547312 research-article2014

ISP0010.1177/0020764014547312International Journal of Social PsychiatryLink



Commentary on ‘Toward a concept of stigma’ by Scheff

International Journal of Social Psychiatry 2014, Vol. 60(7) 726­ © The Author(s) 2014 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0020764014547312 isp.sagepub.com

Bruce Link

Concepts should have muscle in at least three domains. They should (1) illuminate phenomena that might otherwise go unobserved, (2) facilitate communication about relations between phenomena of interest and (3) form the building blocks for causal explanations (theories) that help us understand why things happen as they do. To achieve these ends with respect to a concept, one needs to decide where to draw boundaries around the concept in question – What does it include? What does it exclude? What is its essence? Thomas Scheff’s (2014) intriguing essay on the concept of stigma proposes that ‘stigma can be defined as shame’. Scheff answers the boundary question for the stigma concept. It includes shame, it excludes everything else and its essence is, yes, shame. The question I bring is whether this narrow, very tight claim is apt and whether it would result in significant muscle loss for what has become a robustly useful concept. So what are Scheff’s arguments for defining stigma as shame? First is that the Link and Phelan (2001) definition ‘confounds stigma itself with stigmatization, the process that leads to stigma’. My reading of this is that Link and Phelan drew broad boundaries around the concept and Scheff wants to draw a much narrower one. Who is right? Whose concept is most valid? Other than mom’s good old ‘because I say so’ validity, we must appeal to the concepts utility to decide. It does not work to simply assert that Link and Phelan confound stigma with the process of stigmatization. Scheff’s second argument seems to be an appeal to Goffman (1963) who mentioned shame multiple times in his famous book, four instances of which Scheff quotes. But Goffman included many aspects of stigma other than shame and is, in that sense, closer to Link and Phelan in describing stigma as a complex multifaceted concept as opposed to a narrow singular one.

What about the question of concept muscle? First, if stigma is defined as shame, one needs to wonder why the stigma concept is needed at all. Use shame instead. Stigma is essentially redundant with shame – a concept with no independent utility. But the real problem with the proposal is that there is so much that is consequential about stigma (broadly defined) that does not involve shame, that defining stigma as shame, results in a massive loss of concept muscle. To understand, imagine a person with mental illness who genuinely feels no shame about the illness or its treatment. Such a person still needs to deal with the anticipation and potential reality that others will see his mental illness as his only salient identity, reject him and watch everything he does for signs of recurring symptoms of mental illness. In research I am involved in, these processes are prominent even for people who express no shame at all and are also strongly related to important outcomes such as isolation and exclusion (e.g. Link & Phelan, 2014). Scheff is probably right that shame has been underutilized by some stigma researchers such as me. But to narrow its boundaries by defining it as shame cuts too much muscle from what has been an enormously successful concept with broad reach and impact. References Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. (2014). Stigma power. Social Science & Medicine, 103, 24–32. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.07.035 Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363–385. Scheff, T. (2014). Toward a concept of stigma. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 60(7), 724–725.

Columbia University, USA Corresponding author: Bruce Link, Mailman School of Public Health, 722 West 168th Street, New York, NY 10032, USA. Email: [email protected]

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Commentary on 'Toward a concept of stigma' by Scheff.

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