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Social stigma is disapproval of (or discontent with) a person based on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society.
Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided particularly in public places.
Social stigmas can occur in many different forms. The most common deal with culture, obesity, gender, race, illness and disease. Many people who have been stigmatized, feel as though they are transforming from a whole person to a tainted one. They feel different and devalued by others. This can happen in the workplace, educational settings, health care, the criminal justice system, and even in their own family. For example, the parents of overweight women are less likely to pay for their daughters' college education than are the parents of average-weight women.
Stigma may also be described as a label that associates a person to a set of unwanted characteristics that form a stereotype. It is also affixed. Once people identify and label your differences others will assume that is just how things are and the person will remain stigmatized until the stigmatizing attribute is undetected. A considerable amount of generalization is required to create groups, meaning that you put someone in a general group regardless of how well they actually fit into that group. However, the attributes that society selects differ according to time and place. What is considered out of place in one society could be the norm in another. When society categorizes individuals into certain groups the labeled person is subjected to status loss and discrimination. Society will start to form expectations about those groups once the cultural stereotype is secured.
Stigma may affect the behavior of those who are stigmatized. Those who are stereotyped often start to act in ways that their stigmatizers expect of them. It not only changes their behavior, but it also shapes their emotions and beliefs. Members of stigmatized social groups often face prejudice that causes depression (i.e. deprejudice). These stigmas put a person's social identity in threatening situations, like low self-esteem. Because of this, identity theories have become highly researched. Identity threat theories can go hand-in-hand with labeling theory.
Members of stigmatized groups start to become aware that they aren't being treated the same way and know they are probably being discriminated against. Studies have shown that "by 10 years of age, most children are aware of cultural stereotypes of different groups in society, and children who are members of stigmatized groups are aware of cultural types at an even younger age."
Main theories and contributions
French sociologist Émile Durkheim was the first to explore stigma as a social phenomenon in 1895. He wrote:
Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes or deviance, properly so-called, will there be unknown; but faults, which appear venial to the layman, will there create the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousnesses. If then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal (or deviant) and will treat them as such.
Erving Goffman was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. He defined stigma as:
The phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute which is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.
More specifically, he explained that what constituted this attribute would change over time. "It should be seen that a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed. An attribute that stigmatizes one type of possessor can confirm the usualness of another, and is therefore neither creditable nor discreditable as a thing in itself."
German born sociologist and historian Gerhard Falk wrote:
All societies will always stigmatize some conditions and some behaviors because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating "outsiders" from "insiders".
Falk describes stigma based on two categories, existential stigma and achieved stigma. He defines existential stigma as "stigma deriving from a condition which the target of the stigma either did not cause or over which he has little control." He defines Achieved Stigma as "stigma that is earned because of conduct and/or because they contributed heavily to attaining the stigma in question."
Falk concludes that "we and all societies will always stigmatize some condition and some behavior because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating 'outsiders' from 'insiders'". Stigmatization, at its essence is a challenge to one's humanity- for both the stigmatized person and the stigmatizer. The majority of stigma researchers have found the process of stigmatization has a long history and is cross-culturally ubiquitous.
In Erving Goffman's theory of social stigma, a stigma is an attribute, behavior, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a particular way: it causes an individual to be mentally classified by others in an undesirable, rejected stereotype rather than in an accepted, normal one. Goffman, a noted sociologist, defined stigma as a special kind of gap between virtual social identity and actual social identity:
The stigmatized, the normal, and the wise
Goffman divides the individual's relation to a stigma into three categories:
The wise normals are not merely those who are in some sense accepting of the stigma; they are, rather, "those whose special situation has made them intimately privy to the secret life of the stigmatized individual and sympathetic with it, and who find themselves accorded a measure of acceptance, a measure of courtesy membership in the clan." That is, they are accepted by the stigmatized as "honorary members" of the stigmatized group. "Wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other." Goffman notes that the wise may in certain social situations also bear the stigma with respect to other normals: that is, they may also be stigmatized for being wise. An example is a parent of a homosexual; another is a white woman who is seen socializing with a black man. (Limiting ourselves, of course, to social milieus in which homosexuals and blacks are stigmatized).
