PODCAST: KHESSINA, REIS, & VERHAAL (2021). Stepping out of the Shadows: Identity Exposure as a Remedy for Stigma Transfer Concerns in the Medical Marijuana Market

Olga Khessina – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Gies College of Business
Samira Reis – Carlos III University, Department of Business Administration
J. Cameron Verhaal – Tulane University, Freeman School of Business

Devin Rapp – University of Utah, David Eccles School of Business
Yixi Chen – Columbia University, Columbia Business School

Article link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0001839220972422

Transcript of the podcast:

Yixi Chen (YC)

So I guess I’ll just start, we can start with like a short self-introduction, and then we can dive right into the questions. Okay, so hi, everyone. My name is Yixi Chen, I’m a rising second-year PhD student studying culture, identity, and narratives at Columbia Business School.

Devin Rapp (DR)

Yeah, and I am Devin Rapp. I am at the University of Utah, and I’m a rising fourth-year student, PhD candidate. And I study burnout and engagement and entrepreneurship and stigma and lots of things. So really happy to be here and learn from you, Dr. Khessina.

Olga Khessina (OK)

Hi, I’m Olga Khessina. I’m an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the School of Business at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I study a lot of different things, including categorical stigma that we’re going to talk about today, but also interested in category research in general and industry evolution, and also in organizational and product names. Very happy to be here. I’m very happy to talk about my paper was Samira Reis and Cameron Verhaal.


Thank you so much for being here. Yixi, I can just get right into the first question then if that sounds good. The first question was, like, we would just love to learn more about the background of the paper. So where did the idea come from initially? And what were some of the major hurdles that you had to overcome in developing and testing a new theory?


Yeah, so it’s actually quite interesting that this project started as completely something else. Like three of us got together, Samira, Cameron, and I, because I worked in the past was Samira, and I worked in the past with Cameron, I decided to bring them together to do something, just three of us. And Cameron had this data that he obtained from marijuana producers and products. The initial idea was much ____ than this paper turned out. We were interested in studying how consumers, what kind of role they played in the legitimation of a new industry. So stigma was just a background, we treated this industry as stigmatized. But when we presented very early research _____ it turned out that this was not evident for many people—people didn’t take for granted that the marijuana market is stigmatized. Some people agreed, like yes, it’s stigmatized. And other people said like, no, it’s not—like people from California specifically. Or they would say it used to be stigmatized and it’s not anymore. So we thought about, okay, that’s a more complicated issue than we initially thought, which prompted us to go look into the stigma literature, because none of us was doing stigma research before this project. But we thought, oh, the issue is complicated, we need to learn more about it.

The stigma literature turned out to be very fascinating—it’s actually very interesting literature, very vibrant. And I would say relatively new. People started—of course it has roots, goes back to Goffman, but organizational scholars started studying it relatively recently, right? It’s just the last 10 years or so. A lot of interesting research is going on. So we learned a lot just reading this literature, but also what we found was that there were a lot of gaps that are very interesting to address.

In particular, when we focused on categorical stigma, what we found is that a lot of research is interested in understanding what kind of actions organizations can undertake to mitigate this stigma. And there are quite a number of quantitative papers which look at what type of companies would undertake what type of actions to mitigate the stigma. The assumption here is that these strategic actions will help them to appeal to their audiences and to persuade them to stop stigmatizing them. But what we found is that actually [there are] only assumptions that that would happen, there is no actual research from [an] empirical point of view. A lot of papers look [at] that companies can take this action and that action. They even link this to performance. But there are no direct studies that actually prove that these actions affect audiences and make audiences more receptive to these companies, like make audiences to remove stigma or vilify and label ____ these companies. So we think it’s a big gap, because it’s the whole goal of strategic actions to mitigate stigma is to change perception of audiences. But nobody studies this directly. There are a few qualitative studies that kind of gathered that, but it’s not their primary concern. And there are no quantitative studies. So we decided, like, here’s an interesting gap we could address with the data we have.

