Social stigma is when a person is disapproved by – and potentially secluded from – the other members of the group based on perceived social characteristics which make them look, seem or behave differently from what the majority of the society considers to be ‘normal’. It has many different forms and commonly deals with illness, disease, culture, gender, race and religion. Erving Goffman (one of the most influential sociologist of his time) defined stigma as a phenomenon which singles out a person from the other members of their group. Social stigma varies across the world – being more common within societies with strong beliefs about culture and religion. Goffman divided social stigma into three categories:
- Physical manifestations which may make a person ‘look’ different such as obesity.
- Changes in commonly accepted behaviour by the society which may make a person ‘seem’ different such as mental health conditions, behavioural addictions and criminal background.
- Tribal traits which may make a person ‘behave’ differently from the rest of the group such as ethnicity, culture or religion.
Communities generally have strong beliefs about how a person in their society should look, seem or behave – tagging them ‘abnormal’ when one of these characteristics is less than perfect. This may be more common in ethnic communities as they walk into a new country holding onto their roots and often fearful or nervous to integrate into a new society. This shyness can expose them to unique issues as they are in new situations with unfamiliar people – unintentionally leading them to stigmatize those who no longer look, seem or behave like them. This also encourages them to hide their own issues in the fear of being stigmatized within their community as they do not want to ‘lose face’. Among the ethnic communities there may be a lack of education and awareness about ways to prevent stigmatization. The IAMHE(R) Charitable Trust endeavours to create awareness within the ethnic communities about the unique issues experienced by these groups, and to educate and train people, particularly women, youth, and the less advantaged, about options for approaching and managing these issues.