Placing Stigma in Context

As a social psychologist—and unlike an organizational sociologist—I am curious to explore the processes by which an organization is stigmatized. In the context of the clergy sex abuse scandal and cover-up within the Catholic Church, individual priests, bishops, cardinals, and even the previous pope have been stigmatized for the part they played in this scandal; but the larger institution of the Church has been stigmatized as well. In reviewing the current literature on stigmatization, I find myself mystified by the fact that it is invariably studied without any sense of understanding the larger, conceptual context in which it is embedded. The following represents my early articulation of the relevance of Erving Goffman’s other works to our understanding of stigma and is inspired by Ann Branaman’s essay “Goffman’s Social Theory.”

An examination of the literature on stigma highlights the tendency of social researchers to consider stigmatization as a phenomenon set apart from Erving Goffman’s other work on self and everyday social interaction. It’s as if Goffman’s work on stigma is somehow unrelated to impression management, total institutions, framing, strategic interaction, and interaction rituals when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, while the works of Goffman are “seldom … studied as a whole” (Branaman 1997:xiv), together they form an integrated system such that the other works of Goffman should inform our understanding of his conceptualization of stigma.

The nature of self informs us that stigmatized identity arises in the course of performance just as much as a “normal” identity does. The self arises through performances for which validation may be granted or withheld by the audience (Branaman 1997; Goffman 1959). To be perceived as moral, for example, one must act the part. At the same time, however, those around us must accept that performance in order to be truly considered moral. In order to sustain a positive image or self—in order for one’s performance to be validated—one not only needs to perform well, but must also have access to “structural resources” and posses “desirable traits and attributes.” Stigma primarily has to do with the latter: those who posses undesirable traits and attributes—and also those who simply do not have the desired traits—are stigmatized as a result. These individuals are put in a position in which they are expected to accept their lower, stigmatized status. Only that kind of performance is validated. A professional stripper is likely to have a difficult time presenting her or his self as moral, at least within the general public. Performances as a “normal”—or in this case, “moral”—person are not validated. Moreover, acceptance of one’s status within the social hierarchy is a fundamental manifestation of the interaction rituals (Goffman 1967) that establish the social order that holds society together. In other words, the self one successfully performs is not something that is freely chosen; instead, it is accorded to her or him by society through the validation process.

At the same time, however, the individual—even the stigmatized individual—is motivated to present her or his self in the best possible light and to create the most advantageous image possible. The “self-as-performer,” in seeking to present a positive image, also takes “precautions against embarrassment” (Branaman 1997:xlviii-xlix). For this reason, performance involves, among other techniques, both idealization and misrepresentation. Idealization implies not only presenting one’s self as “living up to ideal standards,” but also “entails a certain amount of concealment of inconsistencies” (1997:lii). This is where misrepresentation enters into the performance. For those whose stigma is readily apparent to others, what Goffman (1963) terms the “discredited” (such as most members of racial minority groups) it is very difficult to pass as a “normal” (or, in the case of the U.S., a white person). However, for the discreditable—those whose stigma is not obvious and is unknown to others—misrepresentation and idealization offer a chance to pass as a non-stigmatized person. The challenge for these individuals is in managing information about themselves—information that is discrediting and therefor stigmatizing. The professional stripper, for example, many pass her or his self off as a dancer.

In this way, the discreditable become involved in strategic interaction (Goffman 1969) with those around them. Misrepresentation and idealization necessarily involve keeping secrets about one’s self. If the discrediting information comes to light—if an acquaintance catches the dancer performing in a strip club—validation of one’s performance as “normal” and the attendant deference shown will be withheld. One will no longer be able to pass as a normal and will be stigmatized as a result. Such management of information is central to Goffman’s conceptualization of expression games (Goffman 1969).

