In June, we decided to revisit Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, first published in 1963. We focused on the first of five essays (Stigma and Social Identity), in which Goffman begins the work of defining what he means by ‘stigma’, and his sociological theory. Although the continuity between Goffman’s essays in Asylums (published two years earlier, and based on mid-20th century ethnographic fieldwork in a mental institution) and Stigma is apparent in the focus on mental health as a stigmatising condition, Stigma is not itself based on original research, but is rather a review of the literature – defined somewhat idiosyncratically. The book starts with a letter to an agony aunt, and he illustrates each point with examples drawn from newspapers, magazines, autobiographies, and (finally) published academic case studies.
Goffman variously defines stigma as ‘the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance’ and any ‘attribute that is deeply discrediting’, although he tries to nuance this latter definition by indicating that, rather than focusing solely on the stigmatised ‘attribute’, what we really need to understand is the social relationships that transform a simple characteristic into a fully-fledged stigma. In other words, we need a ‘language of relationships’, which moves beyond the individual and emphasises the socially-contingent nature of stigmas – rooting the concept in sociological concerns. However, another key element of stigma, as Goffman understands it, is that the bearer must have some sort of concern for what others think, and must internalise the social norms to which they fail to conform (part of what Goffman terms an individual’s ‘moral career’). In this way, stigmas retain both psychological and sociological components.
It seems as though Goffman wants it both ways: he indicates that stigmas are in some ways contextual and relational (a characteristic that attracts negative attention and discrimination in one circumstance, may in fact be positive or normative under different circumstances), but then he turns around and emphasises the fact that certain characteristics are viewed so negatively that (in a particular sociocultural milieu) they will always be abnormal and ‘deviant’. Despite this nod to deviance, Goffman tries to distinguish ‘stigma’ from the sociology of deviance that, though dominant at the time, he felt was too broadly defined. Although he draws heavily on examples relevant to the study of health, his theory is far from restricted to health-related matters – almost anything can be a stigma.
Goffman defines three, primary typologies of stigma: ‘abominations of the body’ (physical disabilities); ‘blemishes of individual character’ (‘moral’ failings); and ‘tribal stigma’ (race, religion, ethnicity). Examples of stigmas include everything from being born without a nose or having had a limb amputated (immediately visible disfigurements/disabilities) to urinary stricture, divorce, or homosexuality, which are more easily hidden. ‘Stigma’, as defined by Goffman, blends physical and mental, voluntary and involuntary, visible and invisible, in ways that are not always convincing. Perhaps if ‘stigma’ were more narrowly-defined in terms of health conditions it would be most useful, but Goffman seemed at times to stretch it too far. It also wasn’t always clear how ‘stigmatisation’ differs from other, related processes, like ‘dehumanisation’ or ‘prejudice’. It does capture the more visual element of being ‘marked’, but then not all stigmas are visible, and we weren’t sure how much it helped us to understand something that other concepts can’t.
While the use of terms like ‘spoiled identity’ and ‘socially discredited’ might imply some sort of judgement of the society that imposes them, they also focus attention on the individual and their potential culpability as the stigma-bearer. One strand of criticism within modern sociology is that Goffman’s theory focuses on the stigmatised rather than the stigmatisers – this has variously been criticised for framing stigmatised individuals as ‘victims’ (thereby stripping them of agency); for ‘victim-blaming’; and for not drawing enough attention to the broader, social-structural concerns that lead to stigmatisation.
The theory of stigma is in keeping with Goffman’s broader body of work. As a sociologist, he was primarily interested in micro-level interactions, especially in how individuals present themselves to others as actors in different situations (which he saw as analogous to theatrical ‘stages’). In Stigma, we can clearly see this concern with how people convey or conceal ‘social information’ about themselves, particularly in relation to stigmatised individuals’ attempts to hide their stigma and reduce their stigmatisation – a process of constant identity management. This so-called ‘dramaturgical’ approach has today fallen out offashion, and Goffman’s theory now tends to be retrospectively associated with the dominant sociology of deviance, from which he tried to so hard to set himself apart.