And stigma research fits nicely into research and categories that all three of us are interested in—research on industry evolution, right, because stigmatization changes over time. This is a part of evolution in some industries. So that’s how it was born, it started as completely something different, brought us to stigma literature, and got us interested in addressing this gap, like how do audiences change perception of whether organizations should be stigmatized or not? So that’s how this paper was created by actually, the first draft. It was created very quickly. We have data, actually, that allow us to study directly how audiences—perceptions of audiences with respect to stigmatized organizations and how these perceptions change over time. So that was a big advantage to addressing this question. We wrote the paper very quickly.

So the challenges actually started in the review process. When we got an R&R from ASQ, we were super excited, but it was a bit challenging to address. And not so much from the theory development point of view, although we have to do a lot there to make the theory more persuasive. But I would like to give a big credit to the editor on our paper, which was Henrich Greve, who was super helpful in outlining which direction we should go. And also to the three anonymous reviewers, which while were critical of some parts of the paper always had good ideas about how to address shortcomings—they actually had quite a bit of ideas to use to make our theory stronger. So this was challenging, but first of all, I don’t consider this as a hurdle.

The hurdle became an empirical question because the paper started, the analysis we used in the initial draft was at the state level. So with 30 marijuana industry in the US, we compared what was going on in terms of the stigmatization in different states. Reviewers correctly pointed out that some states are too big, it’s unfair to say, unreasonable to assume that the stigmatization process will be uniform in a large state like California. So what they wanted us to do is to go to a much lower level of analysis like county. So we agreed, but we didn’t have data on some very important variables at the county level. So it became a huge challenge to find this kind of data. Eventually we found out that General Social Survey, GSS—you’ve heard about it probably—has the data we need, but the data at the county level is considered to be sensitive data so you cannot get it online. We had to buy it from them, which was okay. The problem became the process, which took eight months from the time we contacted them to the moment we got actual data, because the data is sensitive, so the lawyers had to get them all. I mean, at the university and their own lawyers. I’m working at the state school, I don’t know if it will be faster at some other university. But it took a long time to—oh, another problem was that one of the coauthors is European, she works in Spain. So there were a lot of paperwork to fill about—we had to take online classes about how to handle sensitive data. But it’s not that easy if you’re not in the U.S. So there were all kind of like, it sounds—it’s not difficult to do, but it was very time consuming to figure out all this bureaucracy and legality. So it literally took eight months, which made us a little bit nervous. As you will know, when you work with your papers, the longer you take to revise the paper, it’s not good. Reviewers forget what the paper is about.

Eventually we got the data. Only one person could use the data, it’s like super strict about how you can use it. You have to specify your computer, you cannot just send that. Like you said “It will be my office computer, data will never leave the office.” But [it was] key that we gathered and work out. Another thing was making us nervous because you don’t know if the data will work until you get it. So it worked out. We’re very grateful to General Social Survey, that they collect this type of data and they’re willing to share for a fee. But it wasn’t that high. We’re just grateful that they have this data and we were able to get it and run analysis that persuaded reviewers that our process is what we theorize about. Even if we go to the county level—and it was the right thing to go to the county level—still we got results consistent with our theory. . . .

And then people sometimes think like, oh, the main hurdle is theory development and analysis. Sometimes [it’s] just getting data. And [for] analysis we had to learn a completely different method we didn’t know about because the editor said since you have data, we had data at three different levels, dispensary, county, and state. So there are multi-level models that handle this kind of data that we never learned before. So we had to learn this method, which was fine. [That was just] dependent on your math, you didn’t have to wait on anybody.


You had a lot of fun hurdles.


I had a lot of fun. But again, it’s like, some of them were time consuming. Others were more fun. And again, I think we were really lucky to get great reviewers. Because what often happens, people criticize part of the paper, they don’t like something, but they don’t suggest how they think it can be fixed. And the editor and the reviewers were pretty good about saying, like, here’s the possible ways you can address that. Does it become much easier to realize, as opposed to like, say we don’t like something? And like, yeah, I have an idea how to fix that. But I’m not sure whether they would like it. So I think good editor and reviewers is super important. And we were lucky to get an amazing editor and reviewers.


And I should have mentioned at the beginning, the paper’s name is “Stepping Out of the Shadows: Identity Exposure as a Remedy for Stigma Transfer Concerns in the Medical Marijuana Market.” I just thought that was kind of silly of me to not say it at the beginning. Thank you so much for that answer.