As already noted, to sustain a positive self through one’s performances, one must not only possess traits deemed desirable but also have access to structural resources. Thus, structural resources, or the lack thereof, are arguably relevant to our understanding of stigmatization. Such resources are typically examined within the context of Goffman’s work Asylums (1961). Within a total institution such as an asylum, the individual loses access to the structural resources to sustain a positive self image and thus the self changes dramatically as a result. Goffman (1971) discusses such resources in the context of “territories of self” (such as control over one’s personal space and possessional territory). However, in more general terms, structural resources imply a certain amount of status and power. As described by Branaman, structural resources are determined by one’s position within society: “[O]ne’s place in various stratification orders determines where, when, and to what degree one can claim the territorial preserves necessary for sustaining self” (1997:lvi). In other words, those with higher social rank have more resources at their disposal—resources that may be employed to manage and hide discrediting information. A wealthy person may be given the benefit of the doubt and simply perceived as “eccentric” while a person from the low end of the stratification system may be perceived as needing professional help. In the event that discrediting information comes to light, such resources may be employed to help challenge or minimize the resulting stigma. In this way, structural resources may be employed to frame (Goffman 1974) the situation in the best possible light. Those with power are better able to frame events in a way that is supportive of their own interests—such as with the use of the term “eccentric”—or “combat [negative] interpretive frameworks applied to them” (Branaman 1997:lxxvi). Thus, the stigmatization that arises when discreditable information is revealed may be averted and more easily overcome.

Finally, and of most relevance in the case of the stigmatized organization, individuals will often coordinate their performances with others in a sort of team effort. If an entire team—such a the Catholic Church—is discreditable due to the behavior of one or more group members (I.e. individual priests and bishops), the team will then cooperate in order to pass. In other words, a successful performance includes defensive practices, such as “protecting secrets of [the] team” (Branaman 1997:lxvi). At the same time, in order to maintain the ritual order, the members of the audience also cooperate, engaging in practices such as, “voluntarily avoid[ing] the secret areas of the performers,” avoiding the introduction of “contradictions to the performance, and pretend[ing] to ‘not see’ flaws” (1997:lxvi). This is particularly true in the case of those with status equal to or higher than those in the audience. In this way, the audience, in order to avoid embarrassment themselves, unwittingly cooperates with the performer(s), allowing them to pass as “normal” and maintain their discreditable status. For many years, scandal was averted by the Church, though rumors of sexual misconduct were common. Many were willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt. In a sense, then, the audience becomes a part of the team and is willing to be fooled in order to preserve the ritual order of society.

Based on this discussion, it should be apparent that examining stigma as a social phenomenon that stands apart from other aspects of the interactive process does a disservice to Goffman’s body of work. Stigmatization is deeply embedded in the presentation of one’s self to others. It plays an important role in the ritual order of society and, in the case of those who are discreditable, it involves strategic interaction and expression games. Stigmatization is also dependent on the resources one has to maintain secrets and, in the event that discreditable information comes to light, allow the stigmatized to reframe it, effectively challenging or minimizing the damage to her or his image. By embedding Goffman’s conceptualization of stigmatization within his entire body of work, one is able to recognize crucial elements of the process that otherwise go unnoticed. Without this larger, conceptual context, one’s understanding of stigmatization is unnecessarily limited.


  • Branaman, Ann. 1997. “Goffman’s Social Theory.” Pp. xlv-lxxxii in The Goffman Reader, edited by Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor Books.
  • ————. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books.
  • ————. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • ————. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Pantheon.
  • ————. 1969. Strategic Interaction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

About James Vela-McConnell

Professor Vela-McConnell has been teaching at Augsburg College since the fall of 1997. Tenured and promoted in 2003, he achieved the rank of Professor in 2012 and in the same year was honored with the Distinguished Contributions to Teaching and Learning Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Scholarship from the Augsburg College Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of the Dean. Professor Vela-McConnell’s areas of specialization include social psychology, social inequality, and qualitative research methodology & feminist epistemology. Additional areas of interest include violence, social problems, social cohesion, sociology of friendships, and mental illness.
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