Although some of us liked it more than others, there was a general sense that Stigma wasn’t speaking to SAHN. Given that some of Goffman’s examples of stigmas, though colourfully illustrated, had not aged well, some of us wondered if it would be a more inspiring read if these were updated? What about problematising and updating his theory of stigma, by blending it with ideas from biopolitics? This would address the fact that power dynamics are, in general, conspicuously lacking from Goffman’s account. Some SAHN members felt that this would make it a more interesting topic for social scientists – perhaps what we need is a more explicitly political and critical approach. As others pointed out, in health research, stigma itself has become something to diagnose and treat or ‘cure’. It has become the object of intervention. Within public health (arguably a discipline that attempts to blend social, behavioural and clinical sciences), there seems to be a whole stigma industry, which serves a very practical orientation: operationalising, measuring, and acting to minimise stigma. Stigma is seen as a problem to be solved. Whereas the original text left some of us feeling flat, exploring the implications of this angle seemed to capture more of our imaginations…
Given the slightly tepid reception, I should take a step back and explain why we re-read Stigma. We wanted to link the SAHN discussion more closely with the Qualitative Methods in Health Research workshop series and, more specifically, with the related survey that we carried out last year (for details, see here). We asked experts working in health-related areas of research (both social scientists, as well as those with a more biomedical orientation) for recommended readings that brought theoretical insights into health research. We received about 300 recommendations. On the short list of ‘multiply recommended’ resources, Stigma featured especially often, usually justified in terms of its tremendous influence.
Although we all recognised this influence, the main issue that we struggled with throughout the discussion was whether Stigma is still relevant to researchers like us today. Conceptual awareness of stigma now stretches far beyond the social sciences. Our understanding of what it is to be stigmatised (usually in relation to exclusion, marginality, and discrimination), is not limited to academic discussions, but regularly mobilised in popular culture. Because of this familiarity, it just wasn’t as exciting as some of the other readings we have discussed. Although we recognised that Goffman’s essays catalysed this widespread interest in stigma, most subsequent authors have tended to diverge substantially from his initial text. Since we have moved so far from Goffman’s text, we wondered whether we even still needed it.
I think we ended by agreeing that we do need Goffman’s account, inasmuch as it’s a starting point. As one of us pointed out, just as the ‘culture’ concept is no longer sufficient explanation for health-related (or any other) behaviours, neither is ‘stigma’ – it might be a useful start, but without critically unpacking and deconstructing the term, it’s just not enough.
Erving Goffman (June 11, 1922 – November 19, 1982) was a Canadian born American sociologist and writer. His major areas of study included the sociology of everyday life, social theory, social interaction, the social construction of self, social organization (framing) of experience, and particular elements of social life such as total institutions and social stigmas.
He is considered "the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century" by Fine and Manning (2003; p. 340). In 2007 he was listed by The Times Higher Education Guide as the sixth most-cited author in the humanities and social sciences, behind Anthony Giddens and ahead of Jürgen Habermas.
- In all these various instances of stigma... the same sociological features are found: an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obstrude 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 posses a stigma, an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated. We and those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the normals.
- The attitude we normals have toward a person with a stigma, and the actions we take in regard to him, are well known, since these responses are what the 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, through which we effectively, if 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 animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class.
- Erving Goffman (1963), Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, p. 5-6, ISBN 1439188335
- Approved attributes and their relation to face make every man his own jailer; this is a fundamental social constraint even though each man may like his cell.
- Erving Goffman (1967: 10), as cited in: Trevino (2003,, p. 37).
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1959; Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1973.
- I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial.
- Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriate way.
- In many kinds of social interaction, unofficial communication provides a way in which one team can extend a definite but non-compromising invitation to the other, requesting that social distance and formality be increased or decreased, or that both teams shift the interaction to one involving the performance of a new set of roles.
- In our society, defecation involves an individual in activity which is defined as inconsistent with the cleanliness and purity standards expressed in many of our performances. Such activity also causes the individual to disarrange his clothing and to 'go out of play," that is, to drop from his face the expressive mask that he employs in face-to-face interaction. At the same time it becomes difficult for him to reassemble his personal front should the need to enter into interaction suddenly occur. Perhaps that is a reason why toilet doors in our society have locks on them.
