Goffman, E (1968) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.[Here are some notes from this classic. It is hard to summarise and depends greatly on lengthy examples, gleaned from strange sources, often popular press articles. It is often fussy and tries to hard to formulate new concepts and distinctions (which is what we thought theorists did once). I was surprised by the absurd functionalism at the end too. Nevertheless, there are highlights too, such as the advice to the stigmatised on how to manage 'normals' . Incidentally, Goffman does not use currently politically correct terms (he uses male pronouns throughout, for example), but he always puts terms like 'normal' in inverted commas to indicate his reservations -- so I have too. ]
Anyone who is disqualified from social acceptance is stigmatised. Stigmata were originally bodily signs deliberately inflicted to indicate some low moral status, such as face brands.
First impressions in social encounters are important in helping to construct a social identity, which conveys anticipations and expectations on the part of others. We may be unaware of the impressions we give, and our virtual social identity is not matched by our actual one. The perception of a stigma reduces the expectations of others and is discrediting, indicative of a moral flaw. The same stigma can also confirm ‘normality' in other circumstances, however, such as when a college education becomes a stigma only if applying for certain jobs. Some marks are always discrediting though, or can be potentially discrediting if discovered.
Stigma may take the form of physical deformities, blemishes, or tribal stigma 'of race and religion'. They can weaken all other claims to normality and make someone not quite human. They invoke a 'stigma theory', constructed so that we can rationalise our animosity. The use of stigmatised terms, such as cripple or bastard, have become used in everyday speech.
Stigma can be generalised, so that blind people are also assumed to be deaf. They can be explained as retribution for past offences. However, expectations are often not consistent. On their part, the stigmatised can vary from being unrepentant to shameless. Generally though, in the USA, the stigmatised share common values such as a belief in equal treatment: this can lead to shame, self-hate, and even agreement with their exclusion.
A number of responses to being stigmatised are possible. People can undergo plastic surgery, but they still risk exposure as someone who was formerly stigmatised. They can make special efforts to compensate for their stigma -- disabled people can learn to swim particularly well. They can refuse to accept norms. They can use their stigma as an alibi for their own lack of success, see it as a learning experience, or use it to criticise the limits of ‘normals.. Special problems arise following contact with ‘normals', so these are often avoided. However, hiding can lead to further depression, isolation and anxiety. If contact occurs, uncertainty can result even if ‘normals' are outwardly nice. The stigmatised can become self-conscious, feel on show, be afraid to display negative emotions such as anger, in case this is seen as a symptom of their stigma. They feel exposed to staring, to curious strangers and their false shows of interest. They can become annoyed at compliments resulting from performing routine deeds or being immediately forgiven for minor incompetencies. They develop avoidance, covering, an air of hostile bravado, and are also acutely aware of the dangers of interaction (usually more aware than ‘normals').
The stigmatised can find sympathetic others, either people like them or those who are prepared to offer support and coping. However this can mean living in a 'half world',and focusing excessively on 'the problem'. Their ability to form groups varies anyway, so that those with defective speech [or autism] find it most difficult. Others can form self-help groups, residential clubs, national associations, or semi-secret brotherhoods (such as those formed by ex-convicts). An urban milieu can provide support, leading to the localisation of 'shamed groups' like drug-takers, whores, or ethnic minorities. Sometimes these groups can conflict and compete among themselves. Often there is a struggle over labels.
The stigmatised can produce their own conferences or magazines, often containing 'exemplary moral tales' (37) to raise their morale. An 'intellectually worked up version of their point of view is thus available to most stigmatised persons' (38). They can even develop professional spokespersons, but any high profile stigmatised person can be expected to be a spokesperson for the rest. As a result, such professionals can drift away from contact with the stigmatised.
The stigmatised can also be supported by 'the wise', who can be courtesy members or fellow-travellers -- thus call girls are accepted by Bohemians. Nurses can be wise because of their knowledge of prosthetics, employers of gays can be wise, even the police can be. The wise can also be relatives, although some relatives run the risk of being stigmatised themselves by association. The wise can have normalised relations with the stigmatised, or even develop a 'stigmaphile response' (44).
The stigmatised can undergo a moral career, a learning experience that develops different kinds of adjustments to themselves. For example, one can learn about 'normals', and the consequences of possessing a stigma. One outcome is to learn enough about 'normals' to feel that it's possible to become one. Another is to enter a protective capsule, this is often reserved for children and ends with their entry to school. Stigma can be late developing, which forces people who once thought of themselves as ‘normal’ to readjust dramatically, for example after sudden onset blindness or a colostomy operation. The stigmatised therefore go through a number of 'affiliation cycles', a pattern of oscillating identifications. These may be marked by critical incidents, which are also used retrospectively to account for the adoption of identity, as in coming out as a gay. Hospitalisation may provide a suitable pause for adjustment, as can reading about the condition (fiction as well).
