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Professor Imogen Tyler on Stigma

Thomas Rodgers reports on the 2021 Annual Lecture from the Centre for European and International Studies Research (CEISR)

This year’s CEISR Annual Lecture was delivered by Professor Imogen Tyler of Lancaster University. Drawing upon the research from her latest book, Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality (2020), Professor Tyler explained how the concept of stigma has become integrated into systems of power that have shaped, and continue to operate in, the modern world.

Powerfully interdisciplinary in its scope, Tyler began with an examination of the different definitions of stigma, which she explained was fundamentally an assault on human dignity. The term’s early origins as a physical mark of status have increasingly taken on psychological overtones of shaming. From this foundation, the lecture then provided a remarkably wide-ranging examination of specific sites of the construction of stigma as a machinery of inequality within a range of slave societies. Beginning with penal systems within the Classical world of Ancient Greece and Rome, stigma marks were inscribed on the bodies of prisoners or enslaved captives; this literal display of status gradually evolved into a metaphor for disgrace and inferiority. From these early origins, the history of the physicality of stigma marking was then discussed in the context of Atlantic World slavery. Tyler then referred to modern examples of the state’s deployment of stigma, notably in relation to the treatment of Jews by the Nazi regime.

In the lecture, Tyler provided a critique of accounts of stigma that obscure an understanding of stigma as a relation of power. For example, she argued that the much lauded work on stigma by the sociologist Erving Goffman fails to provide an account of power relations and offers a one-dimensional and ahistorical account of stigma. In contrast, Tyler put forward a powerful argument in regards to the role of stigma as a form of power that cannot be separated from histories of capitalism and colonialism. 

Tyler concluded by demonstrating the ways in which these roots of stigma as a machinery of inequality continue to be in evidence in a range of informal systems of punishment within a variety of different contexts, with stigma machines taking on different forms in various governmental and media systems.

Watch the recorded lecture

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