Stigma three ways: Brown, Coleman Lerita. “Stigma: An Enigma Demystified”

While stigma is a key term in disability studies, social scientist Lorita Coleman Brown argues that most scholars who employ the term are not aware of the multiple dimensions of stigma. Brown examines the “behavioral,” “cognitive,” and “affective” components of stigma and argues that social stigmitization emerges in response to “the dilemma of difference.”

Brown begins with Irving Groffman’s concept of stigma as a mark of difference that makes one undesired in a particular social setting. Stigmas might be marked by embodied qualities like skin color or sex, or they might be demarkated by religious or polotical affiliation. Which stigmas disqualify a person from access to social power (use of rights, access to wealth, protection from discrimination, etc) changes from one cultural moment to the next. As it is a part of the social order, stigma it affects everyone–regardless of whether the individual is marked with a negative stigma or not. For example, current social stigmas about fatness affect me and my self image, even though I’m thin.

Brown examines the way children learn to stigmatize socially undesired differences. She argues that through the process of social learning, children are taught to modify their in-born curiosity response to recognizing human variation to a fear response that they intuit from parental interaction. Children learn which sorts of differences identify a category of person, and they also learn which categories of people they should have negative or positive feelings about. Identifying someone as stigmatized or not can be seen as a form of social cognition that must be learned. (Not fully sure I understand what she means by social cognition. Perhaps a thinking task that’s part of being in social life?)

Beyond this cognitive component of stigma, further social effects are maintained when stereotyped beliefs about strigmatized populations work their way into accepted social behavior, especially when these beliefs justify social exclusion and lowered expectations for success for stigmazied people. This negative social status enforces the affective component of stigma, which is a felt desire to avoid or distance oneself from stigmatized individuals which brown identifies as “fear.”

Ultimately, Brown wants to show that social scientific research on stigma could have important implications for understanding a wealth of social phenomena, including the distribution of power/wealth along sex or race lines. She wants economists and anthropologists to investigate stigma and its relation to social power across cultures, economic systems, time periods, and reasons.


The first connection I draw between stigma and my interest in academic culture relates to stigmas against students with mental disabilities. The work of Margaret Price examines this element, so maybe I’ll go to her essay for my next post. If students are flagged as psychotic or seriously depressed, we see their position in the university change dramatically. Students who are marked different as “mentally unstable” in some way enter a medicalized wing of the university system: their continued presence on campuses becomes monitored by physicians and service providers, and lack of complaince can result in expulsion. (fix that syntax so it’s not terrible to read.) As Price discusses in her 2011 Mad At School, diagnosis of many so-called mental illnesses stands as legitimate grounds for expulsion in many American universities [citation needed]. These discriminatory practices are justified by legal necessity to avoid liability for knowingly allowing mentally ill people to harm themselves or others within their institution. In this, I could understand a good connection to Brown’s notion that stigma is connected to stereotyped fear.

At the local level in classrooms, stigma against mental illness is pervades the language of rationality and sanity, pervading academic discourse. See  particularly Bowers’s essay in this fall’s issue of Kairos for an interesting discussion on this point, where the argues against saneist language in the classroom: “Inclusive Language” See also my post on the Kairos webtext from the beginning of September. This language speaks to a cultural acceptance of beliefs that mental illness is goes along with deminished intellectual value and unacademic values.

The most interesting thing for me is considering mental disability in academia from the first quality of stigma that Brown uses. Unlike stigmas written on the body, mental disabilities are not typically visible, except on medical disclosure forms, of course. Instead, because mental illness is associated with “abnormal behavior” like acting emotionally volatile, depressed in productivity or motivation, or generally irrational [resisting scare quotes].

These behaviors often manifest themselves in relation to the performance of academic tasks, that is, doing the work students do: class discussions, homework, exams, while studying. I see possible connections here to the cognitive disabilities I’m concerned about elsewhere on Jason’s list. The behaviors associated with mental illness read as fundamentally inconsistent with participation in academic culture. They also sit as the flip side of the academic abilities valued by most academics, especially rationality and intellectual control. I’ll think about this further when reading Price’s work.

* * * Next up: Margaret Price: “Defining Mental Disability” from the Disability Studies Reader





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