chapter  9
Selections from Stigma
Pages 12

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. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes intoourpresence, then, first appearancesare likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his ‘‘social identity’’—to use a term that is better than ‘‘social status’’ because personal attributes such as ‘‘honesty’’ are involved, aswell as structural ones, like ‘‘occupation.’’ We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands. Typically, we do not become aware that we have made these demands or aware of what they are until an active question arises as to whether or not they will be fulfilled. It is then that we are likely to realize that all alongwehad beenmaking certain assumptions as to what the individual before us ought to be. Thus, the demands we make might better be called demands made ‘‘in effect’’ and the character we impute to the individual might better be seen as an imputation made in potential retrospecta characterization ‘‘in effect,’’ a virtual

social identity. The category and attributes he could in fact be proved to possess will be called his actual social identity. While the 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 kindin the extreme, a person who is quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak. He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. 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. Note that there are other types of discrepancy between virtual and actual social identity, for example the kind that causes us to reclassify an individual from one socially anticipated category to a different but equally well-anticipated one, and the kind that causes us to alter our estimation of the individual upward. Note, too, that not all undesirable attributes are at issue, but only thosewhich are incongruouswith our stereotype of what a given type of individual should be. 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. An attribute that stigmatizes one type of possessor can confirm the usualness of another, and therefore is neither creditable nor discreditable as a thing in itself. For example, some jobs in America cause holders without the expected college education to conceal this fact; other jobs, however, can lead the few of their holders who have a higher education to keep this a secret, lest they be marked as failures and outsiders. Similarly, a middle class boy may feel no compunction in

being seen going to the library; a professional criminal, however, writes:

So, too, an individual who desires to fight for his country may conceal a physical defect, lest his claimed physical status be discredited; later, the same individual, embittered and trying to get out of the army, may succeed in gaining admission to the army hospital, where he would be discredited if discovered innot reallyhaving an acute sickness.2 A stigma, then, is really a special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype, although I don’t propose to continue to say so, in part because there are important attributes that almost everywhere in our society are discrediting. The term stigma and its synonyms

conceal a double perspective: does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable. This is an important difference, even though a particular stigmatized individual is likely to have experience with both situations. I will begin with the situation of the discredited and move on to the discreditable but not always separate the two. Three grossly different types of stigma

may be mentioned. First there are abominations of the body-the various physical deformities. Next there are blemishes of individual character perceived as weak will,

domineering or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and dishonesty, these being inferred from a known record of, for example, mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts, and radical political behavior. Finally there are the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion, these being stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family.3 In all of these various instances of stigma, however, including those the Greeks had in mind, the same sociological features are found: an individual who might have been receivedeasily inordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that canobtrude 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 fromwhatwehadanticipated.Weand those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the normals. The attitudes we normals have toward a

personwitha stigmaand theactionswe take in regard tohim, arewell known, since these responses are what benevolent social action is designed to soften and ameliorate. By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, throughwhichweeffectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. We construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animositybased onother differences, suchas thoseof social class.4Weuse specific stigma terms such as cripple, bastard, moron in our daily discourse as a source of metaphor and imagery, typically without giving thought to the original meaning.5