Monday, 28 September 2009

Stigma and phenomenology?

I had a conversation with Dan Herron (a manager in the NHS in the NW) about stigma today. Dan is interested in the connection between dementia, stigma and phenomenology and we mulled over a few ideas.

The first thing seems to be to get some sort of hold on the nature of stigma itself. Suppose – as Dan suggested – you start with Goffman’s well known theory of stigma. I’ve never been sure of the extent to which this is supposed to be a kind of social science theory of stigma or a kind of broad scale stipulative definition. But no matter. At the very least it offers a way of relating the key term to broader social factors.

But there are a couple of areas where such an approach is less promising. First, charting the nature of the experience of being stigmatised. A theory that charts social relations looks outwards. But one of the key aspects one might want to examine, however, is the way in which such an intrinsically social phenomenon (if Goffman is to be believed) has, nevertheless, a characteristically individual feel. As a suspicious reader of social science I would think of this as a kind of test of the account. Only if Goffman’s analysis can make room for a plausible first person account of the feelings of stigma should it be trusted.

But there is another worry. Suppose you think that the first person experience of stigma is central (suppose, in other words, you are the sort of person who might embrace Phenomenology) then a social account of stigma might seem the wrong approach. It is plausible that whether or not it makes room for inner phenomenology, it does not necessitate it.

The other aspect I’d wish to think about is how the notion of identity in Goffman relates both to notions of identity more broadly and the notion of the self. Especially in the context of dementia, the issue of the relation of the self to social is important. If, as I do not, one holds a robustly social constitutive approach to the self, then the threat to the self that dementia brings might be offset by suitable adjustments to the other ends of the relata that constitute the self. (Jennifer Radden, among others, seems to hold this sort of view.) So how does the relational account of stigma relate to any social theories of either the self or identity that might also be in play? I’m not sure, however, that Phenomenology is a particularly promising approach to this. Why should a descriptive approach to experience yield surprisingly social constitutive results?