Social Psychology Of Stigma Research Paper

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A person who possesses an attribute that risks their full acceptance from others is said to possess a stigma. As a consequence, the individual is stigmatized, reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one (Goffman 1963). A person with a stigma may be described as possessing a failing, a shortcoming, or a handicap, be viewed as deviant or abnormal, and thus be subject to marginalization or oppression. Thus, stigmatized individuals are the targets of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. In order to cope with their situation, some stigmatized individuals may make use of a variety of psychological and behavioral coping strategies.



There are several categories of attributes in our culture that have been the basis for pervasive stigmatization (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, physical ability, physical appearance, gender, and sexual orientation). Goffman (1963) described three general categories types of stigma: abominations of the body (e.g., physical deformities), blemishes of individual character (e.g., criminal behavior, addiction, or sexual orientation), or tribal stigma (e.g., race, nation, religion, etc.). Most characterizations of stigma emphasize its relational nature: an attribute cannot be stigmatizing without another attribute being viewed as more usual or more acceptable. For example, an unusually tall woman may not feel stigmatized in the company of other very tall people, however, she might feel stigmatized in the company of average height people. Depending upon the context, we all have the potential to be stigmatized.

The nature of stigmas may vary across several dimensions. For instance, Jones et al. (1984) described six dimensions: concealability of the stigmatizing attribute, course (duration and permanence) of the stigmatizing attribute, disruptiveness of the stigmatizing attribute in social interactions, esthetic qualities of the stigmatizing trait, origin or cause of the stigmatizing trait, and perilousness of the stigmatizing trait to others. Crocker et al. (1998) argued that two of these traits are the most critical to understanding the experience of a stigmatized person: the visibility (or concealability) of the attribute, and the controllability of the attribute (or the origin, reason for the person’s having that attribute; for example, personal choice vs. genetic inheritance).

1. History Of Research On Stigma

Early research on stigma was very descriptive in nature, bringing the circumstances and concerns of stigmatized individuals to the attention of the social sciences. This early research typically focused on one particular stigmatizing trait (e.g., physical disability, mental illness, or criminal status) in single-study pieces, often conducted by sociologists or clinicians using qualitative methods such as interviews and intensive case studies. It was not until 1963 that this varied literature was integrated into a single theoretical review in Goffman’s (1963) book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identities. His book provided a unifying theory of stigma, and insights into issues stigmatized people face in terms of their social and personal identity and their management of interactions with nonstigmatized people.

Early theorizing and research can be characterized as attempts to promote sympathy and understanding by emphasizing the perceived pitiable situation of stigmatized individuals. This is illustrated by Lewin’s (1941/1948) discussion of self-hatred among Jews and Allport’s (1954/1985) discussion of traits due to victimization. As Allport noted ‘One’s reputation, whether false or true, cannot be hammered, hammered, hammered, into one’s head without doing something to one’s character.’ It was during this phase that the famous ‘doll studies’ were conducted in an attempt to show the damage to the self-concept caused by prejudice and segregation (e.g., Clark and Clark 1939). The conclusions often drawn from this research were that black children showed self-hatred by preferring white to black dolls whereas no such self-hatred was shown by white children. Although later refuted (see below), these doll studies were used as evidence in the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of education (1954) to illustrate the damage caused by segregation.

The second phase of research can be considered a transitional phase, in that it represents a merger of research on stigma and research on prejudice, which had been largely independently conducted. This merger is illustrated by the second major integrative work on stigma, Jones et al.’s (1984) book Social Stigma: The Psychology of Marked Relationships. Jones and his colleagues illustrate clearly the connection between prejudice and stigmatization pro- viding further analysis of the implication of stigma for social interactions. This phase can be considered in part a result of the civil rights movement in that it was during this time that a new cultural norm emerged as to how to perceive stigmatized group members, providing new rights, higher social standing, and group pride to members of a number of stigmatized groups. During this time more affirmative theories of self-concept and group identity emerged as well as theories about processes by which the stigmatized can protect their self-esteem. It was also during this time of upward social mobility of oppressed group members that the large body of empirical work on intergroup contact and tokenism began.

