Social stigma is an extreme disapproval of individual characteristics or beliefs that are contradictory to established cultural norms. According to Erving Goffman's theory of social stigma, a stigma is an attribute, activity, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a peculiar way. It causes an idiosyncratic person to be judged as mentally classified by others in an unwanted way rather than in a conventional and regular one. Goffman, a noted sociologist, defined stigma as a gap between virtual social identity and actual social identity.
He identifies three kinds of stigma namely psychical, personal, and social. Goffman argues that the process of stigma occurs whenever there are established identity norms. Individuals respond to these patterns in an attempt to adapt themselves to social encounters within a mixed society.
Goffman conditions stigmatization of an individual of communitys by the presence of a gap or disappointment between perceived attributes and stereotypes. We unwittingly use stereotypes and are not fully aware of it while anticipating conformity. This very tendency creates an expectation of “fit.” When the ‘fit’ is disappointed stigmatization surfaces.
Stereotypes are a blend of social categories available for classification and their linked attributed. These categories may be determined by social factors such as occupation and personal traits like honesty for example. People themselves set standards and apply them to social categories and detached themselves. Hence, the individual or group being stereotyped becomes a representative of expectations and anticipations about the group he/she belongs to. Identity beliefs also invite stigmatization of person or communities no matter how protected and untouched are those beliefs.
The situation of a stigmatized individual is marked by acceptance and the lack of it. According to Goffman, it is the point when the “failure to accord him respect” occurs. Subsequently, this gap or failure leads to stigma. The stigmatized person is treated as discredited and from this point the tension between the normal and stigmatized person arises. This tension manifests itself in a very subtle visibility as Goffman puts it “decoding capacity of the audience must be specified before one can speak of degree of visibility.”
This is the reason why Goffman comes up with a distinction between “Known-about-ness---the level of previous knowledge about the stigma of a person, “Obtrusiveness”---the extent of stigma impeding the normal flow of interaction, and lastly “perceived focus” which implies the degree of consideration given to the impact of stigma upon the area of interaction.
The individual is dubbed as Discreditable when the stigma remains covert and the individual apprehends the danger and anxiousness regarding the discovery of stigma. As Goffman states, “ it is not that he (discreditable person) must face prejudice against himself, but rather he must unwitting acceptance of himself by individuals who are prejudiced against persons of the kind he can be revealed to be.”
In both the cases, the discredited and discreditable individuals are more likely to face discrimination. ‘Covering’ and ‘Passing’ are two different phenomena used to manage discrediting/ed information. Goffman explains covering as a useful technique to reduce tension arising out of stigma or the fear of it. For example, I being an alien abductee should find it convenient for myself and other to remove peculiar attention on my stigma in order to focus on the actual content of the interaction. I should not let allow a known attributes---attached to all alien abductees as a whole to capture the attention of others.
Covering in other words is a management of standards and perceptions related to the stigma. It is advisable for an alien adbuctee to ensure restricted display of failings and negative elements that are identified with the stigma. Creating social situations that help minimize stigmatization is part of covering technique.
In order to conceal or obliterate the signs that become part and parcel of the stigma one can use some other techniques such as name changing, disapproval of failure, and use of disidentifiers, use of a cover and specially established routine for passing. The case of alien abductee may further be compounded by people who do not have personal identification or biographical facts for that matter. Cognitive recognition takes place only on the basis of perception and social recognition and this would be the only means through which the public image of an alien abductee will be made to complete strangers.
Given such a dynamics of personal and social information being made available to us about those whom we know or do not, the need for hiding and disguising the stigma of alien abductee arises. This very attempt of getting away and reluctance to reveal identity as in case of alien abductee is defined as an act of passing by Goffman. He then describes natural cycle in passing which takes place as due to unwitting, unintentional reasons and it may be for fun, non-routine, and disappearance.
The passing technique has its own problems and consequences. There may prop up unanticipated need to disclose discredited information. The efforts to hide certain incapacities may lead observers to attribute to the existence of incapacities.
Goffman in his book also draws on information control through social information such as signs and symbols and personal information such as personal identity and biography. He argues that signs carry social information. He defines signs being frequently used and sought after as symbols. There are status and prestigious symbols. Secondly, there are stigma symbols which shift the attention towards discredited and discreditable. Some signs are of fugitive nature and have been institutionalized as having some information. (Goffman, 2004)
The conception of stigma, if articulated well enough, can broaden the analysis of popular culture. The stigma sometimes linked to the production and consumption of popular culture is distinct from the low status related to predestinate forms of popular culture. Stigma discredits cultural forms and its practitioners often view this process as problematic. The reassessment of stigma is practical and must be encouraged through a document of laughable books, showing a number of ways through which stigma can operate in popular culture. Spinsters have received peculiar attention from media and mainstream culture for ages.
For instance, surveys show that modern spinsters feel a stigma attached to their status with a sense of increased visibility and invisibility.Heightened visibility came from feelings of exposure, and invisibility came from assumptions made by others."(Nicholson,2007)
Many classic and modern films have depicted the character of spinster. Another stereotype attached to the spinsters is that they are very downtrodden women who have fallen foul of an oppressive parent. These may be people who have a very hard time expressing themselves to other people. They may find the human need for affection is met most easily through a relationship with a pet. This devotion can sometimes signal mental or emotional issues such as depression. The portrayal of such stereotypes hints at the fact that there are always certain personalities with stigma is attached so conveniently only because they are unable to communication their inherent need for human affection and acceptance.
Goffman breaks down individual’s relation to stigma into three categories. Firstly, the stigmatized are those who bear the stigma while normal people are those who do not suffer from stigma and lastly the wise people are those who are accepted by the stigmatized people as ‘wise.’ The wise normal are not necessarily the people who merely internalize the stigma in one way or another. Instead they are the people whose situation makes them intimately privy to the secret life of the stigmatized individual and sympathetic with it, and who find themselves accorded a measure of acceptance, a measure of courtesy membership in the clan.
Goffman, Erving (2004) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity, Simon and Touchstone Books, New York
Nicholson, Virginia (2007) Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War