What is Stigma

What is Stigma?

Hand drawn depiction of a girl huddled in a corner surrounded by derogatory words scratched angrily into the walls and ceiling. Some of the words included are ugly, dumb, freak, crazy, loser and whore.

Physical representation of how stigma places destructive labels on people.

Strange, weird, dangerous, perverted, a freak – these are all terms used to create distance between groups of people, to create the ‘other’, and they are all markers of stigma. Broadly defined, stigma is a discrediting attribute or mark of disgrace that leads others to see us as untrustworthy, ‘tainted’, or incompetent. Stigma is therefore a socially constructed notion of social acceptance based upon identity and association.

The first sociologist to explore this concept was Émile Durkheim who, in 1895, noted how deviance and criminality are violations of social norms and thereby concepts created by society (Durkheim 1895). Erving Goffman’s 1963 work Stigma: Notes On The Management Of Spoiled Identity, marked the most influential exploration of the concept. His definition, incorporating and refining the work of his predecessors, is “the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance” under three distinct identity altering grounds (Goffman 1963: 9). Goffman’s work has strongly influenced today’s conceptions of stigma, categories of stigma, its use and the various management techniques stigmatized individuals respond with.

The three distinct types of stigma outlined by Goffman in the first chapter of his text are:

  1. “abominations of the body” (i.e. physical: genetic deformities, scars etc.)
  2. “blemishes of individual character” (i.e. generalized bad character: unnatural passions, alchoholism etc.)
  3. “tribal” (i.e. group affiliation: race, nationality, religion etc.)


In his 1963 work Goffman further categorizes stigma variation by four criteria that can affect the perceived level of deviance or depravity:

  1. visibility (i.e. discernable by others)
  2. publicity (i.e. already known by others)
  3. obtrusiveness (i.e. affecting social interaction)
  4. relevance (i.e. situational)

These variations are not mutually exclusive and often overlap due to differing levels of perceived depravity, an individual’s choice, and external factors. A famous example is the stigmatization of sufferers of HIV/AIDS who are differentiated from normative society on all three levels: illness, choice to engage in perceived “dangerous” sex (often assumed homosexual sex) and the assumed connection with homosexuals, greatly feared and stigmatized in their own right, especially during the moral panic surrounding HIV/AIDS of the 1980s and ‘90s (Tomaszewski 2012). Another example is the stigma surrounding depression or other ‘subtle’ forms of mental illness which are so often brushed off as a stigma of character but due to the biological origins of the illnesses, could also be assigned physical stigma. Stigma can be degrading, demoralizing and even lead to violence, yet as the Bring Change 2 Mind group says “We can overcome stigma.” Overcoming stigma around mental illness could have remarkable impactful on the amount of people who seek help instead of hiding what they are going through. Due to this, there are add campaigns in attempt to end stigma around mental illness. 

A girl sitting curled up with her head in her arms using stigma management instead of talking about her depression

Stigma around mental illness often stops sufferers from be honest about what they’re going through

The video below features a few people who were asked what stigma is. They do a great job of not only explaining what it is but also why it is significant, especially in terms of stigma towards mental illness. 



Stigma within deviant subcultures

Stigmatization often goes hand-in-hand with labels of deviance. This can be due to fear, lack of information or even the result of stereotyping but the end result is the same: separating a specific group or individual from those who would be considered ‘normal’. In fact, the level of deviance attributed to a certain action such as piercing one’s ears vs. the eyebrow is usually a direct result of stigma held against those behaviors in other contexts (i.e. pierced eyebrows being associated with delinquent youth). What results is a cycle of devaluation, shunning, and outright hostility against those society deems unwanted or undeserving.

Subcultures are often prime targets for this cycle. Individuals who are already sidelined from mainstream society due to differences such as socio-economic status or hobbies are inclined to join with others who are in the same or similar situation. These groups can sometimes develop into larger communities and subcultures as more people join. Yet the stigma originally attributed to individuals can transfer to the group, in which case further stigma is added to those judged, simply for being part of that subculture. An example of this is the Bronie subculture of mature adults, frequently men, who are fans of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Simply being an adult male fan of a TV show intended for little girls carries heavy baggage but that interest could be easily hidden or explained away using simple stigma management techniques. It is when those fans publicize their interest that they become associated with the larger community of Bronies and they are further stigmatized by beliefs in the overall subculture such as these men being pedophiles and Furries.

The result of stigmatizing groups and subcultures is a whole lot of psychological stress, limited social opportunity and even physical danger for the stigmatized that could otherwise be avoided. As youtuber Game Quitters says “continuing to stigmatize or shame people for playing video games is only going to cause them to play more video games.” The video below elaborates on this statement, explaining how stigma can enhance the bond gamers feel with each other as it pushes them from society.



Stigma Management

Responses to Stigma: Stigma Management

To avoid the problematic issues that come with stigma, individuals so labeled, in the process of being labeled or even in fear of it, use various techniques to control the presentation of this aspect of their identity. Goffman writes in the second chapter of his text Stigma that there are the discredited and the discreditable individuals – differentiated by the first two criteria mentioned above: visibility and publicity (42). The discredited are individuals whose mark of stigma are already visible and known before any interactions/labeling (think skin color, physical deformity, fashion etc.). The discreditable are those whose stigma is not immediately obvious or known (think sexual preference, tattoos hidden by clothing etc.). These two types of individuals in fear of being stigmatized would employ different techniques in response to the perceived threat. Stigma management techniques include the various ways people can respond before, during and after the moment of stigmatization. For our purposes there are 7 distinguishable techniques, none of which are exclusive to a particular type of stigma or level of visibility but are rather tools stigmatized individuals may combine and deploy as required:

  • Normalizing – The act of maintaining/proving one’s normalcy, often involving the ‘it’s just a guilty pleasure’ mentality. i.e. “I really don’t play video games that often, only on the weekends.”
  • Neutralizing – The act of explaining why one’s specific situation is not deviant and why it should not be stigmatized. i.e. “Its okay Grandma, I only got a tattoo because I wanted to remember Grandpa.”
  • Passing – The act of performing normalcy, often involving the lying and reinforcing of stigma around the characteristic in question. i.e. “What are you talking about? Of course I don’t wear makeup, I’m a guy, that would be weird.”
  • Covering – The act of hiding the stigmatizing characteristic either verbally or physically. i.e. “Oh, those Barbies aren’t mine. My sister must have left them there.”
  • Insulating – The act of physically separating oneself and/or the characteristic in question from ‘normal’ society to avoid judgement.
  • Distancing – The act of physically separating oneself from other stigmatized individuals, often involving the ‘I’m not like them’ mentality
  • Embracement – The act of publicly accepting the stigmatizing characteristic, often with pride to counter the shame of stigma or a simple lack of other techniques if the characteristic happens to become common knowledge. i.e. “I don’t care what they say, I love My Little Pony. That show is awesome!”




Person whose eyes are covered by a band that reads "AIDS"People who suffer from HIV/AIDS often end up suffering in silence due to the stigma associated with the illness, as well as the stigma surrounding groups who are typically affected by HIV such as homosexuals, immigrants, African Americans and drug users. This stigma placed on those who contract this illness, cause the people to engage in different types of stigma management techniques.



The first technique people with HIV use is distancing, in which they attempt to disassociate themselves with the more stigmatized aspects of the illness, such as affiliation with the groups commonly affected, and attempt to attribute their infection to a more socially accepted source. Such as saying that they are not like drug users who are careless about needles or gay men who are promiscuous and irresponsible with protection. In distancing themselves they do not challenge the stigma associated with the illness itself, but instead create a category of victims, perceived to be more innocent contractors, and place themselves within this category.(13)


HIV/AIDS is an illness that begins to show physical symptoms as it progresses. When people want to conceal the fact that they are infected with HIV but cannot hide their physical symptoms they use the management technique covering. Many people will do so by lying about the illness that they have, claiming that they have illnesses such as cancer, that have fewer negative stigmas associated with them, but have similar severities. Lying in this way enables them to avoid the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. If instead, people believe that their symptoms are too far along to lie about they will sometimes use the isolating management technique. This technique is often very alienating as it causes people to hide the fact that they have HIV by completely hiding themselves, avoiding social interaction, and isolating themselves from the people in their lives.(12)


There are some people who use a very different management technique in which they do not attempt to hide their infection or distance themselves from its stigmas, instead they openly disclose and discuss the fact that they have HIV. This management technique is embracement. Hiding the illness creates the perception that the illness is shameful and should be concealed. Openly talking about ones’ infection with the illness challenges this assumption. One person suffering from HIV stated that, “The more you talk about it, the less stigmatized you feel. And the more people you tell, the more people are on your side. The more love and understanding and comprehension you get from everyone, and the less ostracized you feel.” (17-18).




Homeless individuals are often stigmatized as lazy or unintelligent and are often blamed for the difficulties that they face. Society assumes people are homeless due to factors such as being irresponsible with their money or being unwilling to put the effort in to get a job or stop drinking, ignoring the fact that many people are homeless because of factors and circumstances out of their control. The stigma that is associated with being homeless prevents those people from escaping their situation, so they use management techniques to lessen or negate the effects of this stigma.


A man turning a blind eye to the homeless

If people view the homeless as somehow deserving of their situation it is easier to turn a blind eye to their suffering


One strategy homeless people use is covering, in which they try to conceal the more stigmatized aspects associated with homelessness such as their clothing or speech. While going out to a fancy restaurant with a friend who is not homeless or going to a job interview, a homeless person using this strategy would attempt to minimize the things people associate with homelessness and stress habits which fit the societal standard of normal. They may wear their nicest clothes, be more conscious about their choice of language, and present themselves with intentionally improved manners (36).


Other times, homeless people will use the management technique of distancing. If they are able to distance themselves from more damaging aspects of homelessness then people might perceive them as separate from those aspects and thus they would be less affected by the stigma. This could be done by disassociating ones self with groups people perceive as reckless or lazy such as gang members or gamblers and attribute your homelessness to something more traumatic and out of their control such as a house-fire or death of a parent. This creates a group ‘other’ that perceived as more innocent and therefore is less stigmatized.


Using the management technique of embracing allows homeless children to feel more confidents and less worthlessness. Being more open and not ashamed creates an environment to discuss homelessness. This opens doors to being an advocate for education and change, which may lead to lesser stigma in the future.


Often homeless children attempt to “pass” as their non-homeless peers to gain access to public domain and to better fit into society’s norms. This technique of passing is most commonly demonstrated as homeless children dressing like a non-homeless child (such as wearing the latest trends or non raggedy clothing). In the above mentioned study, homeless children were more likely to chose clothing in terms of style rather than functionality. “On numerous occasions, kids refused to take donated coats during the winter because they were ugly and out of style.” By giving the appearance of being a non-homeless child, they are less likely to be judged or stigmatized at first glance, providing them with less restricted access to things such as trust, sympathy, or respect from strangers (42).




Secular and Religious differences

Atheists and other secular groups are often associated with communism. To mainstream society, being “god-less” is stigmatized as having no moral compass and often labels the individual as a radical. It is interesting to note that society was fine with people who do not practice religion but still believed in god, however, society looks negatively on those who do not believe in god. The negative stigmas surrounding atheists, agnostics, and other secular religions are slowly becoming less prevalent in society, but due to the still strong presence of catholic religion in mainstream society, identifying as a follower of those religions can still restrict an individual. 



A cartoon of a man walking down a stairwell progressively passing each point that turns christianity into agnosticism.  Each step is another characteristics that needs to change to evolve christianity into agnosticism.

Normalization focuses on removing the aspects of a stigma that separate those stigmatized people from the rest of society. “A common way in which secular respondents redefined their secularism was to emphasize positive aspects of secularism.” sayings such as “being an atheist is a proactive lifestyle because it encourages you to solve your own problems” and “most atheists I know are some of the best people I’ve met” are ways in which non-God believing religions remove the negative stigmas of radicalness and highlight the religion in a way that makes it seem appealing, or normal. Secular followers redefine their situation by indicating that “secularism is a valid alternative to religion. By expressing how these religions help society and are not different from other religions more accepted from society.” (7)


Neutralization occurs when a deviant neutralizes various aspects and morals of themselves to allow them to perform the deviant, stigmatized act. Neutralization normally occurs after the act has been performed to help reduce tensions surrounding the stigma. Atheists often report themselves as being “neurologically wired” to be the way there are. Others frequently use the argument that even if there was a God, they would hate him/her because while he may create life and be responsible for the beauty of nature, he is also responsible for war, death, and pain. Secularists, Atheists, and Agnostics justify their absence of prayer or religious practice by the fact that god does bad things along with the good. They rationalize with themselves that not partaking in mainstream religion is okay because it has down sides too. 


