Placing Stigma in Context

My current research involves an examination of the clergy sex abuse scandal and cover-up within the Catholic Church. As a social psychologist, and unlike an organizational sociologist, I am curious to explore the processes by which an organization is stigmatized. Individual priests, bishops, cardinals, and even the previous pope have been stigmatized for the part they played in this scandal, but the larger institution of the Church has been stigmatized as well. In reviewing the current literature on stigmatization, I find myself mystified by the fact that it is invariably studied without any sense of understanding the larger, conceptual context in which it is embedded. The following represents my early articulation of the relevance of Erving Goffman's other works to our understanding of stigma and is inspired by Ann Branaman's essay "Goffman's Social Theory."

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An examination of the literature on stigma highlights the tendency of social researchers to consider stigmatization as a phenomenon set apart from Erving Goffman's other work on self and everyday social interaction. It's as if Goffman's work on stigma is somehow unrelated to impression management, total institutions, framing, strategic interaction, and interaction rituals when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, while the works of Goffman are "seldom ... studied as a whole" (Branaman 1997:xiv), together they form an integrated system such that the other works of Goffman should inform our understanding of his conceptualization of stigma.

The nature of self informs us that stigmatized identity arises in the course of performance just as much as a "normal" identity does. The self arises through performances for which validation may be granted or withheld by the audience (Branaman 1997; Goffman 1959). To be perceived as moral, for example, one must act the part. At the same time, however, those around us must accept that performance in order to be truly considered moral. In order to sustain a positive image or self—in order for one's performance to be validated—one not only needs to perform well, but must also have access to "structural resources" and posses "desirable traits and attributes." Stigma primarily has to do with the latter: those who posses undesirable traits and attributes—and also those who simply do not have the desired traits—are stigmatized as a result. These individuals are put in a position in which they are expected to accept their lower, stigmatized status. Only that kind of performance is validated. A professional stripper is likely to have a difficult time presenting her or his self as moral, at least within the general public. Performances as a "normal"—or in this case, "moral"—person are not validated. Moreover, acceptance of one's status within the social hierarchy is a fundamental manifestation of the interaction rituals (Goffman 1967) that establish the social order that holds society together. In other words, the self one successfully performs is not something that is freely chosen; instead, it is accorded to her or him by society through the validation process.

At the same time, however, the individual—even the stigmatized individual—is motivated to present her or his self in the best possible light and to create the most advantageous image possible. The "self-as-performer," in seeking to present a positive image, also takes "precautions against embarrassment" (Branaman 1997:xlviii-xlix). For this reason, performance involves, among other techniques, both idealization and misrepresentation. Idealization implies not only presenting one's self as "living up to ideal standards," but also "entails a certain amount of concealment of inconsistencies" (1997:lii). This is where misrepresentation enters into the performance. For those whose stigma is readily apparent to others, what Goffman (1963) terms the "discredited" (such as most members of racial minority groups) it is very difficult to pass as a "normal" (or, in the case of the U.S., a white person). However, for the discreditable—those whose stigma is not obvious and is unknown to others—misrepresentation and idealization offer a chance to pass as a non-stigmatized person. The challenge for these individuals is in managing information about themselves—information that is discrediting and therefor stigmatizing. The professional stripper, for example, many pass her or his self off as a dancer.

In this way, the discreditable become involved in strategic interaction (Goffman 1969) with those around them. Misrepresentation and idealization necessarily involve keeping secrets about one's self. If the discrediting information comes to light—if an acquaintance catches the dancer performing in a strip club—validation of one's performance as "normal" and the attendant deference shown will be withheld. One will no longer be able to pass as a normal and will be stigmatized as a result. Such management of information is central to Goffman's conceptualization of expression games (Goffman 1969).

As already noted, to sustain a positive self through one's performances, one must not only possess traits deemed desirable but also have access to structural resources. Thus, structural resources, or the lack thereof, are arguably relevant to our understanding of stigmatization. Such resources are typically examined within the context of Goffman's work Asylums (1961). Within a total institution such as an asylum, the individual loses access to the structural resources to sustain a positive self image and thus the self changes dramatically as a result. Goffman (1971) discusses such resources in the context of "territories of self" (such as control over one's personal space and possessional territory). However, in more general terms, structural resources imply a certain amount of status and power. As described by Branaman, structural resources are determined by one's position within society: "[O]ne's place in various stratification orders determines where, when, and to what degree one can claim the territorial preserves necessary for sustaining self" (1997:lvi). In other words, those with higher social rank have more resources at their disposal—resources that may be employed to manage and hide discrediting information. A wealthy person may be given the benefit of the doubt and simply perceived as "eccentric" while a person from the low end of the stratification system may be perceived as needing professional help. In the event that discrediting information comes to light, such resources may be employed to help challenge or minimize the resulting stigma. In this way, structural resources may be employed to frame (Goffman 1974) the situation in the best possible light. Those with power are better able to frame events in a way that is supportive of their own interests—such as with the use of the term "eccentric"—or "combat [negative] interpretive frameworks applied to them" (Branaman 1997:lxxvi). Thus, the stigmatization that arises when discreditable information is revealed may be averted and more easily overcome.


