The Source of “Stigma”

The cliche in stigma scholarship: first, cite Goffman. Like this. And this. His work on stigma is mentioned so often, he is one of the most cited Sociologists ever. Mostly, he is referenced for his 1963 book, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity“. Usually the citation is about how he defined stigma as a social stain or taint that leads to shame. He talks how people will work hard to hide the parts of them that departs from approved standards. Like when you cover up tattoos for a job interview, or don’t tell new friends about your stint in rehab.

Although mentioned often and early in much scholarly work, the deeper more personal story of Goffman’s take on stigma is one less directly referenced. He was very famous, at least among academics, when he died of stomach cancer in 1980. But he was an intensely private person. He refused to give talks at academic conferences, speak with reporters, or have photos taken for most of his professional life. His will required his private papers and incomplete works to be sealed.

But there was some gold gleaned from a day spent going through the Goffman online archive. Probably much to his chagrin, there was an effort to interview those that knew him after he passed, and record their memories.

A complex story of Goffman and his own personal relationship to stigma emerges. The only son of a Russian grocer, “Erv” was a Jewish kid growing up in a small Canadian town in the late 1920s. It was a time of growing anti-immigrant sentiment. His family didn’t do so well in the depression either, as the business ended in bankruptcy.  It seems he was mocked and teased for his family speaking Yiddish. He was bullied for being “pretty” and small and not playing sports. Height seems to have been a touchstone for him throughout his life: estimates are that he was between 5″2″ to 5′ 6″ in his full adult height. Those who knew him well suspected his efforts to stay out the army in WW2 was because he was worried about being bullied because of his stature. It seems he was outside, looking in, not quite fitting. But smart, funny, and  adventurous.

Goffman’s first long-term ethnographic study took him to Unst in the Shetland islands off Britain after WW2. He looked carefully at how people interacted. He watched the shepherds and fisherfolk and their wives at work and at dances in the island hall. He saw all participants in social interactions acting in ways that were to help them avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others.

He came back from the field, finished his PhD, and married “Boston Brahmin” Skye. In the mid 195os he began three years, funded by the NIMH, doing  fieldwork for his next study — working in St Elizabeth’s hospital  in DC and two psychiatric wards in Maryland. The resulting book “Asylums” was potent. He compared the mental wards to concentration camps, full of abusive power. He described how ritual inside the institutions features serve more to make people fit their expected roles as patients than actually curing them. For him, mental illness was a product of the system – especially the rituals the system requires. At the time, his wife was likely in treatment for mental illness — although probably in private therapy rather than in there asylum.

He did not see himself as a radical, but became one in his own way. While he was teaching at Berkeley in the 1960s, he was sneery of the social movements taking place outside his window.  He is reported as noting: “The rebellion ended not with the bang but with the boutique.”  But his work discussed in Asylums (1961) convinced him that mental illness was more a product of place than of biology. And especially that mental institutions needed to be seriously overhauled. Most especially, he fought hard against involuntary commitment. And he created real changes in both attitudes and practice in institutional psychiatry.

By 1963, the career was going great guns. “Stigma” was published. But Skye was in real trouble.  Signs of what was probably serious bipolar depression were obvious to those around them. In 1964, Skye lept to her death from the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Apparently the Kennedy assassination had triggered an especially serious depressive episode.

Goffman hated the idea of academics turning their analytic lens on themselves. But in his 1969 “Insanity of Place,”  people who knew him and his work best see all the signs of a crypto-biography. While he made no self-reference, he talked at length about what it was to be a “normal” person trapped in a relationship with someone with mental illness.  By this stage, his view of mental illness has clearly shifted. He no longer see it so clearly and completely as cultural product. Rather, he seems to have acknowledged that serious mental illness is a real medical problem and needed real medical treatment.

And sometimes his own empathy was not there. It seems like he saw himself outside of the normal rules of interaction, the observer but not the rule follower.  Take this account of his Deviance class, from Gary Marx:

There was a badly crippled woman in the class yet he persisted in talking about “gimps.”  There was also a student with a severe stuttering problem.  This did not prevent her from asking questions.  Acting as if she was not present, Goffman offered material which was sometimes humorous about how stutterers managed (e.g., by taking jobs as night watchmen).  He reduced another female student to tears during an office hour meeting.  He was critical of her ideas and told her he did not think women should be in graduate school….  At the end of the last class session a black student said “this is all very interesting Professor Goffman, but what’s the use of it for changing the conditions you describe?”  … He stood up, slammed shut the book he had open on the desk and said “I’m not in that business” and stormed out of the room. 

People who knew him through his adult life variously described him as sour, witty, charming, demanding, cutting, a rule-breaker, an acute observer, friendly, no-nonsense, exacting, hardworking, and sometimes mean as hell. People often felt he was tracking and interpreting the their personal interactions, and in ways that were neither meant to be flattering nor kind. After all, he was interested in social interaction — not so much in relationship building.  In the lobby at the American Sociological Association he said to friends: “If I can’t find anybody more important to talk with, I’ll come back and talk with you.”

Yet, when he was later voted President of the ASA, right before he died, he did a pretty good job. And he reformed his ideas about the innate inferiority of women scholars later in his career too, by which time he was married to a highly esteemed female Professor at Penn. He even wrote a book on Gender Advertisements in 1979. And many of his colleagues do remember him with great affection, especially for his wit and clever and curious intellect.

But as an expert of impression management, he wasn’t apparently that great at managing his own most of the time. Some think that a major driver behind his outstanding work and his challenging style was a life saturated with shame. Most disagree; maybe that is just too easy. But there seems a shared sense that his own real experiences of stigma shaped and reshaped his theories through his life. And he certainly understood how to identify, challenge, and subvert social expectation. And with interesting and important intellectual and institutional, if not always kind, consequences.

Bershady sums its up: “In many of his personal relationships Erving left a wide swath of anger and disappointment. But the actors and the anger are slowly fading from memory and the beauty and intelligence of his work will remain.” And so it is. It remains right there cited in those opening paragraphs.