Why do we stigmatize?

2 03 2012

In order to answer this challenging question one can argue that there is a need to first define stigma, differentiate between stigma types and components and to refer to the specific characteristics of the stigmatized groups. I promise to refer to these issues and others in the near future. For now, I will just say that I adopt Link and Phelan stigma conceptualization which apply the term stigma when “elements of labeling, stereotyping, separation, emotional reactions, status loss and discrimination co-occur in a power situation that allows them to unfold” (Link and Phelan, 2001).

Many researchers, from different disciplines (Sociology, Anthropology, social and personality Psychology and Social neuroscience to name few) have sought to explain the roots of stigma. While reviewing all the available explanations is out of the scope of this post I wish to propose an assumption of my own: Stigma is a consequence of [mostly unconscious] fear and it is aimed to protect ourselves from unwanted states and situations. That is to say, stigma is a defense mechanism aimed to protect our ego (dynamically speaking) and sometimes our lives (evolutionary speaking) from unwanted conditions (e.g., disability or an illness) and/or situations (e.g., social disadvantages).

When referring to health conditions and disability I wish to argue that conditions that represent loss of control over one’s inner and outer world are more likely to elicit stigma than those who do not represent loss of control. This argument is based on the assumption that the control reflects a fundamental need that is biologically motivated and adaptive for survival (Leotti et al, 2011), and that situations that jeopardise this need may lead to automatic fear and ego defense activation (stigma) in return. Does it makes sense to you? can you try to apply it on health and disability-related stigma?

Have a great weekend!

Amir