Review of “Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality” by Dr Devyani Prabhat

Review by Dr Devyani Prabhat, 26th November 2020 – reblogged from Sociological Review.

Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality is a book that connects a variety of contexts, including penal power, black power, borders, and austerity, through the use of stigma power. It is a demonstration of what C Wright Mills calls the ‘sociological imagination’, the ability to connect the personal and biographical with larger world events and to find conceptual links between different sociological structures institutions and historical accounts. In the first few pages, Tyler writes about her friend Stephanie who is ashamed of being termed a ‘benefit cheat’. Tyler identifies her as someone marked by the welfare stigma machine. This marking is not just metaphorical or rhetorical, it leaves psychological scars and even leads Stephanie to physically disfigure herself. Through this anecdote, Tyler draws the reader into an emotional journey as well as an intellectual one. Just as Stephanie cuts the negative descriptors about herself into her skin, the ancient penal history of stigma involved branding for penal and property purposes. Stephanie’s experiences are authentic and visceral experiences of stigma in both its original historical sense and in its re-enactment in modern day austerity policies.

In chapter 1, ‘The Penal Tattoo’, Tyler covers colonial capitalism, slave trade, eugenics, criminal tribes, caste in property holding, Hindu nationalism, and a variety of other practices. By focusing on punitive practices of bodily inscriptions, she is able to analyse the social political and economic functions connected to stigma. In this chapter she demonstrates that the practices of stigma are connected to social classifications through which inequalities become reified. In chapter 2, ‘From Stigma Power to Black Power’, Tyler investigates racism. She draws on Goffman’s work to focus on the ways in which social interactions reveal that stigma is socially produced. The chapter introduces the concept of struggle, showing how stigma is both socially produced and also how it can be socially dismantled. This approach takes Tyler’s work far beyond Goffman’s interactive yet race neutral analysis and brings in the centrality of race. In chapter 3, ‘The Stigma Machine of the Border’, Tyler focuses on asylum seekers, stateless populations, and migrants who are increasingly targeted by right-wing nationalism. There are chilling similarities in fascist uprisings and the violence against refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, and the present-day fascism faced by asylum seekers. Chapter 4, ‘The Stigma Machine of Austerity’, moves to the politics of austerity which stigmatises and produces inequalities by finding people unworthy of support and solidarity.  Tyler brings to the forefront the human stories of people’s lives which are often hidden behind numbers.  She also draws on reports by journalists, academics, and NGOs, to evidence the effects of the destruction of state welfare.  Narratives of resistance run through all the chapters as a thread and culminate in the conclusion. In chapter 5, ‘Shame Lives on the Eyelids’, Tyler takes us through her own journey (which she terms her “personal troubles with stigma”), revealing her teenage jobs and her life in a working class family in pastoral England. Through the lens of gender and class stigma, Tyler reveals her angst at becoming an ethnographic object of anthropological study when inadvertently viewing herself (as a ‘gangly teenager’) in a fieldwork slideshow of rural England at university. It is not surprising therefore that Tyler has genuine empathy for her subject matter and is able to achieve the ‘double reflexivity’ which is prized in sociological studies (she quotes Du Bois to describe this as the second-sight of seeing oneself). In the concluding chapter, ‘Rage Against the Stigma Machines’ Tyler exposes the hollowness of many discourses of shame, however well-meaning these may be.  There is an industry around stigma: celebrities and campaigns which generally stop at superficial analyses of problems, and fail to recognise structural inequalities.

Poverty, class, welfare stigma, slavery, and colonial histories are viewed through an intersectional lens throughout the book. Tyler both telescopes outwards from North West England and also zones into the local region to illustrate the mechanics of stigma. The violence of stigma flows through inequalities such as racism, classism, disablism, and misogyny. Does it mean it is akin to a Theory of Everything in Physics? If it is, it could lose its conceptual explanatory potential by becoming too diffuse and blurring the complexities of social inequalities. Tyler avoids this over-simplification by focussing on stigma power, which provides a lens of continuity between different practices of dehumanising violence.  She is deeply intentional in this pursuit of commonalities and connections,  and would like to generate solidarity in resistance practices across these various forms of violence. The key message of this book is that solidarity movements have to rise above identity politics. The shaming politics of austerity and the stigma of fascism are linked together through stigma power, and need to be dismantled through solidarity.

Dr Devyani Prabhat is a Reader in Law at the University of Bristol who specialises in migration and citizenship research.  Her background is in law (NY attorney) and also in sociology (PhD from New York University). 

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