We dedicate this to the memory of Adrienne Asch, disability studies scholar, advocate, bioethicist, colleague, friend.


The plenary session at SDS 2013 on "Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of Stigma" marked the fiftieth anniversary of Erving Goffman's Stigma, which remains one of the most cited and influential works in the field. The panelists, whose essays appear in this forum, discuss Stigma's origins and uses over the past decades, how the book has affected their own research and understandings of disability, and what role Stigma might play as disability studies continues to evolve. Each of the five essays in its own way answers one central question: whether and how Goffman's work remains useful as we move the field forward.

The reflections on Stigma at the SDS conference also offered an opportunity to focus on the contribution of social constructivism to the development of disability studies. The radical insights of social constructivism that emerged from sociology through the social interactionism Goffman initiated in the 1960s gave disability studies what we now understand as a founding concept of our field: the social model. While disability studies has evolved many other conversations about disability concerning politics, identity, aesthetic representation, critical theory, the built and designed environment, bioethics, and intersections with other identity groups, the social model continues to underpin disability studies today. Reviewing the history of the social model as developed through Stigma reminded us of both the liberatory power and significant limitations of academic understandings of disability at the very beginning of the interdisciplinary field we now call disability studies.

This opportunity to reflect on differences and similarities between thinking about disability in 1963 and thinking about disability in 2013 also provided a reflective history on the development of the Society for Disability Studies as a professional organization. When SDS began meetings in the 1980s, the membership was largely composed of sociologists, medical anthropologists, political scientists, historians, activists, and policymakers. At that time, conversations and presentations centered on questions around the social model and social constructivism. The people who led the organization are largely gone now; Irving Zola, Daryl Evans, Harlan Hahn, Paul Longmore, and David Pfeiffer have died. Many other sociologists and anthropologists no longer attend SDS now that the organization's scholarship has expanded into the humanities and fields beyond sociology. Nonetheless, several of the original leaders of SDS remain active and were present at the 2013 plenary. So to think back through Stigma and its influences was at the same time to think back through the history of SDS.

Sadly, this panel and forum now offers another reminder of SDS's institutional history. Adrienne Asch was the chair and moderator for the Goffman panel last summer. Adrienne passed away on November 19, 2013. Among her many contributions to disability studies and bioethics, she co-edited, with Michelle Fine, the special issue of The Journal of Social Issues in 1988 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Stigma. Titled "Moving Beyond 'Stigma,'" that issue expressed the determination of the emerging field of disability studies to separate itself from a previous generation of scholarship about disability. This was one of many contributions that Adrienne made to us as a scholar, colleague, and activist.

The five panelists who contribute to this forum have all dealt with Goffman's Stigma in their own work and offer an array of perspectives on it. In the most subjective essay, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson recalls the profound personal and professional impact the book had on her when she first read it. As a disabled graduate student taking on disability as an academic topic, reading Stigma felt "like witnessing roadkill" and was exactly what she needed. In the second piece, Jeffrey Brune discusses some of the most serious criticisms of Stigma and the ways that disability scholars now use the work. He argues that disability studies has successfully adapted Goffman's project in ways that address the glaring problems of the original text and continue to help move the field forward. In the next piece, Susan Schweik looks at how a disabled group of scholars offered an alternative perspective shortly after the publication of Stigma. She argues that we ought to pay more attention to the Paul Hunt anthology that she calls "Stigma 2.0." In the fourth essay, Tanya Titchkowsky examines how Goffman's failure to analyze normalcy and his focus on the social process of stigmatization has influenced disability studies scholars. In the final piece, Heather Love directly takes on the question of whether Goffman's work is compatible with a disability studies perspective. Looking at the methods and sources that Goffman employed, Love argues that disability studies should continue to build upon and benefit from his analysis of microscopic social interactions. Together these five essays offer a broad overview of Goffman's influence during the past half-century and respond to the question of whether and how disability scholars can continue to make use of his work.



Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
Emory University

Roadkill Truths

Rereading Stigma recently for this panel was as unsettling for me as it was when Irv Zola made me read this little book twenty-five years ago. The book's effect on me is something like witnessing roadkill: the shock of seeing a thing familiar and unremarkable splayed open in a disarray, exposing a reeking but somehow affirming truth about life.

My first encounter with Goffman's Stigma was in my graduate studies in English at Brandies University. I was the only person I knew thinking, talking, and writing about representations of disability. My approach and theoretical framing for addressing disability came from feminist studies. My colleagues and the faculty in English found my project original and interesting. Nobody had ever thought about disability and literature: "Gee, are there any disabled characters in American literature," they asked supportively. With alacrity, I cited the now familiar list ranging from Bradstreet, Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Steinbeck, to Morrison and on. I tossed in Shakespeare because recent work on race and gender—on Othello, Ophelia, Caliban—offered an analogy to what I had in mind.

About midway through my doctoral work, my advisor casually asked if I knew a sociology professor at Brandeis he thought did work in disability. That sociologist was Irv Zola, the founder of disability studies, leader of SDS, and editor of Disability Studies Quarterly—which was a mimeographed newsletter at the time. Having kept my nose down at Brandeis because I had three small children and a commute, I had never heard of Irv, even though his wife Judy was one of the authors of Our Bodies Ourselves, the familiar canonical feminist activist manifesto that addressed disability as part of women's experience. Clearly I didn't know how to read for disability like I do now. I knew it was in literature, but not everywhere else.

