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Social stigma refers to severe social disapproval of personal characteristics or beliefs that are against cultural norms. Social stigma often leads to marginalization.

Examples of social stigmas are physical or mental disabilities and disorders, as well as homosexuality or affiliation with a specific nationality, religion or ethnicity. Criminality carries a strong social stigma.

Erving Goffman, noted sociologist, defined Stigma as the gap between Virtual Social Identity (what a person ought to be) and Actual Social Identity (what a person actually is). Stigma is the phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute, which is deeply discredited by his/her society, is rejected as a result of the attribute (Goffman, 1963). Goffman developed the term Spoiled identity when addressing the effects of Stigma; meaning the stigma and stigmatization have disqualified the stigmatized individual from full social acceptance.

Sociologist, Gerhard Falk [1] describes stigma based on two categories, Existential Stigma and Achieved Stigma. Falk defines Existential Stigma "as stigma deriving from a condition which the target of the stigma either did not cause or over which he has little control." He defines Achieved Stigma as "stigma that is earned because of conduct and/or because they contributed heavily to attaining the stigma in question." (Falk, 2001).

Stigma may also be described as a label associates a person to a set of unwanted characteristics that form a stereotype. It is also affixed (Jacoby, 2005). Once people identify and label your differences others will assume that is just how things are and the person will remain stigmatized until the stigmatizing attribute is undetected. A considerable amount of generalization is required to create groups. Meaning you put someone in a general group regardless of how well they actually fit into that group. However, the attributes that society selects differs according to time and place. What is considered out of place in one society is the norm in another. When society categorizes individuals into certain groups the labeled person is subjected to status loss and discrimination (Jacoby, 2005). Society will start to form expectations about those groups once the cultural stereotype is secured.

The Origin of Stigma

Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a kind of tattoo mark that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places (Healthline Network Inc., 2007).

Modern American usage of the words "stigma" and "stigmatization" refers to an invisible sign of disapproval which permits "insiders" to draw a line around the "outsiders" in order to demarcate the limits of inclusion in any group. The demarcation permits "insiders to know who is "in" and who is "out" and allows the group to maintain its solidarity by demonstrating what happen to those who deviate from accepted norms of conduct (Falk, 2001). Stigmatization is an issue of disempowerment and social injustice (Scheyett, 2005).

Healthline Network describes the origin of stigma as "the human being's concern for group survival at earlier times in their evolutionary journey. According to this theory, stigmatizing people who were perceived as unable to contribute to the group's survival, or who were seen as threats to its well-being, were stigmatized in order to justify being forced out or being isolated." (Healthline Network Inc., 2007).

The group survival theory is also thought to explain why certain human attributes seem to be universally regarded as stigmata, while others are specific to certain cultures or periods of history. Mental illness appears to be a characteristic that has nearly always led to the stigmatization and exclusion of its victims (Healthline Networks, Inc., 2007).

The Six Dimensions of Stigma

According to Goffman there are two types of Stigma, Discredited and Discreditable. With Discredited stigma, the person assumes that the stigma is known by others or is apparent (e.g., a paraplegic or someone who has lost a limb). A Discreditable stigma is one in which the differences are neither known by others nor are they perceivable by them, for example, a person who has had a colostomy or a homosexual passing as straight (Ritzer, 2006). There are six dimensions that match these two types of stigma:

  1. Concealable- extent to which others can see the stigma.
  2. Course of the mark- whether the stigma becomes more prominent over time.
  3. Disruptiveness- the degree to which the stigma get in the way of social interactions.
  4. Aesthetics- other’s reactions to the stigma.
  5. Origin- whether others think the stigma is present at birth, accidental, or deliberate.
  6. Peril- the apparent danger of the stigma to others.

(Jacoby, 2005)

Types of Stigma

Stigma stems from the human proclivity[2] to judge[3] themselves and others. Based on those judgments, we categorize or stereotype people not necessarily based on factual or actual circumstances or evidence but on what we (society) deem as inappropriate, unusual, shameful or unacceptable. Stigmatization occurs in all aspects to human life. A person can be stigmatized because of anything from disease, birth defects and mental illnesses, to sexual preference, occupation and economic status. Stigmas can be associated with a wide variety of diseases from Asthma to Zellweger syndrome; and occupations from Exotic Dancing to Stock Car racing and various personal preferences such as people with tattoos & piercing to people who drive German cars v. people who drive American cars.

