Reconceptualizing Stigma: Toward a Critical Anti-Oppression Paradigm

Lynn C. Holley, Layne K. Stromwall, Kathy E. Bashor


Theorists concerned with mental health prejudice and discrimination have conceptualized these problems as stigma, typically defined as a labeling process that triggers stereotyping, followed by acts of discrimination that result in loss of status and reduced life options for people who are perceived to have mental illnesses (Goffman, 1963; Link & Phelan, 2001). Other stigma theorists have advocated for a social justice perspective (e.g., Corrigan, Watson, Byrne, & Davis, 2005; Perlin & Dorfman, 1993) or have recognized the need to consider meso- and macro-level factors (Pescosolido, Martin, Lang, & Olafsdottir, 2008) or structural arrangements (e.g., Corrigan, Markowitz, & Watson, 2004). Informed by critical theories and oppression literature, this paper offers theoretical arguments for replacing the current stigma model with a critical anti-oppression paradigm. This paradigm expands our lens to emphasize transforming the power dynamics inherent in system-level arrangements and structures that privilege those who are perceived as not having mental illnesses while disadvantaging others who are perceived to have mental illnesses. We conclude with implications of this paradigm for practice and research.


Abrams, L. S., & Moio, J. A. (2009). Critical race theory and the cultural competence dilemma in social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 45, 245-261.

Aguinaldo, J. P. (2008). The social construction of gay oppression as a determinant of gay men's health: "Homophobia is killing us." Critical Public Health, 18, 8796. doi: 10.1080/09581590801958255.

Andersen, M. L., & Collins, P. H. (2004). Conceptualizing race, class, and gender. In M. L. Andersen & P. H. Collins (Eds.) Race, class, and gender: An anthology (5th ed.) (pp. 75-98). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Anderson, E., & McCormack, M. (2010). Intersectionality, critical race theory, and American sporting oppression: Examining Black and gay male athletes. Journal of Homosexuality, 57, 949-967.

Bell, L. A. (1997). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.) Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook (pp. 3-15). New York, NY: Routledge.

Castro, A., & Farmer, P. (2005). Understanding and addressing AIDS-related stigma: From anthropological theory to clinical practice in Haiti. American Journal of Public Health, 95, 53-59.

Corrigan, P. W. (2000). Mental health stigma as social attribution: Implications for research methods and attitude change. Clinical Psychology –Science and Practice, 7, 48-67.

Corrigan, P. W., Larson, J. E., Hautamaki, J., Matthews, A., Kuwabara, S., Rafacz, J., . . . O'Shaughnessy, J. (2009). What lessons do coming out as gay men or lesbians have for people stigmatized by mental illness? Community Mental Health Journal, 45, 366-374. doi 10.1007/s10597-009-9187-6

Corrigan, P. W., Markowitz, F. E., & Watson, A. C. (2004). Structural levels of mental illness stigma and discrimination. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 30, 481-491.

Corrigan, P. W., Watson, A. C., Byrne, P., & Davis, K. E. (2005). Mental illness stigma: Problem of public health or social justice? Social Work, 50, 363-368.

Crethar, H. C. Torres Rivera, E., & Nash, S. (2008). In search of common threads: Linking multicultural, feminist, and social justice counseling paradigms. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86, 269-278.

Davila, E. R., & de Bradley, A. A. (2010). Examining education for Latina/os in Chicago: A CRT/LatCrit approach. Educational Foundations, 24, 39-58.

Derman-Sparks, L., & Phillips, C. B. (1997). Teaching/learning anti-racism: A developmental approach. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dermer, S. B., Smith, S. D., & Barto, K. K. (2010). Identifying and correctly labeling sexual prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 325-331.

Ford, C. L., & Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (2010). Critical race theory, race equity, & public health: Toward antiracism praxis. American Journal of Public Health, 100, S30-35.

Foucault, M. (1965). Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Random House.

Freire, P. (2003). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hardiman, R., & Jackson, B. W. (1997). Conceptual foundations for social justice courses, in M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin, Eds., Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook (pp. 16-29). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hawkesworth, M. (2010). From constitutive outside to the politics of extinction: Critical race theory, feminist theory, and political theory. Political Research Quarterly, 63, 686-696.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge, MA: South End.

Huber, L. P. (2010). Using Latina/o critical race theory (LatCrit) and racist nativism to explore intersectionality in the educational experiences of undocumented Chicana college students. Educational Foundations, 24, 77-96.

Hulko, W. (2009). The time-and context-contingent nature of intersectionality and interlocking oppressions. Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work, 24, 44-55.

Kurzweil, E. (1977). Michel Foucault: Ending the era of man. Theory & Society, 4, 395-420.

Link, B. (1982) Mental patient status, work and income: An examination of the effects of a psychiatric label. American Sociological Review, 47 (2) 202-215.

Link, B. G. & Phelan, J. C. (2001) Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363-385.

McIntosh, P. (2004). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In M. L. Andersen & P. H. Collins (Eds.) Race, class, and gender: An anthology (5th ed.) (pp. 103-108). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Ortiz, L., & Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46, 175-193.

Ottati, V., Bodenhausen, G. V., & Newman, L. S. (2005). Social psychological models of mental illness stigma. In P. W. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 99-128). Washington, DC American Psychological Association.

Parker, R., & Aggleton, P. (2003). HIV and AIDS-related stigma and discrimination: A conceptual framework and implications for action. Social Science & Medicine, 57, 13-24.

Perlin, M. L., & Dorfman, D. A. (1993) Sanism, social science, and the development of mental disability law jurisprudence. Behavioral Science and the Law, 11, 47-66.

Pescosolido, B. A., Martin, J. K., Lang, A., & Olafsdottir, S. (2008). Rethinking theoretical approaches to stigma: A Framework Integrating Normative Influences on Stigma (FINIS). Social Science & Medicine, 67, 431-440.

Pharr, S. (1988). Homophobia, a weapon of sexism. Inverness, CA: Chardon Press.

Pyke, K. D. (2010). What is internalized racial oppression and why don't we study it? Acknowledging racism's hidden injuries. Sociological Perspectives, 53, 551-572.

Rauscher, L., & McClintock, N. (1997). Ableism curriculum design. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.) Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook (pp. 198-229). New York, NY: Routledge.

Scheff, T. J. (1974). The labeling theory of mental illness. American Sociological Review, 39, 444-452.

Stuart, H. (2008). Fighting the stigma caused by mental disorders: Past perspectives, present activities, and future directions. World Psychiatry, 7, 185-188.

Szasz, T. S. (1961). The myth of mental illness: Foundations of a theory of personal conduct. New York: Hoeber-Harper.

Wilson, B. D. M., Okwu, C., & Mills, S. A. (2011). Brief report: The relationship between multiple forms of oppression and subjective health and Black lesbian and bisexual women. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 15, 15-24. doi: 10.1080/10894160.2010.508393

Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Full Text: PDF

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 License.