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Goffman’s definition of stigma is still useful in 2011 Essay

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Updated: Jan 9th, 2019

According to Goffman (1963, p. 89), social stigma is a process whereby reactive approach from society destroys the existing normal identity of a person. The author further defines social stigma as a process of disapproving personal characteristics and beliefs which are considered to be against societal norms and beliefs.

Goffman in his work identifies three types of stigma. To begin with, he explores life long experience which may result from mental illness. The second aspect is that he attempts to address physical deformity or distinct traits which are undesired.

Lastly, the aspect of associating an individual with certain beliefs, race or religions which are undesired in society has also been given special consideration by Goffman. Therefore, his definition of stigma can be viewed in different perspectives depending on how he presents each element that makes up the whole definition.

The author further divides relationship between an individual and stigma into three distinct groups. Firstly, the stigmatized are those individuals who suffer from the effects of stigma while normal individuals in society are those who do not bear the stigma. His third category consists of people who are wise and are considered normal even by those who have been stigmatized.

These three categories are indeed very important when exploring significance of stigma in contemporary age. While his theory and concept on stigma may to a large extent be disputed by other scholars, it is still imperative to note that the author, to a large extent, offers the right direction towards understanding stigma. Needless to say, this may be an important step in the right direction even in 2011 when societal stigma on various aspects is still dominant.

In modern society, stigma can be associated with necessity to be powerful whether politically, economically or socially. However, in some circumstances, the role played by power can be clear while in some situations it may lack clarity. For instance, inmates often undergo stigma related experiences as a result of power that is associated with the institution.

Thus, prisoners will be stigmatized on the basis that they are feeling powerless since they are being guarded. However, according to Goffman’s theory, the prisoners’ situation may not be equated to true stigmatization bearing in mind that they do not experience social, economic or political power in this situation. In addition, their thoughts are hardly directed towards the guards and hence, they are not seriously affected by the impact of stigmatization.

According to Goffman (1963, p.45), the aspect of stigma takes place when a person is considered deviant and linked with certain stereotypes which may be negative in nature. The present society still applies Goffman’s theory to illuminate how individuals are trying to manage their identities that are being perceived as undesirable in the presence of those who are normal.

For instance, the model is still applied by individuals who have certain diseases such as HIV/AIDS which for a long time, has been considered as a deviant ailment associated with those who are sexually immoral.

Therefore, HIV/AIDS patients try to manage their predicament even if they are disqualified from society by those individuals that Goffman termed as wise. However, Estroff (1989, p.189) argues that Goffman’s focus on the aspect of stigma is not fixed or inherent enough; the focus is a mere difference of meaning or experience faced by an individual (Goffman, 1963, p.53).

Goffman also defined stigma as an aspect that violates the expectations of society in both natural and ordinary settings among certain groups of people. According to the author, an individual who has attributes which are considered less desirable and are out of what the society expects is considered tainted or stigmatized in terms of identity.

Goffman argued that individuals with tainted identities have to be very cautious while presenting themselves in public. In addition, they need to critically determine the god or bad attribute to either hide or reveal to other individuals in certain circumstances (Estroff, 1989, p.190).

In present world, the society expects heterosexual adults to get an ideal mate and get married. Therefore, failure to achieve this may be considered to be abnormal and not acceptable in society. Moreover, individuals who have attained certain age are expected to find a partner and start up a family and therefore those who fail to achieve this are considered to be having an attribute that is less desirable in the society.

Nonetheless, in the society, there are still uniformly ingrained expectations of things that are considered natural and ordinary for individuals who decide to remain single even after attaining certain age (Fine & Asch, 1988, p.21). The process of finding a mate should also meet the expectations of the society by being natural and normal.

Hence, aspects such as online dating which have become common in the 21st century are some instance that illustrates the usefulness of Goffman’s theory of stigma. Individuals who date online are considered to be violating the expected dating practices as they meet their potential mates online and thus they have a tainted identity which is double in nature. On the basis of Goffman’s theory, there is tainted identity as online daters face stigmatization from the society (Heatherton et al., 2000, p.47).

Additionally, Goffman’s theory has been used and is still useful in current researches on modern social stigma especially on diseases that are associated with social stigma. Sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, psychiatric disorders and other physical disabilities are among diseases that are being researched and correlated to stigma using Goffman’s theory.

