Data Type: Journal Article

The social rejection of former mental patients: Understanding why labels matter.

Link, Bruce G., Cullen, Francis T., Frank, James, and Wozniak, John F. (1987). The social rejection of former mental patients: Understanding why labels matter. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 92, No. 6 pp. 1461-1500.

In this article, the authors seek to uncover the social factors working to uphold the observable and measured stigmatization of former mental patients. The authors challenge research claiming that the social rejection of former mental patients is determined by their behavior rather than their “stigmatized” status. The authors draw from Goffman’s studies of stigma, but seek to expand upon his accounts of stigmatized people by uncovering examples of stigmatization at work in society and examining how stigmatization is reinforced.

The Social Distance Scale is introduced as a method of measurement used to assess the varying likelihood of unstigmatized social groups seeking or tolerating interaction with stigmatized people based on the social labels ascribed to such individuals. The authors assert that their study suggests that the simple act of labeling a subject produces very little effect on a social distance scale, but that when “a measure of perceived dangerousness” is introduced, strong labeling effects are indeed observed. For example, the label of “previous hospitalization,” when applied to a mental patient who has since been reintegrated into society, produces a high degree of social distance among those who perceive former mental patients as extremely unstable or violent, but produces a low degree of social distance among those who do not think of former mental patients as being particularly threatening. The authors disseminated a social distance scale survey to a random sample of 240 men and women from Ohio and subsequently analyzed the responses through quantitative comparative analysis with previous studies which had used the same scale. Having found consistency between this study’s results and the results of past research using the same scale, the authors deem the social distance scale a valid, reliable instrument for this research. The key finding of this piece is that it demonstrates the dramatic effect labeling has on the widespread perception of former mental patients in society. The article concludes with a cry for labeling theory to not be dismissed, as it has the possibility to serve as a strong framework for the understanding and study of the social factors that cause mental illness as well as the stigmatization of those deemed ‘mentally ill’. Furthermore, the authors suggest that labeling theory could be applied to any stigmatized minority within a social structure. The theory works to identify and deconstruct the social factors at work which stigmatize a group or a community in the first place, in addition to the factors which keep said community stigmatized for an extended period of time.

This article can easily be used to draw parallels between its stigmatized subject group, former mental patients, and members of other ‘deviant’ social groups at large today—such as individuals who identify as LGBTQ. The article relies heavily on symbolic interactionist discourse, asserting that “labeling” and “performativity” are closely linked. Drawing on Goffman’s work on performance, all individuals within a society participate in a type of ‘social performance.’ That is, individuals adhere to and perform the values, lifestyles and appearances generally associated with an established social ‘label.’ One performs or acts in a particular way socially, whether to personally uphold, or even steer clear of specific labels. Results of this study can be further used to uncover the social factors at play which continually stigmatize queer bodies. It is shown here that the labels a society applies to specific people have drastic effects on said people. Thus, this study’s findings can aid in the research of psychotherapy’s and psychotherapists’ treatment of socially ‘deviant’ patients based on the labels used to define them within the psychotherapeutic discourse, as well as the long-term social consequences of seeking psychotherapeutic treatment related to issues of stigmatization, deviance and perhaps even sexuality/sexual orientation.

Categories: Social Construction, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness
Publication Date: 1987