Book Review: Erving Goffman – Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, 1963

In Erving Goffman’s book, ‘Stigma — Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity’, he focuses on the social situations where people classified as ‘normal’ and ‘stigmatised’ [or ‘deviant’] come together and the many different processes and complex methods that are incorporated into this relationship between the two ‘groups’ of people — including their social and personal identity. Goffman illustrates his arguments through the use of many comprehensive and wide-ranging quotes from people who are most commonly stigmatised such as : the homosexual, the ex-mental patient, someone who is blind or deaf, someone who has a disfigurement of some kind and those with a disability. The experiences people who are stigmatised often have are commonly related to the ‘others’ in society placing their concern on their stigma [or ‘deviance’] rather than the individual’s personality as a whole.

Goffman states his main aim in the Preface to his book as offering a review of some popular work on Stigma to see what validity it has in Sociology. In his first chapter on ‘Stigma and Social Identity’, Goffman argues that it is society that creates the means of placing people into categories that best suit the ‘attributes’ the individual has and, that are ‘natural’ for the particular category they are fitted into. It is social settings that establish the categories of people who are likely to be found there. Highlighted by Goffman are discrepancies between an individuals ‘virtual’ [a characterisation imputed on the person, ‘in effect’] and ‘actual’ [the category and attributes the individual can be proved to possess] identity — if this is known about or clear it spoils his or her social identity, isolating the person from society and from him or herself so that the individual is ‘discredited’ [’discreditable’ is where it is possible to hide the stigma more].

Next, Goffman distinguishes between ‘the own’ [those who possess the ‘stigma’] and ‘the wise’ [those who have an experience of what having such a stigma is like but do not actually possess it] — these are both in their own way the ‘sympathetic others’. Those people who have a particular stigma have similar learning experiences and changes in the conception of self — a similar ‘moral career’ that is both cause and effect of a obligation to a similar series of personal adjustments. The patterns and phases that are concerned are detailed in this part of Goffman’s first chapter, which describes the relationship the stigmatised individual has to their own group and the ‘normals’.

In the second chapter, Goffman discusses the discreditable persons situation and the problem of ‘concealment and disclosure’ through the examination of the nature of ‘social information’ [about the individuals characteristics] and ‘visibility’ [ relevant in ‘passing’, how well or badly the stigma is adapted to provide means of communicating]. Goffman goes on to write about ‘personal identity’ and more intimate relationships having a role in the recession of a categoric approach. Personal identity, like social identity, divides up the individuals world of others for the individual — the division is between the knowing and unknowing. This all relates to the persons ‘biography’ [a story of the persons life] as held by others and the management and control of such information. ‘Covering’ is described as being where a stigmatised person is visible but limits ‘obtrusiveness’.

‘Ego identity’ [Chapter 3, p129] is described by Goffman as ‘subjective and reflexive’ and something that is felt by the individual whose identity is at issue, rather than social and personal identity where other people’s concerns are taken into consideration. In Chapter 4, Goffman deals with the situation of the stigmatised person with regard to how the individual responds to the position they are in. Goffman looks at ‘deviations’ and ‘social norms’ — failure or success at maintaining norms have a direct effect on the psychological ‘integrity’ of the individual.

The ethnographical nature of Goffman’s work is not unique although it is an important one, other symbolic interactionists such as Blumer and Becker adopted a similar approach and this was commonly used in the USA in the 1960s. Becker’s labelling theory was an influential work on deviance, and elements of Goffman’s work relate to his interactionist approach [the deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people label]. Although written in the early 1960s, Goffman’s book ‘Stigma’ still has relevance because it addresses the experiences that surround people who have disabilities, disfigurements or something else that causes others to stigmatise them in society. This is a strength of Goffman’s work, and his aim in part is a good one as there is a need to look at the issues involved in stigma, but problems can arise in this area when, as Goffman admits he does at the end of his book, people are classified together in any form — even for the purposes of analysis [as Goffman does in part but tries to avoid when possible]. The book achieves its aim and is very detailed, persuasive, coherent and a useful point for further research and study — although perhaps it could be brought up-to-date as there has been some advance in the understanding of elements such as disfigurement and disability, though some would argue not enough, especially with regard to the “correct” use of terminology.

While reading Goffman, I was surprised at how ahead of his time he was in terms of the implications stigma has on the individual — and I believe that to be another strength of his work — one example of this can be seen in ‘Information Control’ [p95] where Goffman illustrates ‘Passing’ with the use of a Norwegian sex offender, although there are differences, it bears resemblance’s in some sense to the current debates about child molesters being let out of prison into the areas where they committed their crimes — and whether or not details of what they have done should be made publicly available to protect other children from being harmed (although this is a fear I can appreciate). There are many other examples like this within Goffman’s work. Many of the examples were insightful and led to a greater understanding of the message that was being put across in the text — especially [p140] where the use of the term ‘cripple’ is described and how it makes the person being labelled as one feel physically sick. As Goffman argues in this passage, he is not a type, or a category but, more importantly, a human being — and any work which highlights this is significant in its own right.

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