Teaching Tip Sheet: Stigma and Prejudice

Important Issues

Stigma and prejudice is a central area of social psychology. Stigma refers to a visible mark, such as a brand or tattoo, used to disgrace, shame, condemn, or ostracize. Goffman (1963) identified six general dimensions of social stigmas relevant to AIDS:

(a) Concealability, the extent to which a condition is hidden or apparent to others;

(b) Disruptiveness, the degree to which it interferes with social interactions and relationships;

(c) Aesthetics, how others react to the condition with dislike or disgust;

(d) Origin, the responsibility attributed for causing or maintaining the stigmatized condition;

(e) Course, the degree to which the condition is alterable or progressively degenerative; and,

(f) Peril, whether the condition will physically, socially, or morally contaminate others.

Conditions that are characterized by these dimensions are subject to the adverse effects of social stigmas and related prejudices.

Lessons Learned From HIV/AIDS

The social construction of HIV/AIDS in the United States has made it among the most stigmatizing medical conditions in modern history. AIDS is viewed as much more than a transmissible and lethal disease. Using Goffman's (1963) dimensions of stigma, Herek (1990) illustrated the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS as follows:

  • Although cancelable early in its course, later stages of HIV infection and AIDS are rarely hidden from others;

  • HIV infection interferes with social relationships;

  • The disease physically disables and disfigures and is therefore aesthetically repellent;

  • Its origin is often, although not always, blamed on behaviors and choices;

  • The course of HIV infection is degenerative and not alterable; and

  • HIV is a high-peril condition in that it poses risks to others.

Thus, HIV infection falls on the negative end of all six stigmatization dimensions.

Important advances in the study of stigma have occurred in the AIDS arena. For example, Herek's work has shown that social discrimination and prejudice against people with AIDS is explained by traditional models of social stigma and has lead to important public information intervention strategies. Penner and Fritzce (1993), for example, showed that brief videotape presentations of people with HIV under various conditions can significantly manipulate negative attitudes and associated behaviors toward people with HIV/AIDS. This and related research by social psychologists have used AIDS-related phenomena to advance our understanding of social stigmatization processes.

Teaching Tips

Hold a group discussion about various stigmatized groups, including homosexual men, drug users, commercial sex workers, and minorities. Then ask the class to discuss each group, adding in that a person has AIDS. Use the above dimensions of social stigma to illustrate how AIDS will increase stigma for each group. Then show one of the many videotapes available that show people with AIDS telling their story or call a local AIDS service organization to arrange a guest speaker with AIDS. This activity will illustrate basic principles of social stigma and demonstrate how exposure reduces negative perceptions of stigmatized groups.

Key References

Herek, G. (1990). Illness, stigma, and AIDS. In G. M. Herek, S. M. Levy, S. Maddi, S. Taylor & D. Wertlieb (Eds.), Psychological aspects of chronic illness: Chronic conditions, fatal diseases, and clinical care (pp. 107-150). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. (1988). An epidemic of stigma: Public reactions to AIDS. American Psychologist, 43(11), 886-891.

Penner, L. A., & Fritzsche, B. A. (1993). Magic Johnson and reactions to people with AIDS: A natural experiment. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23(13), 1035-1050.


Seth Kalichman, PhD
Center for AIDS Intervention Research
Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin