Stigma Labelling and Stereotyping Of Mental Illness by Goffman

Key Issues: Stigma Labelling and Stereotyping


  • The word originated from the Greeks.
  • Stigma referred to a sign burnt or cut into the body to demarcate slaves, criminals, and social outcasts as “ritually polluted” people.
  • It is currently used to refer to any conditions that mark out the bearer as ‘culturally unacceptable’ or ‘inferior’
  • Stigma refers to a negative attribute that socially discredits an individual and confers a ‘deviant’ status
  • Stigma – a label that associates an individual with some negative characteristics
  • Goffman (1963) describes stigma as the difference between the virtual social identity and the real social identity


  • He is an interactionist and examines the way in which social interaction can, and does break down
  • Dramaturgical theory – The notion that a person’s identity is not a stable and independent psychological entity; it is constantly changed as the person interacts with others.
  • Dramaturgy – Views people as actors who are continually involved in “impression management“in their daily interaction.
  • Goffman differentiates between “front stage” and “backstage” behaviour.
  • Before any interaction with another, an individual usually prepares a role, or impression, that he or she wants to make on the other.
  • Unfortunate infringements may take place, in which a backstage performance is interrupted by someone not meant to see it
  • Goffman (1959) sees embarrassment as a significant social and moral problem
  • Stigmatising conditions are embarrassing and allow for an infringement of the back-stage attributes of individuals

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Goffman Theorises That

  • The stigmatised person is seen by the so-called ‘normal’s’ as inferior ‘not quite human’    and as a result discriminated against.
  • The stigmatised individual might also have additional imperfections imputed to them on the basis of the original stigmata – Stereotypes are created.
  • The stigmatised is seen as having a perpetually flawed social identity.
  • Goffman (1963) theorized about courtesy stigma or the discrimination of people associated with the stigmatized

Erving Goffman (1963) identified three types of stigma:

  1. Stigmas of the body – Abominations of the body.
  2. Stigmas of character – Blemishes of individual character
  3. Stigma as applied to social collectivities /socio-cultural groups (The tribal stigmas of race and religion)


  • Scambler (2004) differentiates between:
  • ‘Felt stigma’ (i.e, the shame of being identified with a discrediting condition and the fear of encountering enacted stigma)


  • Enacted stigma (i.e. actual episodes of discrimination, both formal and informal, against people with a stigmata solely on the grounds of their having a stigmatising condition).

Coping Mechanisms for the Stigmatised:

  • The stigma in some individuals is not known about , but could make them ‘discreditable’ – if publicly known – Task: Passing as normal, Covering and managing expectations
  • The stigmatising condition in some individuals is obvious or ‘widely known about’ – ‘discredited’ – Task: managing tension, information control and withdrawal
  • Goffman’s description of stigma is closely aligned to the ‘Labelling theory’
  • Scambler describes a ‘hidden distress’ model – this is the notion that people with a stigmata are fearful of experiencing enacted stigma and pursue an active policy of non-disclosure.
  • This may also increase the stress of managing their disorder, with the result that stigma has a far more disruptive effect on their lives.
  • Link & Phelan (2001) assert that the disease process is exacerbated by stigma-related stress.
  • Jacoby, Snape & Baker (2005) describe stigma as a potentially major contributor to the illness burden
  • The level of felt and enacted stigma could be influenced by socio-cultural values
  • Deviance – relates to any behaviour or condition that contradicts recognised social norms in society or in a specific group [– see notes from week 1 on definition of illness as deviance and on the sick role and the doctor’s role in managing deviance]
  • Parsons (1951) defined illness as a deviance
  • He perceives illness as capable of fracturing the social system as the sick are unable to perform their social role
  • The doctor’s role is to restore social order by legitimating entry and exit from the sick role
  • Three levels of deviance and the stigmatisation process have been described (Lemert, 1967):


  1. Primary deviance – original violation/deviance/ and societal reaction to this non-conformity to societal norms
  2. Secondary deviance – The deviant’s reaction to negative societal reaction (self-fulfilling prophecy)
  3. Tertiary deviance – The stigmatised persons’ reaction to the stigma from others leads to master status; a label that overshadows all other characteristics – the secondary deviant attempts to re-label certain behaviours as normal rather than deviant



  • Labelling refers to the process of identifying and ascribing a label or negative qualifying attribute to an individual’s characteristics
  • It refers to identifying certain characteristics of individuals and giving it a negative label (Lemert, 1967)
  • Becker, (1963) presents a core assumption of labelling theory:

‘Deviance is not the quality of the act the individual commits    but a consequence of the label that others apply to it’

  • Labeling, stereotyping, separation from others, and consequent status loss are elements of stigma expressed in a power situation
  • Freidson’s (1965) description of illness as deviance from societal norms – or rule-breaking behaviour – dwells largely on the exploration of primary and secondary deviance
  • Scheff (1966) posits that mental illness is a product of societal views and reaction. i.e. mental illness is just a product of being labelled insane and treated as deviant


Key Themes from Literature on Stigma

  • Cultural factors are involved in the stigmatisation process
  • Stigmatisation is a product of power imbalance in society – e.g. labelling, stereotyping e.t.c
  • Factors that define the level of stigma suffered include:

(1)    Degree of presumed    complicity of sufferer

(2) Degree of discomfort caused in social relations


Selected Bibliography & References

  • Becker (1963)
  • Goffman, E (1963), Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity
  • Scambler, G (2004), Health-related stigma. Sociology of Health & Illness 31 411-455
  • Freidson (1965) Profession of Medicine, New York
  • Scheff (1966) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory, Chicago
  • Link & Phelan (2001) Conceptualising Stigma, Annual Review of Sociology,
  • 27 363-385
  • Jacoby, Snape & Baker (2005) Epilepsy & Social Identity: the stigma of a
  • Neurological disorder, Lancet Neurology, 4 (3) 171-8
  • Parsons (1951)