Content of Stereotypes: Stigmas
Chapter 11 has considered stereotypes about three of the most important, and certainly most salient, social categories—race, gender, and age. This chapter considers several other categories, based on conditions that people strongly reject—stigmas.
Although we certainly have stereotypes of groups that are positive (e.g., novelists, scientists), we seem to reserve our strongest stereotypes for groups we do not like. Perhaps this occurs for the most obvious of reasons: When we dislike certain groups, we are motivated to stereotype them in ways that give our negative affect a cognitive foundation or rationalization. We can dislike almost any group, but we have a cultural warrant for selecting certain groups as especially deserving of our disdain. Such groups are called "stigmatized" groups. A "stigma" can be defined as "an attribute or characteristic that conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular context" (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998, p. 505). Note that this definition is quite broad and would include such conditions as cancer, AIDS, homelessness, mental illness, facial scarring, blindness, use of a wheelchair, obesity, or even tattoos and facial piercing (at least in some situations). Moreover, the devaluation or negative reaction presumably has to be shared by a large group of people or a culture, although this is not part of the formal definition. It seems a bit odd to elevate my dislike, say, of tall people to stigma status unless I can recruit others who agree.
In his brilliant book Stigma, Erving Goffman (1963) noted that if we take stigma to be any negatively evaluated condition, almost any feature could be stigmatizing in certain circumstances. For example, I imagine that the virtues of a star football quarterback might be somewhat muted at a meeting of the college chess club; indeed, I suspect that he might be stigmatized in such a group. Gay people sometimes look on straight people with disdain, and members of some disability pride groups may refer