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Thread: Goffman's Stigma

  1. #1
    Vaguely Precise Array Seymour's Avatar
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    Default Goffman's Stigma

    The topic of racism makes me think about Erving Goffman's 1963 book Stigma. Some of the terms used in the book are pretty grating to modern sensibilities, but I still think it's a pretty insightful book in many ways. I apologize for quoting so much, here, but there's a lot that applies to race, sexual orientation, physical disability, etc.

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p2
    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 strangers comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enabled 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.
    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p3 p4
    The term stigma, then, will be used to refer to an attribute that is deeply discrediting, but it should be seen that a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed. [...] A stigma, then, is really a special kind of relationship between an attribute and a stereotype.

    Kinds of Stigma

    He then goes on to divide stigmas into type types:
    • discredited - stigma is already known or visible
    • discreditable - stigma is unknown and/or hidden

    He also divides stigmas this way:

    • those of body - physical deformities, disease, and/or damage
    • those of character - psychological problems, overly rigid belief systems, alcoholism, homosexuality, radical political behavior
    • those of tribe - race, nation and religion... an be transmitted through families and generation

    I think it's interesting here to call out the differences between "those of tribe" and those that are not heritable. Those who are brought up in a stigmatized tribe are usually brought up knowing of their group membership, and inducted into a sub-culture that supports it. Those in the other categorized tend to have to come to terms with their stigmatization independently, and build or find a support network themselves.

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p5 p6 p7
    In all these various instances of stigma [...] the same sociological features are found: an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obstrude itself upon attention and turn those of us whom he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us. He posses a stigma, an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated. We and those who do not depart negative from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the normals.

    [...]We construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class. [...] We tend to impute a wide range of imperfections on the basis of the original one, and at the same time impute some desirable but undesired attributes, often of a supernatural cast, such as "sixth sense," or "understanding."

    [...]The stigmatized individual tends to hold the same beliefs about identity that we do; this is a pivotal fact. His deepest feelings about what he is may be his sense of being a "normal person," a human being like anyone else, a person, therefore, who deserves a fair chance and a fair break. [...] Yet he may perceive, usually quite correctly, that whatever others profess, they do not really "accept" him and are not ready to make contact with him on "equal grounds." Further, the standards he has incorporated from the wider society equip him to be intimately alive to what others see as his failing, inevitably causing him, if only for moments, to agree that he does indeed fall short of what he really ought to be. Shame becomes a central possibility [....]

    He also talks about ways the stigmatized respond to the lack of acceptance. They include:

    • "fixing" the problem - surgery, psychotherapy, etc
    • reclaiming an activity ordinarily closed off to the stigma - such as a blind person learning to ski
    • using it as an excuse for failure or ill-fortune - embracing "victimhood"
    • seeing the trials of the stigma as "blessings in disguise"
    • adapting a wider perspective that sees the stigma as a more limited problem

    He also talks about how "normals" and those with stigma (particularly visible ones) often arrange things so they don't have to interact regularly. Therefore, a contact with a "normal" may serve as a reminder to the stigmatized of his or her stigma. The stigmatized person feels like he or she is on-stage, having to manage the impression he or she is giving. The stigmatized person also feels like in such situations he or she doesn't know what the other person "really" thinks of him or her. Minor accomplishments may be assessed as signs of noteworthy or remarkable achievements under the circumstances.

    Conversely, minor incidents or failings that would wouldn't be noteworthy for normals may be taken as an expression of the stigmatized difference.

    Meanwhile, the normals in such settings vacillate between trying to ignore the stigma, and fear of mis-stepping or making unrealistic demands. If those fail, we may just ignore the person with the stigma.

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p26
    It might be added that once a person with a particular stigma attains high occupation, political, or financial position [...] a new career is likely to be thrust upon him, that of representing his category. He finds himself too eminent to avoid being presented by his own as an instance of them
    He also also talks about two groups of people from whom the stigmatized can expect some support: others sharing the stigma, and "the wise," which are the non-stigmatized who are privy to and sympathetic with the stigmatized group. The wise are often accepted by the stigmatized group and given a measure of courtesy membership.

    The Discredited

    The discredited are the people whose stigma is already known and/or is immediately obvious. Their main challenge is dealing with reactions to their stigma and seeking acceptance despite their stigma. They have to continually live with the social effects of their stigma, and so tend to socialize more with others who share the stigma (since contact with "normals" makes them aware of the stigmatized status). They also tend to form stronger support networks, since there the question of "passing" as a normal isn't an issue.