Irv was a generous, avuncular self-proclaimed "Polio," with leg braces, an idiosyncratic gait, elegant cane, and some sassy in-group irony that was all completely new to me. He told me about passing his whole life for nondisabled until politicized identity politics freed him to come out as disabled and to use the technologies he needed to access the world he needed to live in. Of course, the story astounded me because he seemed to me a perfectly obvious Goffmanian cripple—although I certainly never had or would use such words— whom I could not have imagined occupying disability identity with ambivalence. He was the first disabled person I had ever spoken with about disability identity and experience, and certainly the first person I'd known well and with whom I could identify who had a politicized consciousness about disability.

Irv welcomed and inaugurated me into disability studies with his astonishing six shelves of disability studies books and an adamant invitation to SDS. If there were books, this was a field. Neither my advisors in English nor I knew to look for disability theory in sociology. Irv immediately drew down from his shelves two books for me: Irving Goffman's Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity and Robert Bogdan's Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities For Amusement and Profit. As I grasped both the books and the titles simultaneously, they felt like a heap of hot coals in my hands. "Come on," Irv coaxed, continuing with something like "if I could take what these books contain, you can take it too." These lurid titles expressed my worst disability nightmares; they screamed at me the collective accusation I had for my entire life persistently navigated and circumvented with all the dignity I could muster; they confirmed that disability had spoiled me and made me a freak. These promised to be book-length versions of the primal scene of disability experience: the demand to account for oneself, to offer some long-rehearsed apologia to the interrogation—sometimes explicit, other times implicit— "What's Wrong with You?" When I could finally bring myself to read Freak Show and Stigma—only because Irv made me do it—I came to recognize that Goffman's little book did in fact brutally illuminate this archetypal disability call and response just as I had sensed my whole life. I saw myself in Stigma in ways that I had sensed others saw me and that I was indeed bonded by this to what Goffman's so quaintly called my "own kind" (28). This uncanny affirmation generated from me three responses that have shaped my work.

First, Stigma made me disabled. The affect of experience of reading Stigma is to identify with the invitational "we" that is a convention of Goffman's rhetorical narrative style. By coolly noting what he calls the "pivotal fact" that "The stigmatized individual tends to hold the same beliefs about identity that we do; (7) Goffman issues a rhetorical invitation to what race theorist W.E.B. Dubois described in 1903 as "double consciousness," the experiential paradox between one's felt and ascribed identities. Simply put, one's felt identity is how one experiences oneself as an embodied, perceiving, conscious subject at the center of one's own world. One's ascribed identity is the subject position other people project upon one or understand one to occupy. Reading the rough, gaudy prose of "abominations of the body" (4); "shameful differentness," (10); "atrocity tales" (25); "spoiled identities," and "contagious moral blemish[es]" (35); functions as an unnervingly poetic hailing to the stigmatizing social rituals of disability identity. Form and content merge, then, in the rhetorical experience of entering the perverse taxonomy of "normals" (5) and the "stigmatized."

Second, Stigma gave me what is my signature contribution to disability studies: the Normate. The critical term normate has, as I like to say, legs. It has moved into the vocabulary of disability studies because it apparently answers the need to make something in a single word that went unnamed. Normate is not my word, however, but I bequeathed this Goffmanesque term to disability studies in the 1997 book, Extraordinary Bodies. The word came to me at my first SDS, probably in 1989. The president of SDS, Daryl Evans, mockingly flung out the word normate from a SDS session podium with confrontational ironic distance. At first encounter, Daryl, an established sociologist like all of the SDS leaders at the time, looked like a typical wiry, hip academic type with cool glasses, great Harpo Marx hair, and a sensitive mouth that was quick to sneer. Only his delicate, paperwhite skin—eerily like the drowned Ophelia in Millais's haunting painting— witnessed a fragility in Darrell that emanated perhaps from his tightly managed seizure disorder itself and the vigilance that management required of him. Not long after that, Daryl committed suicide. Daryl could pass for a normate, which is a burden for anyone, of course, because it is such a fragile position, what I called "the social figure with which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings. With the word, normate Daryl gathered the cumulative burden of Goffman's terrible truth and spew it out with the force of an exorcism.

Third, by the end of his little book Goffman exposes the ultimate paradox in the system of social relations he so luridly lays out. If you can become inured to that strange assaultive 1963 prose in Stigma, that almost Whitmanian vivid catalog of stigmatized diversity: cripple, bastard, moron, physically deformed, blind, illiterate, homosexual, ex-convicts, prostitutes, drug addicts, homosexuals, alcoholics, the deaf, the divorced, Jews, mental defectives, the hard of hearing, …the "tribally stigmatized," (23), this is nub of truth you eventually infer: that in the perpetual tally of Darwinian status encounters that comprise Goffmanian social life, the stigmatized are certainly "deeply discredited," but the normals have at best a "shaky" advantage (18). Indeed, despite all of the normals' "righteously presented demands," Goffman avers that "the most fortunate of normals is likely to have his half hidden failing, and for every little failing there is a social occasion when it will loom large, creating a shameful gap virtual and actual social identity. Therefore the occasionally precarious and the constantly precarious form a single continuum" (2, 127). Maybe Daryl Evans didn't know this.

Works Cited

  • Bogdan, Robert. Freakshow: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Dubois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terry Hume Oliver, eds. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
  • Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963.


Jeffrey A. Brune
Gallaudet University

In Defense of Stigma, or at Least Its Adaptations

Despite being one of the most cited texts in disability studies, there is also a less visible undercurrent running against Goffman's work. As I began working on two books related to the issue of stigma, I started noticing this opposition more and more and realized I needed to look carefully into the criticisms of Goffman and formulate a response. So I want to look at some of the most serious critiques of the book and explain why its influence has continued despite the serious qualms many of us have with the original 1963 text. While some disability scholars have correctly identified the flaws in Stigma, many of us have adapted the work in ways that have addressed those critiques and allowed Goffman's project to evolve along with disability studies. Rather than view Goffman's work as a stale monograph completed in 1963, I see it as a project that remains alive, evolving, and successfully responding to the changing field of disability studies.

