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Soc Sci Med. 2007 Apr;64(7):1524-35. Epub 2006 Dec 22.

Culture and stigma: adding moral experience to stigma theory.

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  • 1Department of Epidemiology, Columbia University, 722 West 168th Street, Room 1610, NY, NY 10032, USA.


Definitions and theoretical models of the stigma construct have gradually progressed from an individualistic focus towards an emphasis on stigma's social aspects. Building on other theorists' notions of stigma as a social, interpretive, or cultural process, this paper introduces the notion of stigma as an essentially moral issue in which stigmatized conditions threaten what is at stake for sufferers. The concept of moral experience, or what is most at stake for actors in a local social world, provides a new interpretive lens by which to understand the behaviors of both the stigmatized and stigmatizers, for it allows an examination of both as living with regard to what really matters and what is threatened. We hypothesize that stigma exerts its core effects by threatening the loss or diminution of what is most at stake, or by actually diminishing or destroying that lived value. We utilize two case examples of stigma--mental illness in China and first-onset schizophrenia patients in the United States--to illustrate this concept. We further utilize the Chinese example of 'face' to illustrate stigma as having dimensions that are moral-somatic (where values are linked to physical experiences) and moral-emotional (values are linked to emotional states). After reviewing literature on how existing stigma theory has led to a predominance of research assessing the individual, we conclude by outlining how the concept of moral experience may inform future stigma measurement. We propose that by identifying how stigma is a moral experience, new targets can be created for anti-stigma intervention programs and their evaluation. Further, we recommend the use of transactional methodologies and multiple perspectives and methods to more fully capture the interpersonal core of stigma as framed by theories of moral experience.

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