Stigma As A Process By Which The Reaction Of Others Spoils Normal Identity

2637 words - 11 pages

Stigma as a Process by Which the Reaction of Others Spoils Normal Identity

The American sociologist, Erving Goffman, introduced into sociological
discourse the notion of stigma. Stigma was used by the Greeks to mean
a bodily sign inflicted upon a person to mark them as outcasts from
normal society. However, due to Goffman's work, stigma has come to
mean any "condition, attribute or trait which marks an individual as
culturally unacceptable or 'inferior'" (Scambler 1991:186). Goffman
was following in the interactionist tradition of sociology - founded
by G. H. Mead. The interactionist perspective argues that our
self-concept is created through our interactions with others: we learn
to see ourselves as others see us and through this we build a sense of
our own identity. Goffman added that we become skilled in how to
present ourselves so as to protect our identity. However in the case
of disabled or ill people, this self-presentation is under threat
because illness and disability is often seen as a deviation from
'normality'. The reaction of others to the disability disrupts the
normal social interaction. The person is denied a normal identity
because of their 'stigma'. This essay will first discuss Goffman's
theory of stigma with reference to some sociological studies of
disability (the term disability will henceforth include chronic
illness). Then there will be an analysis of the subsequent
modifications to Goffman's theory and the criticisms of the
interactionist perspective on disability. This essay will conclude
that Goffman's descriptive analysis of stigma provides an important
lens through which to view the experience of disability. However, this
conclusion will be tempered by an awareness of the dangers of
focussing on the individual experience of disability and missing the
wider social structures which perpetuate conceptions of normality and

Goffman (1968) was interested in the face-to-face interactions of
people. In order to look at what made the social encounter work well,
it was necessary to analyse what disrupted it. He argued that people
have two identities - virtual and actual social identity. Their
virtual social identity consists of the stereotyped expectations of
normal interaction whereas their actual social identity consists of
the attributes that they actually possess (Nettleton 1995). Disruption
of social interaction occurs when there is too great a discrepancy
between the virtual and actual social identity. In the case of a
visible disability, the focus of attention may be on the disability
rather than on the topic of conversation. The non-disabled person may
feel that there are too many discrepancies between the disabled
person's presentation of themselves and the actual picture presented.
This discrepancy will lead the 'normal' person to...

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