Yeah, thank you. I really appreciate you sharing the nuts and bolts of developing this project. And all these hurdles, sometimes unexpected ones to overcome. That’s really helpful. And now I’d like to just delve into the content of the paper. So I want to start with a question of audience. That’s my favorite part. So you discussed about all this heterogeneity in response to the organizations in this stigmatized market. So in particular you focused on those who adopt a phantom acceptance strategy as potential customers. I’m curious to hear, have you considered how identity exposure could affect audiences who are initially just opposed to the products differently? And an alternative hypothesis could be that identity exposure further intensifies their opposition, rather than mitigating their stigma transfer concerns, or these audiences could shift their opposition from a more public realm to private spaces? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.


Yeah, I think it’s a great question, very important to specifically focus on this type of people, because our focus was consumers, people who buy and consume marijuana. So there is great heterogeneity among those people as well, right? And to look at those that accept it openly, they’re not ashamed of consuming marijuana. And talking about those with phantom acceptance, that would buy it in secret ____ was this market surprise, they don’t need to expose their consumption, and companies help them to stay hidden. The third category, we look at these people who mildly oppose—what we meant by that is currently they don’t consume the product, even if they have a medical prescription, because the market is stigmatized, they avoid dealing with it, but they’re kind of open to change their attitude. If there is a little bit of push for them to show “Look, the situation is not that bad, the market is getting more accepted.” So they are potential consumers, and they become consumers in our data sometime in the future.

So what you talk about is a much stronger form of opposition, then people are strongly opposed, and under no circumstances they’re going to change their attitude. And we agree that such people exist. And I think your hypothesis is very plausible. Of course, it will be a matter to get past them. But I think it’s super plausible, and maybe it’s what indeed, that what happens that people who are strongly opposed to the stigmatized market get more upset and more held up when this market becomes destigmatized. So differently from the other three categories that consider it, these people may take actually a proactive stance to express their opposition. Some of them can move from public to private sphere. So I think like there will be two types of this type of audiences who are strongly opposed. When the market becomes destigmatized some move their objection to the private area, they just still oppose internally, but they don’t publicly express their position. The other type would be that they react, they organize in opposition, they think this market shouldn’t be destigmatized. They’re openly against it. And they can even organize collective action to change the situation. But as I mentioned before, they’re unlikely to be consumers of the product, since they’re so opposed to it. So they’re not part of the audience that we develop the theory about. But I think it’s definitely worth exploring this type of audience to fully understand how market destigmatization happens and what consequences it has for different types of audiences, not just the ready to buy, talk about it, but those that would never buy it under any circumstances. Yeah, I think it’s important audience. It’s an important kind of question, right?

I was thinking, this question made me think about, especially your hypothesis about that some of these people can take their position from the public sphere to the private one. And I think it might happen, and what’s interesting is it might happen until the time is right to be opposed again, like what currently happened with the abortion issue in this country. A lot of people, I mean, a lot of people don’t stigmatize this kind of area. A lot of people do, but a lot of people who are quiet until recently, and suddenly there are a lot of voices that are against abortion. And it’s like, we wonder where they come from. Maybe these are people who move from the public to private sphere, but they move back when the situation changes to the favor of what they believe in. So I think it’s a super interesting issue to explore.


Thank you so much. This is really fascinating to hear as well. And so my next question is on the use of computational linguistic methods to measure customers’ concerns with stigma. So apart from the organizational names, have you also considered analyzing other forms of organizational narratives, such as website description and advertisement, and ____ expect that shops with direct names would also have website contents with more explicit references for marijuana? However, those was less direct names could also have contents with increasingly more explicit references, as it’s more simple to update the content than the organizational names. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on that one.


Yeah, again, very interesting question. You guys have great questions. What you outline here, it’s like an idea for a completely new paper.

So we didn’t think about looking at websites, advertisements. I think that’s actually logical to explore these narratives as well. But I think they are different from the names. Besides my personal interest in names, names is ____ for the stigmatization than website and advertisements. And one reason you outlined yourself, that descriptions are relatively easy to change, and names are much harder to change. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it happens much more rarely. So what that means is that when people see the name, even subconsciously they treat it as a much greater commitment to the cause than that description that you can change every day. You don’t copyright it the same way. There are no legal processes. Changing the name, it’s hard, not just because of commitment, but there are legalities involved and so on. But web description is something very fluid, change at will. So I think people even without thinking much will treat it as less evidence of commitment to this kind of market. Name is something that’s hard to change. So that’s one reason we think it’s a much more potent tool. And people would pay more attention to names like identity exposure would happen, more potently through names, not through web descriptions.

