Applying Psychological Anthropology to Policy Related Research: The Social Integration of People With Disabilities in Poland

by Dr. Mirjam Holleman

In this blog post I convey how psychological anthropology can be used to engage with disability rights and the social integration of people with disabilities. I describe the development of a potentially cross-culturally applicable measurement tool aimed to indicate levels of stigma versus social integration. 

Problem statement: Same intentions, different results

While all countries in the EU share the same goals when it comes to the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in society and have implemented many of the same laws and policies aimed at increasing the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor market, the effectiveness of these policies is “extremely diversified” across the EU.

Therefore, I argue, that something other than the policies themselves needs to be evaluated to determine the effectiveness of the policies in increasing the social participation and inclusion of people with disabilities in society. The next section introduces Goffman’s theory of stigma and explores how stigma is linked to cultural norms and values, can hinder the effective implementation of policies, and leads to the perpetuation of social inequalities between groups.

Accessibility fail in Poland. End of an access ramp is blocked by a large flower pot.

Theory: Goffman’s Theory of Stigma and the Link with Social Integration

According to Goffman, social life involves a performance in which we try to exemplify socially desirable behaviors. These norms on what is appropriate and desirable are based on shared cultural values. Individuals are usually not consciously aware of their assumptions or expectations of how people ought to be or behave until they are confronted with an individual who seems unlikely to meet these expectations. This discrepancy between socially expected and actually observed behavior, attributes, or abilities creates a sense of social distance between “us” and “them” and reduces a person to a lesser, incomplete or unfulfilled human being in our minds. In other words, they become stigmatized. This stigma then leads to discriminatory attitudes and practices through which the stigmatized individual’s life chances are inadvertently reduced, further increasing the social distance between “us” and “them,” and hindering the effective implementation of policies aimed at furthering integration. This whole process may occur without any malicious intent from those who stigmatize.

Thus, stigma, from Goffman’s perspective is ultimately a relational phenomenon, rather than being based on certain innately disqualifying attributes. A particular trait may be stigmatized and discredited as a flaw or handicap in some settings, due to its discordance with the perceived “way things should be” for people of a particular social category [i.e. gender or age] in that society, while that same attribute does not draw attention to itself in other contexts or culture. Therefore, it seems pivotal to first map-out the shared cultural expectations in a society, before one can begin to investigate levels of stigma (operationalized as a perceived deviation from shared cultural expectations) toward a particular trait. The field of cognitive anthropology provides the methodological tools to do just that.

Theory and Method: Contemporary Cognitive Anthropology

Cognitive anthropology commonly employs Goodenough’s definition of culture as that which one must know in order to function effectively in a given social setting. How does one know how to behave, react, or function in a particular social setting? In other words, what must one know (implicitly) in order to be perceived as a normal member of a society? This underlying knowledge, according to cognitive anthropologists, is the stuff of culture. This shared cultural knowledge can be conceptualized in the form of “cultural models

Cultural models reflect shared cultural knowledge, or implicit agreements in a society, regarding appropriate and inappropriate ways of being in the world. They form a type of “cognitive roadmap” and provide both a directive and an interpretive force, meaning they guide our knowledge of how to behave, and what to expect in a social situation. A cultural model describes a culturally understood “norm,” not in terms of an observable reality, but in terms of the way people think things ought to be.

The presence and strength of a cultural model, or the degree to which perceptions of “the way things should be” are shared in a society, can be captured through cultural consensus analysis. In a cultural consensus analysis (CCA), all respondents are commonly presented with the same list of rating scale questions testing their knowledge of a cultural domain. For example, in the domain of eating habits in the US, respondents might be asked to agree or disagree with, or rank the “correctness” of, statements such as: people around here usually eat three meals a day; most families with young children eat dinner together as a family; men usually prepare the meals in families. The degree of agreement in respondents’ answers to the questions can be calculated using a type of factor analysis to see the extent to which all respondents’ answers can be explained by the same factor, or the same “cultural model.” Applying this “strategically narrow view of culture” allows one to operationalize the concept of “culture,” making it useful for replicable, comparative, scientific studies on a cultural phenomenon, while not losing sight of local, emic meanings, as my research illustrates.

Accessibility fail in Poland. Access ramp starts at the top of the fist step.

Applying consensus analysis to a study on attitudes toward disability in Poland

I wanted to evaluate whether, and the degree to which, people with physical limitations are perceived to deviate from shared norms and expectations, in other words stigmatized, in Polish society. My study involved a two-step approach, inspired by Caulkin’s (2001) study on edges and clines in Celtic identities, and Dressler’s theory and method of cultural consonance. For step 1, a survey was developed consisting of 21 brief scenarios describing a person living or behaving in a way which – based on extensive preliminary fieldwork in Poland – could be assumed to reflect or run counter to Polish cultural norms and expectations of how one ought to behave. Scenarios described qualities such as: hard working, lazy, intellectual, resourceful, and more. Respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1-4 how respected each of the behaviors would be considered in their society. Consensus, and thus the presence of a shared cultural model regarding appropriate and inappropriate ways of being in the world, was confirmed among my group of Polish respondents (n=50). For step 2, a different group of Polish respondents was presented with the same list of scenarios. This group was asked to rank each of the scenario’s not by their “respectability” but according to how probable they thought it would be that the behavior described would be enacted by a person in a wheelchair versus a non-disabled person.


