Mariske van Aswegen, Francois Pieter Retief | Land Use Policy
Erving Goffman’s 1963 foundational discussion of stigma has been both embraced and critiqued in disability studies and other fields. In Goffman’s interactional and ahistorical analysis, stigma was presumed to exist as a natural feature of humanity, deflecting attention away from historical analysis. This article, in contrast, argues that stigma—particularly surrounding “mental illness”—is deeply embedded in historically contingent structural conditions of modern capitalism and ideologies of individualism that shape ideals of the modern worker. Specifically, I use the case of autism—and its commodification in the United States—to show how a stigmatized “mental illness” is intertwined with a range of financial interests that come to depend on the continued production of certain diagnoses. For example, an analysis of the “autism industrial complex” in the United States reveals how economic changes set the conditions for a range of practices that promise to reduce stigma; these include special education, activism/advocacy, and self-representation. These occur in the context of a transition toward more flexible employment and the increasing value of technological and artistic skills often associated with neurodiversity. Despite the fact that a capitalist logic continues to define valuations of personhood, families and autistic self-advocates have been empowered in recent years to use a variety of strategies to decouple stigma and illness and resist conventional definitions of autism as a syndrome of deficits.