Sociology and its limits: an ambitious new study of stigma falls short on a number of counts, argues Susan Ram

Imogen Tyler, Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality (Zed Books 2020), xiii, 368pp.

As its title suggests, Stigma is an engagement with a concept whose ancient roots and cruel, life-destroying application across the centuries continue to imbue it with intensely negative connotations and meaning. Dominating previous attempts to theorise this concept has been the analysis offered by the US sociologist Erving Goffman in Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity (1963). But the systemic application of stigma has also generated a rich literature in other parts of the world, particularly in India, where the writ of an immeasurably cruel, stigma-saturated caste system continues to this day.

Stigma as a concept

In the West, the concept of stigma has over recent decades featured regularly in research on disability and mental health; a web search using stigma as the key word yields plentiful results in these spheres. Such a focus is in line with Goffman’s classic definition of stigma as an ‘attribute that is deeply discrediting’: whether a visible trait such as skin colour or physical disability, or something more hidden, such as mental ill-health or having a criminal record.

Until recently, there was a tendency for research around stigma to be corralled in departments of psychology and social psychology, with the focus on the operation of stigma at the inter-personal level. While psychologists have elaborated the cognitive dimensions of stigma and the ways it shapes micro-level social interaction, social psychologists have been busy exploring the individual-level consequences and the coping mechanisms of those confronting stigma in daily life.

The past two decades have seen a turn away from this micro-level focus, in tandem with a critical re-examination of Goffman’s ideas. In particular, there has been an effort by sociologists to reclaim a concept which, despite its elaboration by Goffman, a kingpin member of the US sociological fraternity, seems to them to have been appropriated by other disciplines.

In 2001, an article by two US sociologists, Bruce Link and Jo Phelan, detonated a bomb of sorts in stigma studies. In the article, which appeared in the Annual Review of Sociology, the authors proposed a new definition of stigma, one which sought to address criticisms that the concept was ‘too vaguely defined and individually focused’:

‘In response to these criticisms, we define stigma as the co-occurrence of its components – labelling, stereotyping, separation, status loss and discrimination – and further indicate that for stigmatization to occur, power must be exercised’ [emphasis added].

Significantly, this was a time when Goffman’s work was already under challenge from the left. In 1999, the Marxist geographer Brendan Gleeson, in his book Geographies of Disability, delivered a forceful critique of Goffman’s focus on personal encounters as the site where stigma is created and learned. For Gleeson, this ‘interactionist fallacy’ ignored the structural forces shaping disability and swept from view the way in which personal encounters were the outcome of social, economic and political forces.

The re-conceptualisation of stigma initiated by Link and Phelan in 2001 has continued ever since. By 2015, another contribution to the Annual Review of Sociology, by Bernice Pescosolido and Jack Martin, took things several steps further by proposing the existence of a ‘stigma complex’: an interdisciplinary concoction of ‘interrelated, heterogeneous parts’ offering a ‘multilevel approach that can be tailored to stigmatized statuses.’


Imogen Tyler’s new study can be broadly situated in this ongoing effort to wrest stigma from the micro-level and explore its potential as a concept of much broader application and relevance. Tyler, a professor of sociology at Lancaster University, is a vocal and passionate advocate of socially engaged research.

She combines her academic work with social activism through membership of the Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission and involvement in the UK Poverty Truth Network. Her earlier book, Revolting Subjects (2013), an analysis of the processes by which groups are rendered ‘abject’ under neoliberalism, was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Award. An experienced writer, academic and activist with a passion for social justice and for expanding people’s horizons through argument and evidence: what could possibly go wrong?


In her opening chapter, Tyler sets out a number of objectives which both derive from, and seek to reinforce, her underlying thesis: that stigma lies at the heart of how power is exercised and enforced, particularly at the level of government:

‘It is the thesis of Stigma that in order to counter the “vigorous and relentless assault” upon human dignity that is a major characteristic of the current global authoritarian turn, we require a better understanding of how stigma is propagated as a government technology of division and dehumanisation’ (p.7).

‘The overarching aim … is to deepen the understanding of stigma as a governmental technology of exploitation; to draw new lines of connection between people’s dehumanising experiences of stigmatisation and the socio-political machinery of stigma in service of extractive forms of capitalism’ (p.29).

Underlining the heavy lifting that will be required of stigma as a concept in the pages that follow, Tyler proceeds to give it a central role in the project she calls ‘connected sociologies’ (the title of a book by Gurminder Bhambra, professor of postcolonial and decolonial studies at the University of Sussex).

In recognition of the epic scale of the challenge ahead, Tyler argues for

‘developing a “deep historical consciousness”, a commitment to “unlearning” the epistemological foundations of disciplinary knowledges, and a candid examination of “the myriad of effects and consequences” of the concepts, vocabularies and methods that have shaped the discourses and practices of sociology since its invention as a science in the mid-nineteenth century’ (p.24; all quotes are from Bhambra’s book).


In pursuit of these goals, Tyler adopts a strategy which can be likened to cultural bricolage: the practice, in the visual arts and elsewhere, of seeking to integrate a variety of knowledge sets in order to throw up novel, inventive perspectives. On this basis, the presentation of material, evidence and arguments takes an unorthodox route: rather than follow a conventional (some might say logical) sequence, chapters aspire to ‘cut a series of historical slices through stigma power’ in an effort to both ‘“look up” and “look back”’ (p.20).