Information control is particularly important, and this can involve the cooperation of ‘normals'. The stigmatised may attempt 'passing', realising that they must control the information conveyed through their bodies. Symbols are routinely used to understand others, such as the wearing of wedding rings. These can be 'status symbols' or stigma symbols -- such as shaved heads for collaborators. The stigmatised can also deploy 'disidentifiers' which break the mould -- such as 'good English' for black people, or 'intellectual' glasses for illiterates. However, some signs are less stable --'fugitive signs' (61) and there are also beneficial 'points' and unhelpful 'slips'. Some signs may be congenital (skin colour) while others vary in terms of their permanence, or whether they are voluntary or involuntary. Some signs can have different meanings, such as the wearing of military uniform, and some are unreliable (such as the occurrence of red veins on the nose which may be produced by other conditions than alcoholism). Signs can be conveyed by being seen with other members of the stigmatised.
The visibility of stigma affects the ability to pass (actually the perceptibility, since some signs are detected by ears or noses). Even obvious signs can be rendered invisible, as when wheelchair users sit around a table. People can also disattend to them. Revealing signs may be specific to social situations or are far more general. Some may only be detectable by specialists, such as medical practitioners [or academics]. Signs may assume greatest importance in public impersonal encounters, leading to one obvious interpersonal tactic involving 'breaking through barriers'. Contact does not always produce acceptance, as when proximity fails to decrease racism. The reactions of intimates can be even more shaming, and only intimates may know of the stigma anyway, as in impotence or mastectomy.
Personal identity is often centred upon an 'identity peg'-- faces are a common one, but it may be it some exceptional or core characteristic. Such pegs serve to anchor a whole stream of information, just as a personal identifier number does. Changes in that stream, such as a changed name or missing national insurance contributions can produce the risk of exposure. Biographies have to be maintained, and managed as both unique and coherent -- one strategy for stigmatised people such as ex-convicts is to discourage curiosity, or tell deliberate lies. The control of information can be threatened by accident such as bumping into fellow ex-inmates. The stigmatised can encounter a permanent feeling of being watchful, or on stage.
Passing therefore depends on both perceptibility and knowledge. The stigmatised can claim that they are only temporarily stigmatised, or learn to conceal stigma, such as illiterates learning to use the phone instead. Fear of exposure may be covered by social norms anyway, as with mastectomy. The stigmatised still risk blackmail at various levels, however, and may be exposed by accidental encounters. Some live a convoluted double life.
People learn to manage various degrees of passing, from occasional to permanent, or from naive to knowing. They have a permanent anxiety that they are not passing effectively, that everyone really knows. The stigmatised need to be able to read the requirements of particular places -- their stigma may be positively prohibited in some, tolerated in others, and ignored in others. The need to pass can escalate into 'in-deeper-ism' (105). They may risk further stigma as a result, being seen as slovenly when they're really blind, drunk rather than suffering from cerebral palsy, stubborn rather than deaf. Passing also runs the risk of having to account to people if you are discovered. The wise can often detect passing strategies, for example by recognising characteristic speech patterns of the deaf, so they offer a particular challenge.
Even successful passing can be problematic. Close relationships must be avoided, and passing can lead to self-contempt, especially if the stigmatised find themselves forced to agree on the negative views of their condition, by sharing 'queer jokes', for example. They need to be constantly alert, as when stutterers constantly monitor their speech for forthcoming difficult words, or when people have to carefully check their houses for any signs of stigmatisation, such as the possession of specialist literature. They often need to stay close to repair stations, and constantly managed their daily round.
Covering techniques can include attempting to displace the stigma to a lesser one, as when deaf people pretend they are merely day dreamers, too absorbed to have heard a question [bad spellers pretend to be slow starters or to write incomprehensibly]. The stigmatised can also decide to disclose their situation, by wearing a conspicuous hearing-aid or carrying a white cane. They may engage in purposeful slips as a form of '"disclosure etiquette", a formula whereby the individual admits his own failing in a matter-of-fact way, supporting the assumption that those present are above such concerns are while preventing them from trapping themselves into showing they are not' (124). In this way, the stigmatised can both disclose and manage the resulting tension, help others and themselves to 'keep the stigma from looming large' (125). This is also a form of covering, akin to covering damaged eyes with dark glasses. It involves managing the intrusiveness of the stigma, and often requires careful attention to the structure of interaction -- the blind learn to look at the eyes of speakers, for example.
