Total Institutions Essay

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The concept of total institution (TI) appeared with the publication of Goffman’s essays, ”Asylums” (1961). The essential features of the total institution are the rigid regimens, tight supervision and complex rules that routinize the daily movements of large groups of cohorts, socialize them to the culture of that institution, and yet somehow seek to return them to society at large. They seek to exclusively frame the experience of those so processed. Concrete examples range from the benign to the violently coercive, from schools to prisons. While these organizations present a range of variation in underlying functions, contradictions, and modes of entry and exit, the essence of total institutions is that they are bounded, sealed off physically and interactionally from civil society. The total institution controls the time and interests of the inmates: they sleep, work and play in one place. While the concept is implicit in the wide range of materials Goffman cites, including his field notes -from St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, a large publicly funded mental institution – his aim is to assemble an analytic framework illuminating such organizations.

Goffman defines institutions as places where a particular activity regularly goes on (1961: 3) and total institution (TI in Goffman 1961: p. xiii) as ”a place of residence and work where large numbers of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.” He asserts that in such institutions a split, both formal and informal, develops between ”staff” and ”inmates.” This produces parallel social worlds. Description of the inmate and staff worlds and their contacts through ceremonies occupies the bulk of the essay.

The work of the place is ritualized: managing human needs takes place by bureaucratic rules and procedures applied to blocks of people – ”whether effective in achieving the goals of the institution or not” (p. 6). The lived round of life – always under close surveillance – dramatizes the boundaries between the staff and inmate worlds. Because there is no paid work in the usual sense, and no family life, whatever is done for intimacy and reward is arbitrarily structured within the TI. The supervised public round of life reduces complexity to simplicity and thus the connection between ”expression” and the self, the sense of personhood, is truncated. Sameness is sought and reinforced by responses by others, primarily staff, that are standardized and circumscribed radically. Unlike civil society in which diverse careers are produced and respected, the total institution shapes a single moral career for all. This is done by stripping and assaulting the self and then reducing the sense of self and self-determination to nil (p. 44). An institutionalized and all encompassing self emerges.

The organization varies in the rationalizations that it provides for these humiliating processes (pp. 45-6). The primary question is the ”fit” between the institution and the person, not the fit between the person and their idiosyncrasies, feelings, failures and choices. (p. 47). The house rules and the privilege system combine to form an arbitrary system of rewards and punishments that embeds the person in the institution and creates an artificial connection between work and reward; time effort and output. This scheme is an artifice for control, but not for the accomplishment of any stipulated goal. Inmates create modes of adaptation which form an oppositional culture (not Goffman’s term), ”playing it cool,” avoiding alliances with the staff, but also creating a distance for the survival of the self. The inmate culture has as a dominant theme a sense of self-concern (why am I here.) and an abiding sense that time has been wasted ”inside.” The irony of this degradation process is that the inmate adapts in ways that are not useful in civil society.

The staff world contrasts with the inmate world. It assumes that ”people are material to work on” (p. 76): complex bundles of status, roles, feelings, selves and internalized drives are constructed as inanimate. The inmates are ”ends” as well as means and the movement between these objectifications creates social chaos. Since formal organizations always fail to reach their stated goals (p. 83), staff must rationalize their failures in what might be called institutional accounts based on a ”theory of human nature” (p. 87) that is nurtured in the organization. The two worlds, staff and inmate, are unified in division; that is ceremonies both recognize the two worlds and aim to blur them by finding compatible social space within which both can reside (p. 110).


  1. Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Patients and Other Inmates. Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, NY.
  2. Lemert, E. (1951) Social Pathology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

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