The Stigmatized Organization: Setting a Research Agenda

The following represents a review of the limited work on the stigmatized organization and sets the stage for an examination of the clergy sex abuse scandal and the stigmatization faced by the Catholic Church. As a social psychologist, and unlike an organizational sociologist, I am curious to explore the processes by which an organization is stigmatized. 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. Not surprisingly, the Church has blamed a few “bad apples” for the scandal—a move that is in keeping with the research in this area. However, the Church has also been widely criticized for shifting the blame in this way and refusing to examine its underlying structure—a response that the current literature fails to anticipate.

The research on stigma has more recently been criticized for its largely micro-level analysis of interactive processes without consideration of the larger, structural ramifications of stigmatization. Link and Phelan explicitly seek to go beyond a purely social psychological understanding of stigmatization and propose examining it from a “distinctly sociological perspective” (2001:364). They rightly point out that the narrow focus on specific stigmatized populations has resulted in a focus on the stigma or mark itself as opposed to the process through which others identify some as stigmatized (2001:366) as Goffman had originally intended. According to Goffman (1963), stigma is more about relationships and interactive processes than specific attributes. As described by Link and Phelan, this process involves imposing dominant cultural beliefs through labeling differences and distinguishing between “us” and “them.” Those who end up in the out group category (“them”) lose status vis a vis the in group category (“us”) and face discrimination (see also Allport 1954). Such stigmatization ‘is entirely contingent on access to social, economic, and political power” (2001:367)—what Branaman (1997), in her examination of Goffman’s body of work, might include under the term “structural resources.” In other words, it is those with such power or structural resources who are able to engaging in labeling, categorizing, and ultimately discriminating against those without control over the labels. In this way, Link and Phelan make clear the larger, structural relevance of stigmatization.

Hannem (2012) extends this structural approach to stigmatization by placing Goffman’s work in conversation with the work of Foucault. As described by Hannem, Foucault made an effort to understand current conditions by tracing them back to their origins, focusing on the unfolding discourse and policies. Such a genealogical approach allows one to engage in a structural analysis regarding “the ‘origin’ of stigma, generally, and a historical understanding of the specific contexts in which particular attributes were defined as discrediting” (2012:21). As a result of this focus, Hannem adds the concept of “structural stigma” to the work of Link and Phelan (2001) and their perspective on discrimination arising from the stigmatization process. Structural stigma “is the result of a carefully calculated decision at an institutional or bureaucratic level to manage the risk that a particular population is perceived to present, either to themselves, to the institution, or to society” (Hannem 2012:24-25). With structural stigma, there is no intent to harm or discriminate. In fact, the stated purpose may be to help. Ultimately, however, the power differential and resulting stratification noted by Link and Phelan (2001) are present.

Link and Phelan (2001) and Hannem (2012) have done much to both restore Goffman’s original focus on the relational and interactive dynamics involved in stigmatization and to push the research agenda in the direction of a more structural understanding of stigmatization, freeing the concept from a purely micro-sociological focus. At the same time, however, there is room for more work with regard to stigmatization, specifically with regard to the process through which organizations are stigmatized.

Despite the social psychological origins of the concept of stigmatization, much of the research on organizational stigma has occurred outside the field. Organizational image restoration has been the subject of research within the fields of communications and public relations (e.g. Hearit 2001 and Benoit 1995), focusing on the use of rhetoric to provide corrective accounts for the event that damaged the image of the organization. For example, Brinson and Benoit (1999) analyzed the image restoration techniques used by Texaco chair Peter Bijur after a taped executive meeting revealed racist language. Among the techniques used was mortification (issuing an apology), corrective action (by opening an investigation into the problem), and shifting the blame to a subset of Texaco employees who were characterized as “bad apples.” Such shifting the blame opened the door for an additional technique: separation, or symbolically and physically removing the offending “bad apples.” These efforts ultimately reframe the damaged image of the organization into one that is more positive and acceptable. In this sense, the communications and public relations literature is more about organizational impression management efforts than it is about the process of stigmatization that damaged the images of these organizations in the first place.

