Health-related stigma

Sociol Health Illn. 2009 Apr;31(3):441-55. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01161.x.


The concept of stigma, denoting relations of shame, has a long ancestry and has from the earliest times been associated with deviations from the 'normal', including, in various times and places, deviations from normative prescriptions of acceptable states of being for self and others. This paper dwells on modern social formations and offers conceptual and theoretical pointers towards a more convincing contemporary sociology of health-related stigma. It starts with an appreciation and critique of Goffman's benchmark sensitisation and traces his influence on the personal tragedy or deviance paradigm dominant in the medical sociology from the 1970s. To allow for the development of an argument, the focus here is on specific types of disorder--principally, epilepsy and HIV--rather than the research literature as a whole. Brief and critical consideration is given to attempts to operationalise or otherwise 'measure' health-related stigma. The advocacy of a rival oppression paradigm by disability theorists from the 1980s, notably through re-workings of the social model of disability, is addressed. It is suggested that we are now in a position to learn and move on from this paradigm 'clash'. A re-framing of notions of relations of stigma, signalling shame, and relations of deviance, signalling blame, is proposed. This framework, and the positing of a variable and changing dynamic between cultural norms of shame and blame--always embedded in social structures of class, command, gender, ethnicity and so on--is utilised to explore recent approaches to health stigma reduction programmes.

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Disease
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Sociology, Medical
  • Stereotyping*