In Unraveling the Contexts of Stigma, authors Campbell and Deacon describe Goffman's universal and historical forms of Stigma as the following.

  • Overt or External Deformities [4]- such as leprosy, clubfoot, cleft lip or palate and muscular dystrophy.
  • Known Deviations in Personal Traits- being perceived as weak willed, domineering or having unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and being dishonest, e.g., mental disorders, imprisonment, addiction, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts and radical political behavior.
  • Tribal stigma- affiliation with a specific nationality, religion, or race that constitute a deviation from the normative, i.e. being Jewish, African American or being of Arab descent in the United States after the 9/11 attacks (Campbell & Deacon, 2006).


Stigma occurs when an individual is identified as deviant, linked with negative stereotypes that engender prejudiced attitudes, which are acted upon in discriminatory behavior. Goffman illuminated how stigmatized people manage their "Spoiled identity" (meaning the stigma disqualifies the stigmatized individual from full social acceptance) before audiences of normals. He focused on stigma not as a fixed or inherent attribute of a person but rather on the experience and meaning of difference (Shaw, 1991).

Gerhard Falk expounds upon Goffman's work by redefining deviant as "others who deviate from the expectations of a group" and categorizing deviance into two types. ..

Societal Deviance

Societal Deviance refers to a condition widely perceived, in advance an in general, as being deviant and hence stigma and stigmatized. "Homosexuality is therefore an example of societal deviance because there is such a high degree of consensus to the effect that homosexuality is different, and a violation of norms or social expectation" (Falk, 2001).

Situational Deviance

Situational Deviance refers to an actual deed by the person who thereafter is stigmatized. "A robber or other street criminal is an excellent example. It is the crime which leads to the stigma and stigmatization of the person so affected." Situational Deviance cannot be stigmatized unless it is discovered, while societal stigma and stigmatization exist as potential labels to be attached to those who identify themselves or are so identified (Falk, 2001).

The physically disabled, mentally ill, homosexuals, and a host of others who are labeled deviant because they deviate from the expectations of a group, are subject to stigmatization- the social rejection of numerous individual, and often entire groups of people who have been labeled deviant.

Stigmatizing Effects Everyone

The Stigmatized v. The Stigmatizers

Though most of Goffman's work on Stigma is devoted to people with Discredited or obvious stigmas, overall Goffman believes "we are all stigmatized at some time or other, or in some setting or other" (Ritzer, 2006). Similar to Goffman, Falk concludes that "...we and all societies will always stigmatize some condition and some behavior because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating 'outsiders' from 'insiders'" (Falk, 2001). Stigmatization, at its essence is a challenge to one's humanity- for both the stigmatized person and the stigmatizer. The majority of stigma researchers have found the process of stigmatization has a long history and is cross-culturally ubiquitous [5](Heatherton, et al., 2000).

Individuals actively cope with stigma in ways that vary across stigmatized groups, across individuals within stigmatized groups, and within individuals across time and situations (Levin & van Laar, 2004).

The Stigmatized

The stigmatized are ostracized, devalued, rejected, scorned and shunned. They experience discrimination, insults, attacks and are even murdered. Those who perceive themselves to be members of a stigmatized group, whether it is obvious to those around them or not, often experience psychological distress and many view themselves contemptuously [6] (Heatherton, et al., 2000).

Although the experience of being stigmatized may take a toll on self-esteem, academic achievement, and other outcomes, many people with stigmatized attributes have high self-esteem, perform at high levels, are happy and appear to be quite resilient to their negative experiences (Heatherton, et al., 2000).

The Stigmatizer

From the perspective of the stigmatizer, stigmatization involves dehumanization, threat, aversion and sometimes the depersonalization of others into stereotypic caricatures. Stigmatizing others can serve several functions for an individual, including self-esteem enhancement, control enhancement, and anxiety buffering, through downward-comparison- comparing oneself to less fortunate others can increase one's own subjective sense of well-being and therefore boost one's self-esteem. (Heatherton, et al., 2000).

Twenty-first century social psychologists consider stigmatizing and stereotyping to be a normal (if undesirable) consequence of people's cognitive abilities and limitations, and of the social information and experiences to which they are exposed (Heatherton, et al., 2000).

Current views of stigma, from the perspectives of both the stigmatizer and the stigmatized person, consider the process of stigma to be highly situationally specific, dynamic, complex and nonpathological (Heatherton, et al., 2000).