One of the most important but overlooked criticisms of Goffman comes from the Marxist geographer Brendan Gleeson in his 1999 book, Geographies of Disability. Gleeson delivers a searing critique of the work for focusing exclusively on the way stigma is produced in personal encounters. Goffman saw personal encounters, which he called "the primal scene of sociology," as the site where stigma is created and learned. However, Gleeson criticizes Goffman for ignoring structural forces that shape notions of disability. To Gleeson, personal encounters represent merely the outcome of larger social, economic, and political forces. Upset by Stigma's continuing popularity, Gleeson goes on to suggest that we do away with Goffman's work because of its "interactionist fallacy" (Gleeson 17).

Gleeson's critique is on-point but I disagree that this should be a reason for jettisoning Goffman entirely. Many disability scholars have modified Goffman's approach and examined stigma as the product of larger structural forces, such as industrialization and social darwinism, rather than merely as the product of personal encounters. My own monograph in progress, currently titled "Disability Stigma and American Political Culture," is an example of how political discourse and public policy have affected the stigma of disability from the 1870s to the present. It is also not hard to synthesize macro structuralist works with those that focus on a micro personal level. When teaching disability history I like students to read scholars like Douglas Baynton and Susan Schweik who offer macro, historical, structural explanations of stigma and then pivot to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's work to understand the way these larger historical forces affect individuals and influence interpersonal encounters. While there may be other reasons why Marxist materialists do not want to focus on the issue of stigma, disability scholars have successfully adapted Goffman's work to accommodate a more structuralist approach.

Another valid and more commonly heard criticism of Goffman is that he approached the topic only from the perspective of normality (Frank 106; Mest 117-125; Titchkosky 204). He positions himself and his reader as "we normals" and disabled people as "others." Yet here again is a shortcoming of the original work that disability scholars have successfully addressed in their adaptations of Goffman. One of the most unifying goals of disability studies is to privilege a disabled perspective and it has not been hard to examine stigma from this vantage point. The examples are too numerous to mention.

Other critiques of Goffman focus on his essentialist, ahistorical approach to stigma, which partially stems from his reliance on Freud. He tends to view stigma as the outcome of interpersonal encounters and innate human reactions that he does not set within specific historical contexts. As an historian I agree completely with this critique, but it is also easy to historicize Goffman's writing and examine how stigma changes over time. My anthology on disability and passing takes a very historical approach to stigma and to give just one example from the book, Allison Carey's chapter chronicles how the stigma of cognitive disability changed throughout the course of the twentieth century.

Related to his universalist, ahistorical tendency, Goffman also failed to see how disability activists in his own time and in the coming decades could resist stigma and transform the meaning of a disability identity. His generalizations about stigma would not account for the vast changes that came in the following decades with the more visible disability rights and disability pride movements, nor did his generalizations account for the 1950s activists during Goffman's own time. When you read Goffman's original text, there does not seem much possibility for disabled people to empower themselves (Frank 97; Hirsch 10). But again, those who work in disability studies today have been able to adapt Goffman's work and show how stigma changes over time, often due to the actions of disabled people themselves.

I suspect it is this last issue that rankles many disability studies folk the most: that Goffman failed to recognize the agency and resistance of disabled people. It is a serious oversight and one that disability studies is right to address by focusing on the disability rights movement, disability pride, the adornment of prosthetics, and other topics.

However, I have also received comments implying that we should leave behind the topic of stigma and focus more exclusively on disability empowerment. While I want there to be more studies of disability agency, I do not see the study of stigma and empowerment as mutually exclusive and I do not want to imagine a disability studies field that ignores stigma. First, most disabled people do not live in the world of SDS and we can't ignore the majority whose experiences and feelings have less to do with disability pride than with stigma. I have seen this happen in deaf studies, which too often ignores and thereby marginalizes deaf people who do not sign ASL and do not identify as culturally deaf. Second, I can't imagine trying to understand American disability history without examining stigma and we still have much more to learn about how stigma has been produced. Finally, because disability pride and other forms of resistance are constructed vis-à -vis stigma, we cannot understand the former apart from the context of the latter. The two are complimentary rather than competitive.

In summary, Goffman's work has come under valid and deserved criticism from disability studies scholars and I agree with most of the critiques made. However, for me Stigma is not an ossified text completed in 1963. Instead I see it as a dynamic, adaptable work that disability studies has kept alive, constantly evolving, and relevant.

Works Cited

  • Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • ‒‒‒. "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History." The New Disability History: American Perspectives. Ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 33-57.
  • Brune, Jeffrey A., and Daniel J. Wilson, eds. Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.
  • Carey, Allison C. "The Sociopolitical Contexts of Passing and Intellectual Disability." Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. Ed. Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013. 142-166.
  • Frank, Gelya. "Beyond Stigma: Visibility and Self-Empowerment for Persons with Congenital Limb Deficiencies." Journal of Social Issues 44.1 (1988): 95-115.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • ‒‒‒. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Gleeson, Brendan. Geographies of Disability. London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Hirsch, Karen. "Culture and Disability: The Role of Oral History." Oral History Review 22.1 (1995): 1-27.
  • Mest, Grace M. "With a Little Help from Their Friends: Use of Social Support Systems by Persons with Retardation." Journal of Social Issues 44.1 (1988): 117-125.
  • Schweik, Susan M. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
  • Titchkosky, Tanya. "Disability Studies: The Old and the New." The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 25.2 (2000): 197-224.


