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The Sociology of Stigma

Project: Non-funded ProjectResearch

25/03/13 → …

Rethinking the Sociology of Stigma

I have been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize (2014) to develop a three year research project on stigma and inequalities

Why research stigma today?

All the major institutions of ‘free-market’ capitalism have warned that escalating inequalities (of income, health and education) pose the gravest threat to future social and political stability. The premise of this new research project is that to combat this threat we require a much better understanding of relationship between stigmatisation, inequalities and in the context of the particular forms of market capitalism which predominate today—that is we urgently need to theorise stigma as a cultural and political economy.

Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1964) transformed scholarly and wider public understandings of how stigma impacts upon well-being, social relations and community cohesion. Goffman made two central claims: 1) stigma is not an essential quality of a person or thing but rather describes a ‘special kind of relationship between attribute and stereotype’ (Goffman, 1963:4); and 2) individuals manage the shame of stigma by employing strategies of passing, concealment and refusal. Goffman’s work has been pivotal in the development of practical initiatives designed to combat social stigma, for example in programmes designed to reduce the social stigma of conditions such as HIV and Aids, and in the area of mental health and disability. Indeed, in the fifty years since Stigma was published, social and political movements, such as the disability rights movement, have radically transformed public perceptions and understandings of what might once have been considered ‘deviant’ bodies and behaviours. However, despite these sometimes successful practical applications of Goffman’s work, it is striking how little our theoretical understandings of stigmatisation have developed in the intervening 50 years. The centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented and dispersed across academic disciplines.

This new Leverhulme funded research project, The Sociology of Stigma will produce a new theoretical account of stigma to address this lacuna and to consider the relationship between growing inequalities and 'heightened stigmatization in daily life and public discourse' (Wacquant, 2010). The project has the following aims:

• develop a new social theory of stigma
• examine the relationship between stigmatisation and escalating inequalities
• consider ‘behaviour change’ policies through the lens of stigma
• deepen understanding of the role of stigma in generating a ‘postwelfare consensus’

Existing empirical research demonstrates that the social dimensions of poverty are as damaging as economic hardship. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has developed a rich and detailed understanding of the disabling effects of ‘poverty shame’. The Sociology of Stigma will examine existing empirical research on poverty and shame, including the findings of the Oxford University project, ‘Shame, social exclusion and the effectiveness of anti-poverty programmes’ (ESRC-DFID 2010-2012). However, what distinguishes The Sociology of Stigma from existing research is its explicit focus on stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.

The Stigma Doctrine

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Klein details the ways in which ‘the policy trinity’ of neoliberalism, ‘the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations and skeletal social spending’ has been enabled and legitimated through the invention and/or exploitation of crises, be they natural disasters, terrorist attacks or global economic recession. The Sociology of Stigma will revise Klein’s analysis, researching the claim made by the sociologist Loïc Wacquant (2010), and extended in geographer Tom Slater’s work on territorial stigma that “neoliberalism is characterised by heightened stigmatization in daily life and public discourse” (Wacquant 2010: 24-25). Focusing on policy design and implementation, The Sociology of Stigma will examine the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.

In particular, this project aims to develop a better understanding the role of stigma in effecting a ‘postwelfare consensus’(Peck 2010). One area The Sociology of Stigma will focus on is the extent to which stigmatization is designed into policy, as, for example, a technology of social control which ‘nudge’ citizens into behaviours desired by the state. The ‘behaviourist turn’ in policy formation, and the accompanying intensive social, political and media focus on ‘behaviourally recalcitrant’ social groups, has not been researched from the perspective of stigma. The Sociology of Stigma will offer an important critical analysis of ‘behaviour change’ approaches to policy design and the emergence of what has been coined ‘neuroliberal’ forms of governmentality (see Rhys Jones et al 2013).

The Sociology of Stigma is currently in its first phase, an extensive review of the literature on stigma from several disciplines, including sociology, political theory, psychology, anthropology, disability studies, health research and the arts. This first phase was been initially supported by the research assistance of Dr Brigit McWade, and seed-corn funding from the Department of Sociology and the Faculty of Arts and Social Science. In its second phase, The Sociology of Stigma will establish a new network of researchers in field of sociology of stigma. The third phase will involve empirical research in partnership with policy-makers, community and activist groups concerned with stigma and rising inequalities in the UK and wider Europe.

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