Stigma and the Management of Marginal Identities

There are many marginal identities in social life. Different societies and social groups define them differently. For people who hold such identities the interactional work they need to do to perform Self is more difficult than it is for other people and they are often more aware of what they need to do. The rest of us tend to take these requirements for granted.

 In American society at the present time Transgender identity is highly stigmatized. We will focus this week on the experiences and challenges faced by transgender men in presenting Social Self.

We will also consider Talcott Parsons’ study of the American Family in the 1950’s and discuss the relationship between Parsons’ idea that this form of family produces “structured strain” and what is currently being called “Toxic” masculinity and a crisis of violence among American men.

Course Description

This course will focus on the Self as a Social Object and examine its relationship to society. This idea differs from the conception of self as a biological or psychological unit that is common in other disciplines like psychology, economics, philosophy and history. In examining this idea we will read some classic and contemporary articles and books, and then apply those ideas to social interaction in contemporary settings – including electronically mediated communication.

The Social Self is that part of self-identity, cognition and emotion that comes from social relationships and therefore requires work and cooperation with others to produce and maintain. The Social Self is situated and changes from situation to situation and between cultures. It involves the basic capacity to self-reflect – to see oneself from the perspective of the other – and includes Race, Gender and most ordinary identities, in addition to marginal, negative and stigmatized identities. The idea that the Self as a social creation makes sociology distinctive and modern. Most approaches to explaining human personality and behavior begin with the assumption that the individual exists before society, and that it is aggregated collections of individuals and individual choices that make society what it is. These approaches build out from their conception of the individual – whether it is rational, selfish, altruistic, emotional etc. – to some model of society, or morality, or law, or psychology or social relations, etc. 

Beginning with the work of Emile Durkheim in France in the 1890’s – and in the US with G. H. Mead and C. H. Cooley also in the 1890’s – Sociology as a discipline has been alone in proposing that the human individual (as we know it in social settings) is a result of social relations. The idea is that what we think of as a human being – including human reason – and the store of ideas and emotions that we identify as “human” is a condition that is only possible in society. The ideas and thought processes we think of as rational and logical have social origins. Moral values, emotions and attitudes also have social origins and take social forms.

If the human individual and its thought processes, beliefs and values are social in origin, it is important to understand how social relations effect human individuals before making arguments about human reason, morality and psychology. Furthermore, to the degree that the Social Self is fragile and requires cooperation and care from all who come in contact with it – we have a new understanding of the moral implications and requirements of social interaction: Equality and reciprocity in interaction have become a moral imperative in modern society.

The new electronic relationships that are becoming important in contemporary society through social media pose a new challenge to understanding the social processes related to Self. While electronic relationships have many characteristics in common with face-to-face interaction they are also different. For one thing they can offer anonymity. Whether and how this changes the prerequisites for Self and meaning is an important question. Social media also offer the possibility of forming new kinds of online communities that are both more diverse and less diverse that face-to-face communities in modern life.

Finally, we will discuss the new ways of manipulating people politically and new dangers for personal security that social media afford. We will read about some electronic interactions and consider how they make use of processes involved in face-to-face interaction we will observe some uses of social media and read about similarities and differences between these uses and other uses of media to create Social Self in the past.