Posted by Dr Michelle Addison, Assistant Professor, Durham University
Stigma is a knotty, ugly problem we have in society: it marks out (often painfully) what is considered shameful, abject or contra to social norms, and impacts vulnerable and marginalised people the most. It seems intuitive to say it is unfair and unjust, but why then does it persist?
Discussions of stigma are not new; we are all generally aware that stigma is something to be avoided and we could all very likely give some examples of it in action – benefit claimants, people who use drugs and ex-offenders are often easy targets and regularly feature in news headlines because stigma continues to be sensational – it elicits a voyeuristic feeling that is both intoxicating and a warning to us too. The use of stigma is further exacerbated by the ‘Cost of Living Crisis’, ‘Rising Interest Rates’, Fuel and Food poverty, and the withholding of the Government White Paper on Health Inequalities. We understand then that stigma is harmful, and yet we recognise it is powerful to those who can wield it.
Erving Goffman discussed stigma using the concept of the ‘spoiled identity’ whereby certain aspects of who you are become discredited and devalued in his now infamous work Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963/1990). This notion of a spoiled identity is also implicit in his observations of patients residing in ‘asylums’, the conditions impacting these people, and the roles of those working there (1961). Indeed, Goffman was acutely interested in the medicalisation and performance of roles in these settings and how behaviour was shaped by social expectations of ‘in-mates’, ‘guards’ and ‘medical staff’. The treatment of patients, he noted, was complexly bound up with expectations of socially acceptable roles and the reinforcement of discredited behaviours and identity.
What we learnt from this is that stigma matters in the social organisation and hierarchies of people and places in medicalised and wider social settings. But what tends to fly under the radar in early stigma research is the question of ‘in whose interests’ does stigma serve? Professor Imogen Tyler later critiques Goffman’s work (2020) in her book ‘Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality’ for overlooking the power relations that are integral to how we understand stigma, and why indeed, stigma continues to persist. Tyler shows us that there is a ‘craft’ to how mechanisms of stigma operate and function to maintain political power and a social order that hinges on systemic and structural inequalities around class, race, gender (and not limited to) to reproduce privilege for the dominant factions. This is a hugely important step in stigma research because it draws attention upstream to how and why stigma is weaponised (Scambler, 2018) and the social harms that impact marginalised and minoritised individuals and communities in society – which is the subject of my forthcoming article (Addison, 2023). This is further evident in the recent Stigma Kills (2021, 2022) campaign launched by the NHS Addictions Provider-Alliance which gives credence in particular to the impact that stigma has on the health and wellbeing of those communities that are most harmed through health and social inequality.
This growing concern about the effects of stigma on health and wellbeing, arising out of social harm, led to our recent Fuse event Inequalities, Social Harm and Weaponised Stigma: Emerging Research and future priorities which brought together academics, practitioners and the public to discuss these key issues. I presented work from my Wellcome Trust research looking at stigma and how this relates to health inequalities amongst people who use drugs. In this study I highlight how the weaponisation of stigma is harmful, negatively impacts physical and mental health, and inhibits health seeking behaviours for fear of being judged and marginalised by service providers and the wider public.
THREAD: (1/3)— NHS Addictions Provider Alliance (@NHS_APA) February 8, 2022
Stigma Kills. But it shouldn't have to be this way.
Introducing our new #StigmaKills campaign. https://t.co/wgVnROwb5P pic.twitter.com/Rc35eCxo1M
Joanne McGrath discussed her NIHR funded research into women living with multiple disadvantage and complex needs and how they access services. In this talk she highlighted how escalating problems around homelessness, stigma and deteriorating physical and mental health have a cumulative impact in women’s lives.
Our ‘expert by experience’, Margaret Ogden, shared moving insights into the effects of stigma on her own life and how her mental health was harmed as a result.
Later, Mark Adley discussed his Doctoral work (which is funded by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC)) and his recently published paper which explores stigma within-groups towards people who use the drug Spice. In this talk, Mark showed how intersections of identity mattered and how increased contact with people who used Spice helped to reduce levels of stigma. He highlighted the role of education programmes within service provision to help draw attention to the harms arising out of stigma and how practitioners might mitigate these effects.Drugs, Identity and Stigma (Addison, McGovern and McGovern, 2022). Our book calls attention to the impact of stigma experienced by people who use illicit drugs, and through this we show that stigma is powerful: it can do untold harm to a person and place with longstanding effects. Through an exploration of themes of inequality, power, and feeling ‘out of place’ in neoliberal times, this collection focuses on how stigma is negotiated, resisted and absorbed by people who use drugs. Dr Kelly Stockdale, a contributor to the book, spoke at our Fuse event and shared insights from our research into the challenges of navigating a custodial environments (prison and police) and the impacts of stigma from the point of view of people who use novel psychoactive substances (NPS). Collectively, our work in this area brings together a range of frameworks and data and draws attention to the damaging effects stigma can have on health inequalities, recovery, mental health, recidivism, and social inclusion.
Our knowledge and understanding of the harms that stigma does to health and wellbeing is still growing – as such, it is critical that developing stigma research becomes a priority in future inequalities research agendas, against a backdrop of political and economic crises. Whilst the social determinants of health are often tangible and measurable, providing the much-needed evidence base to tackle widening health inequalities, it is imperative that we think differently and critically about how stigma operates. In my own research I have tried to show that stigma operates at a symbolic level meaning it is not possible to treat stigma as something which is material and objective, to say ‘here is stigma’ – we must think more deeply about stigma as inscribed with meaning that becomes apparent through its effect on and between people (see also Addison, McGovern and McGovern, 2022).
I called this blog ‘Stigma: Where’s the harm?’ to be a little provocative to you, reader – on the one hand, stigma is so normalised in our society that we forget to see it, so I encourage you to pause and reflect on where the harm resides – like a million little paper cuts, stigma is painful and gets under the skin doing very real harm. On the other hand, my question is also a call to action to understand how and why stigma is weaponised, and how it leads to social harm amongst under-heard and underserved people. It is my strong belief that this is vital work if we are to tackle and reduce widening health and social inequalities right now.
Addison, M. (forthcoming, March 2023) ‘Framing Stigma as an Avoidable Social Harm that Widens Inequality’ in Emery, J., Powell, R., and Crookes, L. (eds.) The Sociological Review Special Issue
ADDISON, M., MCGOVERN, W. & MCGOVERN, R. E. (eds.) (2022) Drugs, Identity and Stigma, Houndsmill, Basingstoke and Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.
ADLEY, M., ATKINSON, A. M. & SUMNALL, H. R. (2022). Including the multiply excluded: a mixed methods study exploring intragroup stigma towards people who use synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy. DOI: 10.1080/09687637.2022.2025766
GOFFMAN, E. (1990) Stigma: Notes on theManagement of Spoiled Identity, London, Penguin Books
GOFFMAN, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, London, Penguin Books
SCAMBLER, G. (2018). ‘Heaping blame of shame: 'Weaponising stigma' for neoliberal times’. The Sociological Review Monograph, 66, 766 - 782.
SINGH, S. (2019) available at: https://samiasingh.com/
TYLER, I. (2020). Stigma, The Machinery of Inequality, London, Zed Books.
1) Artwork by Samia Singh, https://samiasingh.com @samiasingh_art
2) Book: Drugs, Identity and Stigma, © 2022 Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Part of Springer Nature, ISBN : 978-3-030-98285-0, https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-98286-7#about-this-book