Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity

Goffman, Erving. Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity. Japan, Touchstone, 1986.

Goffman defines stigma as "the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance" (preface). This essay reviews the work done on stigma and how it can be utilized in sociology.

Stigma and Social Identity

Stigma originated from the Greek term "refer[ring] to bodily signs designed to expose someting unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier" (pg. 1). Today, the term is generally used in the same manner but focuses more on the "disgrace itself than the bodily evidence of it" (pg. 2).

Preliminary Conceptions

Goffamn suggests it is necessary to understand the preconditions of stigma. He describes how when we meet a person, first appearances result in categorizing of social identities, including social status and personal attributes (e.g., honesty). He calls this ascribing a "virtual social identity," which may be different from someone's "actual social identity." These anticipations turn into normative expectations, what Goffman calls presented demands. If evidence seems to arise that this person is different from others within their assumed category, it may be of a "less desirable kind" and they are "reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one" (pg. 3). Therefore, "an attribute that is deeply discrediting" is the source of a stigma. He points out that stigma is relational, given a discrediting attribute for one may be an accrediting attribute for another. He calls stigma a special relationship between attribute and stereotype "because there are important attributes almost everywhere in our society [that] are discrediting" (pg. 4).

He distinguishes between two perspectives of stigma: the discredited and the discreditable. The discredited already knows about their stigmatized attribute. The discreditable may assume it is unknown or imperceivable by others. An individual may experience both perspectives. He also mentions three types of stigma: "abominations of the body," "blemishes of individual character perceived as weak will" (e.g., dishonesty, addiction, unemployment, mental illness, homosexuality), and "tribal stigma" ("stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family" (e.g., race, nation, religion)) (pg. 4).

Relations and Learning Stigma

Those who do not posess stigma, what Goffman refers to as "normals," construct a stigma-theory, which is an ideology to explain the inferiority and danger the stigmatized person represents. Those who do possess stigma may react in a variety of ways. They may not care, or think others are the stigmatized ones. They may also engage in self hate. The situation of a stigmatized individual's life is an issue of acceptance. Some might seek acceptance through transformation. This does not erase that they had a stigma, but may transform them from someone with a blemish to someone who has corrected a particular blemish.

Goffman discusses the relations and interactions of the "normals" and the "stigmatized" as "mixed contacts." He points out that the anticipating of this mixing causes both parties to attempt to avoid such situations. He states that the stigmatized individual is often self-conscious in these interactions, and has to feel "on" to make a correct impression. Minor "failings" or "impropriety" may "be interpreted as a direct expression of [their] stigmatized differentness" (e.g., people hospitalized for mental illness being afraid to engage in an emotional spat with a spouse) (pg. 15). Being "present among normals nakedly exposes [them] to invasions of privacy" (pg. 16). "Normals" may experience an anxiety about overstepping, or the stigmatized person "overreacting" (pg. 18). The mismatch between virtual and actual identity "spoils" social identity, cutting the person off from society "so that [they] stand[] a discredited person facing an unaccepting world" (pg. 19). Yet there may be others who are understanding and can offer some social support. There are two types of sympathetic others: ones who share the same stigma and "one who is related through the social structure to a stigmatized person" (e.g., a loyal spouse, a family member, a friend). Goffamn suggests that the latter may even "acquire a little of the disease twice-removed," what he terms a "courtesy stigma" (pg. 30). He argues that a person's stigma spreading to other "normal" people is why these relations are avoided or terminated. Those with a courtesy stigma offer normalization to the stigmatized group (differing from normification, where the stigmatized individual presents themselves as "a normal").

Goffman also outlines four patterns in which one learns of their stigma and also develops their own moral conception of normal.
  • The first is when those with an inborn stigma are "socialized into their disadvantageous situation even while they are learning and incorporating the standards against which they fall short" (e.g., when an orphaned child learns children often have parents, but they themselves do not) (pg. 32).
  • The second involves having a protective capsule, most likely a family, who controls information so that the child does not understand that they are "different." However, at some point this circle can no longer protect the individual, and they will learn of their stigma (through ostracism, bullying, or purposeful separation like being sent to specific schools).
  • The third is when a person becomes stigmatized later in life or learns late in life they have been stigmatized. This type of person has learned the moral characteristics of normality before seeing themself as stigmatized.
  • The fourth is those who are initially socialized within a stigmatized community and then must learn a second way of being.

Much of what is learned about one's own stigma is through relationships with others in the same stigmatized community or through some social institution like a jail or orphanage. The segregation from the "normal" may cause fear or ambivalence.

Information Control and Personal Identity

This chapter deals with "the management of undisclosed discrediting information," for which Goffman adopts the term "passing." He points out the existence of "stigma symbols," which draw attention to some identity discrepency which might otherwise be overlooked or unnoticed - the opposite of "prestige symbols." He also discusses "disidentifiers" which break up coherent perceptions about a person - generally unexpected behaviors or signals. Signs vary in that they may be either congenital (from birth) or not and permanent or not.