Another reason is that names, you see them not just on the website, you see them on the storefront. Even if you don’t consume marijuana, you get exposed to names, which helps to educate, expose to the market identity—and not only people who consume marijuana, but everybody else who could see it by chance. So, which helps destigmatization more, because destigmatization is not only about like, people who consume believe it’s okay. It’s also people who don’t consume it, they don’t criticize people who do. That’s another reason why name is more important.

But saying all that, I completely agree with you that description and advertisements are also part of narratives, they can play a role. Perhaps a question for future research [is] how data wouldn’t allow to address your hypothesis because we actually collect the data at one point in time. So we have descriptions that they have at that point, and so the data will be required to see the changed description, we’d need to obtain historical data. And somehow, I don’t know if it’s even feasible. But I think it’s a super interesting research question. What type of companies and how soon change their description in reaction to market destigmatization? I think it would make a fascinating paper if somebody can get data like that. Like, who does it fast? Like how it affects their performance? Perhaps those who do it first are not seen as authentic. If you do it in the middle, it’s more acceptable. And late to the game, it’s too late to attract attention. So I like that there are a lot of possibilities here. So I think it’s a super interesting area to look at.


Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much about the choice with names, because I think that makes a lot of sense to me now about signaling and commitment, and also has impact beyond the direct consumers, it has a broader impact. So thank you for sharing that. So I just have one final question, and I think Devon has another question. So my final question is, do you have any advice for grad students and early career researchers who are interested in organizational identity and stigma, and specifically, where would be a good place, you think, to find interesting puzzles to solve?


So you guys kind of, like, questions you’ve asked me you already proposed research questions that haven’t been researched. Like, how companies changed descriptions in reaction to changes in public sentiment about the market. I think that’s a great question to ask. And then the other one was the type of consumers that are strongly opposed. I think it’s an interesting question to ask. I don’t think I need, I think the two of you are already very creative, you have very good questions. And there are some kinds of puzzles that haven’t been explored in the literature yet [that] can potentially be an important contribution.

My overall advice is always to pick something that excites you. Not what you think people will be interested in, or can get more attention, but what personally excites you will make you motivated to organize. Because if you pick something that you think other people like, but you have very little interest, then it’s gonna be very difficult to produce something of high quality. But I think normally, students have a lot of great ideas. I think it’s like, you have a fresh take on the literature, you read a lot of literature, read a lot of diverse literature that you can bring together. I don’t think you need advice on how to find a puzzle. My only advice is just pick something that really excites you that you wake up and your first thought [is], “Oh, I’ll continue to work on it today.” Because it’s not just it keeps you motivated when you encounter hurdles. All of us do. But also, when you’re excited about something, you do your best work. I know it’s not very specific advice.

More specific would be how we read the literature and found the gap, that’s like for us a very important puzzle. Everybody’s speaks about what kind of strategic actions organizations can undertake to reduce stigma, but nobody looks. Does the stigma actually get reduced as a result of this action? Sometimes you read the literature and see that, okay, that’s important, but why [has] nobody studies that? And if it’s interesting to you, that’s something you can pursue.

But overall, whatever excites you. And I don’t want to say that, of course, like study is something that you find personally interesting but you present your idea to people, nobody whatsoever finds it interesting at all. So that’s kind of signal maybe you’re on something that’s not relevant to the field, right? That something has to be exciting not just to you, but at least some people you talk to. It doesn’t have to be of interest to everybody. But it has to be some critical mass of people to say like, okay, there is an audience for what I’m doing. Because, yeah, the last thing I want is you to pick something that is too ____ for anybody to get an interest, but don’t expect 100% of people to be excited about what you do. It’s just like ____, if at least some people do, you are onto something, right? Because it’s like, there are two components: it has to excite you personally, to produce a great quality work, but other people should be interested as well. Because your ultimate objective is to publish.


