Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Goffman beyond the Pink Curtain

One of the most influential sociologists of our time, who has helped to shape the modern understanding of interaction, communication and discourse – Erving Goffman, published a small book on stigma theory in 1963. Since then, the theory has inspired much work in social and discourse studies.
The book is concerned with various kinds of stigma – physical deformity, alcoholism, prostitution, mental illness, homosexuality – but it may be read while keeping only one of them – whichever is our interest – in mind.
I believe that reading this book with sexual minorities as “stigmatized persons” in mind may really enhance our understanding of their position as the Other in the society. To illustrate, references to Goffman’s theory permeate the collective volume Beyond the Pink Curtain (Kuhar & Takács (eds.) 2007). They appear, more or less explicitly, in 11 chapters in the publication, most notably in: Béres-Deák; Czarnecki; Jugovič, Pikič & Bokan; Nedbálková; Putniņa; Reingarde & Zdanevičius.
In what follows, Goffman’s most relevant points will be supported with quotations from these chapters.

A stigmatized person is, thus, “a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places” (Goffman 1963: 1). It is important to note, however, that stigma is a social, not “actual”, “biological” category. Goffman notes that children born with a disability do not realize that they are not “normal” until they begin to interact with people outside the familiar circle of family and friends. The stigma stems from the way we as a society define what is normal, ordinary and natural, and what is not:
“Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his “social identity” (p. 2).
We are reminded here of some central concepts in social psychology, such as categorization and stereotyping as “overlearnt expectations”, automatic processing of incoming information (including information about new acquaintances). What is also important in this quote is the understanding of “social identity” as an attribute we anticipate in others in social interactions – not as a stable and fixed identification with a category or group that an individual chooses for himself/herself.
Further in the book we find another, even more explicit fragment regarding categorization:
“In our society, to speak of a woman as one’s wife is to place this person in a category of which there can be only one current member, yet a category is nonetheless involved, and she is merely a member of it. (…) at the center is a full array socially standardized anticipations that we have regarding her (…) Thus, whether we interact with strangers or intimates, we will find that the finger tips of society have reached bluntly into the contact, even here putting us in our place” (p. 53).
It is a striking – and yet rather obvious – realization that even in our private lives, private relationships, we follow patterns that our society imposes on us and has imposed on us for countless generations. We all need to know “our place” and the “standards” expected from various interactive roles we find ourselves in.
In this context, stigma is an individual’s undesired differentness from what others (we) anticipated about him/her. We “believe that a person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances” (p. 5). Again, we, the society, are made responsible for the stigmatized person’s limited life opportunities – for example, it is not the disability itself that imposes those limitations, but our expectations and anticipations about how a disabled person should behave.
In the case of sexual minorities, it is the society’s expectations about individuals’ sexual behaviour that exclude them from the group of “normals” (Goffman’s wording).

The Own and the Wise
I have written elsewhere that the sexual minority identity constructed by the society is the only thing that the world’s gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc. have in common. The stigma is the only thing all of them share. Thus, categorizing them together, conceptualizing them as a group is actually one of the ways of discriminating against them (which I also unavoidably do in this project, although I try to emphasize whenever I can that I use the term “sexual minority” as an analytical construct). Ghettoizing the stigmatized is a kind of violence, because it forces them to organize their life around the stigma:
“Among his own, the stigmatized individual can use his disadvantage as a basis for organizing life, but he must resign himself to a half-world to do so. Here he may develop to its fullest his sad tale accounting for his possession of the stigma” (p. 21). “A category, then, can function to dispose its members to group-formation and relationships, but its total membership does not thereby constitute a group” (p. 24).
Goffman also notes problems with the voice of the stigmatized minority coming from its representatives (in the light of the present project, it may be called minority discourse or resistant discourse):
“Whether a writer takes a stigma very seriously or makes light of it, he must define it as something worth writing about. This minimal agreement, even when there are no others, helps to consolidate belief in the stigma as a basis for self-conception. Here again representatives are not representative, for representation can hardly come from those who give no attention to their stigma, or who are relatively unlettered” (p. 27).
I understand this fragment in the light of Bourdieu’s claim that in order to change the existing patterns of symbolic domination, patterns of categorization (“internalised categories”) must be changed themselves (Bourdieu 2001, in Putniņa 2007). The moment an individual becomes a representative, he/she must follow the patterns that have stigmatized him/her in the first place, thus reinforcing the existing order.
“The Wise” are a special group among “normals”: “Wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other” (Goffman 1963: 28). “The person with a courtesy stigma can (…) make both the stigmatized and the normal uncomfortable” (p. 31).
I am reminded here of parents of homosexual persons, e.g. in Kuhar 2007: when homosexual persons come out, they “out” their parents as parents of a gay/lesbian child at the same time. This reinforces our understanding of identity as fluid, relational, and partly out of our control: every coming out changes not only the identity of the one coming out, but also the identity of the person one comes out to, and their mutual relationship.
Parents with such courtesy stigma may become involved in the movement advocating LGBT rights, as in the social awareness campaign “Parents, dare to speak out!” organized by the Polish Campaign Against Homophobia (
However, it often happens that parents “expect that their child will remain in the (…) closet in order to ease the discomfort of the fact that they are now the parents of a homosexual child. The transparent closet thus refers to the situation, mostly in the family context, when coming-out to parents results in an annoying outcome of partial outing; parents know that their child is homosexual, but they are not willing to acknowledge it. The child steps out of the closet, but parental reactions and expectations push him/her back into the closet, which is now a transparent one as parents have noted the “new identity,” but refuse to accept it” (Kuhar 2007: 43).

