chapter  1
17 Pages

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things: responses to stigmatization in comparative perspective

WithMichèle Lamont, Nissim Mizrachi

There is a growing body of social science research on how members of ethno-racially stigmatized groups understand and respond to stigmatization, exclusion, misrecognition, racism and discrimination.1 Building on this literature, this special issue offers a panoramic view of how everyday responses to stigmatization contribute to the transformation of group boundaries across a range of national contexts. We present

new research that broadens and consolidates an emerging theoretical agenda. This research is the culmination of a coordinated study of stigmatized groups in Brazil, Israel and the USA, as well as of connected research projects conducted in other sites (Canada, France, South Africa and Sweden). Our point of departure is Goffman (1963), who shows how

individuals with discredited or ‘spoiled’ identities take on the responsibility of managing interaction to prevent discomfort in others while preserving their own sense of self-worth. Feelings of stigmatization can be routine or traumatic and triggered by specific events just as racism can be perceived as ongoing or situation-specific (Williams, Neighbors and Jackson 2008). Everyday responses to stigmatization are here defined as the

rhetorical and strategic tools deployed by individual members of stigmatized groups in reaction to perceived stigmatization, racism and discrimination.2 While psychologists have considered how individuals cope with various types of stigma (Oyserman and Swim 2001),3 they do not consider how these responses are associated with broader social factors particularly with racial formation (Omi and Winant 1994) and the cultural repertoires that are variously available across contexts (Swidler 1986; Lamont and The´venot 2000; Mizrachi, Drori and Anspach 2007). This concern with how cultural and structural contexts enable and constrain individual and group responses is one of the distinctive features of our contribution. Moreover, while social psychologists tell us that individuals cope with discrimination by privileging their in-group as the reference group (Crocker, Major and Steele 1998), we move beyond intra-psychological processes to study inductively a broader range of responses to stigmatization, and their relative salience, in meaning-making. Moreover, we deepen the analysis by showing the importance of national contexts and national ideologies and definitions of the situation in shaping responses to stigmatization. Simmel (1971), Weber (1978b [1956]), and countless others, told us

that group formation is a fundamental social process. It involves closure and opportunity hoarding (Tilly 1998), differentiation (Blau 1970), network formation (McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears 2006) and a number of other group processes (e.g. Fine 1979). While recent research focuses on the origins of group boundaries and particularly the role of the state in their formation (Wimmer and Min 2006), we are more concerned with how boundaries are accomplished through the unfolding of everyday interaction and the frames that ordinary people use, which interact with collective myths about the nation (Castoriadis 1987; Bouchard 2009). Thus, we consider how in various national contexts, defined by different histories of intergroup relations, collective myths and socio-demographic profiles, ordinary people claim

inclusion, affirm their distinctiveness, contest and denounce stereotyping and claim their rights in the face of discriminatory behaviour and other more subtle slights to their sense of dignity. Despite (and because of) an abundance of historical and socio-

logical studies concerning resistance (e.g. the role of religion in fostering resilience among African American women in the face of discrimination (Frederick 2003) or politicization among young Palestinian citizens of Israel (Rabinowitz and Abu-Baker 2005)), there is a need for more systematic and cumulative inquiry into responses to stigmatization. Following everyday experiences and everyday practices enables a fresh dialogue about society from the perspective of marginalized groups (Hooks 1990; Harding 1993; Stoetzler and Yuval-Davis 2002). Shifting the discussion to everyday life makes it possible to go beyond a rigid approach to the binary distinction between public and private, and to analyse everyday practices of individuals as social sites for the transformation of social hierarchies. Choices made in everyday life form the politics of small things (Goldfarb 2006; Herzog 2009). At various times they may clash with or reinforce group boundaries as defined by public policies or statesanctioned representations (e.g. see Bail 2008). Examining them more closely is essential for a more comprehensive understanding of the making and unmaking of group boundaries. The time is ripe for the pursuit of these objectives. In the USA, the

election of Barack Obama raised awareness concerning the transformation of stigmatized identities. Social scientists have asked whether this change signals a broadening of predominant definitions of cultural membership, as well as a heightened awareness of differentiation among blacks (opposing middle-class and ghetto blacks) (e.g. Bobo and Charles 2009; Kloppenberg 2010; Sugrue 2010). This election also became an important point of reference around the planet, as it triggered countless scholarly conversations and public debates about the place given to subordinated minority groups in national myths and political systems. It confirmed that the progress of African Americans is an unavoidable point of reference for minority groups elsewhere. Thus, this watershed election provided the occasion to examine more closely the constitution of racial and ethnic identity and group membership in a global context to complement a growing literature on the comparative study of racism and anti-racism.4