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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A taxonomy of dignity: a grounded theory study

Nora Jacobson

Author affiliations

Health Systems Research and Consulting Unit, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Canada

Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

Citation and License

BMC International Health and Human Rights 2009, 9:3  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-9-3

Published: 24 February 2009



This paper has its origins in Jonathan Mann's insight that the experience of dignity may explain the reciprocal relationships between health and human rights. It follows his call for a taxonomy of dignity: "a coherent vocabulary and framework to characterize dignity."


Grounded theory procedures were use to analyze literature pertaining to dignity and to conduct and analyze 64 semi-structured interviews with persons marginalized by their health or social status, individuals who provide health or social services to these populations, and people working in the field of health and human rights.


The taxonomy presented identifies two main forms of dignity–human dignity and social dignity–and describes several elements of these forms, including the social processes that violate or promote them, the conditions under which such violations and promotions occur, the objects of violation and promotion, and the consequences of dignity violation. Together, these forms and elements point to a theory of dignity as a quality of individuals and collectives that is constituted through interaction and interpretation and structured by conditions pertaining to actors, relationships, settings, and the broader social order.


The taxonomy has several implications for work in health and human rights. It suggests a map to possible points of intervention and provides a language in which to talk about dignity.