Stigma, by Erving Goffman

So there I am in my favorite gay dive bar, and I turn around and there is this fantastically hot guy standing there. Who’s seen Leverage, show of hands? This guy looked like Eliot when Eliot is doing his geek-chic disguise, with the glasses and his hair back in a ponytail. Commence gnawing on table.

Guy-who-looked-like-Eliot had been chatting animatedly with an obviously-straight girl, then at one point reached over to stub out a cigarette in the ashtray next to me. He glances up, our eyes catch, and I say,

“Hi.” :)

Which is apparently as good a pickup line as any, because he stayed and we got to talking. Got to talking about ~books!~, I don’t even know how, first about Fantasy That Doesn’t Suck, and then he said he tended to read more nonfiction, and I asked about his most recent reading and he said,

“Oh! Ah — yeah, it’s called, uhm, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

Sir, can I marry you? Like, right now?

Cuz usually I’m the one busting out shit like “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in bar chat, and then watching the other person’s eyes glaze over, sometimes accompanied with a vague, “Wow, so you must be really smart, huh? o_o” To which I’m so tempted to say, I KNOW I AM, BUT WHAT ARE YOU?

…Which is why I rarely get laid. And I am okay with this.

“Oh oh oh!” I said. “If you’re interested in that sort of thing, then you should read Stigma, by Erving Goffman — it’s about how stigmatized minorities control perceptions of their identity. It’s a bit dated in its language, but still extremely insightful.”

Which is how I got his number, and a date a couple days later.

So let’s talk about Stigma.

As I told Eliot, the language is dated — I’d only read a dozen or so pages before unselfconscious use of the words “negro” and “cripple” had me flipping back to check the publication date, which was 1963. That said, the content withstands the test of time extremely well, because Goffman doesn’t focus on any specific minority group; he’s far more interested in how these vastly disparate stigmatized minorities nevertheless wind up employing the same strategies when they’re interacting with the mainstream.

In broad brushstrokes, Goffman divides all types of stigmas into two groups: what he calls the discredited and the discreditable. A discredited stigma refers to one that can’t be hidden — such as belonging to an oppressed ethnic minority or having a physical disability, disfigurement, etc. (And if lumping those three things into the same category makes you profoundly uncomfortable, you are not alone and it only gets worse.) Having a discreditable stigma means that you can pass for “normal,” such as it is, but you have a secret that could devastate your reputation and social standing if it were to get out — and this list includes a history of mental health problems, abuse, a criminal record, drug addiction, alcoholism, illiteracy, homosexuality, transsexuality, unemployment, suicide attempts, prostitution, being HIV+, partial blindness or deafness, etc.

To which I go ::TWITCH TWITCH:: ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS. When in fact, all of these things are not like the others… except that the methods employed by the people in all those different groups, to control and contain their stigma and to influence the way that others view them after their secret had been made public, is remarkably consistent.

For example, the neighborly druggist might talk to the neighborhood, therefore neighborhood drugstores have been avoided by persons seeking all manner of equipment and medication–persons wonderfully diverse who share nothing but a need to control information.

And that is what Goffman is documenting, rather than mounting a defense of minorities. As someone with a handful of discreditable stigmas, I found myself nodding along almost nonstop as I was reading, and my most frequent margin scribble was “YES.

So in no particular order, the lines that I found memorable and/or amusing enough to make a note on — all emphasis mine.

The stigmatized individual tends to hold the same beliefs about identity that we do; this is a pivotal fact. His deepest feelings about what he is may be his sense of being a “normal person,” a human being like everyone else who deserves a fair chance and a fair break. Yet he may perceive, usually quite correctly, that whatever others profess, they do not really “accept” him and are not ready to make contact with him on equal grounds. Further, the standards he had incorporated from wider society equip him to be intimately alive to what others see as his failing, inevitably causing him, if only for moments, to agree that he does indeed fall short of what he really ought to be.


During mixed contacts, the stigmatized individual is likely to feel that he is “on,” of having to be self-conscious and calculating about the impression that he is making, to a degree and in areas of conduct which he assumes others are not.

Uh-huh. The phenomenon of being told, “Of course, you would do that, because you’re gay/black/female/etc” and thinking, “FUCK YOU, straight/white/male people do that all the time, and no one attributes it to anything but who they personally are.”


