University: Tarleton State University
Description of Work:
I completed my dissertation last year which looked at chronic illness narratives in Facebook. I recently completed an article on the narrative frameworks created in online support groups created through Facebook; that article is currently out for peer review. I am currently working on crafting an article related to power, stigma, shaming and othering that occurs in online support groups created through the Facebook platform. I aim to look at how this is done within these Facebook groups and to what end. This is in its very early stages.
Stigma, Othering and Shaming in Online Support Groups
Much has been discussed about the stigma associated with mental illness, HIV/AIDS and obesity. Psychologists, sociologist and varied medical professionals have examined electronic communication in the forms of blogs, forums and websites. Due to Facebook’s relatively new status, there is too little research available that examines what people say about themselves and others in the context of health related discourse. As noted by Scrambler (2009) “many conditions and symptoms from nervous ticks and stutter to tuberculosis and leprosy carry stigmatized connotations” (p. ). Juneau (2001) writes “Online support groups facilitate contact with people from other countries and cultures and facilitates a pluralistic society of racial, ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic backgrounds” (p.). This pluralistic collision described by Juneau also provides a great possibility of othering individuals within online support groups. Previous studies about stigma attached to illness or disease focused on the illness within traditional face-to-face settings. More and more people are not only turning to online sources for health information but also for health validation to be reassured that what he or she is experiencing is ‘real’ and ‘they’re not crazy.’ Ironically, the very stigma that individuals wish to avoid face-to-face often confronts the participants of online support groups. Rather than an equalizing force, online support groups created through social media platforms like Facebook can be for some individuals a place of stigma, shame and othering.
Humanity is enamored with systems of classifications. Everything must be labeled and sorted and neatly filed here and there, especially when it comes to other humans. Goffman (1963) commented that “society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories”(p. 2). When the person cannot be categorized as ordinary and natural, stigmatization occurs even in the absence of a physical deformity. The invisible, as with many illnesses, can be and often is equally stigmatized. There is a saying that one only gets one chance to make a first impression. A first impression is crucial in establishing an individual’s “social identity” because “appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes”(Goffman, 1963, p.2) before a person ever says hello. Such classifications often go unnoticed, taking place silently in the background of our thoughts as we either extend our hand in greeting or we take a step back and turn away. Our assumptions in these moments are “’in effect’ a virtual social identity. The category and attributes (an individual) could in fact be proved to possess will be called his actual social identity” (Goffman, 1963, p.2). When the actual social identity is made manifest and strays too far from the virtual social identity established, when differences, a failing, a short coming or a handicap are evidenced “(the individual) is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman, 1963, p.2) and stigma becomes part of one’s identity.
Health related stigma surrounding well known, publicized disorders or illnesses such as mental illness, HIV/AIDS or obesity has been widely discussed and researched(include citation here); however, health related stigma associated with chronic invisible conditions and other traumatic health incidents as enacted through social media enabled support groups has been little researched. Moreover, health related stigma and shame accrued in these social media enabled support groups, even less discussed. The aim of this article is to highlight the way in which the stigma of the “real” world bleeds into the “virtual” world of social media enabled spaces like Facebook. I hope to highlight that in spite of the emphasis of the Internet as an equalizing force, the pros of social media, there are inherent flaws as well, one being the severity of shaming and stigma which may occur within social media enabled online support groups. Violation(s) of trust intensify the reactions / response of the violated.