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Essay: Erving Goffman's Stigma and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

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  • Published: 8 October 2015*
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One sociological approach assessing the contribution of one micro approach to the understanding between the individual and society.
Erving Goffman graduated from the University of Toronto in 1945, gaining his M.A in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1949. In 1962 he became a professor of sociology at the University of California and then transferred to the department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this essay, two different theories will be discussed in the relation to the relationship of understanding them between the individual and society. The two theories that will be argued are Erving Goffman’s Stigma and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
‘Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart and is when a person is labelled negatively by their illness and is seen as part of the stereotyped group’ (Mental Health Organisation).
One of Erving Goffman’s theories would be the theory of stigma which links in to the understanding between individual and society as stigma towards people affects society and as a individual believing what society says it become the master status where if someone tells you that you are something such as fat lazy etc then you eventually think that what they are saying is right, you take on the master status and that is what you become. ‘We believe the person with the stigma is not quite human and on this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination which can ruin someone’s life chances’ (E. Goffman 1968 pg 13 & the mental health organisation). Goffman talks about three different types of stigma, Firstly, there is abominations of the body which are ‘various physical deformities’, Secondly, there is ‘blemishes of individual character’ these are personality traits and characteristics which are seen as negative such as ‘weak will, domineering, treacherous and rigid beliefs’, ‘these being inferred from a known record of mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, homosexuality, unemployment and suicidal attempts’ and Lastly, ‘The tribal stigma of race, nation, religion which are transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all family members’. (Goffman, 1945, ‘ Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman 1963, p4-13.’
Within society the stigma of abominations of the body are discriminate against as ‘We believe the person with the stigma is not quite human, and on this assumption we exercise varieties’ of discrimination through which we effectively reduce his life chances’ For example different phrases and terms such as retard, cripple and spastic are used in everyday language without even taking in consideration the original meaning, this could affect an individual within society as it would feel inferior compared towards other people because of their disability or affliction which would affect their self-esteem, self-worth and confidence. ‘One of the foremost current disability issues is discrimination towards physically handicapped people. Whether a short term or persistent problem, the effects of discrimination toward disabled people extends beyond the disability itself’. (The disability lawyer, 2005).
Another example would be the fact that individuals have different characteristics compared to other people for example having a mental health disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar or even being homosexual. For an individual in society with a mental health issue they would be discriminated against which could even be discrete discrimination as society does not have a full understand of people who suffer from a mental health disorder and could judge them by assuming that they are a danger to the public. There is a massive stigma attached to people with mental health disorders and problems which could be a reason why individuals find it hard to recover and there situation could be made worse, ‘Many people believe that people with mental health are violent and/or dangerous when in fact they are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than they are of harming other people’. (Mental Health Foundation). This false stigma is highly exaggerated by the media as it portrays people with mental health issues as the criminal, dangerous, violent and ‘Unable to live a normal and fulfilling life’.
Goffman claims that the tribal stigma of race, religion and nation could affect an individual as they are seen as different and not as excepted as someone who is the ‘norm’ such as being a white british majority. ‘Anything that is deemed to be a deviation from the prevailing normative ethnicity, nationality and relegion’. As members of a certain religion or ethnicity can be stigmatised they may start acting in the way of what people and their stigma expects them to do, for example if someone claimed that a certain religious group do not mix in society with atheist then they may take on this self-fulfilling prophecy and then not want to socialises with other group as they feel excluded from society. ‘In a social situation with an individual known or perceived to have a stigma, we are likely then, to employ categorisations that do not fit and we and he are unlikely to experience uneasiness’.
Erving Goffmans other theory is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life where he claims that someone will change their appearance or manner in order to make a more positive affect and impression on the other individual. Goffman’s The presentation of self in everyday life claims that people are putting on a play for the benefit on other individuals and everything they do is acting and for show, for example According to Goffman, ‘Social interaction may be likened to a theatre, and people in everyday life to actors on a stage, each playing a variety of roles. The audience consists of other individuals who observe the role-playing and react to the performances’. This links in with the individual and society as the individual feels that their original traits and personality are not acceptable enough for society so they put on a front and change themselves so they have more appealing characteristics. Goffman claims that ‘The expressiveness of the individual which is his capacity to give impressions appears to involve two different kinds of sign activity, the impression he gives and the impression that he gives off’ (E Goffman, 1956). This means that an individual changes their personality to adapt to the situation to make themselves fit in and look more appealing to other and the impression they would give off would the the impression received by the other individuals in the same surroundings. ‘Of the two kinds of communication- expressions given and expressions given off, this report will be primarily concerned with the latter, with the more theatrical and contextual kind’.

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