- Often, when two teams enter social interaction, we can identify one as having the lower general prestige and the other team the higher. Ordinarily, when we think of realigning actions in such cases, we think of efforts on the part of the lower team to alter the basis of interaction in a direction more favourable to them or to decrease the social distance and formality between themselves and the higher team. Interestingly enough, there are occasions when it serves the wider goals of the higher team to lower barriers and admit the lower team to greater intimacy and equality with it.
- In recent years there have been elaborate attempts to bring into one framework the concepts and findings derived from three different areas of inquiry: the individual personality, social interaction, and society. I would like to suggest here a simple addition to these inter-disciplinary attempts.
- When an individual appears before others, he wittingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is an important part. When an event occurs which is expressively incompatible with this fostered impression, significant consequences are simultaneously felt in three levels of social reality, each of which involves a different point of reference and a different order of fact.
- First, the social interaction, treated here as a dialogue between two teams, may come to an embarrassed and confused halt; the situation may cease to be defined, previous positions may become no longer tenable, and participants may find themselves without a charted course of action...
- Secondly, in addition to these disorganizing consequences for action at the moment, performance disruptions may have consequences of a more far-reaching kind. Audiences tend to accept the self projected by the individual performer during any current performance as a responsible representative of his colleague-grouping, of his team, and of his social establishment...
- Finally, we often find that the individual may deeply involve his ego in his identification with a particular role, establishment, and group and in his self-conception as someone who does not disrupt social interaction or let down the social units which depend upon that interaction.
- The self... is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.
- p 252; Cited in: Javier Trevino, Goffman's Legacy. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003, p. 55.
- The degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.
- Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad. Feeling this unwarranted shame, he may feel that his feelings can be seen; feeling that he is thus seen, he may feel that his appearance confirms these false conclusions concerning him. He may then add to the precariousness of his position by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers that he would employ were he really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be.
Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Anchor Books.
- A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Prisons serve as a clear example, providing we appreciate that what is prison-like about prisons is found in institutions whose members have broken no laws. This volume deals with total institutions in general and one example, mental hospitals, in particular.
- The total institutions of our society can be linked in five rough groupings. First, there are institutions established to care for persons felt to be both incapable and harmless; these are the homes for the blind, the aged, the orphaned, and the indigent. Second, there are places established to care for persons felt to be incapable of looking after themselves and a threat to the community, albeit an unintended one: TB sanitaria, mental hospitals, and leprosaria. A third type of total institution is organised to protect the community against what are felt to be intentional dangers to it, with the welfare of the persons thus sequestered not the immediate issue: jails, penitentiaries, P.O.W. camps, and concentration camps. Fourth, there are institutions purportedly established the better to pursue some work-like tasks and justifying themselves only on these instrumental grounds: army barracks, ships, boarding schools, work camps, colonial compounds, and large mansions from the point of view of those who live in the servants' quarters. Finally, there are those establishments designed as retreats from the world even while often serving also as training stations for the religious; examples are abbeys, monasteries, convents, and other cloisters.
- A basic social arrangement in modern society is that the individual tends to sleep, play and work in different places with different co-participants, under different authorities, and without an over-all rational plan. The central feature of total institutions can be described as a breakdown of the barriers ordinarily separating these three spheres of life. First, all aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same central authority. Second, each phase of the member's daily activity is carried on in the immediate company of a large batch of others, all of whom are treated alike and required to do the same thing together. Third, all phases of the day's activities are tightly scheduled, with one activity leading at prearranged time into the next, the whole sequence of activities being imposed from above by a system of explicit formal rulings and a body of officials. Finally, the various enforced activities are brought together into a single rational plan purportedly designed to fulfil the official aims of the institution.
- In total institutions there is a basic split between a large managed group, conveniently called inmates, and a small supervisory staff. Inmates typically live in the institution and have restricted contact with the world outside the walls. The staff often operates on an eight-hour day and is socially integrated into the outside world.
- p. 7
Behavior in Public Places, 1963
Erving Goffman (1963), Behavior in Public Places,
- But, When persons are present to one another they can function not merely as physical instruments but also as communicative ones. This possibility, no less than the physical one, is fateful for everyone concerned and in every society appears to come under strict normative regulation, giving rise to a kind of communication traffic order...