Until recently, this typology has been used without being empirically tested. A recent study showed empirical support for the existence of the own, the wise, and normals as separate groups; but, the wise appeared in two forms: active wise and passive wise. Active wise encouraged challenging stigmatization and educating stigmatizers, but passive wise did not.
Goffman emphasizes that the stigma relationship is one between an individual and a social setting with a given set of expectations; thus, everyone at different times will play both roles of stigmatized and stigmatizer (or, as he puts it, "normal"). Goffman gives the example that "some jobs in America cause holders without the expected college education to conceal this fact; other jobs, however, can lead to the few of their holders who have a higher education to keep this a secret, lest they be marked as failures and outsiders. Similarly, a middle class boy may feel no compunction in being seen going to the library; a professional criminal, however, writes [about keeping his library visits secret]." He also gives the example of blacks being stigmatized among whites, and whites being stigmatized among blacks.
Individuals actively cope with stigma in ways that vary across stigmatized groups, across individuals within stigmatized groups, and within individuals across time and situations.
The stigmatized are ostracized, devalued, rejected, scorned and shunned. They experience discrimination and prejudice in the realms of employment and housing. Perceived prejudice and discrimination is also associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes. Those who perceive themselves to be members of a stigmatized group, whether it is obvious to those around them or not, often experience psychological distress and many view themselves contemptuously.
Although the experience of being stigmatized may take a toll on self-esteem, academic achievement, and other outcomes, many people with stigmatized attributes have high self-esteem, perform at high levels, are happy and appear to be quite resilient to their negative experiences.
There are also "positive stigma": it is possible to be too rich, or too smart. This is noted by Goffman (1963:141) in his discussion of leaders, who are subsequently given license to deviate from some behavioral norms, because they have contributed far above the expectations of the group.
From the perspective of the stigmatizer, stigmatization involves dehumanization, threat, aversion and sometimes the depersonalization of others into stereotypic caricatures. Stigmatizing others can serve several functions for an individual, including self-esteem enhancement, control enhancement, and anxiety buffering, through downward-comparison—comparing oneself to less fortunate others can increase one's own subjective sense of well-being and therefore boost one's self-esteem.
21st century social psychologists consider stigmatizing and stereotyping to be a normal consequence of people's cognitive abilities and limitations, and of the social information and experiences to which they are exposed.
Link and Phelan stigmatization model
Bruce Link and Jo Phelan propose that stigma exists when four specific components converge:
- Individuals differentiate and label human variations.
- Prevailing cultural beliefs tie those labeled to adverse attributes.
- Labeled individuals are placed in distinguished groups that serve to establish a sense of disconnection between "us" and "them".
- Labeled individuals experience "status loss and discrimination" that leads to unequal circumstances.
In this model stigmatization is also contingent on "access to social, economic, and political power that allows the identification of differences, construction of stereotypes, the separation of labeled persons into distinct groups, and the full execution of disapproval, rejection, exclusion, and discrimination." Subsequently, in this model the term stigma is applied when labeling, stereotyping, disconnection, status loss, and discrimination all exist within a power situation that facilitates stigma to occur.
Differentiation and labeling
Identifying which human differences are salient, and therefore worthy of labeling, is a social process. There are two primary factors to examine when considering the extent to which this process is a social one. The first issue is that significant oversimplification is needed to create groups. The broad groups of black and white, homosexual and heterosexual, the sane and the mentally ill; and young and old are all examples of this. Secondly, the differences that are socially judged to be relevant differ vastly according to time and place. An example of this is the emphasis that was put on the size of forehead and faces of individuals in the late 19th century—which was believed to be a measure of a person's criminal nature.
Linking to stereotypes
The second component of this model centers on the linking of labeled differences with stereotypes. Goffman's 1963 work made this aspect of stigma prominent and it has remained so ever since. This process of applying certain stereotypes to differentiated groups of individuals has attracted a large amount of attention and research in recent decades.