Current Research on Self-Esteem

Members of stimatized groups should have relatively lower self-esteem than those of nonstigmatized groups. A test could not be taken on the overall self-esteem of different races. Researchers would have to take into account whether these people are optimistic or pessimistic, whether they are male or female and what kind of place they grew up in. Over the last two decades, many studies have reported that african americans show higher global self-esteem than whites even though, as a group, african americans tend to receive poorer outcomes in many areas of life and experience significant discrimination and stigma.

Correlations between self-esteem and achievemnt tests:

                         8th grade            10th grade
     African american:
          Male:             .235                 .192
          Female:           .152                 .159
          Male:             .140                 .165
          Female:           .163                 .166

Correlations between self-esteem and GPA:

                         8th grade            10th grade
     African American:  
          Male:             .206                 .081
          Female:           .260                 .207
          Male:             .227                 .241
          Female:           .279                 .269

Average weight women have higher self-esteem than overweight women. Overweight women who are older have lower levels of collective self-esteem on an implicit measure but have equivalent levels of personal self-esteem on both implicit and explicit measuers. The US Department of Health, Education and Welfare determined that including the 24% of women who are acutally obese, 60% of adolescent women believe they are overweight. Recent studies have shown that women who are "unattractive" or obese do not believe they will make a good impression on the men they come into contact with which makes the men feel the women are uncomfortabe and uninterested in them. The women of average weight felt better about the impression they would make on the men and in return the men felt the women were interested in them and enjoyed their company. This test showed how obese or overweight women have low self-esteem. Obese women and overweight women feel uncomfortable and arent very social which makes the people they come into contact with uninterested and uncomfortable. The more overweight the women is, the lower her self-esteem tends to be.

Current Research Directions of Stigma

Research undertaken to determine effects of social stigma primarily focuses on disease-associated stigmas. Disabilities, psychiatric disorders, and sexually transmitted diseases are among the diseases currently scrutinized by researchers. In studies involving such diseases, both positive and negative effects of social stigma have been discovered.

Epilepsy, a disability marked by epileptic seizures, is attached with various social stigmas. Chung-yan Gardian Fong and Anchor Hung conducted a study in Hong Kong which documented public attitudes towards individuals with epilepsy. Of the 1,128 subjects interviewed, only 72.5% of them considered pregnancy to be appropriate; 11.2% would not let their children play with others with epilepsy; 32.2% would not allow their children to marry persons with epilepsy; additionally, employers (22.5% of them) would terminate an employment contract after an epileptic seizure occurred in an employee with unreported epilepsy (Fong, Hung, 2002). Suggestions were made that more effort be made to improve public awareness of, attitude toward, and understanding of epilepsy through school education and epilepsy-related organizations (Fong, Hung, 2002).

In Taiwan, strengthening the psychiatric rehabilitation system has been one of the primary goals of the Department of Health since 1985. Unfortunately, this endeavor has not been successful and it is believed that one of the barriers is social stigma towards the mentally ill (Yu Song, Yun Chang, Yi Shih, Yuan Lin, Jeng Yang, 2005). Accordingly, a study was conducted to explore the attitudes of the general population towards patients with mental disorders. A survey method was utilized on 1,203 subjects nationally. The results revealed that the general population held relatively higher levels of benevolence, tolerance on rehabilitation in the community, and nonsocial restrictiveness (Yu Song, Yun Chang, Yi Shih, Yuan Lin, Jeng Yang, 2005). Essentially, benevolent thoughts were fostering the acceptance of rehabilitation in the community. It could then be inferred that the belief (held by the residents of Taiwan) of treating the mentally ill with high regard, somewhat eliminated the stigma (Yu Song, Yun Chang, Yi Shih, Yuan Lin, Jeng Yang, 2005).

The impact of HIV-related stigma on care and prevention of HIV, as studies show, is significant. A self-reported study evaluated the effects of concerns attributed to this stigma. The sample size for this study consisted of 204 people living with HIV. Participants with high HIV concerns proved to be 3.3 times more likely to be non-adherent to their medication regimen than those with low concerns (Reece, Tanner, Karpiak, Coffey, 2007). Moreover, this study revealed that the threat of social stigma prevents people living with HIV from revealing their status to others (causing obvious health concerns for society). Clinical care directed to individuals living with HIV, researchers believed, should include considerations for patient sensitivity to social stigma (Reece, Tanner, Karpiak, Coffey, 2007).

