Erving Goffman’s concept of Total Institutions

A concept total institution is defined as a place of work and residence where a great number of similarly situated people, cut off from the wider community for a considerable time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life, i.e. their needs are under bureaucratic control. This includes the Boarding schools, orphanages, prisons, juvenile detention centres and military branches. As a concept, total institutions were first coined by American Sociologist Erving Goffman’s in his work “Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961)”.

According to Goffman, the total institutions are established for resocialization, the radical alteration of residents’ personalities by deliberately manipulating their environment. This resocialization is a two-part process in which:

A) First, the staff of the institution tries to erode the residents’ identities and independence.

B) Next, resocialization involves the systematic attempt to build a different personality or self. This resocialization involves a system of reward and punishment. E.g. As a total institution, the military resocializes new recruits into the military to operate as soldiers. Based on it, Goffman divided the total institutions into five different types as:

1. Institutions established to care for harmless or incapable people, including orphanages, poor houses and nursing homes

2. Institutions established to care for people that are incapable of looking after themselves and are also a threat to the community, including leprosarium, mental hospitals, and tuberculosis sanitariums

3. Institutions organized to protect the community against perceived intentional dangers, with the welfare of the sequestered people not the imimmediate issue, including concentration camps, prisoner of war camps, penitentiaries and jails

4. Institutions purportedly established to pursue some task, including colonial compounds, work camps, boarding schools, and ships.

5. Institutions designed as retreats from the world while also often serving as training stations for the religious, including convents, abbeys, and monasteries.

The four Common Characteristics of the total institutions identified by Goffman to understand their functioning includes:

A) Totalistic features: Total institutions are tightly scheduled and administered by a single authority. It helps them in removing the barriers that typically separate key spheres of life including home, leisure, and work by bringing all at one place with all the same participants.

B) Inmate world: When entering a total institution, whatever the type, a person goes through a “mortification process” that strips them of the individual and collective identities they had “on the outside” and gives them a new identity that makes them a part of the “inmate world” inside the institution. E.g. in prisons by taking their clothing and personal possessions and replacing those items with standard issue items that are the property of the institution. Usually, the new identity is a stigmatized one that lowers the person’s status relative to the outside world and to those who enforce the rules of the institution.

C) Privilege system: In order to foster obedience, the total institutions have strict rules for behavior that are imposed on those contained within them. At the same time, they have a privilege system that provides rewards and special privileges for good behavior. This system is designed to foster obedience to the authority of the institution and to discourage breaking the rules.

D) Adaptation alignments: These are the ways designed for people to adapt to their new environment once they enter it.

Some Criticisms or issues raised: With the rise of new communication mechanisms and other technological innovations, today the distinctions of total institutions are getting diluted. According to Susie Scott, with modernity new organizational forms have emerged. These institutions use subtler mechanisms of social control with more positive meanings and motivations. E.g. the spiritual and Yoga/Vipassana centres working across the world where members voluntarily commit themselves. Many of them join these institutions willingly to attain new identities and work towards self-improvement.

Similarly, many secret societies or virtual groups have emerged to serve these purposes. Based on it, Scott introduced three critical discussions on total institutions:

  1. Goffman over-emphasizing the coercive identity erasure in total institutions while overlooking the subtle processes of negotiation, legitimation and mutual surveillance through which power operates in the interaction order;
  2. Methodological flaws and questions of representativeness: “institutions vary in their degrees of totality, just as inmates vary in their degree of commitment to them”
  3. The nature of total institutions has changed since Goffman conducted his research in the 1960’s, especially those establishments linked to (mental) health care, even though some totalizing momentum still exists there. Despite all these changes, we still have asymmetric organizational power configurations. They support the subjective, organizational and societal conditions, helping in the emergence and persistence of oppressive/total institutions. The narrow goals of efficiency and effectiveness from management leads to abusive employment practices even in private organizations.

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