Finally, and of most relevance in the case of the stigmatized organization, individuals will often coordinate their performances with others in a sort of team effort. If an entire team—such a the Catholic Church—is discreditable due to the behavior of one or more group members (I.e. individual priests and bishops), the team will then cooperate in order to pass. In other words, a successful performance includes defensive practices, such as "protecting secrets of [the] team" (Branaman 1997:lxvi). At the same time, in order to maintain the ritual order, the members of the audience also cooperate, engaging in practices such as, "voluntarily avoid[ing] the secret areas of the performers," avoiding the introduction of "contradictions to the performance, and pretend[ing] to 'not see' flaws" (1997:lxvi). This is particularly true in the case of those with status equal to or higher than those in the audience. In this way, the audience, in order to avoid embarrassment themselves, unwittingly cooperates with the performer(s), allowing them to pass as "normal" and maintain their discreditable status. For many years, scandal was averted by the Church, though rumors of sexual misconduct were common. Many were willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt. In a sense, then, the audience becomes a part of the team and is willing to be fooled in order to preserve the ritual order of society.

Based on this discussion, it should be apparent that examining stigma as a social phenomenon that stands apart from other aspects of the interactive process does a disservice to Goffman's body of work. Stigmatization is deeply embedded in the presentation of one's self to others. It plays an important role in the ritual order of society and, in the case of those who are discreditable, it involves strategic interaction and expression games. Stigmatization is also dependent on the resources one has to maintain secrets and, in the event that discreditable information comes to light, allow the stigmatized to reframe it, effectively challenging or minimizing the damage to her or his image. By embedding Goffman's conceptualization of stigmatization within his entire body of work, one is able to recognize crucial elements of the process that otherwise go unnoticed. Without this larger, conceptual context, one's understanding of stigmatization is unnecessarily limited.


Branaman, Ann. 1997. "Goffman's Social Theory." Pp. xlv-lxxxii in The Goffman Reader, edited by Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Goffman, Erving. 1959.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor Books.

————. 1961.
Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books.

————. 1963.
Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.

————. 1967.
Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Pantheon.

————. 1969.
Strategic Interaction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

————. 1971.
Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books.

————. 1974.
Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper and Row.


Beyond a Doubt

In the beginning of the movie Doubt, the priest gives a sermon on that topic, saying that people can unite in doubt as much as they unite in certainty.  The main character, a nun who is the principal of the Catholic school, has great doubts about the moral standing of that priest and the appropriateness of his relationship with a particular boy in the school.  In fact, she has certainty in her doubt.  The young nun in the convent gets swept into these same doubts, though she's far less certain.  Extrapolating from small clues, and yet without any proof, the principal builds a case against him and ultimately forces him to resign his position. However, the bishop simply moves him to another parish … ironically, a parish and school with higher standing.

The audience is drawn into this tension between certainty and doubt.  Did he or didn't he?  Just as the audience becomes more doubtful about the priest and more certain of both his guilt and that the principal is justified in her actions, the boy's mother casts doubt yet again.  Is what the principal doing about the priest really the right thing if it harms the child as well?  For many, if not most in the audience, this perspective comes as a shock.  It is not a question they ... I ... have thought about before, especially given the priest sex abuse scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church to the core.

The audience is rocked again at the end of the movie when the principal breaks down crying, saying "I have doubts."  Does this mean that she really did wonder whether or not the priest was abusing the child despite her outward certainty?  Or is she bemoaning the fact that, by doubting the character of even those whom she was taught to respect, she is left with nothing but a very dark view of the world?

This powerful movie, the moral questions it raises, and the doubts it instills lingered in my mind long after I watched it for the first and even second time.  As a social psychologist, I can't help but be struck by the interactional dynamics at play and this has inspired my current research endeavor: to examine the Catholic sex abuse scandal through the lens of Erving Goffman's work on stigma. He examines how individuals manage their identities when spoiled as a result of, among other things, “defects in character” or deviant behavior. Given the power of labels, the mere accusation of guilt is enough to condemn the accused, permanently damaging her or his image. But what happens when an entire organization like the Catholic Church is stigmatized. How do the dynamics change?

