The Concept of Stigma in American Psychiatry A Rhetorical Analysis

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Davi Johnson Thornton


This essay presents a rhetorical analysis of how the concept of stigma has functioned in American psychiatric discourse by tracing the concept across nearly two centuries of publications issued by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Specifically, I analyze how the concept of stigma circulates in discourses that seek to (re)establish psychiatry as a moral and scientific enterprise by managing discontinuities that potentially threaten this desired professional status. These discourses perpetually reconstitute psychiatry’s institutional identity through processes of emplacement, or recurrent spatiotemporal figurations that generate a sense of the present as placed in time. My analysis identifies three spatiotemporal figurations, or chronotopes, that persistently cluster around the concept of stigma as it circulates in psychiatric discourse: emergence, approach, and elevation. These chronotopes establish and maintain psychiatry’s professional identity by recursively (re)orienting the present against stigma, and toward an imminent future characterized by the fulfillment of psychiatry’s scientific and humanitarian mission. 

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Author Biography

Davi Johnson Thornton, North Carolina A&T State University

Davi Thornton, PhD, is an assistant professor in rhetoric and communication studies at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC.


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