The opening chapter, titled ‘The penal tattoo’, is an instructive example of this strategy in action. It begins with a story: the arrest and torture of five Sikh women near the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, in 1993. Accused of stealing a purse, the women had their foreheads tattooed by the police with the local word for pickpocket: an unambiguous, horrific case of stigmatisation in contemporary times.

Tyler proceeds to an exploration of the uses made of bodily stigmatisation and penal tattooing in other contexts: firstly in the Graeco-Roman world and then within the modern-era practice of slavery, with its resort to branding and collaring. This is followed by a dip into the ‘gendered history’ of penal stigma: its use against women, again in various epochs and contexts. For Tyler, these disparate ‘genealogies’ (p.56) reinforce the view that penal stigmatisation functions as a ‘dehumanising classificatory technology’ (p.56).

In line with the strategy of ‘looking up’ and ‘looking back’, the chapter then executes an abrupt shift. We now find ourselves in the midst of the English enclosure movement, with Karl Marx and E P Thompson for company (if only briefly). To buttress her underlying thesis, Tyler claims that penal stigmatisation:

‘was a pivotal technology in these processes of enclosure, deployed to manage the massive social upheavals and class conflicts that followed in the wake of the destruction of people’s customary access to the means of subsistence’ (p.60).

Whether subject to transportation overseas or locked into what Tyler, in a catchy turn of phrase, titles ‘Bentham’s panoptical welfare stigma machine’ (‘a vast carceral welfare state within England’; p.63), dispossessed English peasants now found themselves ‘a marked and captive population’ (p.67).

Following this, discussion turns to the deployment of penal tattooing by nineteenth-century eugenicists in quest of the ‘born criminal’. After that, there is a shift eastwards, to India, where Tyler first explores the uses made of ‘penal stigma’ by British imperialism in its crown jewel colony. Then – at last – she turns her attention to caste.

Stigma and the caste system

Given the staying power of a hierarchical, rigidly enforced system whose origins reach back some three thousand years (the earliest mention of the division of Indian society into varnas – hierarchically ordered occupational categories – appears in the Rig Veda, a Hindu sacred text from the period 1200-900 BCE), one expects, in a book about stigma, a reasonably fine-grained examination of stigma’s role in the structuring and practice of caste.

In fact, stigma has been integral to the perpetuation of this system. It has provided ideological sustenance for the pollution-purity matrix of caste whereby those at the top (‘the pure’) enjoy a feast of entitlements, against the mountain of duties bearing down on those at the bottom (‘the polluted’). In this respect, the Indian caste system can be seen as a particularly elaborate, complex and intractable ‘stigma machine’, with much to tell us. Tyler allots it just a handful of pages (pp.81-7).

Subsequent chapters explore ‘stigma power’ in relation to racism (Chapter 2); immigrants and asylum seekers (Chapter 3); and austerity politics (Chapter 4). The final chapter focuses on the insights to be gleaned from personal narratives of stigma injuries and struggles, the author’s included. The bricolage strategy of ‘looking up’ and ‘looking back’, of mix-and-match collage, is maintained throughout.

The book concludes on an exhortatory note:

‘Speaking, reading and thinking about connected histories of stigma power is part of a decolonising process of reparative justice that supports the building of solidarity movements: critical practices which Paul Gilroy describes as the “ongoing collective work of salvage”. This work is essential if we are to resist the divisive forces of identitarian politics, “salvage humanity” and rise in rage together against the stigma machines’ (p.271).

It’s probably evident by now that I found this book a bewildering, frustrating and at times annoying read. Rarely have I come across a text so difficult to pin down, so testing to read, or so tricky to appraise.

Problems and limitations

Several factors contribute to the book’s slippery quality and capacity to irritate. In addition to its pick-and-mix organisation, the polemical tone and unceasing flow of indignation and outrage become wearisome after a time. There is also the author’s effort throughout to elevate stigma to the status of a socio-political lynchpin, as in:

‘Stigma is an “indispensable weapon in the armoury of the state elites”, amplifying social divisions through devaluation, in ways designed to soften the way for further rounds of capitalistic enclosure and accumulation … global corporate capital, which is and has always been colonial capitalism, feeds vampire-like on the divisions that stigma politics inculcates’ (p.267).

Without stigma, the inference runs, the capitalist system would be brought to its knees.

In fairness to Tyler, the varied historical and contemporary snapshots presented in her book do shed light on the variety of ways in which stigma has been deployed as a tool of division, subordination and control. Part of the challenge lies in tracking how stigma-use changes, adapts, or rigidifies across time. Here, a theoretical grasp of stigma as a particular form or manifestation of oppression under class society provides a starting point, establishing stigma as historically specific and encompassing both material and ideological elements.

To argue that a different book would have emerged from such a framework is to reopen a longstanding debate about the usefulness and limitations of sociology as a discipline within the social sciences. Back in the 1980s, Marxist critics such as Martin Shaw positioned sociology as ‘an ideological field within the general framework of bourgeois ideology’, and by that token incompatible with Marxism, ‘a method whose theoretical and practical assumptions were wholly opposed to sociology.’

Non-Marxist critics have also joined the debate. In his 2001 book, Chaos of Disciplines, for example, the Chicago-based sociologist Andrew Abbott characterises sociology as irredeemably eclectic: a hotchpotch of multiple, mutually contradictory approaches.

Sadly, Tyler’s book lends weight to such conclusions.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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