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The term stigma refers to a social or individual attribute that is devalued and discredited in a particular social context. As Goffman (1963) noted, however, this definition requires an important qualification, one that defines stigma in terms of ”a language of relationship” that can link attributes to particular stereotypes, rather than a priori objectified attributes. The language of relationship between attributes and stereotypes is extremely important because an attribute, in and of itself, does not carry an inherent quality that makes it credible or discredible outside the nature of the stereotype that corresponds to it.
Link and Phelan (2001) defined stigma in terms of the presence and convergence of four interrelated components. First, people distinguish and label human differences. Second, members of the dominant cultural group link labeled persons with certain undesirable attributes. Third, negatively labeled groups or individuals are placed in distinct and separate categories from the non-stigmatized. Fourth, as a result of the first three components, labeled individuals experience status loss. Finally, the process of stigma placement, and therefore management, is dependent on the degree of one’s access to social, economic, and political power.
Regardless of how stigma is defined, however, in order for an attribute to be designated as a mark of stigma, two conditions must be present. First, the designation of stigma must be informed by a collectively shared understanding by all participants of which attributes are stigmatizing in the available pool of socially meaningful categories in a particular social context. This statement is important because an attribute that is stigmatizing in one social context may not be stigmatizing in another. The second condition relates to the degree to which a mark of stigma is visible. The degree of visibility determines the stigmatized person’s feelings about themselves and their interactions and relationship with non-stigmatized groups and individuals, particularly in situations perceived as potentially stigmatizing encounters.
There are two general categories of stigma attributes. The first category refers to attributes that are immediately or potentially visible upon social encounters. Three types of stigma attributes can be outlined within this category. The first relates to outward and clear physical deformations. The second relates to what Goffman described as ”the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion.” The latter is transmitted through lineage, and affects all members of the stigmatized group.
This type of stigma can be characterized as collective or group stigma, while the first, physical deformities, affects only individuals, and can therefore be referred to as individual stigma.
The second broad category relates to stigma attributes that are not clearly and outwardly visible, but may or may not become visible upon social interaction and where the stigmatized person believes that their stigma is not known to those with whom they interact. The distinction between whether or not a particular stigma attribute is visible is important because it determines the nature of social interaction between those who are perceived as stigmatized and the normals. More importantly, it situates the nature of the reactions and information management by stigmatized individuals that appear to reveal their stigma attributes. In the case where the stigma attribute is readily and clearly visible, the process of information management involves attempts to minimize tensions generated during social interactions.
If the stigma attribute is visible, the process of information management shifts from mere tension management to information management about one’s feelings of having a spoiled identity. The concern of the stigmatized in this case becomes one of whether or not to display discrediting information, and ultimately leads to what Goffman described as information management techniques.
There are a number of information management techniques employed by stigmatized individuals. One common technique is ”covering.” Covering refers to attempts by stigmatized individuals to conceal signs commonly considered stigma symbols. Another strategy is ”distancing,” where stigmatized individuals or groups disassociate themselves from those roles, associations, and institutions that may be considered as stigmatizing. Still another strategy is ”compartmentalization,” where individuals divide their worlds into two social worlds: a small and intimate one to which the stigmatized reveals their identity, and a larger group from which the stigmatized individual conceals their identity. Finally, individuals may engage in “embracement” through the expressive confirmation of the social roles and statuses associated with stigma (Snow & Anderson 1987).
- Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identities. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Kusow, A. M. (2004) Contesting stigma: on Goffman’s assumption of normative order. Symbolic Interaction 27 (2): 179-97.
- Link, B. & Phelan, J. (2001) Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology 27 (3): 363-85.
- Snow, D. & Anderson, L. (1987) Identity work among the homeless: the verbal construction and avowal of personal identities. American Journal of Sociology 92: 1334-71.