    The Discreditable

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p 42
    The issue is not that of managing tension generated during social contacts, but rather that of managing information about his failing. To display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, and how, when and where. For example, while a mental patient is in the hospital, and when he is with adult members of his own family, he is faced with being treated tactfully as if he were sane when there is known to be some doubt, even though he may not have any; or he is treated as insane, when he knows this is not just. But for the ex-mental patient the problem can be quite different; it is not that he must face prejudice against himself, but rather the he must face unwitting acceptance of himself by individual who are prejudiced against persons of the kind he can be revealed to be.
    The discreditable have to struggle with whether and when to reveal themselves, and also guilt for accepting treatment that whey would be unlikely to receive if the other knew of their stigma.

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p 84
    Further, he who passes leaves himself open to learning what others "really" think of persons of his kind, both when they do not know they are dealing with someone of his kind and when they start out not knowing but learn part way through the encounter and sharply veer to another course."

    [...]The presense of fellow-sufferers (or the wise) introduces a very special set of contingencies in regard to passing, since the very techniques used to conceal stigmas may give the show away to someone who is familiar with the tricks of the trade, the assumption being that it takes one (or those close to him) to know one.
    On the price of passing:

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p87
    First, it is assumed that he must necessarily pay a great psychological price, at a very high level of anxiety of living a life that can be collapsed at any moment. [...] Secondly, it is assumed, and with evidence, that the passer will feel torn between two attachments [those of fellow stigma sufferers, and those of the group in which he is passing]. Thirdly, it seems to be assumed, that he who passes will have to be alive to aspects of the social situation which others treat as uncalculated and unattended.

    Group Alignment

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p109
    The stigmatized person is almost always warned against attempting to pass completely. Too, he is generally warned against fully accepting as his own the negative attitude of others toward him. He is likely to be warned against "minstrelization," whereby the stigmatized person ingratiatingly act out before normals the full dance of bad qualities imputed to his kind [....] And contrariwise, he is usually warned against "normification" or "deminstrelization," he is encouraged to have distaste for those of his fellows who, without actually making a secret of their stigma, engage in careful covering, being very careful to show that in spite of appearances they are very sane, very generous, very sober, very masculine, very capable of hard physical labor and taxing sports, in short, they they are gentleman deviants, nice persons like ourselves in spite of the reputation of their kind

    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p112
    The spokesmen of this group claim that the individual's real group, the one to which he naturally belongs, is this [(the stigmatized)] group. All other categories and groups [...] are implicitly considered to be not his real ones; he is not really one of him.
    Quote Originally Posted by Goffman p121
    The nature of a "good adjustment" is now apparent. It requires that the stigmatized individual cheerfully and unselfconsciously accept himself as essentially the same as normals, while at the same time he voluntarily withholds himself from those situations in which normals would find it difficult to give lip service to their similar acceptance of him.

    Why All This Is Useful

    I think Goffman's conception of stigma and its effects is useful because it helps separate out the social effects of stigma from aspects specific to race, physical disability, sexual orientation, etc. It helps make it more clear that social stigma tends to create certain kinds of dynamics and coping mechanisms apart from the source of the stigma. I think some aspects Goffman points out lead to what some call "identity politics."

    I also think most of us deal with some kinds of social stigma (minor in some cases) pretty regularly: people with mild stutters, people on anti-depressants, people with Asperger's, people who are in a racial minority and people with family members who have some kind of stigma.

  2. #2
    & Badger, Ratty and Toad Array Mole's Avatar
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    Thumbs down See!

    Yes, Erving Goffman gives us another way of seeing.

    And he gives us another way of seeing by giving us another way of speaking.

    Just as I have another way of speaking.

    My way of speaking, which you are reading now, is called Telegraphic Prose.

    And Telegraphic Prose shows a new way of seeing.

    So one way of seeing is through print, and another way of seeing is through electric text.

    You note that I am writing in electronic text now.


  3. #3
    Senior Member Array Lark's Avatar
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    Probably Goffman's second best book, all his books were brilliant, he was a keen observer of social life and I like that book on stigma a lot. For a sociology text it exudes a kind of humanity.

  4. #4
    Vaguely Precise Array Seymour's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lark View Post
    Probably Goffman's second best book, all his books were brilliant, he was a keen observer of social life and I like that book on stigma a lot. For a sociology text it exudes a kind of humanity.
    I agree... his insights are non-obvious, yet his perspective is very humane. Which book do you think is his best?

  5. #5
    Senior Member Array Lark's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Seymour View Post
    I agree... his insights are non-obvious, yet his perspective is very humane. Which book do you think is his best?
    Presentation of self in everyday life, I think its one of the best books I've ever read.

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