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Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity Paperback – June 15, 1986

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone; Reissue edition (June 15, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671622447
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671622442
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.5 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,908 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Erring Goffman was born in Manville, Alberta (Canada) in 1922. He came to the United States in 1945, and in 1953 received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He was professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley until 1968, and thereafter was Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dr. Goffman received the MacIver Award in 1961 and the In Medias Res Award in 1978. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He died in 1983.

Dr. Goffman's books include The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Encounters, Asylums, Behavior in Public Places, Stigma, Interaction Ritual, Strategic Interaction, Relations in Public, Frame Analysis, and Gender Advertisements.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1


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.

Preliminary Conceptions

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his "social identity" -- to use a term that is better than "social status" because personal attributes such as "honesty" are involved, as well as structural ones, like "occupation."

We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands.

Typically, we do not become aware that we have made these demands or aware of what they are until an active question arises as to whether or not they will be fulfilled. It is then that we are likely to realize that all along we had been making certain assumptions as to what the individual before us ought to be. Thus, the demands we make might better be called demands made "in effect," and the character we impute to the individual might better be seen as an imputation made in potential retrospect -- a characterization "in effect," a virtual social identity. The category and attributes he could in fact be proved to possess will be called his actual social identity.

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. Note that there are other types of discrepancy between virtual and actual social identity, for example the kind that causes us to reclassify an individual from one socially anticipated category to a different but equally well-anticipated one, and the kind that causes us to alter our estimation of the individual upward. Note, too, that not all undesirable attributes are at issue, but only those which are incongruous with our stereotype of what a given type of individual should be.

The term stigma, then, will be used to refer to an attribute that is deeply discrediting, but it should be seen that a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed. An attribute that stigmatizes one type of possessor can confirm the usualness of another, and therefore is neither creditable nor discreditable as a thing in itself. For example, some jobs in America cause holders without the expected college education to conceal this fact; other jobs, however, can lead the few of their holders who have a higher education to keep this a secret, lest they be marked as failures and outsiders. Similarly, a middle class boy may feel no compunction in being seen going to the library; a professional criminal, however, writes:

I can remember before now on more than one occasion, for instance, going into a public library near where I was living, and looking over my shoulder a couple of times before I actually went in just to make sure no one who knew me was standing about and seeing me do it.

So, too, an individual who desires to fight for his country may conceal a physical defect, lest his claimed physical status be discredited; later, the same individual, embittered and trying to get out of the army, may succeed in gaining admission to the army hospital, where he would be discredited if discovered in not really having an acute sickness. A stigma, then, is really a special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype, although I don't propose to continue to say so, in part because there are important attributes that almost everywhere in our society are discrediting.

The term stigma and its synonyms conceal a double perspective: does the stigmatized individual assume his differentness is known about already or is evident on the spot, or does he assume it is neither known about by those present nor immediately perceivable by them? In the first case one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable. This is an important difference, even though a particular stigmatized individual is likely to have experience with both situations. I will begin with the situation of the discredited and move on to the discreditable but not always separate the two.

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 behavior. 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. In all of these various instances of stigma, however, including those the Greeks had in mind, the same sociological features are found: an individual who might have been received easily in ordinary social intercourse possesses a trait that can obtrude 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 possesses 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 attitudes 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 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 often 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. We use specific stigma terms such as cripple, bastard, moron in our daily discourse as a source of metaphor and imagery, typically without giving thought to the original meaning. We tend to impute a wide range of imperfections on the basis of the original one, and at the same time to impute some desirable but undesired attributes, often of a supernatural cast, such as "sixth sense," or "understanding":

For some, there may be a hesitancy about touching or steering the blind, while for others, the perceived failure to see may be generalizcd into a gestalt of disability, so that the individual shouts at the blind as if they were deaf or attempts to lift them as if they were crippled. Those confronting the blind may have a whole range of belief that is anchored in the stereotype. For instance, they may think they are subject to unique judgment, assuming the blinded individual draws on special channels of information unavailable to others.

Further, we may perceive his defensive response to his situation as a direct expression of his defect, and then see both defect and response as just retribution for something he or his parents or his tribe did, and hence a justification of the way we treat him.

Now turn from the normal to the person he is normal against. It seems generally true that members of a social category may strongly support a standard of judgment that they and others agree does not directly apply to them. Thus it is that a businessman may demand womanly behavior from females or ascetic behavior from monks, and not construe himself as someone who ought to realize either of these styles of conduct. The distinction is between realizing a norm and merely supporting it. The issue of stigma does not arise here, but only where there is some expectation on all sides that those in a given category should not only support a particular norm but also realize it.

Also, it seems possible for an individual to fail to live up to what we effectively demand of him, and yet be relatively untouched by this failure; insulated by his alienation, protected by identity beliefs of his own, he feels that he i...