The aforementioned stigmas (associated with their respective diseases) propose effects that these stereotypes have on individuals. Whether effects be negative or positive in nature, labeling people causes a significant change in individual perception (of persons with disease). Perhaps a mutual understanding of stigma, achieved through education, could eliminate social stigmas entirely.

Social stigma's can occur in many different forms. The most common deals with culture, obesity, gender, reace and diseases. Many people who have been stigmatized feel as if they are transforming from a whole person, to a tainted one. They feel different and devalued by others. This can happen in the workplace, educational settings, health care, the criminal justice system, and even in their own family. For an example, the parents of over weight woman, are less likely to pay for their daughter's college education than are the parents of average-weight women (Major, O'Brien; 2005). Many people who are stigmatized against are put into social categorization, which is thinking about people primarily as members of social groups rather than indivduals (Blaine 21).

Stigmatized groups, which usually have to do with one's culture, seem to affect the behavior of the victims. Those who are stereotyped often start to act as how others portray them. It not only changes their behavior, but it also shapes their emotions and beliefs (Major, O'Brien; 2005). These stigma's put a person's social identity in threatening situations, like low self esteem. Because of this, identity theories have become highly researched as of late. Identity threat theories can definitely go hand-in-hand with Labeling Theory. If someone were to give another person a "bad" label, that one would find it hard to let go of and start acting that way.

Members of stigmatized groups start to become aware that they aren't being treated the same way and know they will probably be discriminated against for it. Studies have shown that "by 10 years of age, most children are aware of cultural stereotypes of different groups in society, and children who are members of stigmatized groups are aware of cultural types at an even younger age." (Major, O'Brien; 2005). As I've researched I found that any current information on social stigma, has been mostly about race and culture. Although progress has been made, there is still much more to be done.--00:33, 12 November 2007 (UTC)Lmorris1130 Lmorris1130 19:24, 12 November 2007 (UTC)

Contributors to the Study of Stigma

Émile Durkheim

French sociologist, Émile Durkheim was the first to explore Stigma as a social phenomenon, in the year 1895. He wrote:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes or deviance, properly so-called, will there be unknown; but faults, which appear venial to the layman, will there create the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousnesses. If then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal (or deviant) and will treat them as such (Durkheim, 1895).

Erving Goffman

Goffman was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. He defined Stigma as:

The phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity (Goffman, 1963).

Gerhard Falk [7]

German born sociologist and historian, Gerhard Falk has written over fifty scholarly works, including STIGMA: How We Treat Outsiders. About Stigma, he wrote:

All societies will always stigmatize some conditions and some behaviors because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating "outsiders" from "insiders" (Falk, 2001).

Link and Phelan Stigmatization Model

Bruce Link and Jo Phelan[1] propose that stigma exists when four specific components converge. (1) Individuals differentiate and label human variations. (2) Prevailing cultural beliefs tie those labeled to adverse attributes. (3) Labeled individuals are placed in distinguished groups that serve to establish a sense of disconnection between “us” and “them.” (4) Labeled individuals experience “status loss and discrimination” that leads to unequal circumstances. In this model stigmatization is also contingent on “access to social, economic, and political power that allows the identification of differences, construction of stereotypes, the separation of labeled persons into distinct groups, and the full execution of disapproval, rejection, exclusion, and discrimination.” Subsequently, in this model the term stigma is applied when labeling, stereotyping, disconnection, status loss, and discrimination all exist within a power situation that facilitates stigma to occur.

Differentiation and Labeling

Identifying which human differences are salient, and therefore worthy of labeling, is a social process. There are two primary factors to examine when considering the extent to which this process is a social one. The first issue is the fact that significant oversimplification is needed to create groups. The broad groups of black and white, homosexual and heterosexual, and young and old are all examples of this. Secondly, the differences that are socially judged to be relevant differ vastly according to time and place. An example of this is the emphasis that was put on the size of forehead and faces of individuals in the late nineteenth century – which was believed to be an indication of a person’s degree of criminal nature.

Linking to Stereotypes

The second component of this model centers on the linking of labeled differences with stereotypes. Goffman’s 1963 work made this aspect of stigma prominent and it has remained so ever since. This process of applying certain stereotypes to differentiated groups of individuals has garnered a large amount of attention and research in recent decades as it helps to understand the psychological nature of the thought process taking place as this linkage occurs.