The latest development in the research on stigma can be termed ‘The Target’s Perspective’ that has extended the research on stigma in two major ways. First, it broadens our view of the stigmatized. It highlights the importance of understanding how stigmatized individuals perceive prejudice (Swim et al. 1998) and the reasons for their responses to prejudice, which might be misinterpreted if not viewed within the larger context of their life experiences (Miller and Myers 1998). It also highlights understanding variations within stigmatized groups such as variations in extent and type of group identity (Cross 1991). Moreover, the target’s perspective research argues for a more empowering view of stigmatized individuals, not as passive recipients of prejudice but as active copers (Swim et al. 1998). Second, the target’s perspective research goes beyond simply merging the literatures on stigma and prejudice, instead arguing that the study of the target’s experience with prejudice should be used to enlighten the larger theory concerning prejudice and its perpetrators. The target’s perspective researchers have asserted that the research on prejudice primarily has studied perpetrators, failing to give a voice to the stigmatized.

2. Current Understanding Of Stigma

Research on stigma can be conceived of as representing three primary topic areas: (a) perceptions of prejudice and discrimination; (b) effects of prejudice and discrimination on the stigmatized; and (c) coping with prejudice and discrimination. Below we highlight illustrative and consequential work in these areas.

2.1 Perceptions Of Prejudice And Discrimination

Perceptions of prejudice include general perceptions of the prevalence of prejudice against specific groups or oneself and whether people label specific incidents that occur to themselves or others as discriminatory. An intriguing finding is that people tend to perceive that they personally are less likely to experience prejudice than are members of their group (Taylor et al. 1994). This finding spurred research examining motivational factors (e.g., a desire to not accuse others or to protect sense of personal control) and cognitive factors (e.g., difficulties in aggregating information) influencing stigmatized members to deny their personal experiences with prejudice. Consistent with a denial explanation for the personal group discrepancy, research has revealed that members of stigmatized group are more likely than members of nonstigmatized groups to underestimate the likelihood that specific ambiguous negative incidents are a function of discrimination against them (Rugerrio and Major 1998).

Several factors influence the likelihood that people will perceive prejudice and discrimination. First, individual differences in sensitivity to prejudice and discrimination influence perceptions. For example, the more people endorse sexist beliefs, the less likely they are to label certain incidents as sexual harassment (Swim and Cohen 1997) and African-Americans who have a general cultural distrust may more readily perceive prejudice than those who are more trusting (Feldman Barrett and Swim 1998). Second, several features of particular incidents influence perceptions. Some beliefs and actions are more readily defined as prejudicial. For example, women are more likely to favorably rate a man who endorses benevolent sexist beliefs than hostile sexist beliefs perhaps in part because they do not recognize the link between these two types of sexist beliefs (Kilianski and Rudman 1998). Benevolent sexist beliefs include the endorsement of complementary gender differentiation, heterosexual intimacy, and paternalism and men who tend to endorse these beliefs tend to also endorse hostile sexist beliefs. Also, some people are more likely to be perceived to be prejudiced than others are. That is, people hold stereotypes about stereotypers such as believing that whites are more likely to discriminate against blacks than blacks are (Inman and Baron 1996). Third, there are personal costs and benefits to perceiving prejudice (Feldman Barrett and Swim 1998). Perceiving prejudice when none existed can lead to interpersonal disruption and distrust in out-group members as well as to confirmatory biases and not perceiving prejudice when it does exist can endanger an individual’s self-esteem and can lead to internalization of prejudicial or stereotypical beliefs.

