Definition and Context
In ancient Greece, the term stigma was used “to refer to bodily signs, cut or burnt into the skin, designed to expose the bearer as a slave, criminal, or social outcast” (Howson 28). In a modern context, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in a ground-breaking 1963 book that the term refers “to an attribute that is deeply discrediting” (3). A person who carries a stigma “is disqualified from full social acceptance” (“Preface”) based on an attribute
that makes him different from others . . . He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma . . . sometimes it is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap.”(3)Goffman identified three different types of stigma: visible "abominations of the body -- the various physical deformities," "blemishes of individual character," and collective stigmas of "race, nation, and religion"(4).
The key thing to notice here is that stigma only exists because social comparisons exist. According to Goffman, there is nothing discrediting about an attribute in itself -- it is only when a group of people deems the attribute to be unworthy that people who hold the attribute are stigmatized (3). Stigmatization cannot exist without those who stigmatize; it is socially constructed.
How does the social construction of stigma occur? Sociologists Bruce Link and Jo Phelan explain that four things must happen:
- Labeling: "There is a social selection of human differences ... that matter socially" (367)
- Stereotyping: linking "a person to a set of undesirable characteristics" (369)
- Separating "Us" and "Them:" distinguishing non-stigmatized from stigmatized (370)
- Discriminating: the labeled person experiences loss of status and discrimination (370)
The ability to place and enforce a stigma on a person/group "is dependent on the degree of one's access to social, economic, and political power" (Kusow 4778). The consequences of stigmatization can be dire. Bodies that are stigmatized are “allocated a marginal social status and excluded from full social acceptance” (Howson 28). Bodies are often subject to discrimination on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, social class, body weight, physical ability, pregnancy/mothering, age, mental illness, perception of attractiveness, and a host of other attributes.
Sources and Further Reading
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice Hall, 1963.
Howson, Alexandra. The Body in Question: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Polity Press, 2013.
Kusow, Abdi M. "Stigma." The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism. First edition. Eds. John Stone et al. John Wiley and Sons, 2016.
Link, Bruce, and Jo Phelan. “ Conceptualizing Stigma.” Annual Review of Sociology. 2001, 27:363–85.
Kristin Novotny, Ph.D.
Professor, Core Division