Signs may mean one thing for one group and something else to another. Further, one's social connections are used to ascribe aspects about their social identity. For example, a suspect may also "legally contaminate" any person they are seen with, making them also a suspect.


In term of visibility, as in perceptability (being visible beyond sight alone), some stigmas are much more visible than others. Goffman names three notions of visibility in the context of stigma. He posits that visibility of stigma must be considered different than the following: its known-about-ness, its obstrusiveness, and its perceived focus.
  • Visibility is different than "known-about-ness" as whether others know about an individual's stigma depends on factors beyond current visibility. Specifically, whether they have any previous knowledge about the stigmatized person (e.g., through gossip, through previous encounters).
  • A factor of visibility is the obtrusiveness of the perceived stigma - how much it impedes interaction.
  • Both the visibility and obtrusiveness of the stigma "must be disentangled from certain possibilities of what can be called its 'perceived focus'" (pg. 49). Some stigmas have an immediate focus for those interacting with them, but other stigmas have no initial effect on the person's interactions.

Goffman moves beyond social interactions between "normals" and stigmatized to focus on the stigmatized personal intimate relationship with themselves and those close to them. He says some might presume that intimate relationships may not stigmatize the person in the same way as strangers or acquaintances. However, Goffman argues that though there may be a valid spectrum of acceptability and intimacy, familiarity may not reduce contempt. He argues that when one looks at the case of discredible persons, there is evidence that intimate relationships will be put off by stigma, given that individuals try harder to hide their stigmas from loved ones. Further, even if the loved one's acceptance is not inhibited by stigma, their duties may be.

Personal Identity

Goffman outlines what makes up the concept of the "individual" to better understand personal identity:
  • The uniqueness of that person, meaning the ability for another to recognize or identify them once they come to know them.
  • That while most particular facts or behaviors of one person may also be true for another, the collective of facts and behaviors of one person is unique. That is, no other combination of factors exists for another person.
  • The concept of an internal core of one's being making them different in some metaphysical way.

He defines personal identity by the first two idea of the individual. Its relevant to stigma is that Goffman argues personal identity "can be used to safeguard against potential misrepresentation of social identity" (pg. 60).


Every person is "an entity about which a record can be built up" (pg. 62). When it comes to biographies, Goffman posits we can assume that every individual has only one - not in a social sense, but a laws of physics sense, in that we have lived only one life. This differs from the social account of identity which presumes one can act as multiple selves. Given that personal identity is assumed to be unique and there is only one, Goffman considered the "degree of 'information connectedness'" - who knows which facts about a person and how those facts relate.

He claims that social misrepresentation is different than personal misrepresentation. Social misrepresentation is wearing different signs, such as being wealthy but dressing down. Personal misrepresentation is "proving one is not what one is," like using a false name. Either way, a secret of some sort, a misrepresentation, becomes more meaningful when hidden from closer ties. Social presentations in the form of social recognition, how recognized a person is within their general public sphere, also plays a role. Some people carry "ill-fame" and thus their personal identification inhibits their movements in public.


Passing, in terms of stigma, is when (1) no one knows a person has a stigma, including that person themself or (2) a person who carries a stigma tells no one and it is invisible. Through, in particular, the example of blackmail, Goffman argues that "a person who passes leads a double life, and ... the informational connectedness of biography can allow for different modes of double living" (pg. 76).

He highlights an assumed cycle of passing: (1) starting with unwitting passing that the passer themselves doesn't knowingly engage in; (2) the surprised passer realizes their passing; (3) passing for fun; (4) passing during non-routine social outings (e.g., vacations); (5) passing during routines (e.g., at work); (6) disappearance, or passing in all areas of life where the stigma is entirely secret. The person who may successfully pass to outsiders may not pass so well to insiders (Goffman's "fellow-sufferers" or "the wise"). The techniques of concealment may be known to those within the same stigmatized community.

Goffman names three psychic states of a passer, when someone has successfully passed to an ousider group. (1) Goffman proposes being torn between two types of attachments: the new passing group and the old stigma group. First, they may have anxiety that their secret may be discovered at any moment and their life will collapse as a result. Second, they may feel alienated from their new group, as they may be unable to fully identify with the attitude. They may feel disloyalty or self-contempt when offensive remarks are made about their stigma but they cannot defend against those remarks. Third, they must spend considerable social effort calculating otherwise mundane aspects of life, including responses in social situations.

Information Management Techniques

Information managment involves controlling information about the stigma for passing. One technique is to conceal signs known to be stigma symbols (e.g., marks on one's arm from drug use). Another technique is the use of disidentifiers, using other symbols to break up the stigmatized vision someone might otherwise have (e.g., a gay man and a lesbian marrying to portray heterosexuality). Another strategy is to present signs of their stigmatized identity as signs of a less stigmatized identity (what Goffman calls a "lesser of the two social evils" (pg. 94)). Yet another strategy is dividing the world into a large social group they tell nothing, and a small social group who they rely on and tell their secrets. Further, one can rely on their close social ties to help conceal the stigma - a spouse or parent, for example.