I think this final question kind of is related to what you’re talking about. For a non-academic setting, for young scholars interested in stigma research, how can we use the stigma research and the findings that we come up with in ways that are responsible, impactful, and prosocial, as has kind of been talked about a lot lately with Responsible Research and how we can make a positive impact? Stigma seems like maybe a little bit less intuitive, in how we apply it to those non-academic settings. And to your previous point, how we can really get excited about it, to bring it to more of an audience than maybe just academic researchers.


I want to start answering this question by referring to your work, Devin. You actually do work that I think has social implications. Your paper on healthcare workers and how they can get stigmatized by doing something important ____. You look at healthcare workers who work with people impacted by COVID and get stigmatized in the process, which was kind of unexpected to read about. I all makes sense, to get stigmatized, but you don’t think about it. I think research like that on stigma has big social significance. What can we learn from your research in terms of how we can make life for these people easier? They do something important and get very unfairly stigmatized for doing a social good for society. I think work like yours has very big implications that can potentially be important for non-academics. And I think it’s super important for making a prosocial impact.

Overall, stigma research, I think there is something to keep in mind, I guess, our research does have social implications. Stigma research is like, yeah, some industries are unfairly stigmatized, and that affects negatively not just participating audiences like consumers, organizations, but society at large. The biotech industry has been stigmatized for a while because they do research on stem cells. Stem cells can help us to cure many serious medical conditions, but they stigmatize including on religious grounds because of the method. So it’s perhaps understanding more how we can destigmatize this type of market also can bring greater social good.

On the other hand, ____ Like guns. In light of recent events, we need more stigma attached to that so we can finally achieve gun control so we don’t have these tragic mass shootings – they happen so often. That’s something we need to keep in mind, especially people ____ stigmatization, if we come up with practical ways of how to destigmatize something, what are the implications? Would it help society at large and people who live there? Or could it be used on some ways that are questionable? I think it’s a complicated question because stigma is complicated too. Organizations ____ that are stigmatized, they are stigmatized for a reason. Sometimes it’s unfair, sometimes it may be fair, so what we find is we need to be careful.

Perhaps one area for research is, a lot of research focus is on why things get stigmatized and how we can destigmatize them. But perhaps we also need research on how we can stigmatize something more than it is, just to produce positive social change. I guess it’s a complicated question. But I think some research, there is no ____, and then like you, the research you do, some professions shouldn’t be stigmatized for doing social good. There’s no reason why nurses who work with COVID people should be stigmatized. So that’s like a ____, whatever you find, you can be sure it’s not going to be used in the wrong way. But some research has to be more careful.


I really appreciate that answer, and I think you’ve been really open and honest about your project and those bigger implications. Is there anything else that you think we should touch on or that we should’ve asked you?


I don’t know. I think they were great questions. I’m impressed. I think it’s hard to come up with good questions, and you already have—many of them are research questions. I will have to keep in touch with both of you if you continue to do stigma research…

For me, stigma research is a relatively new area, but there is a lot to do there because it’s relatively new overall… I think there are a lot of gaps in this area of research because it’s new. There are a lot of good questions to ask. If you want to do a dissertation on this topic, I think there are a lot of good questions. It’s a fascinating area, the implications are important for what’s happening currently in society and in the world, and you have very good intuition about what’s important, based on your questions. Thank you for such an interesting interview.

Interviewer Bios:

Devin Rapp is a second-year doctoral student in Organizational Behavior (Management) at David Eccles School of Business. His research examines burnout, engagement, and work-life boundaries, especially in the areas of healthcare and other service oriented professions. Devin is also interested in morality and how moral foundations lead people to perceive and act on social issues so differently. Current projects include how healthcare workers are being perceived during the Covid-19 pandemic and how moral foundations predict reporting and confronting against sexual harassment and racism in work settings.

Yixi Chen is a rising second year PhD student in Management (Organizational Theory) at Columbia Business School.  Her research focuses on identity, culture, and inequality. She examines how different aspects of individual identities shape their career outcomes, how organizational culture responds to external shocks, and how informal networks affect employees’ sense-making processes. She employs a combination of computational, statistical, and qualitative methods in investigating these questions. 

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