Us and them
Thirdly, linking negative attributes to groups facilitates separation into "us" and "them". Seeing the labeled group as fundamentally different causes stereotyping with little hesitation. "Us" and "them" implies that the labeled group is slightly less human in nature, and at the extreme not human at all. At this extreme, the most horrific events occur.
The fourth component of stigmatization in this model includes "status loss and discrimination". Many definitions of stigma do not include this aspect, however these authors believe that this loss occurs inherently as individuals are "labeled, set apart, and linked to undesirable characteristics." The members of the labeled groups are subsequently disadvantaged in the most common group of life chances including income, education, mental well-being, housing status, health, and medical treatment. Thus, stigmatization by the majorities, the powerful, or the "superior" leads to the Othering of the minorities, the powerless, and the "inferior". Where by the stigmatized individuals become disadvantaged due to the ideology created by "the self," which is the opposing force to "the Other." As a result, the others become socially excluded and those in power reason the exclusion based on the original characteristics that led to the stigma.
Necessity of power
The authors also emphasize the role of power (social, economic, and political power) in stigmatization. While the use of power is clear in some situations, in others it can become masked as the power differences are less stark. An extreme example of a situation in which the power role was explicitly clear was the treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis. On the other hand, an example of a situation in which individuals of a stigmatized group have "stigma-related processes" occurring would be the inmates of a prison. It is imaginable that each of the steps described above would occur regarding the inmates' thoughts about the guards. However, this situation cannot involve true stigmatization, according to this model, because the prisoners do not have the economic, political, or social power to act on these thoughts with any serious discriminatory consequences.
'Stigma allure' and authenticity
Sociologist Matthew W. Hughey explains that prior research on stigma has emphasized individual and group attempts to reduce stigma by 'passing as normal', by shunning the stigmatized, or through selective disclosure of stigmatized attributes. Yet, some actors may embrace particular markings of stigma (e.g.: social markings like dishonor or select physical dysfunctions and abnormalities) as signs of moral commitment and/or cultural and political authenticity. Hence, Hughey argues that some actors do not simply desire to 'pass into normal' but may actively pursue a stigmatized identity formation process in order to experience themselves as causal agents in their social environment. Hughey calls this phenomenon 'stigma allure'.
The Six Dimensions of Stigma
While often incorrectly attributed to Goffman the "Six Dimensions of Stigma" were not his invention. They were developed to augment Goffman's two levels – the discredited and the discreditable. Goffman considered individuals whose stigmatizing attributes are not immediately evident. In that case, the individual can encounter two distinct social atmospheres. In the first, he is discreditable—his stigma has yet to be revealed, but may be revealed either intentionally by him (in which case he will have some control over how) or by some factor he cannot control. Of course, it also might be successfully concealed; Goffman called this passing. In this situation, the analysis of stigma is concerned only with the behaviors adopted by the stigmatized individual to manage his identity: the concealing and revealing of information. In the second atmosphere, he is discredited—his stigma has been revealed and thus it affects not only his behavior but the behavior of others. Jones et al. (1984) added the "six dimensions" and correlate them to Goffman's two types of stigma, discredited and discreditable.
There are six dimensions that match these two types of stigma:
- Concealable – extent to which others can see the stigma
- Course of the mark – whether the stigma's prominence increases, decreases, or terminated
- Disruptiveness – the degree to which the stigma and/or others' reaction to it impede social interactions
- Aesthetics – the subset of others' reactions to the stigma comprising reactions that are positive/approving or negative/disapproving but represent estimations of qualities other than the stigmatized person's inherent worth or dignity
- Origin – whether others think the stigma is present at birth, accidental, or deliberate
- Peril – the danger that others perceive (whether accurately or inaccurately) the stigma to pose to them
In Unraveling the contexts of stigma, authors Campbell and Deacon describe Goffman's universal and historical forms of Stigma as the following.
- Overt or external deformities - such as leprosy, clubfoot, cleft lip or palate and muscular dystrophy.