A professional criminal provides an example of breaking people’s expectations:

“You know, it’s really amazing you should read books like this, I’m staggered I am. I should’ve thought you’d read paperbacked thrillers, things with lurid covers, books like that. And here you are with Claud Cockburn, Hugh Klare, Simone de Beauvoir, and Lawrence Durrell!”

You know, he didn’t see this as an insulting remark at all: in fact, I think he thought he was being honest in telling me how mistaken he was. And that’s exactingly the sort of patronizing you get from straight people if you’re a criminal. “Fancy that!” they say. “In some ways you’re just like a human being!” I’m not kidding, it makes me want to choke the bleeding life out of them.

Margin note: “LOL”


When the stigmatized person’s failing can be perceived by our merely directing attention to him — when in short he is a discredited, not discreditable, person — he is likely to feel that to be present among normals nakedly exposes him to violations of privacy… This displeasure can be increased by the conversations that strangers feel free to strike up with him, conversations in which they express what he takes to be a morbid curiosity about his condition, or in which they proffer help that he does not need or want.

One might add that there are certain classic formulae for these kinds of conversations: “My dear girl, how did you get your quiggle?”; “My great uncle had a quiggle, so I feel I know all about your problem”; “You know I’ve always said that Quiggles are good family men and look after their own poor”; “Tell me, how do you manage to bathe with a quiggle?”

To which I wrote in the margin: “I am not your teachable moment, fuck off.”


Another sub-section is about the people who are likely to be sympathetic to a particular stigma — what Goffman calls “The Own and the Wise” — that is, people who share the stigma, and people who legitimately understand and/or are comfortable with it, as opposed to those who just think they do.

The first set of sympathetic others is of course those who share the stigma. Knowing from their own experience what it is like to have this particular stigma, some of them can provide the individual with instruction in the tricks of the trade and with a circle of lament to which he can withdraw for moral support and for the comfort of feeling at home, at ease, accepted as a person who is really like any other person.


We all seem to be inclined to identify people with characteristics which are of importance to us. If you asked a person who the late Franklin D. Roosevelt was, he would probably answer that Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States… The cripple, however, would probably think of Mr. Roosevelt’s polio when he heard the name mentioned.

Me: “And Alan Turing was gay.”


In talking about the difficulties of being the Representative of any given minority group, such as someone writing about their stigma for a mainstream audience:

Those who professionally represent the viewpoint of their category may introduce some systematic bias in this presentation simply because they are sufficiently involved in the problem to write about it… Whether a writer takes a stigma very seriously or makes light of it, he must define it as something worth writing about. This minimal agreement, even when there are no others, helps to consolidate belief in the stigma as a basis for self-conception.


Every time someone with a particular stigma makes a spectacle of himself by breaking the law, winning a prize, or becoming a first of his kind, a local community may take gossipy note of this… those who share the noted person’s stigma suddenly become subject to a slight transfer of credit or discredit to themselves.

Margin note: “Usually the latter.”

This point bears further discussion, particularly since its effect is magnified when relatively few people are “out” about owning that stigma. To fabricate an example: an openly gay celebrity gets arrested for the scandalous double murder of his lover and his lover’s other lover. This is going to have far more wide-ranging impact on people’s perceptions of “the homosexual lifestyle” if all the other gays they know (and don’t know that they know) are still in the closet — when all they have is that one overblown Hollywood scandal, without Pete in the mailroom, and Keith at the acupuncture clinic, and Tim Gunn and Matt Bomer and John Barrowman to remind them that gay people can also be perfectly well-adjusted and non-homicidal.

The fewer representatives that any given group has, the disproportionately greater weight that gets placed on the actions of those who are out (or outed, as the case may be). This plays a small role in Keilja’s story, because the common term for homosexual men, kirilines, comes from a historical figure named Kiril Aldercy, a Sedekevran officer who became involved in an affair with a Highland general and wound up passing along state secrets. Accordingly, the word “kiriline” also has strong connotations of treachery and dishonesty — and Sedekevran homosexuals may chafe at the term, but there is no widely-understood alternative.

Keilja’s attitude toward Kiril Aldercy (and mine, whenever someone from one of my in-groups makes a public ass of themselves) is not one of fellow feeling, but rather “@#*&%!!! WHY MUST YOU MAKE LIFE HARDER FOR THE REST OF US??”


Regarding the process of coming to terms with a stigma that is a new development, rather than one that you’ve grown up accustomed to:

The phase of experience during which he learns that he possesses a stigma will be especially interesting, for at this time he is likely to be thrown into a new relationship to others who possess the stigma too.