More About the Author

Erving Goffman was Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania until his death in 1982. He is recognized as one of the world's foremost social theorists and much of his work still remains in print. Among his classic books are The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; Interaction Ritual; Stigma; Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity; and Frame Analysis. William B. Helmreich is a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and City College. He has written Against All Odds, The Enduring Community, Saving Children, and The Things They Say Behind Your Back all available from Transaction.

Customer Reviews

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Amazingly, this book is a fast read.
M. M. Hunt
Stigma, labeling theory, and discrimination are some of the most fascinating aspects of social reality and this book is an in depth look at Stigma and its assumptions.
I hope that this text is being promoted at secondary school level, and it is certainly essential reading for anyone whose work involves dealing with people.
a reader

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

191 of 199 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 31, 1998
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I happened upon Stigma in the Tufts University Library on a Saturday afternoon in 1968 while I was looking for something else. I took it down from the shelf, read a paragraph, and then knelt between the stacks to read it straight through - hurrying, shaking a little from fear that someone might come along to stop me, forbid me the book. Or that I might lose my courage, or my sense of identification, and revert to thinking that I did not need to hear what was being said. I grew up crippled from a very early age (perhaps polio, perhaps congenital hip dysplasia). I had also been traumatized and further physically injured by a decade (ages 2-12) of 1940's orthopedic work. I reached age 13 weeping, stammering, weighing 73 lb, with noticeably poor bladder control. By age 28, when I read Stigma, I weighed 87 lb, smoked incessantly, drank sherry at breakfast, and (although unbelievably, impossibly married) was - like a high-fashion model or a female marathoner -sexually only marginal. I had never stopped liking my body (if not its appearance) or being grateful for all the ways in which its physical intelligence was intact, but until I read Stigma I did not know how to cope with the shame and social vulnerability that being crippled had created -except to follow my mother's cryptic advice, "Just stare right back." That afternoon in the empty library was worth five years of individual psychotherapy. It set me on a line of march that led directly to an amicable divorce, the National Organization for Women, Alcoholics Anonymous, and another 20 lb.
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61 of 62 people found the following review helpful By S. Pactor VINE VOICE on November 10, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
These the second Erving Goffman book that I've read this year (the other being "Asylums", please see my review on if interested).
I work as a criminal defense attorney and I read "Asylums" in an effort to gain perspective on the attitudes of institutionalized persons (i.e. convicts). I was suprised by how brilliant "Asylums" was, so I picked up "Stigma". I was similarily impressed with Stigma.
Where "Asylums" dealt with the relationship of individuals and institutions, "Stigma" deals more with inter personal relationships. The role of instituions in forming identity is noted in footnotes throughout, but the primary focus is in discussing the relationship between identity and stigma.
Goffman, of course, defines the dickens out of his concepts. If you gain nothing else from this book, you will have a thorough understanding of what it means to have a "stigma". The heart of the book consists of Goffman defining a five phase process which individuals with stigma go through. First you learn what it is to be "normal". Then you learn you're not "normal". Then you learn to control disclosure of information about your stigma, then you learn to "pass" as someone without a stigma and then you learn how to "voluntarily disclose" your stigma.
I don't have a degree in sociology, so I'm not sure about the theoretical backgrounding of this approach, but it made sense to me.
The best part of this book was the end, where Goffman argues (persuaively, I thought) that even "Normal" people have to deal with some sort of stigma at some time in their life.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By "" on April 9, 2000
Format: Paperback
This text was assigned reading in a Psych101 back in 1970, but its themes have stayed with me so strongly I am now ordering it for my personal library. I was born with a club foot, and experienced the power of being different, even though my personal defect was so minor as to be rarely noticed by others. STIGMA gave me an appreciation of the force behind my own shame and the reaction to my difference of others. More importantly, I learned about the degrees of identity-- which differences make the most difference (sex, race, disabilities...) and the increasing intensity that comes with breaking the most closely held norms. A classic study.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By a reader on April 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
Although this is a slim book it is more rich in detail and insight than many texts twice its size. Goffman is both a genius and a brilliant writer. His theory is clearly elucidated throughout the text by real life anecdotes. The book opens with a letter to a "lonelyhearts" column from a girl "born without a nose" which concludes "Ought I commit suicide?" This sets the tone for a book that pulls no punches and comprehensively addresses the alienation of those different from what is perceived to be "normal". I hope that this text is being promoted at secondary school level, and it is certainly essential reading for anyone whose work involves dealing with people.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Andrew C Curry on May 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
In Stigma, Goffman classifies two different types of persons. the discredited and the discreditable. The Discredited are those whose stigma is known by the "normals," and the Discreditable are those whose stigma is not yet know but rather balancing in a precarious situation. The discredited are concerned with "managing tension"; that which is brought about by the stigma.Conversely, the discreditable are concerned with "managing information" as to not let others know of his/her stigma. It is through this framework that Goffman provides a detailed look into the lives of those who have been burden to posses a stigma. An insightful read for "normals" and most importantly for the stigmatized.
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