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Social stigma


Social stigma refers to any label or trait considered generally undesirable or disadvantageous in a society which is assigned to an individual or a social group of people sharing the same label or trait.

This is usually done on the basis of a cultural or social belief which is usually a belief attachment relating to an ideology or belief system which is based on authority or a hierarchy. ideologies based on authority and hierarchy can often be based on divisive beliefs which promote traits which are considered more desirable and other traits which are considered less desirable or disadvantageous.

Stigma relates to traits which are considered undesirable or disadvantageous. There are seven different types of stigma:

Type of stigma Examples
identity stigma Stigma on the basis of identity relating to sex, skin colour, nationality, and gender identity
Ability stigma This is stigma on the basis of physical ability such as stigma attached to disability and physdical health impairments.
Economic stigma This is stigma which is related to financial income and status, possessions and perceived social class
Sexual stigma This is stigma relating to sexual orientation and certain types of physical intimacy and relationships.
Behavioural stigma This is stigma related to how someone behaves or is perceived to behave which can be experienced by people with mental illness, addictions, ex offenders, or others who do not conform.
Belief stigma This is social stigma on the basis of personal beliefs such as religious beliefs, political beliefs, and so on.
Reciprocal stigma This is stigma which comes from someone who is stigmatized directed towards someone else who may or may not be stigmatized

Stigma can be started by someone in authority or a hierarchy which is then communicated through media to people through social conditioning, social engineering, the use of markers or even propaganda. When this is done by a hierarchy in a position of power such as a government or a dominant religious organization this is commonly referred to as institutional social stigma or top down social stigma.


The stigma is then transferred through the exhcange beliefs between people through social interaction and in some cases social conditioning. Children can pick up beliefs in this way from their parents and contact with other adults or from their friends.


Labelling or the assignment of markers or stigma takes place through social encounters. This is done by creating broad categories 'us' and 'them' which creates the division. The reactions and behaviour of people doing the labelling towards the individual or individuals with the marker or stigma can vary, but can be categorized as being either passive, neutral or active as seen below:

Mode Examples of behaviour
Passive Shunning, avoidance, passive hostility
Neutral Indifference, ambivalence and fronting, i.e. pretending to be supportive but actually being passive or active behind someone's back.
Active Mocking, ridicule, open hostility, derailing, shaming, putdowns, verbal and physical attack, etc.

The social encounter produces two different outcomes for the person who is stigmatizing and the person being stigmatized. There are no outcomes for the person stigmatizing and often the stigmatizing is done on the basis of belief in a social hierarchy and social privilege. The division is based on a desire for access to economic, social or political power and quite often when the stigmatized person tries to access the same privilege or status this can cause offence to the person doing the stigmatizing.

On the other hand, the stigmatized person can often experience 'status loss' and denial of access or deprivation of opportunity when it comes to accessing opportunities in such things as employment, housing, education, or even access to commonly accessible public services and amenities such as healthcare or welfare benefit support. This can further result in marginalization, alienation, dehumanization, exclusion and isolation, which can further result in a loss of personal autonomy.

Social stigma v. bullying

While these two types of antisocial behaviour may be linked and the stigma may cause bullying there is generally a distinction. Bullying is generally based on hatred and is usually done where the bully has some personal knowledge of the victim and some justification for the behaviour. Social stigma is based on ignorance rather than hate and is directed more indiscriminately tiowards all individuals who are perceived to carry the marker or stigma.

Likewise the victim mof bullying is the victim of antisocial behaviour by one person or a group of people. The victim of social stigma is the victim of discrimination and deprivation of opportunity by different people who while they may share the same or similar beliefs, are usually not connected to one another in any way. Therefore people who are stigmatized are often deprived of opportunities and experience to a much greater degree than other people and this can make their lives much mroe difficult and complicated.

Effects on the stigmatized

People who are stigmatized experience various effects of the stigma which centre around the deprivation of opportunity and experience and also the loss of personal autonomy. They develop various coping strategies which may work to varying degrees such as masking their stigma, avoidance of social encounters, being defensive or trying to deal with society by proxy through other people. However as there is no way of preventing the social experience of being stigmatized people who are stigmatized generally end up disempowered and restricted in their ability to live and function in society.

Challenging social stigma

It doesn't matter whether it is sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other form of social stigma it is antisocial behaviour and should always be challenged by others. people are much mroe than their labels and while people have the right to label themselves and identify as they wish this right does not extend to anyone else other than themselves. Various strategies can be employed to challenge social stigma, through education, campaigning and lobbying, being more inclusive when it comes to sharing opportunities and developing better support networks for people who are stigmatized so they can recover their experience and personal autonomy and return to living lives equal to everyone else.