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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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Spoiled identities: stigma

In his classic book Stigma (1963), the Canadian-born Erving Goffman argues that stigma relates to the notion of ‘devaluation’, in which an individual is disqualified from full social acceptance. Society establishes ways of categorising people and what are felt to be the ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ attributes for each category. Stigma, then, is essentially a pejorative (negative) label that sticks, one that is applied to an individual’s ‘differentness’, their perceived non-conformity, deviance or simply a difference in appearance or behaviour. That individual is then discredited. Stigma can result from physical or mental impairment, from known biographical records (such as a prison sentence or hospital stay) or from context (keeping ‘bad company’). It can be ascribed (e.g. his father is a criminal, so he must be one) or achieved (e.g. becoming a delinquent).

Goffman argues that society tends to regard the person with a stigma as ‘not quite human’ and this leads to a form of discrimination that reduces their life chances. Of course, stigmatised individuals are likely to be very aware that others do not accept them and are not prepared to deal with them on an equal basis. Their own sensitivity to the standard set by society may also lead to some incorporation of that judgement into their view of self. As Goffman puts it:

… shame becomes a central possibility, arising from the individual’s perception of one of his own attributes as being a defiling thing to possess.

(Goffman, 1963, p. 18)

Self-identity and ascribed identity are rarely separate from each other. They interact with, and impact on, each other. In other words, our views of ourselves are necessarily formed by other people’s views of us.

Think back to Mary Baker’s experience of going to Halliwick Hall. This example dramatically illustrates how someone’s self-identity can change drastically, in this case through admission to residential care. Mary had one view of herself up to the point of her admission, but the regime at Halliwick Hall treated her as a number, rather than as a person with a name and individuality. Even without knowing more about Mary’s story, it would be reasonable to assume that her ascribed identity may have led her to experience the ‘shame’ described by Goffman and to have low self-esteem. You can see here how societal definitions of a stigmatised group (here children with disabilities), can have a devastating impact on the way in which they are treated and therefore come to view themselves.

Mary Baker’s account reminds us that some regimes in institutional care can, and do, damage a person’s sense of identity. Stripping people of their individual characteristics by dressing them in the institution’s uniform, calling them by numbers rather than by name and treating them all alike are powerful assaults on an adult’s identity – even more so on a child’s. Residential care, like all living environments, can be a powerful influence in determining residents’ identities, for good or bad.