This brief discussion uses Goffman’s (1963) concept of stigma to understand how people with a hidden feature that could incur prejudice become aware of this potential. People’s perception of their possible stigmatisation, due to something hidden, cannot occur in one-to-one encounters and must be experienced by way of understandings gained from ‘social institutions’, such as the media, work-place, education, political economy, family, or religion. Goffman’s (1963:14) discussion of these ‘discreditable’ people, supports the premise that preconceived ideas of traits that would lead to stigmatization have been absorbed and reflected upon; and not gained in face-to-face interaction.
Goffman (1963) describes how there are three largely different types of stigma, those which relate to the body, those which could be applied to character and finally the: ‘stigma of race, nation, and religion’ (1963:14), he further indicates that class could be understood in the same way as the latter. Although there are three broad categories that might provide a sense of stigma, Goffman states that the application of stigma is the same for each. Hence, a person is not accepted or faces discrimination because of a feature which others deem unacceptable. The potential, however, is for all people to experience prejudgement, stigmatisation and eventual discrimination.
Goffman’s (1963) conceptualisation of stigma demonstrates how it affects everyone in society, and the issue is not whether a person has experienced stigma: ‘but rather how many varieties’ (1963:154) that person has experienced, moreover, people are ‘destined, if for no other reason than oncoming agedness’ (ibid) to experience stigma. Goffman argues that it would be missing the point to focus on clearly obvious groups that suffer stigmatisation or on extreme or exotic examples. As he states: ‘it should be seen, then, that stigma management is a general feature of society, a process occurring wherever there are identity norms.’ (1963:155). Stigma affects the whole of society and is not understood as individualistic by Goffman, and its marks are often invisible although severely felt.
Tyler (2020:15) argues that her understanding of stigma is the: ‘recoupling’ of ‘the concept of stigma to economic and materialistic histories of bodily marking’, in this paper the opposite must be considered. It is argued here that the depth and breadth of stigma in society can only be understood by using Goffman’s concept of stigma. To grasp stigma’s complexity and how it affects daily life, it must be recognised as incorporating far more than bodily marking and indeed, more than economic and materialistic histories. Arguably, stigma needs to be uncoupled from the essentialised other and seen as an intrinsic part of human history. As Bakhtin’s (1984:319) analysis of Rabelais’s images of the ‘grotesque’ illustrates:
Wherever men laugh and curse, particularly in a familiar environment, their speech is filled with bodily images. The body copulates, defecates, overeats, and men’s speech is flooded with genitals, bellies, defecations, urine, disease, noses, mouths, and dismembered parts. Even when the flood is contained by norms of speech, there is still an eruption of these images into literature, especially if the literature is gay or abusive in character. The common human fund of familiar and abusive gesticulations is also based on these sharply defined images. This boundless ocean of grotesque bodily imagery within time and space extends to all languages, all literatures, and the entire system of gesticulation.
Goffman (1963) attempts to create a conceptual frame that can be applied to everyone, and which demonstrates how stigma will vary temporally and spatially. However, as with Bakhtin’s (1984:319) illustration from Rabelais’s grotesque shows, there is no such thing as normal. Everything has the potential to be labelled and stigmatised. As Goffman states: ‘The most fortunate of normal is likely to have his half-hidden failing, and for every little failing there is a social occasion when it will loom large, creating a shameful gap between virtual and actual social identity’. (1963:152) Goffman encourages his reader to be able to relate to the condition of stigma. Further, he explains how: ‘whether we interact with strangers or intimates, we will find that the finger tips of society have reached bluntly into the contact, even here putting us in our place.’ (1963:70 – 71). This demonstrates how social structures perpetuate stigma. Stigma is intrinsically connected to culture and it has power over all.
However, Tyler (2018, 2020) does not accept the breadth of Goffman’s (1963) argument, and states that: ‘Over the last decade there has been a growing recognition of the constraints of the existing excessively individualistic focus of twentieth-century social science research on stigma’ (2020:16). Tyler’s (2020) stigma argument, in-part, considers how stigma has been weaponised by those with power in the hierarchy of the political economy whose neo-liberal agenda needs to create scapegoats, but this stigma needs a different name, it is weaponised stigma, and not closely akin to Goffman’s (1963) conceptualisation.
Bakhtin, M. (1984) Rabelais and his World Bloomington: University of Indiana Press
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma, Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc
Tyler I. (2018) Resituating Erving Goffman: From Stigma Power to Black Power. The Sociological Review. 2018;66(4):744-765.
Tyler, I. (2020) Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality, Zed Books, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/york-ebooks/detail.action?docID=6131502.
Lyndsey Kramer is a third year PhD Sociology research student at the University of York. Her PhD applies Bourdieu’s capital theory to empirical data gathered from Latvian EU workers living in the UK. Lyndsey is a GTA for Social Policy at the University of York and she is the event coordinator for the Early Careers Network of the Political Studies Association. Twitter: @LyndseyKramer19