People intolerant of sexual minorities often say that sexuality should be a private matter, that what one does in the bedroom is their own issue and not subject to public debate. It is an example of confusing sexual behaviour with sexual identity, which is a part of our “public persona” (as discussed earlier). Understanding sexual minorities as stigmatized minorities may shed some more light on this issue. Goffman distinguishes two types of stigmatized individuals: discredited and discreditable. The former’s stigmas are always visible – they cannot conceal them. The latter’s stigmas may be concealed (e.g. criminal past, invisible but contagious disease). They are thus forced to make decisions pertaining to the “area of stigma management”, which is a part of their public life (Goffman 1963: 51).
These are always difficult and risky decisions: by not disclosing their stigma, the discreditable live in constant fear that someone will “out” them against their own will. They will then not only become discredited, but also lose the trust of those with whom they did not share their secret. By disclosing their stigma they risk being rejected and discriminated against.
For sexual minorities this means that it is simply impossible to reduce their “otherness” to sexual activities, to conceal it behind the bedroom door. From the moment they discover their stigma, they are discreditable, and the risk of becoming discredited is an inherent part of their lives.
Gays and lesbians may try to be “good citizens”; they may try to pass. Goffman distinguishes the following phases in the learning of the stigmatized: first, “his learning the normal point of view and learning that he is disqualified according to it”; next, “his learning to cope with the way others treat the kind of person he can be shown to be”; and finally, “learning to pass” (p. 80).
Passing is, of course, “playing by the majority’s rules”. It is also playing for the majority, an act that is the stigmatized persons’ duty. It confirms that it is not the majority’s responsibility to learn to tolerate everyone, it is the minority’s responsibility to be as similar to the majority as possible. “The stigmatised individual must act as if his burden is not significant so that those of the majority can pretend as if there was no issue of discrimination, leading to a “phantom acceptance”” (Czarnecki 2007: 338, footnote 23). To continue in Goffman’s own words: “It means that the unfairness and pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to them [the majority]; it means that normals will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance is; and it means that normals can remain relatively uncontaminated by intimate contact with the stigmatized, relatively unthreatened in their identity beliefs” (Goffman 1963: 121).
The passer, on the other hand, will feel “torn between two attachments. He will feel some alienation from his new “group”, for he is unlikely to be able to identify fully with their attitude to what he knows he can be shown to be. And presumably he will suffer feelings of disloyalty and self-contempt when he cannot take action against “offensive” remarks made by members of the category he is passing into against the category he is passing out of” (p. 87).
Passing or coming out are, however, not absolute: specific social settings require a case-to-case management of sexual identities. “Gay or lesbian identities can be lived publicly in one setting and not in another. The way they choose to live their identity in each setting is often based on an experienced or imagined risk” (Béres-Deák 2007: 125).
Jugovič, Pikič & Bokan assumed that “people who think that their sexual orientation is less visible can control the information about their sexual orientation to a greater extent than those who believe that their sexual orientation is more visible. Our findings supported this hypothesis; lesser visibility tended to be correlated with more use of concealment strategies” (2007: 356).
Stigma, then, “does not reside in the person but in a social context,” and “is relationship- and context-specific” (p. 348, quoting Major & O’Brien 2005: 395).

Our last point is Goffman’s own conclusion: “stigma involves not so much a set of concrete individuals who can be separated into two piles, the stigmatized and the normal, as a pervasive two-role social process in which every individual participates in both roles, at least in some connections and in some phases of life. The normal and the stigmatized are not persons but rather perspectives. These are generated in social situations during mixed contacts by virtue of the unrealized norms that are likely to play upon the encounter. (…) since interaction roles are involved, not concrete individuals, it should come as no surprise that in many cases he who is stigmatized in one regard nicely exhibits all the normal prejudices held towards those who are stigmatized in another regard” (1963: 137-138).
Clarke et al. (2010) offer a lot of evidence for this point, writing about the existence of discrimination on the basis of gender, race or age within LGBT communities (pp.83-99). They also describe double or multiple discrimination against people belonging to two or more underprivileged groups at once, e.g. black lesbian women. Their experiences may be studied from the theoretical viewpoint of intersectionality of identities (p. 245). 
The concept refers to “overlapping marginalities that shape the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society, and the ways in which differences between people intersect in institutional arrangements, social practices and cultural discourses”… in this model, “racial categories are always sexualized”, “social class is always gendered (ibid). 
Intersectuality may be better understood when investigated with relation to privilege – benefits or advantages resulting from social hierarchies, applying to the groups on top positions in those hierarchies in a given society. For example, men are privileged in male-dominated societies and white people are privileged in white-dominated societies; they enjoy benefits associated with these positions even if they are not themselves sexist or racist (p. 246). Thus, the situation of a male versus female homosexual or a white versus black gay is profoundly different. Any scientific study of LGBT-related issues must account for these differences.

No comments: