Erving Goffman on Stigma (book)

Erving Goffman established the groundwork for the analysis of the relationship between mental illness and social control in his classic texts Stigma and Asylums. For Goffman, humans live in, and emerge from, interconnected social networks; moreover, individuals within these social networks hold shared expectations about how people will act. Goffman notes that we do not merely expect individuals to live in accordance with these assumptions, but we demand that they do: "We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands."  In this way humans transfer conventions or conveniences into implicit behavioural demands, and thereby regulate each other’s conduct.                                                                                                                                For Goffman, when we meet someone we assume that they are going to be a certain way. The group of attributes that we expect people to have constitutes their virtual social identity. On the other hand, the group of attributes that the individual reveals to us constitutes their actual social identity. Tension arises as humans do not only expect that the virtual and social identities of an individual match, but demand that they do.

To possess a stigma is to possess an attribute which is considered inferior to the set of attributes which people within a society expect other people to have:

"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…Such an attribute is a stigma, especially when its discrediting effect is very extensive; sometimes it is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap. It constitutes a special discrepancy between virtual and actual social identity."

The possession of this undesirable attribute leads society to ‘turn away’ from the individual, as they are rejected by people in blatant or subtle ways: 

"The stigmatised individual is asked to act so as to imply neither that his burden is heavy nor that bearing it has made him different from us; at the same time he must keep himself at that remove  from us which ensures our painlessly being able to confirm this belief about him."

It is noteworthy that, for Goffman, an individual may meet the expectations of other people in nearly every possible manner, yet due to one significant aberration be rejected:

"an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obtrude 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 possesses a stigma, an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated."

For example, an individual upon entering social interaction might appear to all as normal, but once stuttering manifests as part of the individual’s actual social identity, he moves down the abstract ladder of normality into the subterranean category of abnormality.

To Goffman's mind, humans live by a set of behavioural norms and expect other people to do the same: we unconsciously incorporate an idealised notion of how humans should be, and measure those we meet in relation to it. This ideal incorporates body shape, size, health, life plans, speech patterns, sexual tendencies, and all other aspects of human existence. This would imply that the majority of humans, if not all, would be stigmatized, as the set of social expectations is extremely rigorous and therefore impossible to meet. Goffman was aware of this point and notes that stigma is a matter of degree and everyone will experience it to a  certain extent throughout their lives. However, he differentiates those who will experience a more severe and protracted rejection from their peers, noting: 

"the lifelong attributes of a particular individual may cause him to be type-cast; he may have to play the stigmatized role in almost all of his social situations, making it natural to refer to him…as a stigmatized person whose life-situation placed him in opposition to normals."

Therefore, while a western women living temporarily in Saudi Arabia might experience a sudden, yet transitory, reduction in her value in response to the social values of her new habitat, a little person has an undesirable trait which is consistent and explicit.

The second key aspect of Goffman’s theory is that the stigmatization occurs within the individual herself. Individuals with undesirable traits come to feel that they are undesirable in an objective sense. A process of self-stigmatization therefore occurs as individuals validate the social expectations of the society in which they live, and accept that not existing in accordance with them makes them second-class citizens: 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, arising from the individual’s perception of one of his own attributes as being a defiling thing to possess. Self-loathing and role-playing is then taken up by the stigmatized individual as he begins to act in a manner deemed suitable for someone of his claimed inferior status.

The third key aspect of Goffman’s theory is the notion that stigma can be of the invisible or visible type. The nature of one’s disability impacts the extent of the stigmatization that occurs and how the individual acts in relation to the stigma. Mental illness, is more on the invisible side of the spectrum, and therefore, presents stigmatization of a type different to other more visible handicaps; although, mentally ill individuals often display symptoms, albeit often in a less obvious form than other kinds of difference. The key point for Goffman is that those with invisible stigmas can hide them from the population and “pass” as normal. The strategy for dealing with stigma surrounding mental illness will therefore take this factor into account, as the question emerges whether trying to pass as normal is a form of self-stigmatization.

Goffman’s work set the foundation for the study of stigma. However, it has various drawbacks. Firstly, he primarily dealt with how individuals categorised as mentally ill were sent to mental hospitals as the primary form of discrimination, which in turn allowed for additional discrimination and reinforcement of the inferiority of the patient through the actions of the psychiatrists and the structures of the institutions. With the process of deinstitutionalisation that occurred throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the stigmatization of the mentally ill is no longer best evaluated through an examination of mental hospitals, but instead within the community, where the majority of mentally ill persons live. Moreover, Goffman did not deal extensively with the question of whether the labelling of an individual as mentally ill is what leads to her rejection from society, or whether it is the behavioural traits and subconscious beliefs which are said to constitute the illness that leads to ostracism. 

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