Social stigma can be defined as an extreme discrimination of persons on the basis of their social characteristic, as sometimes defined by particular perception. A person who experiences stigma has his or her social characteristics disapproved by the same society that should embrace the status, with affixed cultural norm placed as the yardstick to measure everyone’s status. Some of the common people whose social statuses have been known to attract social stigma within the society are mentally ill persons, physically challenged persons, communicable diseases such as AIDS, and leprosy and gays (Lindzey, Gilbert and Fiske, 2003, p. 33). Other personal statuses that are known to attract social stigma are skin color, education status, nationality, ethnic background , religious orientation among others. Various societies have different ways of expressing stigma, which largely depends on geopolitical and social context that the society has set.
A person is stigmatized when his or her social identity is considered flawed in the eyes of the majority (Lindzey, Gilbert and Fiske, 2003, p. 79). Such a person is considered to have less value, and faces threats, aversion and sometimes the stereotyping of their personal characters. However, there are those stigmas that can be concealed and ones that cannot be hidden. Sometimes members of many stigmatized groups find themselves in situations in which their stigma is visible to them and other members of the society, while others find themselves with the stigmas that are only known to themselves. Levin and Laar (2006, p. 117) observe that those with concealable stigmas face both benefits and extra challenge of how and when to reveal their stigma to others. There are also the consequences of keeping the identity concealed and the concerns that come with the discovery of the stigma. Heartherton (2003, p. 66) states that individuals with concealable stigmas are particularly affected by the salience of the stigma in different contexts and as well as the resulting centrality of the stigma to self. Likewise, when the stigma is not salient, persons with concealable stigmas are likely to have interactions that do not differ from those of the non-stigmatized group. Those with concealable stigma are, however, are likely to be less competent in situations where their stigma is salient, and have less experience in such interactions than those with visible stigmas. Concealable stigma victims also face other challenges in terms of costs. For example, they tend to react to others who perceive them as dishonest or distrustful for not being open with their stigma. They also live in constant fear that the stigma will reveal itself involuntarily at a time they may not be willing to deal with the repercussion. However, concealable stigma victims can choose situations when and to whom to reveal their stigma. This significantly gives them an extra sense of control and the ability to keep silent in situations when they do not want to reveal their stigma (Ragins and Cornwell, 2007, p. 1105).
The past five decades have seen a dramatic transformation in the study of psychology of stigma, stereotyping and prejudice. For instance, rather than view prejudice as a problem that results from personality issue of deep and conflicting inner self of the stigmatizer, the current psychologists have considered it a normal but an undesirable consequence of people’s cognitive abilities and limitations, and of the social information in which a person is exposed (Ragins and Cornwell, 2007, p. 1107). Consequently, psychologists have also resorted to transform the views on stigma, with the view shifting from the deep-seated negative consequences to an understandable occurrences that require the victims to deal with in a normal way just like one would deal with issues such as low self-esteem. Consequently, there is a considerable difference in manners in which individuals deal with stigma.
The stigmatized bare the brunt of dealing with their own devaluation, and sometimes dehumanization on their daily lives. Coping with stigma has its own costs, for instance, a stigmatized person may resort not to identify himself or herself when he or she realizes that they are likely to be discriminated against. In such a scenario, the person may lose important social status boosters like a job or a college degree. The social cost of stigma may also be enormous. For example, when a group of persons is stigmatized, they are devalued, dehumanized, and discriminated against. The final consequences may be the feeling of resentment, mistrust, and hostility. Heartherton (2003, p. 1116) observes that when the social meanings and legitimating myths that sustain social hierarchies begin to collapse, the result is conflict. Moreover, when cultural stereotypes about the inferiority of a group discriminates on the achievement of members of that group, the costs may be seen in terms of both the potential contributions of those individuals that are lost, and the economic and social costs of the problems may manifest.
The issues related to social stigma are numerous. Everyone wants to maintain the integrity of themselves, and wants others to view them in the same dimension. However, when persons facing social stigmas are faced with the challenges, there is likelihood of them developing international or external resentments in the process. The predicament of stigmatized individuals illustrates how situations can shape experiences. In other words, stigma depends on the a certain social context in which one finds himself or herself, which may lead to social identity crisis with the societal statuses.