On the other hand, a stigmatized person may choose to openly disclose their stigma. They may voluntarily wear a stigma symbol to advertise their stigma. They may also fleeting personal slips of information, voluntarily providing some snippet of information that hints at a stigma. They might also reveal themselves as an authority on the stigma at hand (e.g., "As a queer person, I have..."). Should a stigmatized person accept themselves and feel they deserve respect, they will often unlearn the methods of concealment they once employed ("a state of grace" (pg. 102)).


Even if a person discloses a stigma, they may take steps to ensure it is not essentialized. They want to reduce tension and make it easier to divert attention from the stigma. Covering is "an effort to restrict the displau of those failings most centrally identified with the stigma" (pg. 103). It may also be called assimilation. Symbols that indicate a stigmatized identity may also provide cover for what might be more jarring aspects of a stigma.

Group Alignment and Ego Identity

Both social and personal identity can be constrasted with Erikson's "ego" (felt identity, the subjective sense of one's own situation and character that is obtained through social experience (pg. 105)). Whereas ego identity is a subjective and reflexive matter felt by the individual, social and personal identity are part of others' concerns and definitions about the individual's identity. He writes of this chapter:

"The concept of social identity allowed us to consider stigmatization. The concept of personal identity allowed us to consider the role of information control in stigma management. The idea of ego identity allows us to consider what the individual may feel about stigma and its management, and leads us to give special attention to the advice [they are] given regarding these matters."


When an individual applies identity standards to themself and fails to perform them, they may feel ambivalence towards themself. They may also "stratify [their] 'own' according to the degree to which [others] stigma is apparent and obtrusive" (pg. 107). This often results in a gatekeeping or othering attitude towards those with "more stigma" - an adopting of a normative view of people with stigma.

In-Group Alignments

The in-group is formed of the stigmatized individual's fellow-sufferers. If seeking professional counsel on a stigma, the professional may suggest an in-group stance - which Goffman suggests will cause an individual to "praise ... the assumed special values and contributions of [their] kind" (pg. 113). This may cause the individual to "flaunt" attributes that they "could easily cover" (pg. 113). Goffman refers to this as "militancy" and claims there are many well-known problems with it. For one, the individual may politicize their own life, making it even more different from "normal" life. Also, the stigmatizing behavior they engage in furthers stereotypes about the stigmatized group they belong to.

Out-Group Alignments

The individual may be asked by the professional to consider themself from the perspective of "the normals." This person is taught to strive for "good personal adjustment" and attempt to become as normal as possible. They are often taught not to hate their difference, but to overcome it, and not to feel bitter, resentful, or self-pitying. The labor is placed on the stigmatized individual to defuse situations and treat "normals" as if they know no better than to discriminate. They are expected to tactfully accept invasive questioning oe unsolicited offers to help to make it easier for "normals" to be around them. Goffman points out the risk of self-acceptance is "press[ing] their luck" and making "normals" too uncomfortable (pg. 121). The jist of this approach is that "the stigmatized individual cheerfully and unself-consciously accept [themself] while at the same time ... voluntarily withhold [themself] from those situations in which normals would find it difficult to give lip service to their similar acceptance" (pg. 121).

The true purpose of this is to appease society. "It means the unfairness and pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to [normals]; it means that normals will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance is; and it means that normals can remain relatively uncontaminated by intimate contact with the stigmatized, relatively unthreatened in their identity beliefs" (pg. 121). Goffman states this "phantom acceptance" the stigmatized individual has of themself leads to a "phantom normalcy" (pg. 122).

The Self and its Other

Here, Goffman suggests articulating the concept of deviation, as deviation links the study of stigma to the study of the general social world. He writes: "It can be assumed that a necessary condition for social life is the sharing of a single set of normative expectations by all participants, the norms being sustained in part because of being incorporated. When a rule if broken restorative measures will occur" (pg. 127-128). Some norms are established through the majority of the population enacting them (e.g., literacy), while other norms are idea, and even the majority will fall short and be compared to the idealized norm standard (e.g., physical beauty). Goffman argues that "identity norms breed deviations as well as conformance" (pg. 129).

The Normal Deviant

Goffman argues that stigma and norms are balancing and naturally co-occuring, and so the stigmatized person could be called a "normal deviant" given the relationship between the self-other, normal-stigmatized. Transformations from stigmatized to "normal" and "normal" to stigmatized are both sustained by those who undergo them and this suggests that standard practices and behaviors prepare individuals for either transformation.

The In-Group Deviant

The in-group deviant belongs to a specific social group, but deviates from the norms of that group, and is often regarded with less respect by other group members.

The Social Deviant

A person seen as rejecting the social order, despite available opportunities for advancement. Perceived as not merely equal to "normals" but better than them.