Susan Schweik
University of California, Berkeley

Stigma Management

Erving Goffman once became a footnote himself, for Alabama Governor George Wallace, citing Goffman's Asylums in a brief in a 1974 Alabama court case on whether federal courts had the power to order the state of Alabama to provide a minimal level of care and treatment to people in "facilities for the mentally handicapped" (Wyatt v. Aderholt). Those people's lawyers had told stories of horrible abuse and neglect in Alabama's state institutions. They weren't the ones, though, who cited Erving Goffmann.

He showed up instead in George Wallace's brief. (By this time, by the way, Wallace was a disabled governor, paralyzed two years earlier when he was shot during a run for president.) Wallace's lawyers quoted this passage from Goffman: if "mental hospitals in a given region were emptied and closed down today, tomorrow relatives, police and judges would raise a clamor for new ones; and these true clients of the mental hospital would demand an institution to satisfy their needs" (Asylums 384). They argued that there was no obligation that the state provide treatment, because the only function of civil commitment had nothing to do with care or treatment—it was simply to "relieve the burden imposed upon the [true clients, the] friends and families of the mentally disabled." Erving Goffman, Wallace's lawyers wrote approvingly, was an impressively "realistic writer." 1

Of course this misreading of Goffman didn't hold up. The court ruled: "It is fairly clear that Professor Goffman's intent, in calling 'relatives, police and judges' the 'true clients of the mental hospitals'" was harshly critical. Still, as the case of George Wallace shows, what one writer called Goffman's "quick quirky quizzing of our status quo," with its effect, that amazing stylistic effect, of impartial "realism," raises some problems and questions, especially about which readers, if any, might be Goffman's book's "true clients" (Hymes, quoted in Scheff, 50). As Anne Finger wrote me about first reading Stigma: "I remember that sense of something being named for the first time and also feeling oddly embarrassed as I read it: 'we normals' and the air of condescension" (Finger).

My focus is on how one group of disabled writers dealt with Goffman's potentially ambiguous or ambivalent legacies. My subject is Stigma management. That "Stigma" is in italics—that is, my subject is how a group of disabled writers managed Goffman's book of that title in the immediate aftermath of its publication. I know how important Goffman's Stigma is for disability studies. But I want to suggest that even more key for our field is the other book called Stigma, the one that came out two years later in England, Stigma: The Experience of Disability. That Stigma was edited by the great Paul Hunt, at age 29, from the nursing home he'd lived in for ten years at that point; 6 years after that, in 1972, he founded the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation and jumpstarted the contemporary disability rights movement as we know it.

I can't prove that Hunt and the disabled writers whose work he gathered knew Goffman's Stigma in their own book of the same name. There is no citation of Goffman in Hunt's Stigma. I want to suggest today that Goffman's absence from Hunt's book is a purposeful and political omission, and that the book may be read as a great argument with Goffman's. If I had to choose only one Stigma, I'll take Hunt's.

It's a complex task to produce a collection of autobiographical essays by twelve British disabled people, an anthology named Stigma to boot, to produce it after Goffman's Stigma, when any given paragraph could simply provide fodder for another footnote in Goffman's next edition, pre-explained by Goffman, just as what we're up to right this minute is all too uncomfortably laid out in Goffman's discussion of the "usual tasks" in which certain "representatives…appear as 'speakers' …[to] present the case for the stigmatized,…sponsor a publication of some kind which gives voice to shared feelings…. Here the ideology of the members is formulated—their complaints, their aspirations, their politics" (Stigma 24). It was brave to write Stigma after Stigma. But as George Wallace proves, it was also crucial. And so it's not surprising that Hunt and company lay claim, from the first page of Hunt's introduction, to a realism of their own—that's the exact word they use. Here's the first paragraph of what I'm going to call Stigma 2.0:

Much of the writing by people with physical handicaps is either sentimental autobiography, or else preoccupied with the medical and practical details of a particular affliction. This book is an attempt to explore the experience of disability rather more realistically [emphasis mine] and at greater depth. (ix)

The most profound difference between Stigma 2.0 and its other is that Hunt et al. replaced Goffman's "we normals" with a different "we," a thinking collective, one that is both immediately deconstructed and carefully asserted. Hunt's volume also breaks down the binary distinction that underlies "we normals" and, well, let's say "them stigmals"—for example in Roger Glanville's essay, with its quiet exploration of "what the normal cripple needs" (72).

The authors in Stigma 2.0 also write both with and against Goffman. Under the pressure of an emerging disability culture and a disability politics enacted in the book as a whole, Goffman comes to seem like (could this be a portrait of him?) the social research worker described by Reginald Ford:

The only person at all qualified theoretically to generalize about 'The Problems of the Disabled' is the social research worker with an enormous file of case histories tidily docketed, analyzed, digested, and finally presented in a neatly bound report….which leads to no action whatsoever. (43)

In contrast, Ford's own discussion of the problem of Stigma pushes at every point toward direct social action. Listen to this passage, which was written astonishingly early—1966! "Many of the amenities for the disabled now to be found in streets, parks and public buildings—such as ramps instead of steps and kerbs…are there because individuals who found the lack themselves harried local authorities into providing them" (36). And underlying Stigma 2.0 as a whole is a strong materialist framework. The notes that underpin HUNT's Stigma, are on "social security," links to the pioneering Disability Income Group campaign against discriminatory welfare state policies. 2

At many other points, a subtle dialogue with Goffman emerges in Hunt's Stigma. Remember Hunt's opening line: "This book is an attempt to explore the experience of disability rather more realistically and at greater depth" (ix). Repeatedly, the book commits to a less ambiguous realism, a realism that can't be used against disabled people, and replaces Goffman's surface model with a depth charge.