CCA and Residual agreement analysis revealed the presence of two groups in my dataof Polish respondents from step 1: The first group or cluster of respondents rated items related to intellectual pursuits and altruism as more important than the overall consensus, and items related to physical labour, production, and reproduction slightly lower than the overall consensus. A second group rated the items in the opposite direction, they placed more importance on physical labour and (re)production and less on intellectualism and altruism. (Similar competing discourses on what it means to be a “good Pole” were also observed ethnographically and found in the anthropological literature on contemporary Polish society).

When correlating the “how respected is this in your society” scores with the “how probable is it that this is a person in a wheelchair” scores, the second group (those who placed more importance on physical labour), quite predictably, showed a greater mismatch, as illustrated by figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Correlation between answer key respectability and answer key disability, group 2.

Items near the top of the graph are deemed ‘more respected’ by this group, while items near the bottom are deemed ‘less respected.’ Items to the right of the plot are deemed more likely to be a person in a wheelchair, while items to the left are deemed less likely to be a person in a wheelchair. Thus, for this group (labeled ‘group 2’ in the study) we see a pattern where, as “respectability” decreases, likelihood of this being someone in a wheelchair increases. The correlation coefficient for group 2 was -.568 (p < 0.01). The group in which less importance was placed on physical labor, production, and reproduction (group 1) showed no evidence of a (negative) correlation between “respectability” and “disability” (coefficient = .213 and p= > 0.05).

These correlation scores can be seen as “stigma scores,” when stigma is understood as the mismatch between cultural expectations and a perceived reality for a particular group of people (such as the physically disabled). The graph also presents a visual illustration of Goffman’s theoretical perspective on stigma as always being a relational phenomenon, not solely triggered by the innate features of the stigmatized, nor primarily defined by some kind of inherent closed-mindedness on the part of stigmatizer toward disability. That which is stigmatized cannot be understood apart from what is normally expected. Without a shared understanding of what is normal, there would be no basis for anything to deviate from a norm and thus become stigmatized.  In a society where physical labour, production and reproduction is highly valued and seen as “the norm” or the way it should be – as was, and for a part still is, the case in (post) socialist state Poland – one can expect to find more stigma toward the physically disabled, due to their perceived inability to fulfil these highly valued cultural norms.

Ethnographic context – the discourse on disability in Poland

The quantitative findings of the two groups in my sample in a way mirror my ethnographic observations concerning two main discourses on disability rights in Poland. One segment of society is primarily protesting for better care for “the disabled” while another group is primarily fighting for more recognition of the fact that disabled people are “normal” people too – given the right accommodations, many can and want to work, live independently, and have the kind of “meaningful life” that anyone else in society would aspire too. While both groups are, in their mind, fighting for what they perceive to be best for “the disabled” one is arguably doing so from a more stigmatizing attitude. In this discourse, “the disabled” are portrayed as weak, helpless, powerless, and overall different from “us” the healthy, strong, fortunate people, who have a duty to protect “them”. [1] Such attitudes and perceptions of normality and deviance underlie patterns of inclusion and exclusion and may help explain why policies aimed at creating more social integration between groups fail in one setting and are more successful in another.

Next steps/future possibilities

When the study is replicated in other countries (for which I currently have no plans but am interested in possibly collaborating, if others want to pick it up), data can be used in comparative research to assess where stigma is greater and social integration is lower. In this case, “social integration” is perceived as the opposite of “stigma.” Stigma points to a divide between “us” and “them,” whereas true social integration means that this divide becomes obsolete and people with different bodies or minds are seen as “one of us.” Understanding the perceived deviance, or stigma, gets at the root of the social exclusion confronting differently-abled people in society.

Mirjam’s full dissertation, which includes a “roadmap for future research” in the end, can be found here.

[1] Testing to see whether there is an actual statistical correlation between a particular discourse and a certain level of stigma or cultural model (more emphasis on physical labor vs. more importance placed on intellectual pursuits) was beyond the scope of this research, however.

About the author

Dr. Mirjam Holleman graduated from the University of Alabama in 2019 with a PhD in Biocultural Medical Anthropology. She was awarded the University of Alabama Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation award for her research in Poland. Currently, Mirjam is an applied anthropologist working as a researcher for the national police in the Netherlands, where she has introduced her colleagues and fellow researchers to cognitive anthropological methods. Her team will be applying consensus analysis in a project on police identity and reputation.  

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