Exploring their Stories: The Role and Impact of Narratives in the Stigmatization Process

Statement of the Problem

Stigmas, or discredited personal attributes, emanate from social perceptions of physical characteristics, aspects of character, and “tribal” associations (e.g., race, Goffman 1963). Cultural and social influences, including those present in the marketplace, contribute to the formation and resistance of stigmas (Mirabito et al. 2016).

While several types of coping strategies have been identified in previous research, a noticeable absence is the strategy of storytelling that not only gives insight into how a particular stigma is experienced but also provides a mechanism to thwart stigmatization attempts.

People have a choice about the explanations they draw on to describe their stigmatized attributes. Consider, for example, how narratives from biology, environmental factors, personal preferences, and divine intervention have been offered as explanations for why and how people identify as LGBTQ. The same is true for autism, obesity, mental health, and many of the other most damaging stigmas. For other stigmas, factors such as the permanence, visibility, time of onset, or perceived personal accountability may influence both the content and the process of the story being told. For example, “Bob got hit by a drunk driver and is now paralyzed” is surely experienced and perceived differently from “Bob was born paralyzed.” Similarly, a narrative that ascribes gender orientation to the presence of particular hormones in the womb, for example, is likely to be felt and perceived differently than a story describing gender orientation as a “choice.” How do people weave a story to explain a stigmatizing condition?

We believe storytelling offers a fresh perspective on ways to cope with stigma and ways to destigmatize. Much of the research on destigmatization draws on the traditional dual-process models of persuasion with the emphasis on cognitive processing and heuristic processing (Chaiken and Maheswaran 1994). Storytelling offers a new path to persuasion. Stories simplify complex situations, making information easier to digest, promoting clarity, and promoting memory. As such, stories the stigmatized person tells herself might give her more confidence as she navigates the public stigma. Stories engage more parts of the brain and spur emotional responses. And because stories draw the listener in by stimulating new imagery and feelings (Green and Brock 2000), it is plausible that stories help stigmatizers draw new conclusions about stigmatizing attributes.

Primary Research Question

How do stigmatized people as well as their family and friends cloaked in a courtesy stigma construct the narratives surrounding their condition?

As we explore the phenomena, we expect to address related areas: To what extent is storytelling used as a coping strategy? What elements are critical in the narrative to successfully combat self-stigma and stigmatization assaults from others? How do narratives evolve over time? How does the narrative guide the stigmatized person’s actions with regard to the stigma? How can the marketplace support effective storytelling?

How do stories affect onlookers and stigmatizers? How do stories compare with education and other strategies to reduce stigma? For example, are stories more resonant and more memorable? Or are they discredited as fictional?

We hypothesize the process and content of the narratives influence the stigmatized person’s personal identity and her ability to effectively manage the stigmatization situation as well as the stigmatizers’ evaluations of the stigmatized person. And we expect a similar effect for those grappling with courtesy stigmas.

Goal of the Track

This project will advance our understanding of how consumers and other stakeholders confront the challenge of managing threatened, spoiled identities and result in a tool that enhances stigmatized consumers’ success in the marketplace and improves consumer well-being. Thus, our goal is two-fold:

  1. To create a typology of explanations, or narratives, surrounding a stigma and link those explanations to the way people experience the stigma, and
  2. To develop an intervention instrument to assist advocacy groups and stigmatized people in the use of narratives to help people become more resilient to stigma-based identity threats.

We will engage in primary data collection through a qualitative research approach. We will conduct semi-structured in-depth interviews with people possessing a stigmatized attribute directly or by association (e.g., courtesy stigma experienced by family members). We will also conduct textual analyses of narratives posted on discussion boards. We plan to partner with one or two advocacy groups with the intention of crafting, evaluating, and refining the usefulness of the intervention with the organizations and with the groups’ members. The research team has established relationships with a number of compatible advocacy groups. Decisions on the target populations, stigma domains, advocacy group partnerships, and interview process will be made in December after completing the literature review.

Our intention is to publish our findings in the Journal of Consumer Research or another top-tier journal in marketing or psychology. Additionally, to further the societal impact, we will work directly with various advocacy groups to disseminate the intervention instrument to their members and to their website visitors.

We welcome applications from colleagues who bring a fresh perspective to stigmas and storytelling.

Track Schedule


August 2016

  • Establish an online repository for author team to share articles, drafts, interview transcripts, and other information multiple team members will need to access. Status: Done.

September 2016 – November 2016

  • Conduct literature reviews related to: storytelling, sense-making, meaning-making and factors influencing the way stigma is felt (controllability, visibility, permanence, time of onset, etc.), and the personal and contextual determinants of coping strategies.
  • Engage in biweekly email correspondence with members of author team.

December 2016

  • Hold a conference/Skype call with members of author team.
  • Summarize and integrate findings from the literature.
  • Develop a consensus on the scope of the project (a single domain such as health-related stigmas or multiple domains?); approximate number of interviews; interviewees’ roles (targets, social others including friends/family members).
  • Draft interview guide and prepare documentation for IRB requests.
  • Recruit advocacy group(s) to engage as partners

January 2017

  • Secure IRB approvals

February 2017-May 2017

  • Each team member will conduct 5-10 in-depth interviews with stigma targets.
  • Transcribe interviews and initiate initial analysis.
  • Conduct textual analysis of narratives posted on discussion boards
  • Continue to engage in biweekly email correspondence with members of author team.
  • Stay in contact with identified advocacy groups


June 18-20, 2017 at Cornell University

  • Each member of author team will bring to the conference a poster showing the initial analysis of interviews they conducted noting identified theme
  • Synthesize findings to create a conceptual model of ways the stigmatized make meaning out of their stigma.
  • Draft the intervention guide

Post conference

June 2017

  • Complete interviews and analyses

July 2017-August 2017

  • Draft manuscript and submit to appropriate outlet.
  • Collaborate with advocacy groups(s) on refining, testing, and implementing the intervention tool

Please contact the corresponding track chairs for questions about this track:

Ann M. Mirabito

Baylor University,

Natalie Ross Adkins

Drake University

Elizabeth Crosby

University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse

Jane Machin

Radford University

Justine Rapp

University of San Diego,

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  1. Chaiken, S. and D. Maheswaran (1994), “Heuristic Processing Can Bias Systematic Processing: Effects of Source Credibility, Argument Ambiguity, and Task Importance on Attitude Judgment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66 (3), 460-73.
  2. Goffman, Erving (1963), Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Green, Melanie C. and Timothy C. Brock (2000), “The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (5), 701.
  4. Mirabito, Ann M., Cele C. Otnes, Elizabeth Crosby, David B. Wooten, Jane E. Machin, Chris Pullig, Natalie Ross Adkins, Susan Dunnett, Kathy Hamilton, Kevin D. Thomas, Marie A. Yeh, Cassandra David, Johanna F. Gollnhofer, Aditi Grover, Jess Matias, Natalie A. Mitchell, Edna G. Ndichu, Nada Sayarh, and Sunaina Velagaleti (2016), “The Stigma Turbine: A Theoretical Framework for Conceptualizing and Contextualizing Marketplace Stigma,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, forthcoming.