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What is it?

Before sociologist Erving Goffman had re-coined the term stigma as "a powerful negative social label that radically changes a person's social identity and self-concept", the Greeks originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. (Goffman, 1962, p.1) "The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor - a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places." (p.1). Later, in Christian times, stigma was also referred to as bodily signs of physical disorder. (p.1) In more recent literature, according to Kurzban and Leary's article on "Evolutionary Origins of Stigmatization," stigmatization is deemed as discrimination, the exclusion from various forms of social interactions or the devaluation of one's identity as a result of possessing what is believed to be a 'deviant attribute'.[1] Over decades, the term stigmatization has relatively stayed the same in the sense that the idea revolving stigmatization is still thought of as labelling, tagging negative connotations to a person(s) characteristic or attribute. Once an individuals social identity is stigmatized, they are viewed as unable to fulfil the basic role of social interactions and once they are labelled and grouped as unable to participate in these basic social interactions, they are no longer protected by social norms which may further exclude them. More detail on the effects of stigmatization will be discussed under "The impacts of stigmatization" below. In essence, the act of stigmatization itself, according to Goffman and other researchers, is a form of deviance that leads others others to critique 'unique' person(s) as not worthy or legitimate for social interaction and stigmatization requires a group of shared negative values and preferences towards unique individuals and that a personal rejection alone is not considered stigmatization.[1] In essence, stigma is a social rejection of those who are believed to possess attribute(s) or characteristic(s) that are devalued. So the question that may arise is, what transforms these negative evaluations to more extreme prejudicial ones into stigmatization?


Throughout history there have been many examples of stigmatization existing and transgressing from past to present. in 1939, under the Nazi regime, Jews were stigmatized as unworthy individuals, ostracized for their belief. They were forced to wear a distinct sign - the Star of David to indicate their social identity as devalued individuals. Another example, of the Untouchables in India from the article by Kurzban and Leary (2001), are individuals Dalits tainted by their birth into a caste system that is perceived as impure and less than human (National Geographic, Mayell, 2003). One evolutionary explanation of why the untouchables were not allowed to drink from the same cups in tea stalls, and not allowed to drink from the same wells as the upper caste, according to Kurzban and Leary, is that "human beings possess cognitive adaptations to avoid contact with those who are differentially likely to carry communicable pathogens." In addition, to these examples of stigmatization in our history, there are many more including the Pink triangle which was described in the article "The Pink Triangle", in which one of the symbols homosexual individuals had to wear to categorize that they were different from the rest and therefore subject to abuse and devaluation by others.[2]

Why do people stigmatize?

In order to find resolutions for stigmatization, it is necessary to analyze and understand why people stigmatize. There are many evolutionary explanations as to why individuals and society stigmatize individuals. Whether it is to enhance one's social identity, to put one's position as superior by devaluing others, to maintain a high self-esteem; a positive social identity, or to justify particular societal structure. Drawing from the article "Stereotype Threat", despite individuals best efforts to be accepted, social rejection seems to be a pervasive feature of social life.[3]

Who are at risk of stigmatization?

Furthermore, it is important to identify tho are at risk of stigmatization in order for society to help these individuals and find solutions to stop or control the stigmatization involving these individuals. According to Desert et al., article stigmatization occurs to those who have more aesthetically unpleasing feature, a physical characteristic that can be seen (whether it be deformities, skin disease, or awkward movements) - characteristics that can be seen have greater danger of being stigmatized.[3] In essence, stigma arises for individuals who do not meet society's normative expectations of attributions individuals should possess - those who are not like the rest are stigmatized.

The impacts of Stigmatization

Stigmatizing individual(s) lead to detrimental effects on their mental, emotional, and physical health. Not only do they have to suffer from what they are already dealing with, they additionally have to experience the stigmatization that comes along with it. As mentioned earlier, the more visible a stigmatizing condition is, the greater negative impacts it has on social interactions. Although, visible marks often lead to devaluation, those who do not have visible marks are forced to bear visible symbols (e.g. Star of David or Pink triangle) to denote one's difference. In other words, whether one's 'uniqueness' is visible or not, they will eventually be noticed and stigmatized. According to studies by Leyens etal.(2000), those who are stigmatized is the underlying cause for poorer performances in experimental tests. Because individuals are regularly stigmatized, they feel they are inadequate and therefore i reflected in their performances.[4] Furthermore, it is highlighted that stereotype threat can significantly contribute to social inequalities of minorities.[4] In Mend the Mind campaign, who's goal is to help victims of stigmatization, they note that stigmatization limit's a person's ability to get and keep a job, fit in without being bullied, find a safe place to live, attend college or university, receive adequate health care, and other support, be accepted by their family, friends and community, final and make long term relationships, as well as difficulty taking part in social activities.

