Goffman (1963) popularized the concept of stigma through his well-cited book, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. He defined it as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting,” which reduces the bearer “in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman 1963, 3). Stigmatizing attributes include “abominations of the body,” “blemishes of individual character,” and “tribal stigmas of race, nation, or religion” (Goffman 1963, 4). Current research supports the theory that people are stigmatized, and ultimately marginalized, because of mental and physical illnesses; behavior that is considered deviant, immoral, or illegal; and personal characteristics such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Alonzo and Reynolds (1995), for example, noted that stigma associated with HIV or AIDS comes about because moral judgments often are made about personal responsibility and deviant behavior (e.g., gay sex or drug use) and because the disease is associated with contagion and death.
Although Goffman referred to stigma in terms of attributes, he recognized that it was a relational or social concept; that is, stigma comes about through interactions with others. Several theoretical perspectives reinforce the idea that stigma has a social or group basis. In social identity theory, stigma is considered a function of the “widespread knowledge of negative stereotypes and devaluation of some social identities within the culture” (Crocker et al. 1998, 511). Based on intergroup perspectives, ingroup–outgroup categorization is the basis of the problem: people who are stigmatized are considered outgroup members because they are different from the ingroup or “normals” (Tajfel & Turner 1986). Stigmatized attributes often lead to individuals being excluded from the dominant group, or being marginalized. Marginalization can lead to less access to society’s resources and “normal” channels of communication (e.g., Dutta-Bergman 2004).
Fear of stigmatization can interfere with the daily lives of people when these judgments are salient. For example, research has shown that people avoid health-care settings if they have an illness that might result in stigma. They also may avoid self-care behaviors that could reveal their illness to others. Rintamaki et al. (2006) found that perceptions of stigma were associated with treatment adherence problems for people living with HIV, which can lead to strains of the virus that are resistant to further treatment. They speculated that the association between nonadherence and stigma resulted because those individuals for whom stigma was salient were less likely to disclose their illness, which made them more likely to skip doses when they felt they needed to hide their medications.
Stigma can be the basis of dysfunctional communication patterns. Communication about outgroups may help strengthen the “us–them” thinking that reinforces stereotypes and stigma. Pittam and Gallois (2000) reported that framing of HIV and AIDS among young adults in Australia involved language strategies that maximized intergroup differences, so that their ingroup was less to blame for HIV transmission and their own risk was deemed less salient. Similarly, the use of racist or sexist speech can establish outgroup difference and ingroup preference. Communication with outgroups also may be perceived as problematic. Giles et al. (2003) found that young adults across a variety of cultures rated interactions with same-age peers (ingroup) more positively than those with family and nonfamily elders (outgroup). Intergenerational communication, therefore, can be problematic, even in cultures in which respect for elders is a commonly espoused value. Even within a traditionally marginalized group, ingroup/outgroup status can emerge (e.g., young gay men versus older gay men; see Hajek & Giles 2002).
Future research should focus on how individuals who are stigmatized or marginalized resist those processes. For example, as Rintamaki et al. (2006) suggested, strategies are needed to help patients overcome fear of stigma about their illnesses. Activist or self-advocacy behaviors may help people fight the effects of stigmatization (e.g., Brashers et al. 2004), and providing avenues for dialogue with marginalized communities may enhance opportunities for distributive justice (e.g., Dutta-Bergman 2004). Communication, therefore, can be a vector for stigmatizing behavior, but it also may hold solutions for managing stigma and discrimination. Continued research is needed to understand the complex connections between communication and stigma.
- Alonzo, A. A., & Reynolds, N. R. (1995). Stigma, HIV, and AIDS: An exploration and elaboration of the stigma trajectory. Social Science and Medicine, 41, 303 –315.
- Brashers, D. E., Haas, S. M., Neidig, J. L., & Rintamaki, L. S. (2002). Social activism, self-advocacy, and coping with HIV illness. Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, 19, 113 –133.
- Crocker, J., Major, B., & Steele, C. M. (1998). Social stigma. In D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (eds.), The handbook of social psychology. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, pp. 504 – 553.
- Dutta-Bergman, M. (2004). The unheard voices of Santalis: Communicating about health from the margins of India. Communication Theory, 14, 237–263.
- Giles, H., Noels, K. A., Williams, A., Ota, H., Lim, T., Ng, S. H., Ryan, E. B., Somera, L. (2003). Intergenerational communication across cultures: Young people’s perceptions of conversations with family elders, non-family elders, and same-age peers. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 18, 1–32.
- Goffman, I. J. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Hajek, C., & Giles, H. (2002). The old man out: An intergroup analysis of intergenerational communication among gay men. Journal of Communication, 52, 698 –714.
- Pittam, J., & Gallois, C. (2000). Malevolence, stigma, and social distance: Maximizing intergroup differences in HIV/AIDS discourse. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 28, 24 – 43.
- Rintamaki, L. S., Davis, T. C., Skripkauskas, S., Bennett, C. L., & Wolf, M. S. (2006). Social stigma concerns and HIV medication adherence. AIDS Patient Care and STDs, 20, 359 –368.
- Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, pp. 7–24.