The great examples of this are the beginning piece by Louis Battye and the final piece by Paul Hunt, his brilliant and unforgettable "A Critical Condition," which increasingly I'm going back to as a model for disability studies. Battye first: his "The Chatterley Syndrome," one of our earliest examples of literary disability studies. Goffman's Stigma begins with an epigraph from a literary text, the letter to Nathanel West's Miss Lonelyhearts from the "Desperate" girl "born without a nose. Battye begins Stigma 2.0 with another literary ground, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. He reads the representation of the disabled character Sir Clifford Chatterley for the purpose of revealing "several things of interest… to his fellow cripples" (3). "Fellow cripples" are Battye's intended true clients, so to speak. And his examination of Lady Chatterley's Lover leads exactly to the problem of the true client, of who is the true client; Battye's interest is in how a representation that seems to be of Lord Chatterly is finally a representation for, in the service of, others, we might say of relatives, police and judges, and in particular for Lady Chatterley and her lover. Battye was already anticipating the kind of slippery reading Goffman could be given by George Wallace; Battye used his literary reading to spot the sneaky operations of the claims of the "we normal" to be always and ever yet again the "true clients" of every social structure and every situation and every sociology.

But the capstone of Stigma 2.0 is the essay by Paul Hunt himself called "A Critical Condition." Hunt revises the figure of stigma as a visible mark that so memorably begins Goffman's Stigma. "I think," Hunt writes, "the distinguishing mark of disabled people's social position is that they tend to 'challenge' in their relations with ordinary society" (146). In Hunt's formulation, disabled people, intellectually, politically, ethically, spiritually, "challenge" in five ways: "by being unfortunate" (and thereby challenging the belief that a person's worth depends upon his good fortune); by "being useless" (and thereby challenging the idea that "work in the everyday sense of the word is the most important or only contribution anyone can make")—and by the way Hunt has a very queer-theory friendly analysis of gender in here—by "being different" (and thereby challenging the goal and principle of normality—and here he makes strong links to race and class); by "being oppressed" and modeling within every social group how to meet oppression; and finally, not least, by "being sick" and showing what—in his words—"unwelcome reality" means.

Unwelcome reality: here is the kind of realism we could only wish George Wallace understood. In the end, Hunt based his claim and the claim of his Stigma on a wiser and deeper realism, showing that the "realism" Wallace's lawyers identified in their "true client" formulation is a denial of a relation to the "dark" and the shut-in that we all have. Hunt's Stigma is the one I want to claim and honor, the one where stigma, that mark, is a challenge not for a person but to a society, our society. You wonderful—we—who are being unfortunates, being useless, being oppressed, being different, being sick—for you and us I'll conclude with Hunt's final "challenge" of Stigma:

The linkage with other unfortunates, with the shadow side of life, is not always easy to accept. For the disabled person with a fair intelligence and other gifts, perhaps the greatest temptation is to try to use them just to escape from his disabledness, to buy himself a place in the sun, a share in the illusory normal world where all is light and pleasure and happiness. [Maybe he was thinking of Universal Studios?] Naturally we want to get away from and forget the sickness, depression, pain, loneliness and poverty of which we see probably more than our share. But if we deny our special relation to the dark in this way, we shall have ceased to recognize [the] most important asset [of] disabled people in society—the uncomfortable, subversive position from which we act as a living reproach to any scale of values that puts attributes or possessions before the person. (158-159)

Works Cited

  • Finger, Anne. Personal communication to the author.
  • Goffman, Erving. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books, 1961.
  • ‒‒‒. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Spectrum, 1963.
  • Himes, Dell. "On First Looking into a Manuscript by Goffman." Quoted in Thomas J. Scheff. "The Goffman Legacy: Deconstructing/Reconstructing Social Science." Goffman's Legacy. Ed. A. Javier Trevio. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  • Hunt, Judy. "Classic Review." Disability & Society 22:7 (December 2007). 795-799.
  • Hunt, Paul. Stigma: The Experience of Disability. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966.
  • Wyatt v. Aderholt, 503 F. 2d 1305 Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit 1974.

Endnotes

  1. This language is from the plaintiff's lawyers' summary of Wallace's case.
    Return to Text
  2. See the review of Hunt's Stigma by his wife Judy Hunt for an account of the relations between Hunt, this volume, and DIG organizing, and see also the footnote to Harry Brown's chapter in Stigma, "Some Anomalies of Social Welfare," 141.
    Return to Text


Tanya Titchkosky
OISE of the University of Toronto

Absent Normalcy for Present Stigma: Goffman's Provocation

My contribution to this forum on the fiftieth anniversary of Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity seeks to highlight two aspects of Goffman's influence in disability studies. The first of these two influences I will address is of the inadvertent sort. Goffman posited but barely addressed the background order of normalcy upon which his stark focus on the stigmatized figure makes an appearance. His lack of interest in the study of normalcy has provoked some in disability studies to bring normalcy to the fore. The second influence is Goffman's particular critical take on "stigma" as a fully inter-subjective social process. While disability studies literature credits Goffman with helping us identify stigma, the complexity of the stigmatizing process is too easily simplified within the tradition of sociology, especially deviance and medical sociology, and sometimes too within disability studies (for more, Titchkosky 2000). I end with a few words on the provocation that arises between what has made present and absent through the influence of Goffman's Stigma.

