Re-presentation, disability and gender: Stigma, presentation and representation

Goffman researched and explored the role of stigma in the early 1960s (Goffman, 1963). He identified and explained three types of stigma: character traits; physical traits and group traits. His research demonstrated that while some physical traits can be socially accepted and normal such as visual impairments that require the use of spectacles, other impairments, that are not socially acceptable such as people with missing limbs or deformities require strategies from the person to manage them because even though the individuals have violated no norms they are treated as though they had. For example, they may be excluded from venues on spurious grounds are treated differently in social settings. I do not need to reference this has it has happened to me on many occasions – like being removed from an office block on front of a large group of job candidates on the basis that I am a fire hazard or being asked to sit away from my family, alone and under a light at the back of a cinema for “safety reasons”. These rules punished me for being a wheelchair user rather than recognising and accommodating my needs.

Goffman notes that some people develop strategies to hide or cover the cause of the stigma so that people don’t see the impairment and so treat the person normally. But of course I can’t do this because I belong to a third group: people who have impairments or physical attributes that cannot be hidden. So in different situations people become (in my words) disabled and stigmatized and seen as one of “them” rather than one of “us”. This is true for all sorts of people for example, women, black people, people who dress differently and others. But while some people choose to present themselves as “them” others are allocated this without that capacity.

Notwithstanding all of this, stigma is a strong word and while I feel comfortable using it in terms of disabled people I prefer to use the term ascribed identities in relation to others who face social handicaps in different settings.

So while Stan’s images are about impression management (in Goffman’s terms – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Goffman recognised that such management is only the very top layer of information management and shows by the use of numerous examples, many of which were based on his research undertaken in the Shetland isles, that people can adopt behaviours and even expressions in order to gain acceptance into social circles or to follow accepted customs. But of course the opposite is also true. That is people ascribe traits, values and identities to others and representations of other, that can have profound individual and social consequences. This is what I will explore now in terms of visual representation. My question is simple: why do people see selectively?

In addition we would expect that the onset of digital technologies and the resulting explosion of imagery produced and shared, to have resulted in all subject matter being represented from a variety of points of view. For example, over 249000 images are uploaded every minute just to Facebook (Smith, 2013), Yet I contend that this is not the case. Disability is represented, but in ways that does not reflect my and other’s personal experience (Garland-Thomson, 2002).

So not only do people see selectively but some people are represented selectively.  My current question here is whether this is true for everyone and what do dominant representations look like in regard of major social groupings?



Goffman E, (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Published by Penguin Books

Goffman E. (1959) Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , Published by Doubleday Anchor Books

Smith C. (2013) Facebook Users Are Uploading 350 Million New Photos Each Day, Available at: (Accessed 12/11/2014)

R. Garland-Thomson, (2002) The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
This entry was posted in Research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s