2.2 Effects Of Prejudice And Discrimination On The Stigmatized

As noted above, there has been much concern that prejudice psychologically impacts the stigmatized. Perhaps the best-known early set of empirical work is the previously mentioned doll studies originating in work by Clark and Clark (1939). The conclusion that these studies illustrate self-hatred among African-Americans has been disputed (e.g., Cross 1991) and countered by findings illustrating, for example, that African-Americans have higher self-esteem than European Americans as measured on standardized measures of self-esteem (Gray-Little and Hafdahl 2000). Despite these findings, it is important to recognize that some stigmatized groups (e.g., heavy women) may be more likely to have lower self-esteem than nonstigmatized people, which can be a function of internalizing prejudice (Quinn and Crocker 1998). There also is variation within stigmatized groups with some group members, such as those that do not strongly identify with a group, being more effected by prejudice than others (Gray-Little and Hafdahl 2000). Further, experiencing discrimination can lead to other psychological effects such as increased negative daily moods (Swim et al. 2000) and long-term psychiatric symptoms such as obsessive-compulsiveness, depression, and anxiety (Klonoff et al. 2000).

Decreases in academic performance are also important consequences of being in a stigmatized group. Compared with the nonstigmatized, stigmatized individuals may more often find themselves solo members of groups which can lead to distraction due to impression management concerns that can interfere with performance (Saenz and Lord 1989). Further, situations can induce stigmatized individuals to fear that others will stereotype them and this ‘stereotype threat’ can impair test performance (Crocker et al. 1998). For instance, telling women that there are gender differences on a difficult exam in a stereotype relevant domain of importance to the individual is sufficient to result in decrements in exam scores. Similar findings have occured for other groups, such as African–Americans.

2.3 Coping With Prejudice And Discrimination

Coping strategies used by stigmatized individuals can be divided into psychological and behavioral responses. In many cases, coping strategies protect people from the negative effects of prejudice and discrimination and have potential costs. Disengagement or disidentification is a possible psychological response to discrimination that can allow one to not attend to potentially demeaning feedback from others (Crocker et al. 1998). However, this can result in disidentification with domains that might be useful for promoting one’s academic success. One type of behavioral response is preventative. Stigmatized individuals may choose to avoid situations where they feel that they may encounter prejudice (Swim et al. 1998) or to engage in behaviors that might compensate for the negative expectations that others might have of them (Miller and Myers 1998). Although these prevention strategies may protect the individual from future encounters with prejudice, they too have their costs. Avoidance can cause people to miss opportunities, prevent disconfirmation of beliefs, and prevent the development of meaningful relationships. People can overcompensate for prejudice, which may appear out of place or fake, or they may undercompensate particularly if they are in situations where they do not feel threatened. Other behavioral responses occur after an event and these responses can be both nonassertive and assertive (Swim et al. 1998). People may choose to politely confront a person, for instance, by asking the perpetrator to explain themselves, by attempting to educate the perpetrator, or by engaging in collective action against the perpetrator. While these responses may result in change and may leave the target feeling more empowered, there are potential costs, such as retaliation on the part of the perpetrator especially with the more assertive responses.

3. Future Directions

As noted above, current research on stigma has broadened our understanding of the stigmatized and we anticipate that this process will continue to occur. For instance, there are still relatively few studies that illustrate the strengths of the stigmatized. However, we anticipate that this will change with more people focusing, for instance, on how the stigmatized support each other, confront perpetrators, and set and seek their life goals. Further, we anticipate that there will be more research on variations in experiences across stigmatized groups, such as differences in experiences of those from different Asian countries or differences in identity and economic standing within any stigmatized group. Moreover, there will be more complexity in these analyses as mixed relationships develop where children are born to parents of different ethnic heritages or adopted to parents who do not share, for instance, the same ethnic heritage as their parents.

We also anticipate that research on the stigmatized will continue to inform and be informed by other research areas. For instance, there is a strong connection between the literature on stress and stigma in that experiences with prejudice can be considered forms of stressors. Further research on stigma likely to lead to major changes in how people study prejudice and intergroup relationships. Given greater emphasis on similarities and differences between the stigmatized, there may be greater attention paid to similarities and differences between racism, sexism, heterosexism, and antifatism. There may also be greater recognition in the subjectivity in defining what is and is not prejudice in that members of different groups will likely disagree as to what constitutes prejudicial behavior. Further, there will likely be more attention paid to the contributions that the stigmatized have to intergroup relationships, such as understanding their attempts to maintain smooth intergroup interactions as well as the origins and characteristics of their prejudices against both dominant groups and other stigmatized groups.


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