- Known deviations in personal traits - being perceived rightly or wrongly, as weak willed, domineering or having unnatural passions, treacherous or rigid beliefs, and being dishonest, e.g., mental disorders, imprisonment, addiction, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts and radical political behavior.
- Tribal stigma - affiliation with a specific nationality, religion, or race that constitute a deviation from the normative, i.e. being African American, or being of Arab descent in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
Stigma occurs when an individual is identified as deviant, linked with negative stereotypes that engender prejudiced attitudes, which are acted upon in discriminatory behavior. Goffman illuminated how stigmatized people manage their "Spoiled identity" (meaning the stigma disqualifies the stigmatized individual from full social acceptance) before audiences of normals. He focused on stigma, not as a fixed or inherent attribute of a person, but rather as the experience and meaning of difference.
Gerhard Falk expounds upon Goffman's work by redefining deviant as "others who deviate from the expectations of a group" and by categorizing deviance into two types:
- Societal deviance refers to a condition widely perceived, in advance and in general, as being deviant and hence stigma and stigmatized. "Homosexuality is therefore an example of societal deviance because there is such a high degree of consensus to the effect that homosexuality is different, and a violation of norms or social expectation".
- Situational deviance refers to a deviant act that is labeled as deviant in a specific situation, and may not be labeled deviant by society. Similarly, a socially deviant action might not be considered deviant in specific situations. "A robber or other street criminal is an excellent example. It is the crime which leads to the stigma and stigmatization of the person so affected."
Communication is involved in creating, maintaining, and diffusing stigmas, and enacting stigmatization. The model of stigma communication explains how and why particular content choices (marks, labels, peril, and responsibility) can create stigmas and encourage their diffusion. A recent experiment using health alerts tested the model of stigma communication, finding that content choices indeed predicted stigma beliefs, intentions to further diffuse these messages, and agreement with regulating infected persons' behaviors.
Stigma, though powerful and enduring, is not inevitable, and can be challenged. There are two important aspects to challenging stigma: challenging the stigmatisation on the part of stigmatizers, and challenging the internalized stigma of the stigmatized. To challenge stigmatization, Campbell et al. 2005 summarise three main approaches.
In relation to challenging the internalized stigma of the stigmatized, Paulo Freire's theory of critical consciousness is particularly suitable. Cornish provides an example of how sex workers in Sonagachi, a red light district in India, have effectively challenged internalized stigma by establishing that they are respectable women, who admirably take care of their families, and who deserve rights like any other worker. This study argues that it is not only the force of rational argument that makes the challenge to the stigma successful, but concrete evidence that sex workers can achieve valued aims, and are respected by others.
Research undertaken to determine effects of social stigma primarily focuses on disease-associated stigmas. Disabilities, psychiatric disorders, and sexually transmitted diseases are among the diseases currently scrutinized by researchers. In studies involving such diseases, both positive and negative effects of social stigma have been discovered.
Research on self-esteem
Members of stigmatized groups may have lower self-esteem than those of nonstigmatized groups. A test could not be taken on the overall self-esteem of different races. Researchers would have to take into account whether these people are optimistic or pessimistic, whether they are male or female and what kind of place they grew up in. Over the last two decades, many studies have reported that African Americans show higher global self-esteem than whites even though, as a group, African Americans tend to receive poorer outcomes in many areas of life and experience significant discrimination and stigma.
People with mental disorders
Empirical research on stigma associated with mental disorders, pointed to a surprising attitude of the general public. Those who were told that mental disorders had a genetic basis were more prone to increase their social distance from the mentally ill, and also to assume that the ill were dangerous individuals, in contrast with those members of the general public who were told that the illnesses could be explained by social and environment factors. Furthermore, those informed of the genetic basis were also more likely to stigmatize the entire family of the ill. Although the specific social categories that become stigmatized can vary over time and place, the three basic forms of stigma (physical deformity, poor personal traits, and tribal outgroup status) are found in most cultures and eras, leading some researchers to hypothesize that the tendency to stigmatize may have evolutionary roots.