- (Incidentally, it is in this aspect of public order that most symptoms of mental disorder seem to make themselves felt initially.) The rules pertaining to this area of conduct I shall call situational proprieties.
- p. 23; Cited in: Philip Manning, Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology (Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 88.
Erving Goffman (1963), Stigma : Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity
- For over a decade now in the literature of social psychology there has been good work on stigma - the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance. This work has been added to from time to time by useful clinical studies, and its framework applied to ever new categories of persons
- In this essay I want to review some work on stigma, especially some popular work, to see what it can yield for sociology. An exercise will be undertaken in marking off the material on stigma from neighbouring facts, in showing how this material can be economically described within a single conceptual scheme, and in clarifying the relation of stigma to the subject matter of deviance. This task will allow me to formulate and use a special set of concepts, those that bear on 'social information', the information the individual directly conveys about himself.
- The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor — a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places. Later, in Christian times, two layers of metaphor were added to the term : the first referred to bodily signs of holy grace that took the form of eruptive blossoms on the skin; the second, a medical allusion to this religious allusion, referred to bodily signs of physical disorder. Today the term is widely used in something like the original literal sense, but is applied more to the disgrace itself than to the bodily evidence of it. Furthermore, shifts have occurred in the kinds of disgrace that arouse concern. Students, however, have made little effort to describe the structural preconditions of stigma, or even to provide a definition of the concept itself. It seems necessary, therefore, to try at the beginning to sketch in some very general assumptions and definitions.
- 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 kind – in 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.
- 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 behaviour. 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.'
- The central feature of the stigmatized individual's situation in life can now be stated. It is a question of what is often, if vaguely, called 'acceptance. Those who have dealings with him fail to accord him the respect and regard which the un-contaminated aspects of his social identity have led them to anticipate extending, and have led him to anticipate receiving; he echoes this denial by ending that some of his own attributes warrant it.
- When there is a discrepancy between an individual's actual social identity and his virtual one, it is possible for this fact to be known to us before we normals contact him, or to be quite evident when he presents himself before us.
- It has been suggested that an individual's social identity divides up the world of people and places for him, and that his personal identity does this too, although differently. It is these frames of reference one must apply in studying the daily round of a particular stigmatized person, as he wends his way to and from his place of work, his place of residence, his place of shopping, and the places where he participates in recreation. A key concept here is the daily round, for it is the daily round that links the individual to his several social situations. And one studies the daily round with a special perspective in mind. To the extent that the individual is a discredited person, one looks for the routine cycle of restrictions he faces regarding social acceptance; to the extent that he is discreditable, for the contingencies he faces in managing information about himself.
- There seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing a world for oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shriveling up the reality in which one is lodged.
- Erving Goffman (1971), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, p. 38; As quoted by R. D. Laing in The Politics of Experience
- There is a relation between persons and role. But the relationship answers to the interactive system—to the frame—in which the role is performed and the self of the performer is glimpsed. Self, then, is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but a changeable formula for managing oneself during them. Just as the current situation prescribes the official guise behind which we will conceal ourselves, so it provides where and how we will show through, the culture itself prescribing what sort of entity we must believe ourselves to be in order to have something to show through in this manner.
- Frame Analysis (1974) quoted by Edward O. Wilson in On Human Nature (1978) Ch. 4 "Emergence" p. 93
- So I ask that these papers be taken for what they merely are: exercises, trials, tryouts, a means of displaying possibilities, not establishing fact.
- Erving Goffman (1981, p. 1); As cited in: Trevino (2003,, p. 34).
Quotes about Erving Goffman
- Erving Goffman, a Canadian sociologist, borrowed ideas from drama theory to explore how Shakespeare's saying "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players" applies to life in social organizations. Goffman believed that individuals shape themselves and their social realities through performances that are similar to how dramatists and actors compose and present stories on a stage in front of an audience. Goffman developed his dramaturgical approach while studying a mental hospital wherein he discovered.
- Mary Jo Hatch, Ann L. Cunliffe (2013), Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic and Postmodern Perspectives. p. 181-2