Passing is a stigma management technique that could be common for Midwest seculars. Religion is a fairly personal aspect to most people and is not often dictated by appearance. This makes it easy to utilize passing because unless an individual is asked, most people will assume a person is religious, allowing seculars to escape the stigmas of being non-religious. “For example, an atheist may try to pass as an agnostic or claim to be a humanist to avoid the negative connotations of the label “atheist.” Or an atheist may choose to say they are agnostic because it gives the impression that they are open to religion or are seeking a religion, which mollifies the stigma of having no belief.” 




Portrait or Emile Durkheim

Portrait of Emile Durkheim

Portrait of Erving Goffman

Portrait of Erving Goffman

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist whose succeeded in establishing sociology as a major science. Along with other sociologists, such as Weber and Marx, Durkheim is responsible for establishing social science and social psychology as an academic discipline within the college setting. He is considered the father of social science. He has published several books; he specialized in the study of social order. 


Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman was a Canadian-American sociologist and writer who focused on the study of symbolic interaction. His major areas of study included everyday life, social interaction, the social construction of self, social organization and framing of experience, and particular elements of social life such as total institutions and stigmas. It was Goffman who coined the 7 above mentioned techniques for managing social stigmas. 


Media and Relevant Literature


An image of the book cover





Heatherton, Todd F., Kleck, Robert E., Hebl, Michael R., and Hull, Jay G. The Social Psychology of StigmaGuilford Press. New York, NY. 2003.

This book focuses on why and how individuals are targeted with social stigma and the repercussions of social stigmas.






Cover of Goffman's book on stigma management.





Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes On The Management Of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall.

This book describes (amongst other things) the most common ways humans manage social stigmas implemented on them by society. 











Cover of Durkheim's book on sociological method Durkheim, Émile. Rules of Sociological Method. The Free Press, 1895.

During Durkheim’s attempt to create a proper subject matter for sociology, this book explores the idea of social facts (issues that exist throughout and entire society) and how they are a result of social issues, not individual or personal issues. 











Videos and Documentaries

Imagine there was no Stigma to Mental Illness

A Ted Talk about how things would be if there were no stigma around mental illness.




Do I Sound Gay?

A documentary by journalist and director David Thorpe, is a 2014 documentary exploring traditionally assumed gay speech forms and the stigma around ‘sounding gay’ in modern society.




  • stigmaindex.org – HIV/AIDS community and information sharing website – Collects geographical data about the social stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS by country. Also provides information about HIV/AIDS relative to all types of people (homosexual, women, children, etc.). 
  • cdc.gov – Informational page about homosexual stigma – Provides a good starting point for research on stigma and its effects on those who consider themselves homosexual. Also includes information on what family and friends can do to support these individuals and further relevant literature.

Articles and Journals

Curra, John. “The Relativity of Deviance”. SAGE Publications. 2016

Garneau, Christopher R. H. “Perceived stigma and stigma management of midwest seculars.” University of Nebraska, Sociology Theses, Dissertations, & Student Research. Paper 22, 2012.

Link, Bruce G. and Phelan, Jo C., 2001. “Conceptualizing Stigma.” Annual Review of Sociology. 27: 363-385. 

Noltensmeyer, Candy J., and Rebecca J. Meisenbach. “Emerging Patterns of Stigma Management Communication Strategies Among Burn Survivors and Relational Partners.” American Behavioral Scientist 60.11 (2016): 1378-397. SAGE Journals. SAGE Publications, 2016.

Roschelle, Anne R., and Peter Kaufman. “Fitting In and Fighting Back: Stigma Management Strategies among Homeless Kids.” Symbolic Iteration 27.1 (2000): 23-46. ResearchGate. 2004.

Siegel, Karolynn, Howard Lune, and Ilan H. Meyer. “Stigma Management Among Gay/Bisexual Men with HIV/AIDS.” Qualitative Sociology 21.1: n. pag.ResearchGate. Human Sciences Press, 1998.

Tomaszewski, Evelyn. “Understanding HIV/AIDS Stigma and Discrimination”. NASW HIV/AIDS Spectrum Project – Human Rights and International Affairs Division: Human Rights Update, March 2012.