Youtube Video - A First Hand experience of Stigma

Resolutions for Stigmatization

There are many solutions for stigmatization. According to "The Fight Against Stigma" by researchers Heijinders et al. (2006), stigma reduction strategies at an intrapersonal level, in other words primary focus on changing the individual(s) behaviour through knowledge, attitudes, behaviour, self-concept, improving self-esteem, coping skills, empowerment, and economic support can reduce the effects of stigmatization.[5] Secondly, reduction strategies at an interpersonal level consisting of social reinforcement for positive attitudes, maintenance of safe behaviour is shown to take positive turns for those who are stereotyped. Thirdly, reduction of stigma at an organizational/institutional level (training programs, new policies like patient-centred and integrated approaches), community level (education, contact, advocacy, protest), and lastly, governmental/structural level (legal and policy interventions, and rights-based approaches) are also helpful in helping individual(s) cope and deal with stigmatization.[5] In addition to these various stigma reduction strategies, campaigns are another way of helping society and those affected by stigmatization get a better understanding of what stigmatizing is. Campaigns such as "The New Mentality, Disable the Label" are mental health anti-stigma campaign that informs society about the effects of stigma, how to reduce stigma, the mental health problems associated with stigma, and the many myths about mental illnesses which in turn causes stigmatization. These campaigns also inform society on what we can do as a whole to reduce stigma and discrimination. Such as, know the facts by educating yourself about mental health problems instead of the myths, be aware of one's own attitudes and behaviours surrounding people who are 'unique' and not to label them by seeing the person beyond their mental illness, choosing one's words carefully because the way one speaks, can impact the way others think and speak, educating others and let them know that negative words and incorrect descriptions affect people with mental health problems, recognize and focus on the positive aspects of people with mental health problems, support and treat people who have mental health problems with respect, and lastly, be accepting!

Youtube Video - Breaking the Stigma
Youtube Video - Removing the Stigma

How Stigmatization intersects with Race

With the background knowledge of what stigmatization is, why it occurs, who are being targeted, and the effects it has, it is important to understand how this intersects with race. Stigmatization is a form of discrimination which often occurs to those of minority groups. Drawing from contemporary example, the missing Indigenous women are in a sense stigmatized as being inadequate for society's help and attention. Their social identity are stigmatized and once this occurs, they are labelled and grouped as unable to participate in these basic social interactions - no longer protected by social norms which may further exclude them.

How Stigmatization intersects with Gender

In addition to race, stigmatization also intersects with gender. It is believed that women and men living with mental health problems experience stigma differently. For example, women with mental health problems or substance addiction are viewed as irresponsible, that they have a choice to change their behaviours. In a a sense, women are provided with more agency than men in controlling their mental health problems and/or addictions; consequently, frequently neglecting women who are stigmatized. World Health Organization concludes that, "Gender stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems appear to reinforce social stigma and constrain help seeking along stereotypical lines." Gender acts as a barrier for identifying and treating mental/psychological disorders. This topic of stigma and gender stereotype reflects the topic of breast cancer and feminism very well. Women with breast cancer are stigmatized and feminist groups strongly asserts agency in this health problem, more so than in other illnesses because breast cancer is only prevalent in women.

How Stigmatization intersects with Class

Class and it's role in stigmatization is often discussed in literature concerning the cause of stigmatization and answering questions as to whom are vulnerable to stigmatization. It is often those who are of higher social economic status that are given the agency to stigmatize individuals from lower social economic status. Stigmatization is used to further separate the gap of different social economic classes so that the upper class can remain dominant and the lower class can remain inferior.

How Stigmatization intersects with Colonialism

The indigenous population have experienced discrimination over time and continue to do so. Indigenous people are tagged with negative connotations as person(s) not worthy of inclusive social interactions and stigmatization like this is depicted by colonists in the unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony (often between colonists and Indigenous people).


Shatter the Stigma Mend the Mind

The New Mentality Disable the Label


  1. 1.0 1.1 Kurzban R., and Leary R. M., "Evolutionary Origins of Stigmatization: The Functions of Social Exclusion." Psychological Bulletin. 127.2 (2001): 187-208.
  2. Lautmann R., Phil Dr., and Jur. Dr., "The Pink Triangle: The persecution of homosexual males in concentration campus in nazi germany". Journal of Homosexuality 6.1-2 (2008): 141-160.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Désert J., Croizet J., and Darcis C.,"Sterotype Threat: Are Lower Status and History of Stigmatization Preconditions of Stereotype Threat?" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (1999): 1189-1199. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24. Oct. 2014
  4. 4.0 4.1 Leyens P. J., Croizet C. J., and Darcis C., "Sterotype Threat: Are Lower Status and History of Stigmatization Preconditions of Stereotype Threat?" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26.10 (2000): 1189-1199.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Heijinders, Miriam, and Suzanne Van Der Meij. "The Fight Against Stigma: An Overview Of Stigma-Reduction Strategies And Interventions." Psychology, Health & Medicine 11.3 (2006): 353-363. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24. Oct. 2014.

Hinshaw P. S., "The Stigmatization of Mental Illness In Children and Parents: Developmental Issues, Family Concerns, and Research Needs." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 46.7 (2005): 714-734. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24. Oct. 2014.

"Gender and Women's Mental Health." WHO. World Health Organization, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.