Friday, August 3, 2012

Erving Goffman--Stigma: Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1978)

Goffman identifies the process through which we determine stigma, a characteristic which he importantly identifies as a relational one:
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. (2)
Or, more specifically, “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….stigma, then, is really a special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype” (2). [1] Observing that “the person with stigma is not quite human” (3), Goffman explains that the our unconscious assumptions lead us to “exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances” (3)—an observation which echoes Butler’s ideas about intelligibility. 
Goffman also echoes Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, noting that stigma reduces a person in the mind from being a “whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (2).  He then turns to the possible reactions of those who are stigmatized, which include trying to correct the stigma, or focusing his attention to mastery of one particular area related to his shortcoming, or, he can “break with what is called reality, and obstinately attempt to employ an unconventional interpretation of the character of his social identity” (6).  Goffman’s focus is what he calls “‘mixed contacts’—the moments when stigmatized and normal are in the same ‘social situation,’ that is, in one another’s immediate physical presence” (8)—and notes that most normals and stigmatized will arrange their lives to minimize such moments of mixed contact.  At such moments, the stigmatized may be unsure how he will be identified and received (9), and may have to work at the impression he is making.  Further, stigmatized people are vulnerable to invasions of privacy, with perfect strangers feeling comfortable starting personal conversations.  On the other hand, “normals” in such situations may find themselves hyperaware of their own reactions, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.
One thing which is interesting to note is that Goffman identifies that “no matter how small and how badly off a particular stigmatized category is, the viewpoint of its members is likely to be given public presentation of some kind.”  The result of this is that “Americans who are stigmatized tend to live in a literarily-defined world” (25).  Additionally, I’m also interested in what Goffman terms “disidentifiers”: “a sign that tends—in fact or hope—to break up an otherwise coherent picture but in this case in a positive direction…not so much establishing a new claim as throwing severe doubt on the validity of the virtual one” (43)—in other words, markers which allow one to “pass” as a normal, or at least less stigmatized.
Most importantly, Goffman addresses ugliness directly in his discussion of visibility of stigma:
the visibility of a stigma (as well as its obtrusiveness) must be disentangled from certain possibilities of what can be called its “perceived focus.”  We normals develop conceptions, whether objectively grounded or not, as to the sphere of life-activity for which an individual’s particular stigma primarily disqualifies him.  Ugliness, for example, has its initial and prime effect during social situations, threatening the pleasure we might otherwise take in the company of its possessor.  We perceive, however, that his competency in solitary tasks, although of course we may discriminate against him here simply because of the feelings we have about looking at him.  Ugliness, then, is a stigma that is focused on social situations. (49).
This is in contrast to a less visible stigma, such as diabetes, which have “no initial effect on the individual’s qualifications for face-to-face interactions” (49).  While I take Goffman’s point about the immediacy of ugliness’s visibility, I think that (a) ugliness is often used as a marker of characteristics which are not physical (as in, the Lord don’t like ugly, or don’t be ugly); and (b) while ugliness is certainly relational, as Goffman characterizes stigmas to be, I think that it is much more complicated than his characterization as being primarily one of social situations.
Also important to my work is his observation that “although impersonal contacts between strangers are particularly subject to stereotypical responses, as persons come to be on closer terms with each other this categoric approach recedes and gradually sympathy, understanding, and a realistic assessment of personal qualities takes its place” (51).  This observation certainly must be considered in my analysis of Scarlett O’Hara.  This leads Goffman to conclude that “stigma management, then, might be seen as something that pertains mainly to public life” (51)—but again, I think this characterization of “public life, to contact between strangers or mere acquaintances, to one end of a continuum whose other pole is intimacy” (51) should be more nuanced in my consideration.  It further makes me think of the relationship between appearance, how appearance is read, what happens in that intersubjective space between viewer and viewed, and the effect on identity.

[1] I’m also quite intrigued by the relationship he sets up between the stigmatized and the normal person—what Goffman characterizes as the person he is “normal against” (4)—the use of “against” here is really interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Hi I am really struggling with Goffman I have a presentation and right now I have no idea what I am to do.