For instance epilepsy is one of the neurological disorders associated with quite a number of social stigmas. For example, a study carried out by Chung-yan in Hong Kong used the model to carry out a research on public attitudes on individuals who have epilepsy. Therefore, the theory has been used by researchers to identify ways of handling and dealing with stigma.

For example, the findings from the research have been used to formulate recommendations on ways of strengthening the system of rehabilitation centers not only in Hong Kong but also in other parts of the world. The theory has also been used to eliminate stigmas that are associated with mental illness (Goffman, 1959, p.78).

Studies on HIV/AIDS have also used the theory in tackling stigma that is associated with the disease. It has been used with the aim of evaluating the impact of stigma on care and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Medical practitioners and counselors apply the theory in their daily activities to sensitize individuals on the diseases and avoid stigma. Thus, the theory has been individuals to come out in open and declare their status an aspect that have helped in curbing the spread of the disease (Anleu, 2006, p.34)

A study carried out by Marshall, Douglas and McDonnell (2007, p. 67) evaluated some of the effects of stigma. It made use of Goffman’s theory in a study that consisted 210 people. Using the theory, the study found out that individuals who had high level of concerns regarding to their status did not respond and adhere to the medication while those who had low concerns regarding to the same adhered to their medications and other counseling services regarding their status.

Therefore, the theory is still being used in 2011 to understand reasons why individuals who are HIV positive abscond the drugs or spread the disease or refuse to embrace voluntary testing services. Moreover, the theory has been used to explain why individuals are not usually ready to reveal their status to others. This is because these individuals are more sensitive to social stigma (Link & Phelan, 2008, p.45)

Therefore, the aforementioned social stigma in Goffman’s theory in 2011 is still being associated with certain diseases and the effects of the stereotypes impact on people negatively. Furthermore, regardless of the nature of the stigma whether it impacts them negatively or positively the perceptions of individuals are usually altered regardless of the situation. Thus, the theory has been used and is still used in 2011 to create mutual understanding of stigma through education in order to eliminate it.

Furthermore the Goffman’s theory has been used to classify different categories of stigma. For instance, according to Goffman (1963, p. 77), stigma takes the form of a disease or condition, obesity, dating types, gender, culture and even race.

The theory has also been used to indicate how individuals who have been stigmatized feel that their lives is been changed from a normal to that which is tainted. The theory has also been used to individuals feel devalued and different by their peers (Cardwell & Flanagan, 2003, p.77). This has been used to address various occurrences in families, criminal justice systems, education, health care and workplace centers.

Link and Phelan (2008, p.45) further point out that Goffman’s theory has been used to explain reasons why people are being affected by stigma. For example, people who are stigmatized, in most cases, tend to behave the way society that stigmatized them expects.

Thus, the theory has been used and is still being used to explain how stigma not only changes behavior of individuals but also transforms their beliefs and emotions. Finally, it can be argued that the theory has been used to explain how stigma puts the social identity of people in situations that are threatening such as low self-esteem (Plummer, 1975, p.88).

In summing up, it is imperative to reiterate that Goffman’s theory on social stigma may not be dismissed in totality in spite of some of the differences in thought that may be evident when interpreting his arguments. As already mentioned, there are quite a number of infirmities that are still being associated with this theory especially in light of common stereotyping that is prevalent in society.

It is also worthy to mention that irrespective of the nature of stigma, perceptions and feelings of individuals are usually transformed to some degree, in the sense that stigma may affect individuals either positively or negatively. Hence, Goffman’s theory on this subject is still relevant up to date.


Anleu, S. L. R. 2006. Deviance, Conformity and Control, New York: Pearson Longman. Cardwell, M. & Flanagan, C.2003. Psychology A2: the complete companion. London: Nelson Thornes.

Estroff, S.E. 1989. Self, identity and subjective experiences of schizophrenia: in search of the subject. Schizophrenia Bulletin 15:189-196.

Fine, M, & Asch, A. 1988. Disability beyond stigma: social interaction, discrimination, and activism. Journal of Social Issues 44:3-22.

Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor.

Goffman,E, 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York. Prentice-Hall.

Heatherton, T. F et al. 2000. The Social Psychology of Stigma, Melbourne: Guilford Press.

Link, B. G. & Phelan, J. C. 2008. ConceptualizingStigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363-85.

Marshall, H., Douglas, K. & McDonnell, D. 2007. Deviance and Social Control: Who Rules? Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Plummer, K. 1975. Sexual stigma: an interactionist account, New York: Routledge.

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