Margin note: “Interesting times, I am goddamn living in them.”

When the individual first learns who it is that he must now accept as his own, he is likely, at the very least, to feel some ambivalence; for these others will not only be patently stigmatized, and thus not like the normal person he knows himself to be, but may also have other attributes with which he finds it difficult to associate himself.

And before I could even cite the obvious example, they did it for me:

“I met a man with whom I had been at school… He was, of course, gay himself, and took it for granted that I was too. I was surprised and rather impressed. He did not look in the least like the popular idea of homosexual, being well-built, masculine, and neatly dressed. This was something new to me. Although I was perfectly prepared to admit that love could exist between men, I had always been slightly repelled by the obvious homosexuals whom I had met because of their vanity, their affected manner, and their ceaseless chatter. These, it now appeared, formed only a small part of the homosexual world, although the most noticeable one…”

Dan Savage has a brilliant story (more like 15 minutes of stand-up) that goes full circle through the idea of not wanting to be That Kind of Gay.


In the section on discreditable stigma:

The issue is then not of managing tension generated during social contacts [as the person with a visible stigma has to do], but rather of managing information about his failing. To display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where… It is not that he must face prejudice against himself, but rather that he must face the unwitting acceptance of himself by individuals who are prejudiced against persons of the kind that he can be revealed to be.


Apparently in middle class circles today, the more there is about an individual that deviates in an undesirable direction from what might have been expected to be true of him, the more he is obliged to volunteer about himself, even though the cost of candor may have increased proportionately… Here, the right to reticence seems earned only by having nothing to hide.


He who passes [for normal] leaves himself open to learning what others “really” think of his kind, both when they do not know they are dealing with someone of his kind and when they start out now knowing but learn part way through and veer sharply to another course… He finds himself not knowing how far information about himself has gone, this being a problem whenever his boss or schoolteacher is dutifully informed of his stigma, but others are not.

Margin note: “Been there.”

I might add that the lore of every stigmatized grouping seems to have its own battery of cautionary tales of embarrassing exposure, and that most members seem able to provide examples from their own experiences.


The phenomenon of passing has always raised issues regarding the psychic state of the passer, first it is assumed that he must necessarily pay a great psychological price, a very high level of anxiety, in living a life that can be collapsed at any moment.

To which I wrote, “No, you get used to it,” and Goffman promptly went on to say:

I think that close study of passers would show that this anxiety is not always found and that here our folk conceptions of human nature can be seriously misleading.

I think this is important because that idea, that people with a secret are constantly living with the guilt of keeping it, is false. Moreover, that fundamentally misunderstands what it means to have a discreditable stigma, particularly if it’s one you don’t feel guilty about, but is simply no one’s business but yours. You meet people, and they respond to you as an individual, not as Person From Exotic Minority Group, and is that not your right? Just because the stigma would loom large in other people’s thoughts if they knew, does not mean it looms large in ours. (We’re used to it, after all.) We — or I, anyway — experience far less cognitive dissonance than people in the mainstream seem to think we ought to.


It seems to be assumed, and apparently correctly, that he who passes will have to be alive to aspects of the social situation which others treat as uncalculated and unattended. What are unthinking routines for normals can become management problems for the discreditable.


About how early disclosure turns a discreditable stigma into a discredited one by taking “passing” off the table:

A final possibility must now be considered: he can voluntarily disclose himself, thereby radically transforming the situation from that of an individual with information to manage to that of an individual with an uneasy social situation to manage.

Margin note: “have done, mixed success”


There’s also a section on ambivalence toward people from the same stigmatized group — the paradox of valuing their understanding of your situation, coupled with resentment for the ways in which they make your group a de-valued one.

Whether closely allied with his own kind of not, the stigmatized individual may exhibit identity ambivalence when he observes his own kind behaving in a stereotyped way, flamboyantly or pitifully acting out the negative attributes imputed to them.


There’s a whole chapter on the ways that stigmatized individuals (of either variety) interact with — and are expected to interact with — out-group members who have absolutely no idea what their lives are like, and just want an insightful soundbite so they can feel generous and understanding, their horizons broadened, etc. (Yes, I am just a wee bit resentful, it might show.) Mostly I just wrote a bunch of sarcastic remarks and >:((( faces in the margins, because it’s nothing we didn’t already know.

