Weaponising Stigma

By | January 21, 2018

Having just returned from an excellent two-day conference on stigma I cannot resist a short blog. It reflects both what I learned from others’ research and an attempt to further clarify my own thinking.

In my own contribution I focused on what I call the ‘weaponising of stigma’ in line with neoliberal ideology, itself a rationalisation of financial capitalism’s ‘class/command dynamic’ (ie the purchase of policy by a hard core of capital owners (monopolists, auxiliaries and sleepers), constituting well under 1% of the population, from the power elite at the apex of the apparatus of the state).

I built on my distinction between ‘stigma’, indicating an infringement against social norms of shame and marking an ‘ontological deficit’ (or non-conforming imperfection of being) and ‘deviance’, indicating an infringement against norms of blame and denoting a ‘moral deficit’ (or non-compliant behavioural culpability). I interpreted the weaponising of stigma in terms of a political strategy of ‘heaping blame on shame’, or rendering people personally responsible for their ‘problems’, whatever form these might take (impoverishment, homelessness, disability and so on). Stigma weaponised in such a fashion opens the way for governments to abandon any collective responsibility for helping them, cutting benefits and so on.

I went on to offer a typology as follows. Stigma + deviance – = rejects; stigma + deviance + = abjects; stigma – deviance + = losers; and stigma – deviance – = normals. These rather grim labels might be ranked according to their functionality for neoliberal class-driven governance. Thus, the effective attribution of the label ‘abjects’ affords the most latitude for exploitation and oppression; next come ‘losers’; then ‘rejects’ (among whom abjects might of course be recruited) (ref Imogen Tyler’s keynote).

It takes the kind of power that only capital can buy to re-write norms of shame and blame towards abjection; and there is always resistance to be subdued and overcome. The mainstream media that are most ‘persuasive’ in the public sphere (in Habermasian terms, the most ‘infuential’) play a critical role. When these are overwhelmingly in the hands of (non-dom, non tax-paying, ‘nomadic’) neoliberals with a vested interest in easing the way to further capital accumulation, resistance is made all the more difficult. To these media might be added the right-wing think tanks that fuel them (ref Tom Slater’s keynote). Against these are pitted newcomers like Twitter, Facebook etc, so far deployed much more positively by Corbyn than the Tory establishment.

So here are a handful of observations:

  • The dialectic between stigma and deviance varies from context to context, or, as I prefer it, pace Elias, from figuration to figuration (eg from class-derived neoliberal ideology via gendered and racialised local pay scales to the everyday dynamics of neighbourhood gangs).
  • Only rarely does this dialectic operate to the detriment of the wealthy and powerful.
  • The wealthy and powerful should not be studied and appraised as individuals, but rather in terms of the ‘deep’ social structures and relations they surf to their advantage.
  • Structures and relations should be treated as topic- as well as context- or figuration-specific.
  • ‘Generative mechanisms’ pertinent to the weaponising of stigma are emergent in cultural and agential as well as structural relations.
  • These mechanisms generally operate without interruption, but (a) their expected effects on events can be cancelled out by countervailing mechanisms (as well as free will and happenstance); (b) they cannot be directly observed; and (c) they cannot be simply read straight off from patterns of events; so (d) their existence has to be ‘inferred’ from the findings of quantitative (retroduction) and qualitative (abduction) studies. Nobody said doing sociology was easy!
  • The sociological project runs from micro- through meso- to macro-processes. No theory of stigma’s weaponising is complete therefore unless it addresses mundane everyday encounters and interactions, social media and institutions and broad-brush societal order (‘stasis’) and change (‘dynamics’).
  • In this way a non-reductionist sociology can discern causally compelling mechanisms linking the likes of transnational corporations, capital flows and Brexit with ‘hunger pains’, foodbank usage, loneliness, depresion and bodily impairment and collapse.

Post-Goffman’s dramaturgy, there is a challenge to innovate theoretically and conceptually to accommodate a more comprehensive agenda of the kind hinted at here (eg Imogen Tyler’s work on the political economy of stigma and ‘stigma crafting’). I’ve tried to contribute too. I particularly favour what in an earlier blog I called metareflection, that is, pausing to think through what we already know, both theoretically and substantively, and to optimise use of our exising resources. More imaginative bridge-building bwteen theoretical and empirical discourses is especially important. Metareflection is sadly inimical to neoliberal management structures in universities.

Finally, off the top of my head, here are a few possible conceptual pegs:

  • Strategic stigmatisation – the deliberate intent to weaponise stigma in pursuit of political ends.
  • Stigma narrativisation – the construction of accounts of stigma to rationalise and/or justify the behaviour of self (self-narrativisation) or others (other-narrativisation).
  • Stigma dissemination – the calculated progagandising of stigma (the means) en route to its weaponising (the end).
  • Stigma subversion – an individual or collective project to oppose stigma and its weaponising.
  • Stigma fatalism– expressed opposition to stigma unasscoaied with effective interventions (e.g. most professional decrying of cultural stereotypes, beliefs and attitudes).
  • Intersecting stigma – the dynamic, figuration-to-figuration interrelations between stigmatisation and other structural relations and forms of discrimination, such as class-, gender- and ethnic-exploitation, oppression, criminalisation, and so on.

I close with a brief anecdote from a visit to Russia in 2001, which incorporated a coach trip to Lake Baikal in southern Siberia (see www.grahamscambler.com and blogs in my ‘A Sociological Autobiography’ series). The sun was dancing on the ever-rippling surface of this extravagantly deep Lake. Try as I did, I couldn’t catch on film what my eye was seeing: the lens was inferior. I recall thinkng at the time – do we academics ever stop? – there’s an analogy here. Let’s focus on sociology and assume a certain amount of reading and/or research. I suggest that we have in our heads a much more inclusive and comprehensive grasp of phenomena like stigma and stigmatisation than we can capture via the ‘inferior lens’ of a talk, article or a book. If this is so, the challenge is to allow for, intimate, articulate and give voice to this inclusivity and comprehensiveness whilst remaining theory- and evidence-aware.

My thanks once more to Gareth Thomas and Kayleight Garthwaite for organising a wonderful conference on stigma in Cardiff, to Tom Slater and Imogen Tyler for terrific keynotes, and to all speakers and attendees who, without exception, contributed to a significant and I think collective learning experience.

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