The first influence: the normal or as Goffman says, "we, the normals" is not his target of study (5). Normalcy—always there but not explicitly theorized—is, instead, assumed. The everyday interactional work of protecting normalcy is noted by Goffman in great, startling, even harsh detail (119-121, cf). But, the meaning of normalcy remains relatively unexplored. For example, Stigma opens with a newspaper advice column, "I am sixteen years old…. I was born without a nose…. Ought I commit suicide?"(vii). While showing that the stigmatized person is alive to, as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (xvii) puts it, the "compelling and seductive" nature of the extraordinary hold of normalcy, Goffman merely gestures toward the meaning of normalcy that grounds the presence of stigma.

This gesture is expressed (and contained) in a footnote:

The notion of 'normal human being' may have its source in the medical approach to humanity or in the tendency of large-scale bureaucratic organizations, such as the nation state, to treat all members in some respects as equal. Whatever its origins, it seems to provide the basic imagery through which laymen currently conceive of themselves. Interestingly, a convention seems to have emerged in popular life-story writing where a questionable person proves his claim to normalcy by citing his acquisition of a spouse and children, and, oddly, by attesting to his spending Christmas and Thanksgiving with them. (Goffman 7 [footnote 10])

The normal person, according to Goffman, is potent in its basic imagery, circulating through popular culture, part of our life stories and "whatever its origins…" it has become part of the general conception of self (7). Normal is the meaning given to acquiring a spouse, having children, and "oddly" takes over what "Christmas" and "Thanksgiving" mean, at least for the questionable person (7). The humor in this quotation lies in showing how normal is an odd 'catch all' while hinting that the source or origin of this 'normal human being' may not itself be 'normal.' Goffman suggests that the normal human being "may have its source in the medical approach to humanity [or]…large-scale bureaucratic organization," or perhaps it is an abstraction born of equal treatment (7). Still, in form and content, this footnote demonstrates that Goffman's interest in theorizing normalcy is but a side issue.

Showing again a focus on stigma that does not question normalcy, Goffman (137, 8, 9) says near the end Stigma:

In conclusion, may I repeat that stigma involves not so much a set of concrete individuals who can be separated into two piles…. The normal and the stigmatized are not persons but rather perspectives… And although it can be argued that the stigma processes seem to have a general social function—that of enlisting support for society among those who aren't supported… additional functions [must be seen]. …bad moral record…formal social control; …[stigma of] racial, religious, and ethnic groups…removing these minorities from various avenues of competition; and the devaluation of those with bodily disfigurements can perhaps be interpreted as contributing to a needed narrowing of courtship decisions.

To the provocative notion presented here that normalcy needs to make its outsiders and then support them, Goffman says not a word. He does, however, go on to note the function stigma plays in sustaining daily life…such as it is. Goffman seems most tentative about the function of his primary examples made use of throughout Stigma, in particular blindness, deafness and embodied difference. He suggests that disability stigma "can perhaps be interpreted as" that which narrows "courtship decisions," decisions regarding who fits with whom, implicitly who begets whom, or even whom is taken as a legitimate "who," a needed who.

Any interest in how normalcy grounds the constitution of stigma is eclipsed by Goffman's strict focus on how the interactional process of stigmatization supports, even enhances, normalcy—whatever it may be. This focus and its oversights can be read as having a powerful, yet inadvertent, influence on disability studies. Consider disability studies foregrounding of the production and meaning of normalcy in such works as Lennard Davis's Enforcing Normalcy; Garland-Thomson's Freakery, Vic Finkelstein's "normal knowledge" (30), or in the The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness, where Rod Michalko (103-127) thoroughly investigates the role of normalcy by showing how Goffman relies on an unexamined conception of it in order to detail the social act of passing (for more, see Boys).

While Goffman gestures to the background order of normalcy as the regulation of belonging without exploring it, he does directly and dramatically present the interactional achievement of stigma thereby showing how it occurs between people. This he calls the "primal scene of sociology" for here the "causes and effects of stigma must be directly confronted" (13). For Goffman, stigma is a perspective but one embodied in a being made through the interpretive milieu of the lives of many others from which it never parts but amongst whom it often suffers. Thus, the second influence of Goffman becomes a set of lessons on how to focus on stigma as a social process. This focus, which I will detail more below, is one which sociology and disability studies seems to forget, especially when matters of identity are emphasized in the quest for recognition by, and inclusion in the (again unquestioned) order of normalcy.

Goffman tells us that there are three main ways that stigma comes to make an appearance. Stigma appears through 1) "blemishes of character;" 2) "race, nation and religion," or what he called, "tribal stigma," and 3) "abominations of the body" or "various physical deformities" (4). Regardless of the kind of stigma, what does it mean to focus on stigma in a Gofmanesque way? A stigmatized person, says Goffman:

possesses a trait that can obtrude itself upon attention and turn those of us whom he meets away from him, breaking the claim that his other attributes have on us. He possesses a stigma, an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated. We and those who do not depart negatively from the particular expectations at issue I shall call the normals…. By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. (5)

To possess a trait—that is not stigma. To possess a trait that can obtrude—this too is still not enough for stigma. To possess a trait that obtrudes upon the normals' attention, disrupting the expected and the anticipated—now, we get closer to the meaning of stigma and closer to why it is a primal scene of interaction for Goffman. Again, the stigmatized and the normal are not two piles of people they are instead perspectives. To be with stigma, is to be with others in the midst of a noticed "un-desired differentness," and is thus, for at least a moment, to be inhabited by a definition of "not quite human." This un-desired differentness does not reside "in" the body, nor "in" the character, nor does it reside "in" race, nation or religion. At the same time, stigma is also not located exclusively "in" the normals' prejudicial attitudes. Instead, for Goffman stigma is a "special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype" (4). To imagine stigma as a purely subjective act of discrimination on the part of the normals or as objectively given by a negative obtrusion possessed by the stigmatized is to miss Goffman's point, since his work is neither victimology nor the naturalization of human difference.

