffman 1963:2).

While a stranger is present before us, evidence can arise of his possessing an attribute that makes him different from others in the category of persons available for him to be, and of a less desirable kind—in the extreme, a person who is quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak. He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma, especially when its discrediting effect is very extensive […] It constitutes a special discrepancy between virtual and actual social identity. Note that there are other types of [such] discrepancy […] for example the kind that causes us to reclassify an individual from one socially anticipated category to a different but equally well-anticipated one, and the kind that causes us to alter our estimation of the individual upward. (Goffman 1963:3).

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 are also “positive stigma”: you may indeed be too thin, too rich, or too smart. This is noted by Goffman (1963:141) 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[clarification needed] and sometimes the depersonalization of others into stereotypic caricatures. Stigmatizing others can serve several functions for an individual, including self-esteem enhancement, 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.

21st century social psychologists 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.

Current views of stigma, from the perspectives of both the stigmatizer and the stigmatized person, consider the process of stigma to be highly situationally specific, dynamic, complex and nonpathological.

Stigma exists when four specific components converge:

  1. Individuals differentiate and label human variations.
  2. Prevailing cultural beliefs tie those labeled to adverse attributes.
  3. Labeled individuals are placed in distinguished groups that serve to establish a sense of disconnection between “us” and “them”.
  4. Labeled individuals experience “status loss and discrimination” that leads to unequal circumstances.

Stigmatization is also contingent on access to social, economic, institutional, systemic, and political power that allows the identification of differences, construction of stereotypes, the separation of labeled persons into distinct groups, and the full execution of disapproval, rejection, exclusion, and discrimination.

Subsequently, the term stigma is applied when labeling, stereotyping, disconnection, status loss, and discrimination all exist within a power situation that facilitates stigma to occur.

Heatherton, T. F.; Kleck, R. E.; Hebl, M. R.; Hull, J. G. (2000). The Social Psychology of Stigma. Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-573-8.

https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame