Thursday, November 15, 2007

re-evaluating non-normative behaviour/identities

OK, so it's been forever since I wrote, but there has been some progress!

I'm working through an idea about categories of stigma (or devalued difference, or non-normativity), based on Erving Goffman's seminal work Stigma (1963).

My theory is that different types of stigma can be categorized, as being one of:
*individual-physical (e.g. depression, if it's understood as chemical imbalance in the brain)
*individual-dispositional (e.g. criminal behaviour, if it's understood as bad behaviour)
*collective-physical (e.g. "racial" characteristics, or congenital deafness)
*collective-dispositional (e.g. political beliefs, religious affiliations, cultural affiliations)
So, I arrange this in a 4-way grid (which I can't construct on this blog, but you get the idea)

My theory is that advocates for particular "devalued identity groups" (for want of a better term) try to "position" behaviours/identities in either the individual-physical quadrant, or in the collective-dispositional quadrant. These two quadrants, I argue are where positive valuation of an identity/behaviour is most often attributable, and I call this a form of "rehabilitation" of particular identities.

So, for example, we get anti-stigma campaigns around mental illness (e.g. Beyond Blue) arguing that depression is an illness, a chemical imbalance in the brain (and therefore individual-physical). This understanding contrasts with Goffman, for whom mental illness was categorizable as a "blemish of individual character" (and therefore individual-dispositional). Argualy, there's still the potential today for depressive behaviour to be understood as dispositional (e.g. someone is just 'lazy', 'grumpy', 'selfish', 'unmotivated', etc). I interpret contemporary anti-stigma campaigns as pro-actively countering such a potential understanding, and (re)positioning depression in the individual-physical domain.

Conversely, discourses of "cultural diversity" position "race" within discourses of "culture",. This arguably (re)positions what could be understood as a biological/physical characteristic, as a dispositional characteristic. (In my interpretation of Goffman, he positions race as collective-physical).

Contemporary understandings of homosexuality are interesting because it is sometimes biologized (e.g. the gay gene), and hence located as individual-physical, and sometimes politically/collectively understood (e.g. the woman-identified woman of lesbian feminism, the socially constructed non-normative sexualities of queer theory). Arguably, these latter conceptions are collective-dispositional. Goffman's understanding of homosexuality , like mental illness, would be described as individual-dispositional; in his time it was both criminal and pathological.

And here's where I see the most interesting link to today: there are forms of deviant behaviour that still today understandable as individual-dispositional - prototypically due to either bad character (as evidenced by criminality or other anti-social behaviour or psychopathological irrationality, and I mean here pathological not in the technical sense of disease, but in the folk sense of "bad in the head"). Now of course, there are intellectual/political understandings that challenge these characterisations (e.g. esp. in the field of criminology!), but I strongly believe that these two categories are the prototypical examples of what I call "unrehabilitated" identity.

The texts that I am looking at often distance their particular, "rehabilitable" identity from these categories, e.g.
-asylum seekers are described as "not criminal"
-depression is described as biological (and hence not "pathologically bad")

Conversely, a behaviour/identity can be discredited by (re)positioning it as individual-dispositional e.g. the G20 protesters are framed as (individual) criminals, rather than political dissidents acting collectively. Finally, there are also some dissenters/outsiders who valorize their individual-dispositional "badness" e.g. the "outlaw", the "queer radical," etc.

What do you think??

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