A stigma is any social marker that refers to a deviation from the norm. It can be a trait that the general population deems unacceptable or undesirable or a mark of disapproval based on undesirable beliefs, ideas, behaviors, or even personal characteristics. Individual societies determine what is acceptable or “normal.” Anything that deviates from the acceptable is stigmatized. What may be a stigma in one society or community at a particular moment in time may be an acceptable attribute in another. The stigmatized are sometimes thought of as deviant, since their stigmas may have caused them to deviate from what are considered to be societal norms.
Stigmas are often based on race, ethnicity, culture, social and economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even educational attainment. For example, racial/ethnic minorities, people from non-Western cultures, the poor and/or working class, women, non-heterosexuals, non-Protestant Christians, and people with less than a college education (as that often signifies class) are more likely to be stigmatized in U.S. society. Physical appearance often leads to assumptions made about people. Stigmas can even be based on physical features such as skin, eye, and hair color; hair texture; body size and type; and height. Often people with darker skin and eyes, dark hair that is not straight, the overweight (or sometimes even the underweight), and people who are short or too tall can all be stigmatized, and so can people with perceived physical and mental disabilities. Most important, understandings and perceptions of stigma are socially constructed. Stigmatizing attributes change depending on time and/or location. For example, 200 years ago in the Western part of the world, a tanned, white, muscular male was considered undesirable because his tan and muscular frame alluded to the fact that he was probably part of the working class, possibly a farmer or someone who worked with his hands.
Markers of identity and/or physical attributes are stigmatized along with behaviors, beliefs, and even political affiliations. For example, criminal or deviant behavior and even some illness or sicknesses can be stigmatized. People with belief systems different from that of the dominant group can face ridicule and stigma, as experienced by communist sympathizers during the 1950s in the United States.
Probably the most well-known work on stigmas in the social sciences is Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Published originally in 1963, Stigma examines the experiences of both the individual and the society when a person is considered to not be “normal” for some reason or another. According to Goffman, there are three types of stigma. The first type of stigma is physical in nature; this includes deformities such as missing limbs or obvious physical disability. The second type of stigma is based on ideas or beliefs. Examples of this form of stigma include everything from homosexuality to political beliefs. The final type of stigma, as described by Goffman, involves issues around family and lineage. Such stigmas are concerned with religion, caste, and race—things passed on from one generation to the next.
Goffman argues that forming stigmas about an individual can be somewhat beneficial to those who apply the stigma to different groups, because it serves to psychologically protect them from the idea that they could easily become inflicted with the stigmatizing characteristics. Goffman maintains that we look for a way to blame the individual, and this serves as a justification for ways in which people without the stigma treat her or him.
An example of this occurred during the early 1980s and still exists today with HIV/AIDS. AIDS, a disease that occurs when the HIV virus weakens the immune system, leaving the body prone to infection, was highly stigmatized when it was first discovered. AIDS symptoms were originally noticed among gay men, which led to the identification of the gay-related immune deficiency syndrome or GRIDS. GRIDS later became AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, when heterosexuals became infected. However, it soon became apparent that heroin addicts, sex workers, and other more deviant populations were also becoming infected due to increased at-risk behaviors that involved the sharing of bodily fluids. With the exception of hemophiliacs and babies born to AIDS-infected mothers, AIDS was associated with people on the fringes of society, and as such, AIDS became a stigmatized illness. Since a number of people did not consider themselves at risk for HIV infection because they were not homosexuals or drug addicts, rates of HIV infection increased among non-intravenous-using drug addicts.
The relationship between the stigmatized and society becomes important in examining what a stigma may mean. Frequently, stigmas contribute to discrimination and prejudice. Societal reactions to stigmas have an incredibly negative impact on the stigmatized individual. Stigmas tend to be influenced by the perceived threat the individual may pose to others. This devalued attribute leads to a number of stressors for the targeted individual. The prejudice and discrimination that people experience as a result of their stigma increases their levels of stress and can affect everything from where they live to where they attend school and work. This can also negatively impact the self-perception of the stigmatized individual. They may devalue themselves or perceive themselves as worthless or less than attractive, and this can be especially problematic in the teenage years, when self-perception relies heavily on acceptance by others.
Though social scientists focus on the impact that stigma has on the individual, they are most often concerned with the impact the stigma has on society. Stigmas are frequently based on stereotyped beliefs individuals have about people associated with a particular stigmatized attribute. The discrimination that people experience as a result of their stigma has many large-scale societal implications. Racism and racist social policies, such as those in the South after the Civil War—for example, Jim Crow and the notion of “separate but equal”—forced a legal separation between blacks (and other people of color) and whites. Today, people of color still experience employment and housing discrimination, even harassment.
- Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Link, Bruce G. and Jo C. Phelan. 2001. “Conceptualizing Stigma.” Annual Review of Sociology 27:363-85.
- Miller, Carol T. and Cheryl R. Kaiser. 2001. “A Theoretical Perspective on Coping with Stigma.” Journal of Social Issues 57(1):73-92.
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