Stigma: new conceptions

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In my People with Disabilities Seminar, students bravely tackled a long and detailed article from the Annual Review of Sociology:  Link and Phelan’s Conceptualizing Stigma.  While offering a hat-tip to Erving Goffman for his groundbreaking book on the topic, Link and Phelan make some important steps forward by taking a stronger sociological approach.

Goffman: An attribute and a stereotype

The early work on stigma focused on an attribute – a characteristic of the person – that was “deeply discrediting” and replaces the “whole and usual person” with a “tainted one.”  For Goffman, stigma occurred when an attribute was linked to a negative stereotype: the “mark” on the person is tied to the negatives in the stereotype. Link and Phelan tackle both sides of this equation in revising the concept of stigma.

Not an attribute but a label

Human beings have dozens, hundreds of attributes – most of which we ignore entirely.  As Jane Elliott‘s classroom exercise showed, an attribute that was previously inconsequential – eye color – can become both important and seriously detrimental to a person’s self-efficacy and social status when it is negatively labeled. The attribute has not changed – it was present all along.  But it has been labeled and deemed to be part of identity.  Stigma, then, is not a matter of the presence of an attribute, but of the social labeling that organizes a particular set of observable traits into a socially relevant label, and applies the label.

With the label comes the possibility of groups – “us” and “them” – and the option to link either or both groups to particular characteristics. Link and Phelan point to the labeling of Dutch settlers by early American English settlers – and the later stereotypes of the Irish as an ape-like race as examples in which the label produced an out-group.

I’ve been struck by the recent reports surrounding Jared Loughner.  He is consistently referred to as a college dropout, a term that is just dripping with negative attributes.  In reality, he was dismissed from college for behavior caused by his mental illness, and forbidden to return until he had sought treatment. He didn’t seek treatment – and his shooting rampage in Arizona ensued.  While Loughner is certainly not a sympathetic character, adding the college dropout stereotype to his persona is certainly an act of labeling.

Not a link but a powerful imposition

The other important dimension added by Link and Phelan is that of power.   Not all negative stereotypes result in stigma, in the loss of identity and status, in discrimination.  The Bad Boss exists as a stereotype – and also in reality -but rarely has much impact on people’s life chances.  The authors describe the stereotypes mental health patients hold of various caregivers – pill pushers or cruel.  Those of us who teach in colleges certainly know about the negative stereotypes many students have about us:  strict, unfeeling, boring and the like.  For the most part, aside from student satisfaction surveys, these stereotypes don’t have much impact.

A stereotype or a label only becomes a serious threat when a person with power imposes it on a vulnerable person – someone who can’t deflect it.  The stigma process involves not only the imposition of a label but the application of power so that the negative stereotype sticks to the person.  As Link and Phelan unfold the stigma process, it is revealed to be grounded in power.

Disability Rights Movements

Uncovering the power dynamic also supports some of the primary claims of disability rights activists.  They differentiate between a particular physical or mental characteristic and the impact that trait has on someone’s life chances.  Even after the passage of the ADA, the right to decide what accommodations are reasonable – and therefore legally required – rests almost entirely with non-disabled people.

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