The Sociology of Stigma: Why research stigma today?

I am honoured to have been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize, which means that from September 2015 I will have some relief from my day job (teaching and administration) for two years to focus on my new research project on stigma and inequalities. Below I outline the initial research questions, aims and hopeful outcomes of this research.

This wordpress site will be used to document the project as it evolves over the next three years.

For the initial 18mths, I will be supported in this research by Dr Brigit McWade, an expert in disability studies, who will be developing her own post-doctoral research on mental health, stigma and madness in neoliberal times (see forthcoming blog posts by Brigit on her project).

Imogen Tyler, September 7th 2015

The Sociology of Stigma: Why research stigma today?

All the major institutions of ‘free-market’ capitalism have warned that escalating inequalities (of income, health, education and citizenship) pose the gravest threat to future social and political stability. The premise of this project is that to combat this threat we require a much better understanding of relationship between stigmatisation, inequalities and neoliberal capitalism—that is we urgently need to theorise stigma as a cultural and political economy.

Stigma is one of the most frequently used but least developed concepts in the social sciences. Although stigma is employed to describe a vast array of scapegoating practices and shameful identities, deeper theoretical understandings of stigma are frequently absent from sociological analysis.

Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity [1963] transformed understandings of the social function of stigma. Proceeding from a definition of stigma as ‘the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance’ (1990: 9), Goffman explored what a burgeoning psychological literature on stigma might ‘yield for sociology’ (1990: 9). Experiences of stigma, Goffman argued, are ‘one of the primal scenes of sociology’ as moments of ‘direct confrontation’ with the social norms in operation in a given context (13). Goffman made four central claims: firstly that ‘the stigmatized are not persons but rather perspectives […] that are generated in social contexts’ (1990: 138). Secondly, people manage the shame of stigma by employing multiple strategies of passing, concealment and refusal. Thirdly, and this is more implicit in his work, that stigmatisation is historically specific in the forms it takes (ibid.); and finally, that stigma functions ‘as a means of formal social control’ (139).

Fifty years after its publication, Goffman’s Stigma remains the most influential treatise on the social function of stigma. Goffman’s work has been pivotal in the development of practical initiatives designed to combat social stigma, for example in programmes designed to reduce the social stigma of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, and in the area of mental health and disability policy development and activism. Since Stigma was published, social and political movements, such as the disability rights movement, have transformed public perceptions and understandings of what might have been considered ‘deviant’ or ‘marked’ bodies and behaviours. However, despite these sometimes successful practical applications of Goffman’s work, it is striking how little sociological understandings of stigmatisation have developed within the intervening period.

Anti-Anti Stigma Campaigns

Furthermore, recent research has questioned the effectiveness and politics of (some) anti-stigma initiatives (see for example Haslam et. al. 2006, Pescosolido and Martin 2015). Mental health scholars and activists began to question the meaning and effects of anti-stigma campaigns altogether, and in 2013 ran a ‘Hands off our Stigma’ campaign (Spandler et. al 2013). These activist attempts to re-work and refuse the normative inclusive logic of anti-stigma campaigns, (which often reproduce the stigma they seek to diminish), are a reminder of the complexity of cultural and social struggles around stigma. These events also speak to a longer series of theoretical debates in critical race studies (see for example Cohen 2004) and in queer theory (see for example Warner 2000, Dugan 2004), which variously argue for “a politics of deviance” (Cohen 2004) against the limited “terms of inclusion” on offer from the state and corporate media culture.

The changing role and function of stigma in neoliberal societies:

The historical, geopolitical and theoretical context out of which our interest in stigma emerges is a very different one than that of the post-war society which confronted Goffman in the 1950s. In returning to Stigma, fifty years after its initial publication, we will consider in what ways a re-conceptualization of stigma can assist with illuminating pressing questions of social decomposition, inequality and injustice.

This return to the sociology of stigma is shaped by the specific historical context of neoliberalism, including the current hegemony of free market economic thinking within mainstream politics and accompanying forms of austerity-driven welfare reforms.

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Klein details the ways in which ‘the policy trinity’ of neoliberalism, ‘the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations and skeletal social spending’ has been enabled through the invention and/or exploitation of crises, be they natural disasters, terrorist attacks. Drawing on Klein’s analysis this research aims to develop a nuanced account of “the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the daily, pervasive production and mediation of stigma” (Tyler, 2013: 2010). The activation of stigma is central to the proliferation of fears about border controls and terror threats, economic insecurity and labour precariousness. As I argued in Revolting Subjects, “in such a climate public anxieties and hostilities are channelled towards those groups within the population, such as the unemployed, homeless people, welfare recipients, irregular migrants, disabled people, ill and elderly populations who are imagined to be a parasitical drain upon scarce resources” (Tyler, 2013: 2011).

The centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented and dispersed across academic disciplines.