A formula for dealing with normals follows logically:

Normals really mean no harm; when they do, it is because they don’t know better. They should therefore be tactfully helped to ask nicely. Slights, snubs, and untactful remarks should not be answered in kind. Either no notice should be taken, or the stigmatized individual should make an effor at sympathetic re-education of the normal, showing him, point for point, quietly and with delicacy, that in spite of appearances the stigmatized individual is, underneath it all, a fully-human being. When the stigmatized person finds that normals have difficulty in ignoring his failing, he should try to help them by conscious efforts to reduce tension.

And in case it was rendered unclear by taking it out of context — Goffman is IN NO WAY saying that stigmatized individuals should be doing any of this, he’s enumerating the oppressive and entirely one-sided obligation that society puts on minority groups to educate a mainstream that’s largely indifferent.

The stigmatized individual is also advised to act as if the efforts of normals to ease matters for him were effective and appreciated. Unsolicited offers of interest, sympathy, and help, although often perceived by the stigmatized as an encroachment on privacy and a presumption, are to be tactfully accepted.


And how polite tolerance is not quite the same as true acceptance:

This acceptance is conditional. It depends upon normals not being pressed past the point at which they can easily extend acceptance. The stigmatized are tactfully expected to be gentlemanly and not press their luck; they should not test the limits of the acceptance shown to them, nor make it the basis for further demands. Tolerance, of course, is usually part of a bargain.

Uh-huh. And moreover, it places the burden for everything squarely on the shoulders of the stigmatized, making them bend over backwards to keep anyone in the mainstream from being made to feel even vaguely uncomfortable.

It means that the unfairness and the pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to normals; it means that they will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance really is; and it means they can remain unthreatened in their identity beliefs.


In the last chapter he ties it all together, and points out what should be obvious by now: that everyone is going to have some attribute that, to greater or lesser degree, counts as a stigma and that they have to run interference and information control on.

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 between virtual and and actual social identity. Therefore, the occasionally precarious and the constantly precarious form a single continuum, their situation in life analyzable by the same framework.

The patterns of response and adaption considered in this essay seem totally understandable in a framework of normal psychology. One can assume first that persons with different stigmas are in an appreciably similar situation and respond in an appreciably similar way.

Secondly, one can assume that the stigmatized and the normal have the same mental make-up, and that this is necessarily the standard one in our society; he who can play one of these roles, then, has exactly the required equipment for the other.


And this, ultimately, is what I believe to be the book’s most valuable lesson: helping you recognize patterns of stigmatization, and beginning to apply the lessons learned from your own experiences with stigmatization (great or small) to your interactions with others. And for writers, this book is an excellent tool for learning to channel your own experiences with marginalization into those of your characters.

It is never more obvious that I’m reading a book by a straight-white-cisgendered-able-bodied-male than when one of their characters is a member of a stigmatized minority, but it is blindingly obvious that the author does not understand oppression. Sometimes they overlook it entirely (racism? what racism! sexism? homophobia? wut?), because it’s not important to their worldview and it doesn’t register on their radar. Other times they write the obvious — rednecks (characterization shorthand for stupid and racist) picking a fight with blacks or swishy gays, or disrespecting a female character, or what have you — and then sit back on their laurels, content that they have portrayed the unfairness of the world.

But the fact of the matter is, for every ugly altercation with some cliche, mouthbreathing throwback (which, for the record, has never actually happened to me), there will be a hundred other incidents so small they pass all but unnoticed — weird little encounters and exchanges that have you second-guessing the other person’s true feelings, and second-guessing yourself; the casual ignorance and contempt that people in the media, fictional and otherwise, have for people like you; and the way that gets inside your head after enough time.

It’s the proverbial death of a thousand cuts, and anyone with a stigma of any significance knows what that’s like. (Though it doesn’t necessarily make them capable of extending their understanding to other oppressed groups.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say that someone who’s experienced one type of oppression is qualified to write all others, but it certainly gives you a leg up.


As a coda to this story — after texting back and forth for the better part of two days, Eliot and I made a date to go get coffee. I was like, “Okay, cool, I can meet you there in twenty minutes,” and then promptly went and had a mini-meltdown because OMGWTF he is so much hotter than me, what am I thinking? What is HE thinking??

And then I realized–

He is hotter than everybody.

If he wants to date at all, he is necessarily going to be dating people less-hot than him.


3 thoughts on “Stigma, by Erving Goffman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>