Erving Goffman. Concept of total institutions

Term Paper, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The concept of total institutions
2.1 Goffman: On the characteristics of total institutions
2.2 Assessment of the concept

3. Concluding remark

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In view of the current disclosure of torture in war prisons in Iraq, but also through the disclosure of ill-treatment in the Brandenburg an der Havel detention centre, it becomes clear what explosiveness the concept is. total institutions even more than forty years after its release by Goffman still has.

In his work, first published in 1961 Asyle Erving Goffman (1922-1982) summarizes in four essays his several years of sociological studies on the inmates of psychiatric hospitals. From 1954 to 1957, Goffman taught as a guest lecturer at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. During this time, he spent over a year doing field studies at St. Elizabeth's Hospital (Washington D.C.), which at the time comprised approximately 7,000 inmates. Goffman's own experiences in dealing directly with the inmates of St. Elizabeth's Hospital were included in the book, as well as countless descriptions by other well-known and lesser-known authors (e.B. George Orwell, Herman Melville), who spent several years of their lives in prison, in the convent, in boarding school, in the orphanage, in the military or in similar institutions.

A first contact with the term total institution Goffman had in 1952 in a graduate seminar on institutions. The term coined by Everett Hughes must have fascinated Goffman from the very first moment. Burns writes:

"It is clear from Goffman's course notes (he gave me a copy of them) that is must have been a remarkable teaching enterprise – enlivened with allusions, encyclopedic in ist coverage, and radically critical and innovative in ist approach." (Burns, 1992, p. 142).

However, while Goffman used the term social institution thought in a way deviant from Hughes, he adopted the name total institution in the sense of Hughes. For Hughes, these were "social institutions which were much more shut off from the outside world" (Burns, 1992, p. 142) – as an example he cites nunneries – Goffman refers his observations accordingly to "the situation of those 'extruded' from society" (Burns, 1992, p. 142).

This work will now initially be about Goffmans Concept of total institutions and to address the points of view of the occupants, the staff and the points of contact between the two groups. Subsequently, the concept will be examined and evaluated with regard to its application and possibilities will be found to further differentiate the concept. But first, the concept is presented using Goffman's definition.

2. The concept of total institutions

2.1 Goffman: On the characteristics of total institutions

As already stated, Goffman's work includes Asyle four essays that take the topic from different angles total institutions treat. Explaining the Concept of total institutions should be here in the first line the first essay About the characteristics of total institutions because, as Goffman writes, he is "a general study of social life in total institutions" (p. 11)1 and "the topics dealt with in detail in the other essays are outlined and discussed in the context of the larger context" (p. 12).

First, the following is Goffman's definition. total institutions to present.

2.1.1 definition

Right at the beginning of his introduction, Goffman puts his definition by beginning:

"A total institution can be considered the home and workplace of a multitude define similarly placed individuals that are for a longer period of time from the rest Society are cut off and with each other a closed, formal to lead a regimented life." (p. 11).

He distinguishes five different groups of total institutions. First of all, those who serve as dependent and harmless people for the care of people, such as homes for the blind or old people." In addition, care institutions for people who are believed to be incapable of caring for themselves and pose an unintended threat to society. These include tuberculosis sanatoriums or insane asylums. He subdivides prisons, prisoner of war and concentration camps into the group of total institutions which serve to protect the Community from danger. The well-being of persons separated in this way is at most an indirect end. Another group is formed by institutions for the purpose of improving the performance of certain tasks, such as barracks, ships, boarding schools, labour camps, large manor houses, etc. And finally, he mentions mostly religious institutions that serve as a refuge from the world, such as monasteries or abbeys. (Cf. Goffman, 1973, p. 16). Although Goffman confesses that not all total institutions are equally all-encompassing (cf. p. 15), but by making use of the method of ideal types (cf. p. 17, and Burns, 1992, p. 144), he determines as a central feature of all total institutions that the separation of sleeping place, workplace and leisure time, which is fundamental for modern society, is abolished.

"1. All matters of life shall take place in one and the same place under one and same authority instead. 2. The members of the Institution shall lead all phases of their daily work in the immediate company of a large group of Comrades of fate, whereby all are given the same treatment and all the must carry out the same activity together. 3. All phases of the working day are exactly planned, one passes into the next at a pre-determined time, and the whole sequence of activity is carried out from above by a system of explicit formal Rules and prescribed by a staff of officials. 4. The various forced activities are united in a single plan, the supposedly serves to achieve the official goals of the institution." (p. 17).

According to Goffman, these four characteristics inevitably arise wherever a large number of people are to be kept under control by few personnel. in total institutions there is thus a fundamental separation into two sociological groups - inmates and staff. While the inmates live in the facility and have limited contact with the outside world, the staff who can leave the institution after an eight-hour day is also integrated into the world outside. (Cf. p. 18). "[...] they belong, in fact, to different worlds." (Burns, 1992, p. 147). Withholding information about the staff's plans for the inmates further increases the distance between the two groups and gives the staff an important instrument of power and control. (See p. 20)

The labour factor also comes into total institutions special importance too. Since the entire daily routine is already pre-structured, the work incentive 'wage', which determines the fundamental work-wage structure of Western society, is eliminated. The employee is no longer free to use his income according to his needs and wishes. Similar to the work ethic, the family system, as another core element of our society, is at odds with total institutions, since these prevent any domestic existence through the pre-structuring of all areas of life.

This has now provided a definition and the most important characteristics have been named. The following will deal with how the inmates experience such facilities.

2.1.2 The occupants

All inmates have in common that they enter the institution with an identity shaped by their previous bourgeois environment.2 The individual has thus built up an identity that presents itself in a multitude of different roles, which are largely independent of each other. With admission to a total institution this previous role planning is interrupted.

"Scheduling roles in this way is now out of the question for mental patients3 the world of the mental hospital too small, their round of daily activities too routine and too uniform. The skills needed for switching roles in the circumstances of ordinary social life degenerate, and patients may come eventually to lose possession, so to speak, of some of the roles they once habitually filled." (Burns, 1992, p. 149f).

In addition, an active role design would prevent the optimal functioning of the institution. (Cf. p. 24ff, and Miebach, 1991, p. 81f). Therefore, in addition to direct attacks on the self – Goffman describes here the most diverse types of disfigurement and contamination (cf. pp. 27-42) – there is also the systematic suppression of all occurring forms of role distance. What of it as loop serves to destroy the formal relationship between the acting individual and his actions. While the individual in bourgeois society can maintain his inner distance even in activities that contradict his self-image by making use of a variety of expressive possibilities, these protective reactions such as omissions of awe, irony or ridicule are replaced by the loop targeted punishment.


1 The following are the references, unless otherwise referred to on Goffman: Asyle (1973) cover.

2 Goffman refers to the special cases of orphanages or foundling homes. The inmates of these institutions never had the Possibility to find one's way in the frame of reference of a civil environment. (See p. 24)

3 What Burns explains here by means of the mentally ill, Goffman refers to all inmates of total institutions.

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Erving Goffman. Concept of total institutions
University of Regensburg
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Verena Stockmair (Author), 2004, Erving Goffman. Concept of total institutions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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