The stigmatised also stratify other persons with stigma according to their degree of obtrusiveness. They may feel attracted both to their own kind and to ‘normals'. They may be critical of incompetent displays by persons like themselves, and then feel further shame at being ashamed. Some people cope with 'professional presentations', including the use of irony. These persons can also help by providing codes, for example how to deal with ‘normals' and their prejudice. Advice usually includes not trying to pass totally, not internalising negative views, not becoming a clown (a process of 'minstrelisation' (134)). Professional advice can be unwelcome if it is too open and frank, however.
The stigmatised often join in-groups for a sense of belonging or authenticity. Avoiding others like oneself can be seen as betrayal. Militant activism is another option, involving a challenge to ‘normals' and the politicisation of life rather than attempt at normality. This strategy also runs the risk of adopting some of the norms of straight society too, 'necessarily presenting... militant efforts in the language and style of his enemies' (139). Militancy can involve a demand to be seen as fully human, rather than as a category, and it is a difficult balance between leading a ‘normal’ life yet not denying difference.
There are rules for handling ‘normals': (a) assume that ‘normals' are ignorant rather than malicious, so (b) no response is needed to snubs or insults, and the stigmatised should either ignore the offence or patiently refute the views behind it, which often means adopting an unusually perceptive and analytic self; (c) try to help by reducing the tension, breaking the ice, using humour even self-mockery; (d) treats ‘normals' as if they were honorary 'wise'; (e) follow disclosure etiquette, for example by using disability as a topic for serious conversation; (f) deploy tactful pauses to allow recovery from shock; (g) allow intrusive questions, and agree to be helped; (h) try to see oneself as ‘normal’ in order to put ‘normals' at ease -- 'protect "normals" in various ways' (145), including not going too far to attempt to ‘normalise' oneself, keeping one's social place, not pressing one's luck.
‘Normals' will never really know the pain of the stigma or its unfairness. The stigmatised may be rewarded by being described as having an exceptional character, but they must eventually cope with their burden and help ‘normals' believe it is painless. They can only ever achieves 'phantom acceptance... phantom normality' (148). This stance gives the best result in interaction with ‘normals', but the stigmatised must remain a 'resident alien, a voice of the group that speaks for and through him' (149). It is an inherently contradictory position. No authentic solution is possible, and there is always a risk of new stigmas emerging. [Goffman seems to think that this is not very dissimilar from the relationships between ‘normals' as well].
The precariousness of ‘normal’ life is illuminated by studying the stigmatised [this is the famous 'marginal strategy']. The stigmatised show how deliberate repair of social relations is required. Everyone gets stigmatised by being compared the standard of youthful beauty, and only idealized persons are free of any stigma. There is thus an inherent tendency for the creation of deviants. Reactions of the stigmatised can be understood using ‘normal’ understanding. Indeed, they share ‘normal’ values, and are thus ‘normal deviants' (157) [a clear connection here with people like Matza on criminal delinquents and their ‘normal’ values]. Anyone can experience a sudden onset or removal of a bodily stigma, and the fact that they can adjust shows the resilience of the ‘normal’. Both ‘normal’ and stigmatised roles are available. The stigmatised can even play with their roles, as when they caricature ‘normals', or engage in self-mockery. What is ‘normal’ is clearly vulnerable as well. Successful passing shows this, and some stigmatised persons deliberately attempt to expose the stupidity and gullibility of ‘normal’ people.
Stigmatisation may have underlying social functions -- including helping social control, devaluing others in order to gain a competitive advantage, and 'contributing to a needed narrowing of courtship decisions' (158) [unbelievable!! Goffman is using really apologetic forms of functional analysis here. He attributes this idea to Matza!].
There are implications for general theories of deviance. This can be licensed or tolerated, deviants can be clowns or mascots, or isolates. In some roles, deviance is absolutely forbidden, as with priests. Deviance may include rebels and voluntary deviants -- 'disaffiliates'. [Sounds very much like Merton's classifications of responses here]. Deviancy can be group-based producing social deviants, and a collective denial of the social order is involved here. There may be more marginal types too as in middle-class drop-out or obsessive hobbyists. Deviance is acceptable [functional?] if it is within limits and boundaries. It should have other functions for the wider society, but Goffman could not think of any [again absurdity beckons, as in Marx's sarcastic remark that the function of crime is to provide employment for locksmiths and police]. Ethnic and social minority groups may feel disqualified and become second class citizens, bearing the marks of their low status 'in their speech, appearance and manners' (173). Everyone is open to stigmatisation, although some people have group defences available -- for example, surfers don't care who stigmatises them. Thus the use of stigmatisation as a general explanation of deviancy needs further exploration.
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