With his focus squarely placed between attribute and stereotype, between the various meanings that already organize our bodies, minds, senses, emotions, comportments in group life, Goffman shows not two piles of people but, instead, gestures toward the social regulation of belonging and participation. Goffman's tenacious, even rude, noting of the stigmatizing process, seems to prod his reader toward the understanding that all people are "culprits and victims" reproducing and protecting normalcy thereby organizing their perspectives on belonging. But, as to the meaning of the normal shape of belonging, Goffman says little.

From my vantage point, Goffman's work demonstrates that a detailed scholarly analysis of the stigmatizing process cannot escape the dual demand to relate to normal and reproduce normalcy. Thus, while we examine the social processes of stigma, our desire to grapple with the meaning of normal may remain dormant. This—the scholarly reproduction of normal even as we critically engage stigma and other orders of belonging that make the not quite human appear—this is the provocative lesson of Goffman's Stigma that is as hard to learn as it is to live with.

Works Cited

  • Boys, Jos. Blog. http://www.sowhatisnormal.co.uk/bibliography. "So What is Normal: Selected Bibliography," Faculty of Arts and Architecture, University of Brighton, UK, in partnership with the V+A museum, Royal College of Art and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Accessed September 30th, 2013.
  • Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body. London: Verso, 1995.
  • Finkelstein, Vic. "Emancipating Disability Studies," The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspetives. Ed. Tom Shakespeare. London: Cassell, 1998. 28-49.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
  • Michalko, Rod. The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
  • Titchkosky, Tanya. "Disability Studies: The Old and the New." Canadian Journal of Sociology 25.2 (2000): 197-224.


Heather Love
University of Pennsylvania

Missing Persons

Is Goffman a disability studies scholar? This is a complex question, as is clear from the fact that the Goffman's Stigma was dropped from the most recent edition of the Disability Studies Reader. Goffman's influence in the field is not in doubt, but the question remains whether his work is compatible with a disability studies perspective. For many, despite their indebtedness to his work, the answer is no. However, I want to briefly suggest the ongoing utility of his concept of stigma by linking it to an aspect of his work that has been widely criticized: his focus on microscopic scenes of interaction.

While the stranger is present before us, evidence can arise of his possessing an attribute that makes him different from others in the category of persons available for him to be, and of a less desirable kind—in the extreme, a person who is quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak. He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma, especially when its discrediting effect is very extensive; sometimes it is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap. (2-3)

Reading Goffman's capsule definition of stigma today, it is not surprising that his work has inspired such mixed feelings over the past fifty years. Nothing reminds us more of Goffman's distance from us than the bluntness of his language, evident in his summing up of the stigmatized person as "bad, dangerous, or weak" and his equation of the terms "failing" and "handicap." Reading Stigma can induce a sense of historical dislocation: what would it be like if our only terms to describe hierarchy, exclusion and difference were taken from mid-century deviance studies? (Stigma was based on a course on social deviance that Goffman was asked to teach at UC-Berkeley in 1961.)

In addition to his use of a flattening language, several other features of Goffman's work make him a troubling figure today: his lack of a positive account of difference; his attitude of detachment, even or especially when he is writing about situations of human degradation; his virtuosic practice of the politics of analogy—in Stigma, he erases distinctions between forms of social dishonor as disparate as physical disability, racial otherness, addiction, homosexuality, homelessness, and intellectualism, extracting concepts like identity ambivalence, stigma symbol, gentleman deviant, and covering, out of the most disparate materials and experiences; and his consistent focus on social dynamics at the micro-scale. Goffman tended to sidestep questions of social structure and history, and he didn't have much to say about psychological interiority either. For many, the failure to account for history and social structure makes Goffman's work incompatible with the project of transformative Left criticism. By focusing on the coping strategies of individuals, many have argued, he leaves an unjust social world mostly intact. Goffman's lack of attention to the psychological interiority of his actors also presents difficulties in the context of identity-based inquiry. Since a great deal of what scholars in disability studies have had to work against is the dehumanization of people with disabilities, Goffman's lack of empathy, his stance of neutrality, and his paper-thin model of the subject all strike an odd note. Don't social practices of dehumanization call for humanistic methods?

What makes Goffman so hard to dismiss, though, is that the weakness of his work is bound up with its strength. To take perhaps the hardest case first, Goffman's "dated" language, as well as his acquiescence in the face of social inequality, do not seem at all useful in combating stigma. We might in fact see Goffman's account of stigma as a cautionary tale about the dangers of method: in describing the conditions of stigmatization, one risks repeating them, making a spectacle of the denigrated object. Still, Goffman's topic is not individual inferiority, but rather processes of stigmatization: how do some people come to be regarded as inferior, he asks, and what follows from these acts of categorization. The bluntness of Goffman's writing on "spoiled identity" might in this sense be understood as an indictment of the processes that reduce an individual "from a whole and usual person to a tainted discounted one"—a realism about the material consequences of reflexive mental habits and fleeting social encounters.

I want to suggest that there is also unexpected value in Goffman's focus on individual experiences of stigma. In their introduction to the recent collection Disability and Passing, Jeffrey Brune and Daniel Wilson describe the "materialist critique" of Goffman: they cite the Marxist geographer Brendan Gleeson's account of Goffman's "interactionist fallacy," his failure to account for the structural forces that condition small-scale interactions (3). In this view, identity for Goffman is a matter of live negotiation, but the larger social world is projected as a stable background, a permanent situation of inequality. Despite such critiques, Goffman's relational, dynamic, small-scale account of stigma remains crucial for the field. In the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, for instance, disability is not a stable feature of either persons or representations, but is constituted in acts such as staring, in highly charged spaces of social interaction. Furthermore, I want to suggest that, although Goffman works at the scale of individual interaction, his focus on the situation or the scene undermines the category of the bounded, sovereign individual.

