From Stigma Power to Black Power: A Graphic Essay

By Charlotte Bailey and Imogen Tyler

‘From Stigma Power to Black Power: A Graphic Essay’ is a collaboration between the artist Charlotte Bailey and the sociologist Imogen Tyler. It draws on the research which Imogen undertook for a Sociological Review article ‘Resituating Erving Goffman: From Stigma Power to Black Power‘, which was published as part of a Sociological Review monograph titled Rethinking the Sociology of Stigma. The graphic essay is available for free download online.

The aim of the original article was to expose some of the limitations of the American sociologist Erving Goffman’s influential account of stigma, first published in his best-selling book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. One of the most widely read and cited sociologists in history, Goffman was already famous when Stigma was published in 1963. His previous books were best-sellers and Stigma alone has sold an astonishing 800,000 copies in the fifty years since its publication. Indeed, this short book established the conceptual understanding of stigma that continues to buttress contemporary sociological thinking. Given its considerable influence, it is surprising how little sustained engagement there has been with the historicity of Goffman’s account.

‘Resituating Erving Goffman: From Stigma Power to Black Power’ builds on a growing body of critical work on ‘the relationship between race, segregation and the epistemology of sociology’. Indeed, this historically situated rereading of Goffman’s Stigma is an urgent one in the context of the wider movement to decolonize the sociological canon. As Cornell West has argued, decolonising sociology necessities the development of a ‘deep historical consciousness’ and a commitment to ‘unlearning’ the epistemological foundations of the discipline, in order to confront ‘more candidly the myriad of effects and consequences’ of the concepts, vocabularies and methods which have shaped sociological theory since its emergence as a science C19th.

Both the original article and the graphic essay draw inspiration from Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Color Critique. Concerned with ‘the strategies of power that are immanent in canonical sociology’s will to knowledge’, Ferguson focuses on mid-twentieth century North American Sociology, and on the ways in which ‘techniques of racial domination’ ‘are obscured through the language of liberal progress’. Ferguson examines how sociologists produced pathological knowledge about Black culture which functioned as ‘an epistemological counter-part’ to official forms of state racism. Sociology, he argues, was ‘the supplicant of the American state’ employed to regulate and legislate (against) non-white populations.

This graphic essay brings Ferguson’s insights to bear on Goffman’s stigma concept. In particular, it reveals that placing Goffman’s account of stigma into dialogue with Civil Rights and anti-racist activism from the 1960s, and foregrounding racism as a preeminent form of social stigmatisation, transforms our understanding of what stigma is and what the social and political purpose of stigmatisation might be in particular contexts. It also highlights the ways in which stigma power has been fiercely and collectively resisted from below.

By working in collaboration Charlotte and Imogen seek to bring this research to a wider audience. Our hope is that this graphic essay (along with the list of references and source material), will play a small part in enabling the sophisticated knowledge of stigma power developed over a hundred years of Black sociological thought and activism to reach new readers.

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This graphic novel was funded by a Philip Leverhulme Prize which has supported Imogen’s current research project on stigma. Other outcomes of this project are the Sociological Review monograph on ‘The Sociology of Stigma‘ (2018), a single-authored book provisionally entitled Stigma Machines (forthcoming, Zed) & a series of articles including ‘The Hieroglyphics of the Border: Racial Stigma in Neoliberal Europe’ (2018) and ‘Deportation Nation’.

Charlotte Bailey is a Birmingham-based artist, with a focus on graphic essays & memoirs. Find out more about her work on her website

Imogen Tyler is a Professor of Sociology and Deputy Head of Department at Lancaster University. Imogen’s research is concerned with social inequalities, power, injustice and resistance – and focuses in particular on class based inequalities, racism, citizenship and borders, poverty and welfare.

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