Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Alcohol-Related Problems and Self-Help Groups: The Situational Construction of Self-Image

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Alcohol-Related Problems and Self-Help Groups: The Situational Construction of Self-Image

Article excerpt


The construction of self-image constitutes a process that accompanies the individual throughout the entire duration of their personal existence and is considerably influenced by the contexts in which the individual lives and grows.

The existence of a stigma related to a form of behaviour, for example, in the case in question here, alcohol-related problems, emerges as a central element in the definition of self-image, both from the point of view of public opinion and private feelings.

The aim of this study is to analyze whether and, if so, how the self-image of a person with alcohol-related problems changes, both in the public and private sphere, when they join the self-help group of the Club for Alcoholics in Treatment, i.e. when they begin to form part of a context that "labels" the condition the individual and their family unit find themselves in a different way.

Keywords: alcohol-related problems, stigmas and labels, self-image


From an etymological point of view, the word stigma means "mark, brand": it was the mark made with a needle on the forehead of slaves who had committed crimes. As a consequence, it represented an injury, a brand that connoted the social attributes of dangerousness and blame. Today, the concept of stigma evokes the image of a destructured personality within which the corporeal, mental and affective-relational dimensions of the individual cease to be integrated, following and/or because of a disproportionate amplification of a particular attribute (an illness, a physical malformation, a form of behaviour, etc.) that leads to the dissolution of personal harmony. This dissolution takes place equally in both the social group the individual belongs to and the wider socio-cultural context they form part of: therefore stigma represents a permanent or temporary erosion of the fundamental components of one's existential experience. The first structured and in-depth studies on stigma were made in the field of mental illness, most likely due to the intensity of the emotional responses this issue provokes, responses that are not unconnected with defensive reactions in direct proportion to their intensity. The twin elements of mental or physical suffering and social stigma can be considered as something that has always existed, from the practice of abandoning babies born with physical deformations on the Tarpeian Rock to the dramatic expressions described by Foucault (1961; It. trans. 1988), confirming the collective discomfort felt regarding dynamics of physical and mental disease and the reactions to said discomfort: denial, refusal and distancing (both physical and mental).

What happens when an individual comes into contact with a stigma during the process of the construction of their self-image has been amply dealt with in sociological and psychological literature from the 1930s onwards. If we take the classic definition of stigma made by Goffman: "While a stranger is present before us, evidence can arise of his possessing an attribute that makes him different from others in the category of persons available for him to be, and of a less desirable kind (...) He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma, especially when its discrediting effect is very extensive. Sometimes it is also defined as a lack, a handicap or a limitation" (Goffman 1963:3), a stigmatized person is one whose social identity or belonging to a certain social category casts a doubt over the completeness of their humanity and because of this is seen as discredited, spoiled or defective in the eyes of others.

A large part of the discussions about stigmatization processes state that the stigmatized person internalizes the discreditation, the negative images and the stereotypes regarding their stigma that form part of their contingent cultural baggage: in fact, diversity and undesirability depend on the set of rules that govern social relations and on the weight that these rules assign to a certain kind of difference (Lonardi 2011). …

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