The book reviewed here is ‘Stigma. Notes on the management of spoiled identity’ by Erving Goffman. This is a short(ish) book of 147 pages but I found myself needing to read it twice and still having some difficulty in getting to grips with it. I think possibly that this is because Goffman has a deep understanding of this subject and communicates it in a reflective style which is rich in interconnected concepts. This is probably a book which takes on new meaning with each reading.
Goffman has been compared to Kaffka in his literary style. Goffman cites examples of stigma in practice and opens the book with a poignant letter from a sixteen year old girl without a nose who writes that her mother cries when she looks at her and the effects that her appearance has on her relationships with other people.
In the first chapter on stigma and social identity, Goffman gives an outline of three types of stigma – stigma of character traits, physical stigma and stigma of group identity. Goffman then goes onto distinguish between the stigmatisable individual as being discredited or discreditable depending on the perceptions of others. Issues of acceptance as well as behaviours that can emerge in stigmatised groups are also discussed.
In the chapter on Information Control and Personal Identity, Goffman writes about stigma symbols as opposed to status symbols. Stigma symbols label an individual as someone who is stigmatised and various examples are given. Goffman talks about the visibility of stigma and different concepts of identity. He then follows this with methods for controlling information relevant to stigma including covering and passing.
In ‘Group Alignment and Ego Identity’, Goffman looks at issues of how the stigmatised perceive themselves both in terms of the stigma and in relation to others in their group who are stigmatised while in ‘The Self and Its Other’ he takes a closer look at the relationship between being stigmatised and not being stigmatised particulary in terms of perspectives. Goffman then finishes with ‘Deviations and Deviance’ in which he looks at people who deviate from social norms without reaching the level of stigmatisation.
Goffman’s work is thought-provoking. There is a need to reduce the stigma that those with mental illness may face in society and there are many campaigns of this nature emphasising the importance of what Goffman has written about. Goffman’s work shows the complexity of stigma which involves an interplay between society and the individual which is multilayered and in a state of flux. This is a difficult phenomenon to examine as it is a property of the group which is manifest both in actions and inactions which is why this level of analysis is perhaps the most meaningful. Goffman’s work has become a classic and will repay close study in the service of patients.
Erving Goffman. Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon and Schuster. 1986.
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