Many disability scholars have dealt with the difficulties of Goffman's method by using his work selectively and critically: explaining his language and the lack of a horizon of social transformation in his work by pointing to the fact that Stigma was written before the advent of the disability rights movement, for instance; or supplementing (as Brune and Wilson advocate) his micro accounts of interaction with accounts of macro social structures. In my own work over the last several years, I have insisted on Goffman's difference from the present, rather than trying to minimize it or explain it away. From my perspective—working in both disability and queer studies—it is Goffman's microsociological, observational approach, along with his disregard for the psychological individual, that constitutes his most valuable contribution. Goffman's small-scale, gestural, and scenic method as well as his setting aside of what is usually called "social context" offers a model of personhood that is remarkably resistant to the sticky psychology of stigma.

Goffman relies on a miscellaneous archive, one that includes novels, short stories, memoirs, and fabricated anecdotes alongside case histories, sociological reports, and other social scientific documents and reports. He mines these texts ruthlessly, drawing out of them exemplary scenes of social encounter. This is the method that Emanuel Schegloff refers to as Goffman's "sociology by epitome" (101)—it goes against the contemporary injunction to stay local and avoid the problematic politics of analogy. Goffman's approach is radically local in going to a scale smaller than the life narrative of the individual; at the same time, it is broadly comparative. He disregards biographical and psychological narratives, as well as different categories of stigma. He isolates interactional and behavioral elements—brief gestures, passing glances, double takes, stares, touches—and he compares these across wildly disparate geographical locations and historical periods; he disregards the content of particular stigmas, as well as the distinction between fictional and factual texts. This method might be understood as universalizing, although its effect is to destroy the traditional basis of universalism—human nature. And while this approach might be dehumanizing in its failure to recognize the particularity of individuals in their specific social worlds, it also leaves no human core as the basis for diagnosis or psychological profiling.

I want to look at one brief example in Stigma. Goffman repeatedly cites a textbook of social psychology published in 1953, Facial Deformity and Plastic Surgery, by Frances Cooke MacGregor (and a team of researchers). The case histories MacGregor cites detail the transformations in people's emotional and social welfare after surgical intervention. Goffman cites one of these cases in a discussion of how the stigmatized person is thrown into relation with others who also possess that stigma. Goffman reduces a richly detailed case history to a moment, a scene, a single gesture; treating stigma as behavior, he tracks identification through embodied action rather than through psychic processes. Goffman writes,

In some cases, the only contact the individual will have with his own is a fleeting one, but sufficient nonetheless to show him that others like himself exist:

[Goffman cites Facial Deformity]
When Tommy came to the clinic the first time, there were two other little boys there, each with a congenital absence of an ear. When Tommy saw them, his own right hand went slowly to his own defective ear, and he turned with wide eyes to his father and said, "There's another boy with an ear like mine." (Goffman, 36, citing MacGregor, 19-20)

Goffman's source text offers a rich psychological portrait of "Tommy" and his defective ear—as well as his redemptive experience as the recipient of reconstructive surgery. While we cannot look to Goffman to a counter-narrative, an activist impulse, or a historical critique of the clinic, what he does offer is a thinned-out, microscale, observational account of identification as an embodied act. By focusing on this gesture, and ignoring everything else (psychological portrait, diagnosis and prognosis, specific concern with particular traits), Goffman offers an account of stigma as a social encounter, nothing more than the occasion for a fleeting moment of identification—identification considered as an embodied gesture rather than a psychic process.

Goffman's understanding of stigma is ecological not psychological. He argues this point more directly and more polemically in "The Insanity of Place," in which he describes the mental patient as "a symptom carrier for a sick set-up" (336). But the point is implicit in his method all along. Rather than reading interiority off of a stigmatized trait, or looking for the stigmatized subject "behind the scenes," Goffman focuses on the scene itself. Because he stops at the threshold of the person, refusing to speculate about affect, motivation, or character, Goffman short-circuits the operations of stigma. Without a psychological character to take root in, stigma is revealed to be nothing more than a dynamic, or, as he writes, "a pervasive two-role social process" (138). Although Goffman's blunt language, rough editorial cuts, and micro-scale analyses are often out of step with the protocols of the contemporary field of disability studies, it was these aspects of his method that led him to conclude that "the normal and the stigmatized are not persons but rather perspectives" (138).

Works Cited

  • Brune, Jeffrey A. and Daniel J. Wilson, "Introduction", Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity, ed. Brune and Wilson. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013: 1-12.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Goffman, Erving. Stigma: On the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
  • ‒‒‒. "The Insanity of Place" in Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2010 [1971]: 335-390.
  • Love, Heather. "Close Reading and Thin Description" Public Culture 25.3 (Issue 71, Fall 2013): 401-434.
  • MacGregor, Frances Cooke and Theodora M. Abel, Albert Bryt, Edith Lauer, and Serena Weissman, Facial Deformities and Plastic Surgery: A Psychosocial Study. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1953.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. "Goffman and the Analysis of Conversation" in P. Drew and T. Wootton (eds.), Erving Goffman: Exploring the Interaction Order. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988: 89-135.
  • Serlin, David. Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2014 Jeffrey Brune, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Susan Schweik, Tanya Titchkosky, Heather Love



Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)