While limited, research and theorizing on stigmatized organizations has occurred at multiple levels of analysis, from the dyadic relationship to large organizations to the macro level of the nation/state. Such work is an important step in addressing Link and Phelan’s (2001) concern regarding the inherently individualistic focus of stigma theory. In examining romantic relationships, Conley and Rabinowitz, for example, found that it is possible not only for the two individuals to be stigmatized for their behavior (i.e. using a condom instead of the pill) but also for the relationship itself to be stigmatized. They argue that, “The presence of a dyadic stigma suggests that … relationships are perceived as separate entities from individuals” (2009:920) and that “stigma itself can be relationally based” (2009:939). The authors identify three types of stigmatized dyadic relationships: (1) those that are stigmatized as a result of the behavior of one member of the dyad; (2) those that are stigmatized for the joint behavior of the two members involved; and (3) a dyadic relationship that is stigmatized independent of the individuals involved.

These types add to Goffman’s (1963) primary type of stigmatization: an individual alone being stigmatized. The first type of stigmatized dyadic relationship identified by Conley and Rabinowitz extends the role played by contamination, understood by Goffman as a “courtesy stigma” (in which association with a stigmatized individual may taint the image of the otherwise nonstigmatized person), by positing that more than two individuals are then stigmatized: the relationship between them is stigmatized as well. However, it is possible to speculate about an additional type of relational stigma that applies to organizations larger than two persons. In this case, the organization as a whole is stigmatized by the behavior of two or more members of the organization, but not necessarily by the majority of members. This type also extends the role played by contamination and highlights the rationale for an organization to employ shifting the blame to a few “bad apples” and separating the offending members from the organization as a means of image restoration.

Dyads represent the smallest form of organizational unit that can be stigmatized. At the other end of the continuum, Rivera (2008) examined the macro-level stigma response of the country of Croatia as it worked to reestablish tourism after the wars of Yugoslav secession. Arguing that Goffman’s work on stigma may be effectively applied to the level of the state when one thinks of the state as a social actor, Rivera points out that there need to be modifications to original conceptual model. For example, in order to manage stigma, states may respond with (1) isolation, which is parallel to an individual severing ties with the nonstigmatized; (2) commemoration/apology, a variation on the individual’s response of disclosure of a stigmatized status; or (3) strategic self-presentation, what Goffman (1963) would term “passing” or “covering.” Strategic self-presentation “requires control of competing narratives” and can be achieved through “coercive control,” in which the state (or organization) “suppresses alternatives, or monopolizes opportunities for narrative performance” or through “indirect control, when there are no strong competing alternative narratives” (2008:617).

The specific stigma management response pursued by the state depends on the “properties of the situation” (Rivera 2008:616). If the state (or organization) is already discredited, commemoration or isolation are the possible responses. Covering through strategic self-presentation is possible in situations in which the state is discreditable—in which the stigmatizing behavior is unknown or easily overlooked and/or forgotten by members of the audience. Covering is also an ideal strategy when the stigma presents a strong barrier to desired rewards, such as income from tourism, when the stigmatizing incident is recent in the state’s history, and when the ability to control competing narratives is high (2008:617). Overall, Rivera’s research highlights the relevance of stigma theory to understanding macro-level cases such as that represented by Croatia, providing empirical evidence for how a state and by implication an organization can be stigmatized and successfully engage in stigma management techniques.

Building on recent recognition of organizational stigma (see Semadeni et al. 2008 and Wiesenfeld et al. 2008), perhaps the most theoretically driven examination of organizational stigma is offered by Devers et al., who define organizational stigma as “a label that evokes a collective stakeholder group-specific perception that an organization possesses a fundamental, deep-seated flaw that deindividuates and discredits the organization” (2009:155). In other words, there is a strongly negative social evaluation of the organization that is then labeled and effectively categorizes the organization as one of a class of negatively evaluated organizations that are similarly discredited. Like Rivera (2008), Devers et al. draw distinctions between individual and organizational stigma, noting that they “differ primarily along three dimensions—the types of conditions that stigmatize, the prevention and removability of stigma, and the pervasiveness of stigmatizing categories” (2008:158).