This research project will address this lacuna and to consider the relationship between growing inequalities and ‘heightened stigmatization in daily life and public discourse’ (Wacquant, 2010). Indeed, what distinguishes this project from existing research on stigma is its explicit focus on stigma and power, and stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.

A specific concern is with the ways in which stigma is activated in order to govern populations through the production of norms, through stigmatising classifications and co-currently, stigma as a practice of social classification (Tyler 2015).

This project will focus in particular on contemporary ‘sites of shame’ in the context of austerity, welfare reform and the ‘migrant’ crisis in Europe, Key themes will include: the neoliberal de/recomposition of class, deepening inequalities and poverty, work and precarity, sexual violence, disabilities, borders, citizenship and the differential value of human lives.

The project has the following aims:

  • develop a new social theory/sociology of stigma as a cultural political economy
  • examine the relationship between stigmatisation and escalating inequalities
  • analyze the relationship between stigma and mass mediation (the centrality of media culture to neoliberal governance)
  • consider ‘behaviour change’ policies through the lens of stigma (see Rhys Jones et al 2013, and Lynne Friedli’s work in this area).
  • deepen understanding of the role of stigma in generating a ‘post-welfare’ consensus (see Jamie Peck for an account of post-welfare)

Outcomes from this project will include:

  • A monograph: Stigma Nation (provisional title)·
  • A special journal issue: ‘Sociology of Stigma’ (to be edited with Tom Slater) and an edited book
  • Three peer-reviewed articles
  • The establishment of an interdisciplinary research network on Stigma & Inequality

Recent Related Publications by Imogen

draft proofs of most articles can be accessed at

Imogen Tyler (2013) Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain (Zed)

Imogen Tyler and Katarzyna Marciniak (2014) ‘The human waste disposal industry or immigrant protest in neoliberal times’ in Katarzyna Marciniak and Imogen Tyler (eds)  Immigrant protest: politics, aesthetics, and everyday dissent, SUNY 2015

Imogen Tyler, Nick Gill,  Deirdre Conlon & Ceri Oeppen (2014), ‘The business of child detention : charitable co-option, migrant advocacy and activist outrageRace and Class, 56 (1): 3-21.

Kim Allen, Imogen Tyler and Sara De Benedictis (2014) ‘Thinking with ‘White Dee’: The Gender Politics of ‘Austerity Porn’, Sociological Research Online, 19 (3), 2. DOI: 10.5153/sro.3439

Imogen Tyler (2015) ‘Welcome to Britain: anti-immigrant populism and the asylum invasion complex’ Eurozine [special issue ‘Beyond Fortress Europe’] see also ‘Wasted lives in UK immigration detention’ Open Democracy (2013)

Imogen Tyler (2015) ‘Classificatory struggles: class, culture and inequality in neoliberal times’, The Sociological Review, 63(2):493–511 DOI: 10.1111/1467-954X.12296.

Tracey Jensen and Imogen Tyler (2015) Benefits broods’: The cultural and political crafting of anti-welfare commonsense’, Critical Policy Studies, 25, doi: 10.1177/0261018315600835

Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennett (2015) ‘Against Aspiration’ in What is aspiration?: how progressives should respond (The Centre for Labour and Social studies)

Imogen Tyler and Jenna Loyd (2015) ‘From Tottenham to Baltimore, policing crisis starts race to the bottom for justice’, The Conversation/ OpenDemocracy

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  1. Kitty S Jones

    This research is valuable, timely and so very much needed. I’m looking forward to reading more about it.

    Many of the issues raised here are themes that have emerged in my own writing this past few years. I’ve discussed stigma and the growth of prejudice frequently and have often used the summarised Allport’s “ladder” to clarify a political and psychosocial process that advances by almost inscrutable degrees. Techniques of neutralisation and semantic shifts are another focus, with words like “fair” , “reform” and phrases like “helping /supporting people into work” (by sanctioning them) or “making work pay”, which has much in common with “less eligibility “principle of the Poor Law in 1834.

    The new behavioural economics theories are a prop for neoliberalism, a cognitive bias, if you will, and a justification of inequality, whilst targeted “interventions” are class contingent, punitive, and likely to reproduce inequality, rather than address it. It’s most certainly about social control and enforcing conformity and compliance, whilst social norms are being reset to redefine “deviance” and shape public responses.

    Remarkably, we are to believe that the very wealthy and powerful are “incentivised” (a detestable word, imported from US inane managementspeak) by reward, whilst the poor only by punishment and coercion.

    I’m just wondering who nudges the nudgers…

    Nudge turns democracy on its head, because it entails a government acting upon citizens without their consent, to change their behaviours to meet state-directed neoliberal outcomes, rather than a government that recognises and addresses public needs. That is authoritarianism, rather than “libertarian paternalism.” And all authoritarians and despots are behaviourists.


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