Us and Them

The linking of negative attributes to differentiated groups of individuals described above facilitates a sense of separation between the proverbial “us” and “them.” This sense that the individuals of the labeled group are fundamentally different causes stereotyping to take place with little hesitation. The "us" and "them" component of the stigmatization process implies that the labeled group is slightly less human in nature, and at the extreme not human at all. It is at this extreme that the most horrific events occur.


The fourth component of stigmatization in this model includes the “status loss and discrimination” that is experienced. Many definitions of stigma do not include this aspect, however it is the belief of these authors that this loss occurs inherently as individuals are “labeled, set apart, and linked to undesirable characteristics.” The members of the labeled groups are subsequently disadvantaged in the most common group of life chances including income, education, mental well-being, housing status, health, and medical treatment. However, the authors are quick to point out that even though some groups are able to escape some of the disadvantages listed, the principle is sound when broadly applied.

Necessity of Power

The authors also emphasize the necessity of power (social, economic, and political power) to stigmatize. While the role of power is clear in some situations, in others it can become masked as the power differences are so stark. An extreme example of a situation in which the power role was explicitly clear was the treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis. On the other hand, an example of a situation in which individuals of a stigmatized group have “stigma-related processes” occurring would be the inmates of a prison. It is very imaginable that each of the steps described above would take place regarding the inmates’ thoughts about the guards. However, this situation cannot involve true stigmatization according to this model because the prisoners do not have the economic, political, or social power to act on these thoughts with any serious discriminatory consequences.

Stigma and mental health

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Prentice-Hall, 1963.
  • George Ritzer, Contemporary Social Theory and its Classical Roots: The Basics (Second Edition), McGraw-Hill, 2006.
  • Gerhard Falk,[8] STIGMA: How We Treat Outsiders, Prometheus Books, 2001.
  • Heatherton, Kleck, Hebl & Hull, The Social Psychology of Stigma, The Guilford Press, 2000.
  • Shana Levin and Colette van Laar, Stigma and Group Inequality, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2004.
  • Émile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method (1895) The Free Press, 1982.
  • Blaine, Bruce, Understanding The Psychology of Diversity, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2007.
  • Heatherton, T. F., Kleck, R. E., Hebl, M. R., & Hull, J. G. (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Stigma, Guilford Press, 2000, ISBN 1-572-30573-8.
  • Kurzban, R., & Leary, M. R. (2001). Evolutionary Origins of Stigmatization: The Functions of Social Exclusion. Psychological Bulletin 127: 187-208.


Additional material



External links

  • Healthline Networks, Inc. [9] Retrieved: February 2007
  • Anna Scheyett, The Mark of Madness: Stigma, Serious Mental Illnesses, and Social Work, [10] Retrieved: February 2007
  • Linda Shaw, Stigma and the Moral Careers of Ex-Mental Patients Living in Board and Care, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography [11]October 1991.
  • Catherine Campbell & Harriet Deacon, Unraveling the Contexts of Stigma: From Internalisation to Resistance to Change, Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology [12] September 2006.
  • Link, B. G. & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363-385.
  • Jacoby, A. (2005). The Lancet Neurology. Retrieved Sep. 28, 2007, from
  • Major, Brenda;O'Brien, Laurie T..Annual Review of Psychology, 2005, Vol.56 Issue 1, p393-421, 29p, 1 diagram; DOI:10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070137; (AN 15888368)
  • Fong, C. & Hung, A. (2002). Public Awareness, Attituse, and Underdstanding of Epilepsy in Hong Kong Special Administravtive Region, China. Epilepsia, 43(3), 311-316.
  • Song, L., Chang, L., Yi Shih, C., & Yuan Lin, C. (2005). Community Attitudes Towards the Mentally Ill: The Results of a National Survey of the Taiwanese Population. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 51(2), 162-176.
  • Reece, M., Tanner, A. E., Karpiak, S. E., & Coffey, K. (2007). The Impact of HIV-Related Stigma on HIV Care and Prevention Providers. Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services, 6(3), 55-73.
  • Osborne, Jason W., Niagara county community college, November, 1993, "Academics, Self-Esteem, and Race: A look at the Underlying Assumptions of the Disidentification Hypothesis",
  • Carol T. Miller, Ester D. Rothblum, Linda Barbour, Pamela A. Brand and Diane Felicio, University of Vermont, September 1989, "Social Interactions of Obese and Nonobese Women"

This article incorporates text translated from the corresponding German Wikipedia article.

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  1. Bruce G. Link and Jo C. Phelan, "Conceptualizing Stigma", Annual Review of Sociology, 2001, p.363