Currently, several researchers believe that mental disorders are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Therefore, this biological rationale suggests that individuals struggling with a mental illness do not have control over the origin of the disorder. Much like cancer or another type of physical disorder, persons suffering from mental disorders should be supported and encouraged to seek help. Unlike physical disabilities, there is a negative social stigma surrounding mental illness, with those suffering being perceived to have control of their disabilities and being responsible for causing them. "Furthermore, research respondents are less likely to pity persons with mental illness, instead reacting to psychiatric disability with anger and believing that help is not deserved." Although there are effective mental health interventions available across the globe, many persons with mental illnesses do not seek out the help that they need. Only 59.6% of individuals with a mental illness, including conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, reported receiving treatment in 2011. Reducing the negative stigma surrounding mental disorders may increase the probability of afflicted individuals seeking professional help from a psychiatrist or a non-psychiatric physician. How particular mental disorders are represented in the media can vary, as well as the stigma associated with each.
In the music industry, specifically in the genre of hip-hop or rap, those who speak out on mental illness are heavily criticized. However, according to a The Huffington Post article, there's a significant increase in rappers who are breaking their silence on depression and anxiety.
Addiction and substance use disorders
Throughout history, addiction has largely been seen as a moral failing or character flaw, as opposed to an issue of public health. Substance use has been found to be more stigmatized than smoking, obesity, and mental illness. Research has shown stigma to be a barrier to treatment-seeking behaviors among individuals with addiction, creating a "treatment gap". Research shows that the words used to talk about addiction can contribute to stigmatization, and that the commonly used terms of "abuse" & "abuser" actually increase stigma. Substance Use related addictions are found to be more stigmatized than behavioral addictions (i.e. gambling, sex, etc.). Stigma is reduced when Substance Use Disorders are portrayed as treatable conditions. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been used effectively to help people to reduce shame associated with cultural stigma around substance use treatment.
Mental illness, Taiwan
In Taiwan, strengthening the psychiatric rehabilitation system has been one of the primary goals of the Department of Health since 1985. Unfortunately, this endeavor has not been successful and it is believed that one of the barriers is social stigma towards the mentally ill. Accordingly, a study was conducted to explore the attitudes of the general population towards patients with mental disorders. A survey method was utilized on 1,203 subjects nationally. The results revealed that the general population held high levels of benevolence, tolerance on rehabilitation in the community, and nonsocial restrictiveness. Essentially, benevolent attitudes were favoring the acceptance of rehabilitation in the community. It could then be inferred that the belief (held by the residents of Taiwan) in treating the mentally ill with high regard, somewhat eliminated the stigma.
Epilepsy, Hong Kong
Epilepsy, a common neurological disorder characterised by recurring seizures, is associated with various social stigmas. Chung-yan Gardian Fong and Anchor Hung conducted a study in Hong Kong which documented public attitudes towards individuals with epilepsy. Of the 1,128 subjects interviewed, only 72.5% of them considered epilepsy to be acceptable; 11.2% would not let their children play with others with epilepsy; 32.2% would not allow their children to marry persons with epilepsy; additionally, employers (22.5% of them) would terminate an employment contract after an epileptic seizure occurred in an employee with unreported epilepsy. Suggestions were made that more effort be made to improve public awareness of, attitude toward, and understanding of epilepsy through school education and epilepsy-related organizations.
In the media
In the early 21st century, technology has a large impact on the lives of people in multiple countries and has become a social norm. Many people own a television, computer, and a smart phone. The media can be helpful with keeping people up to date on news and world issues and it is very influential on people. Because it is so influential sometimes the portrayal of minority groups affects attitudes of other groups toward them. Much media coverage has to do with other parts of the world. A lot of this coverage has to do with war and conflict, which people may relate to any person belonging from that country. There is a tendency to focus more in the positive behaviour of one's own group and the negative behaviours of other groups. This promotes negative thoughts of people belonging to those other groups, reinforcing stereotypical beliefs.
