Social Stigma

Social stigma is severe social disapproval of personal characteristics or beliefs that are perceived to be against cultural norms.

Examples of existing or historical social stigmas include mental illness, physical disabilities and diseases such as leprosy, about which leprosy stigma may also be called, as well as illegitimacy, skin tone or affiliation with a specific nationality, religion, or lack of religion, or being deemed to be or proclaiming oneself to be of a certain ethnicity, in any of a myriad of geopolitical and corresponding sociopolitical contexts in various parts of the world. The perception or attribution, rightly or wrongly, of criminality carries a strong social stigma.

Stigma comes in three forms:

Firstly, overt or external deformations, such as scars, physical manifestations of anorexia nervosa, leprosy, or of a physical disability or social disability, such as obesity.

Secondly, deviations in personal traits, including mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, and criminal backgrounds are stigmatized in this way.

Thirdly, so-called tribal stigmas are traits, imagined or real, of ethnic groups, nationalities, or religions that are deemed to constitute a deviation from what is perceived to be the prevailing normative ethnicity, nationality or religion. Stigma is generally based on stereotypical and uninformed impressions or characterizations of a given subject. Although the specific social categories that become stigmatized can vary across times and places, the three basic forms of stigma – physical deformity, poor personal traits, and tribal out-group status – are found in most cultures and time periods, leading some psychologists to hypothesize that the tendency to stigmatize may have evolutionary roots.

Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his so-called social identity. We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands. It is – when an active question arises as to whether these demands will be filled – that we are likely to realize that all along we had been making certain assumptions as to what the individual before us ought to be.

These assumed demands and the character we impute to the individual will be called virtual social identity. The category and attributes he could in fact be proved to possess will be called his actual social identity.

While a 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. It constitutes a special discrepancy between virtual and actual social identity. Note that there are other types of discrepancy. For example; the kind that causes us to reclassify an individual from one socially anticipated category to a different but equally well-anticipated one, and the kind that causes us to alter our estimation of the individual upward.

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