Today, we know that many Catholic priests have sexually abused adolescents and children. This is well documented; but even without evidence and documentation, hearsay can destroy a reputation.  It doesn't require actual guilt.  In other words, when it comes to the social identity of the priest—his image in the eyes of others—his guilt or innocence is immaterial.  Even if, in a court of law, a person is acquitted of a crime, people are left with uncertainty regarding innocence or guilt:  "Are they really innocent, or did they simply get away with it because the case wasn't proven beyond a doubt?"  We the observers are united in our doubts regarding this person's moral standing and, like the principal in the movie, we can be certain in this belief.

The movie
Doubt (2008) and the Pulitzer and Tony-winning play upon which it is based (2004) are works of fiction, but they burst into popular culture at a time when the Catholic Church has has come under fire by the priest sex abuse scandal and its cover-up by bishops and other Church leaders. Many date this scandal to 2002 when records (including depositions and personnel files) in the case of Father Geoghan were released after The Boston Globe successfully challenged a judge's confidentiality order. However, sexual abuse by priests goes back decades—possibly centuries—being reported in the media as far back as 1985. If such abuse dates so far back in time, how is it that this scandal has emerged to such prominence only in the past decade? The answer lies it the power of the Church to keep secrets: an organization has many more resources at its disposal than an individual to maintain its image. At the same time, however, this power of secrecy was trumped by the power of doubt, doubts spread through rumors from a few people "in the know." Let's trace how this can happen.

The vast majority of cases of sexual abuse—like rape—go unreported. Within the context of the Catholic Church, it was particularly difficult to come forward given that Catholics, particularly prior to the 1960s, were so well socialized into a culture that highlights the moral authority of the Church as well as the high respect due to priests and the Church hierarchy. In those few instances when a case actually went to court, all those involved had to abide by confidentiality agreements and the records were sealed. Such damage control was used to protect the reputation of the institutional Church and even the reputation of the offending priest, who was typically moved to another parish where the abuse continued.

So, there were secrets at many levels. Individual priests kept secrets. Many of the victims kept it a secret. Sometimes the secret was between the victim, his or her family, the priest, and the bishop. Sometimes others were involved. Ultimately, the Church had to "enlist" the support of many individuals to protect its public reputation: therapists, support staff, lawyers, judges, jurors, and so on. There were many "small" secrets which together created a "big secret" for the Church. Because of the nature of secrets, however, there was no broad sense among the victims, their loved ones, and outside observers that these cases of abuse fell into a much larger social pattern that extended internationally.

However, with many secrets came whisperings and rumors. Seeds of "doubt" were sown. The sheer number of people who knew something made secrecy very difficult, highlighting the complexity of maintaining
organizational secrecy. Word began to spread, though largely in hushed tones, and the spread of these rumors brought to light more cases, making it increasingly difficult to keep The Big Secret as victims began to find safety in numbers. The tipping point came with the release of the Geoghan files. That case unleashed a flood of victims and media coverage exploded onto the national and then international stage. There was a rapid escalation in the scandal as these two processes—victims talking and later publicly coming forward and the corresponding rise in news coverage—supported and reinforced one another.

The image of the Catholic Church has been stigmatized as a result of its response (or lack of response beyond Herculean efforts to hide The Big Secret) to the sex abuse that occurred within its ranks. The moral authority of the institution has been cast into doubt. Again, as observed by the "offending" priest in the opening scene of the movie by that name, people can easily be united in doubt. Personally, I am no longer a practicing Catholic.  I have had my own doubts about the institutional Church since my years in college and these doubts have been reinforced as the sex abuse scandal has unfolded.  Was I shocked?  Not that sex abuse occurred and not that it was hidden away as much as possible.  What shocked me was the extent of the problem. 

The reputation of the Church has suffered a tremendous blow and the response of the Church to the scandal has only made it worse. Given the immensity of the institution, it is unavoidably clumsy in managing the stigma it now faces.  Even individuals face a daunting task in managing a stigma, but individuals are far more adept at responding "in the moment" than is an organization.  This scandal has been brewing for decades. Doubts go back just as far.  Healing is likely to extend as far, if not further, into the future.  Like the principal in the movie Doubt, entire generations of Catholics and non-Catholics alike will have doubts about the Church and it's moral authority for years to come.