While Goffman (1963) recognizes three stigmatizing conditions—abominations of the body, tribal stigmas, and defects in character or conduct stigma—these types of conditions are less meaningful when examining organizations. Devers et al. argue that conduct stigmas are the most common form for organizations, though some tribal stigmas are possible for organizations [i.e. they are based upon “the organization’s affiliation with a particular geographic market (e.g. the ‘Made in China’ label)” or because they provide a particular kind of product or service (2008:158)]. While the prevention or removal of a stigma is difficult for individuals, organizations have a great capacity for prevention or removal due to their structural complexity (e.g. multiple substructures, departments, and divisions). Such structural complexity makes it possible for the organization to credibly distance itself from the offending parts or members, what Brinson and Benoit (1999) identify as shifting the blame and separation—identifying the few “bad apples” and then removing them from the organization. Finally, Devers et al. (2008) argue that the stigmas faced by organizations are context specific whereas those faced by individuals tend to be pervasive across contexts in that the source of the stigma tends to be stigmatizing across many different interactive situations with multiple audiences. In contrast, much organizational behavior, such as downsizing, may be stigmatizing in the eyes of one audience (e.g. among labor representatives) and perceived as entirely acceptable by another audience (e.g. among stockholders).

Another important contribution made by Devers et al. has to do with the stigmatization process itself. When an organization is stigmatized, the labeling process must move from individual labeling to collective labeling (2008:160). The individual labeling process is guided by the perceived severity of the illegitimate practice(s) within the organization and perceived controllability and responsibility for the illegitimate practice(s) on the part of the organization. When the individual observer begins to “view the illegitimate behavior as not just some idiosyncratic event, but rather indicative of some stable, underlying features of the organization,” the individual begins to recognize that the values of the organization are incongruent with her or his own (2008:160). At this point, the individual stigmatizes the organization itself. The individual audience member will “label the value incongruent organization as a dangerous deviant and begin to symbolically transform the labeled organization through vilification into the antithesis of everything” she or he—and all those in her or his audience group—values (2008:162).

Collective labeling occurs when a “critical mass” of audience group members accept the label and claims made by the individual about the offending organization. The likelihood that a “critical mass” will be reached and the organization will be stigmatized is shaped by two factors: (1) whether the stigmatizing label applied to the organization resonates within a largely homogenous macroculture regarding the threatened beliefs, values and norms and (2) the status of the claims maker(s), i.e. the higher the status, the greater the likelihood that a critical mass will accept the stigmatizing label (Devers et al. 2008:163-164). As a result of the stigmatization of the organization, individual audience members will begin to disidentify with the organization in order to avoid the courtesy stigma identified by Goffman (1963). Ultimately, the stigmatized organization experiences a reduction in both the quantity and quality of interactions and exchanges with audience groups.

Overall, this line of research and theorizing into the stigmatized organization, while limited, opens the door for much more work in this area. Doing so will address the criticisms raised by Link and Phelan (2001) and Hannem (2012) that the conceptual model of stigmatization is generally micro-sociological in focus and largely ignores the relational/interactive and larger, structural dynamics involved in stigmatization.


  • Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
  • Benoit, William L. 1995. Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: A Theory of Image Restoration Strategies, Edited by D. D. Cahn. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Brinson, Susan L. and William L. Benoit. 1999. “The Tarnished Star: Restoring Texaco’s Damaged Public Image.” Management Communication Quarterly 12(4):483-510.
  • Conley, Terri D. and Joshua L. Rabinowitz. 2009. “The Devaluation of Relationships (Not Individuals): The Case of Dyadic Relationship Stigmatization.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 39(4):918-44.
  • Devers, Cynthia E., Todd Dewett, Yuri Mishina and Carrie A. Belsito. 2009. “A General Theory of Organizational Stigma.” Organization Science 20(1):154-71.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Hannem, Stacey and Chris Bruckert. 2012. Stigma Revisited: Implications of the Mark. Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press.
  • Hearit, Keith Michael. 2001. “Corporate Apologia: When a Corporation Speaks in Defense of Itself.” Pp. 501-11 in Handbook of Public Relations, edited by R. L. Heath. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Link, Bruce G. and Jo C. Phelan. 2001. “Conceptualizing Stigma.” Annual Review of Sociology 27(1):363.
  • Rivera, Lauren A. 2008. “Managing “Spoiled” National Identity: War, Tourism, and Memory in Croatia.” American Sociological Review 73(4):613-34.
  • Semadeni, Matthew, Albert A. Cannella, Jr., Donald R. Fraser and Scott Lee. 2008. “Fight or Flight: Managing Stigma in Executive Careers.” Strategic Management Journal 29(5).
  • Wiesenfeld, B. M., K. Wurthmann and D. C. Hambrik. 2008. “The Stigmatization and Devaluation of Elites Associated with Corporate Failures: A Process Model.” Academic Management Review 33(1):231-51.

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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