Cultural Assumptions • Stigma and Labeling
Encyclopedia of Social Measurement
The concepts of stigma and social “labelling” are well known among contemporary medical professionals and researchers. There has been much research and theory development of labelling in sociology and social psychology. Every society establishes criteria for categorizing persons, stating what the “normal” attributes are of each of the social categories.
Cultural assumptions define what is normal or natural in every social situation or the human condition. Sometimes individuals, or even entire social groups, possess attributes that do not match the socially defined natural states. Looking “different,” or “strange” may “reduce” an individual to the single discrepant stigmatizing attribute. Sick or disabled people are often subjected to this kind of stigmatization.
In cultures with a tendency to regard the states of health and youth as normal conditions, stigmatizing and labelling are common. Health conditions differ in their capacity to be used as deeply discrediting attributes; physical abnormalities, for example, that are visible are likely to lead to labelling. Some people with evident physical “differences” may turn to plastic surgeries or other medical interventions to avoid labelling. Another factor is the social image and aetiology of a disease.
Health conditions may be seen as a serious cause for stigma because of their seemingly psychological and nonobjective nature. Individuals with some illnesses (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases, cancers, mental illnesses) are especially vulnerable to labelling. The sick person is often viewed as blameworthy for his or her illness.
For example, people with AIDS are often assumed to have engaged in deviant and promiscuous sexual behaviour. These people, who are already suffering physiological and psychological distress, have to cope with additional tensions caused by accusations, rejection, and labelling by society. Even the diagnosis process of certain diseases can unintentionally become a labelling process.
In the course of the disease, the patient may internalize a label imposed by society (the “looking-glass self ”) and adopt behaviours and self-perceptions that match this label. This phenomenon has the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the present era of increasing medicalization (wherein social and psychological phenomena tend to be seen as primarily medical), it is especially important for medical professionals to be aware of the implications their care can have for labelling patients.