"Viewers seem to react to violence with emotions such as anger and contempt. They are concerned for the integrity of the social order and show disapproval of others. Emotions such as sadness and fear are shown much more rarely." (Unz, Schwab & Winterhoff-Spurk, 2008, p. 141)
In a study testing the effects of stereotypical advertisements on students, 75 high school students viewed magazine advertisements with stereotypical female images such as a woman working on a holiday dinner, while 50 others viewed non stereotypical images such as a woman working in a law office. These groups then responded to statements about women in a "neutral" photograph. In this photo a woman was shown in a casual outfit not doing any obvious task. The students that saw the stereotypical images tended to answer the questionnaires with more stereotypical responses in 6 of the 12 questionnaire statements. This suggests that even brief exposure to stereotypical ads reinforces stereotypes.(Lafky, Duffy, Steinmaus & Berkowitz, 1996)
Effects of education, culture
The aforementioned stigmas (associated with their respective diseases) propose effects that these stereotypes have on individuals. Whether effects be negative or positive in nature, 'labeling' people causes a significant change in individual perception (of persons with disease). Perhaps a mutual understanding of stigma, achieved through education, could eliminate social stigma entirely.
Laurence J. Coleman first adapted Erving Goffman's (1963) social stigma theory to gifted children, providing a rationale for why children may hide their abilities and present alternate identities to their peers. The stigma of giftedness theory was further elaborated by Laurence J. Coleman and Tracy L. Cross in their book entitled, Being Gifted In School, which is a widely cited reference in the field of gifted education. In the chapter on Coping with Giftedness, the authors expanded on the theory first presented in an 1988 article. According to Google Scholar, this article has been cited at least 110 times in the academic literature.
Coleman and Cross were the first to identify intellectual giftedness as a stigmatizing condition and they created a model based on Goffman's (1963) work, research with gifted students, and a book that was written and edited by 20 teenage, gifted individuals. Being gifted sets students apart from their peers and this difference interferes with full social acceptance. Varying expectations that exist in the different social contexts which children must navigate, and the value judgments that may be assigned to the child result in the child's use of social coping strategies to manage his or her identity. Unlike other stigmatizing conditions, giftedness is a unique because it can lead to praise or ridicule depending on the audience and circumstances.
Gifted children learn when it is safe to display their giftedness and when they should hide it to better fit in with a group. These observations led to the development of the Information Management Model that describes the process by which children decide to employ coping strategies to manage their identities. In situations where the child feels different, she or he may decide to manage the information that others know about him or her. Coping strategies include: disidentification with giftedness, attempting to maintain a low visibility, or creating a high-visibility identity (playing a stereotypical role associated with giftedness). These ranges of strategies are called the Continuum of Visibility.
Stigmatising attitude of narcissists to psychiatric illness
While abortion medicine is very common in western society, women rarely disclose their use of such services, and providers are also subject to stigma.
Stigmatization of Prejudice
Cultural norms can prevent displays of prejudice as such views are stigmatized and thus people will express non-prejudiced views even if they believe otherwise (preference falisification). However if the stigma against such views is lessened, people will be more willing to express prejudicial sentiments. For example, following the 2008 economic crisis, anti-immigration sentiment seemingly increased amongst the US population when in reality the level of sentiment remained the same and instead it simply became more acceptable to openly express opposition to immigration.
This article incorporates text translated from the corresponding German Wikipedia article.
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- Blaine, B. (2007). Understanding The Psychology of Diversity. SAGE Publications Ltd.
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- Healthline Networks, Inc.  Retrieved: February 2007
- Anna Scheyett, The Mark of Madness: Stigma, Serious Mental Illnesses, and Social Work,  Retrieved: February 2007
- Osborne, Jason W. (November 1993) Niagara county community college. "Academics, Self-Esteem, and Race: A look at the Underlying Assumptions of the Dissidentification Hypothesis"
- Carol T. Miller, Ester D. Rothblum, Linda Barbour, Pamela A. Brand and Diane Felicio (September 1989). University of Vermont. "Social Interactions of Obese and Nonobese Women"
- Kenneth Plummer (1975). Sexual stigma: an interactionist account. Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-8060-3.
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- Stigma Research and Action a peer reviewed open access journal in the stigma field