Total Institution Essay

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Erving Goffman defined total institutions in 1961 as places of residence and work where individuals lead together an enclosed, formally administered life cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time. Total institutions are a departure from basic modern social arrangements where members sleep, play, and work in different places and with different people, under different authorities and without a unified rational plan. Unlike traditional social institutions, total institutions are distinct in four ways: (1) all aspects of life are conducted under the control and regulation of a single authority; (2) individuals are in the company of similarly situated people; (3) individuals are under a rigid schedule; and (4) all activities are designed to satisfy the goals of the institution. Prisons and mental hospitals are the most frequently explored examples of total institutions, but the concept may also apply to military bases, boarding schools, religious institutions, and concentration camps.

Goffman’s concept of the total institution represented the evolution of his early work on the construction of identity and concept of self as a product of social interaction, shaped by the roles and relationships accorded an individual by the social order. His consideration of the concept of total institutions represented an extension of this early work, in that he went on to study the constraining aspects of this construction. He examined the effects of institutionalization on an individual’s construction of social, personal, and ego identities, such that it becomes difficult for individuals to forge definitions of self distinct from the definitions imposed on them by the structure, authority, and goals of the institution itself.

Goffman’s interest in the total institution reflects his interest in how institutions place enormous constraints on identity construction such that they strip an individual from any existing conceptions and impose a new self that is reflective of the institution. He refers to the stripping of identity as the mortification of self or “civil death” and suggests that it occurs through several stages. Individuals come to total institutions with a concept of self previously established through interaction with the social world. Upon entrance into the institution, the recruit is stripped of any social support and is subject to what Goffman called the “abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self.” Locked doors, high walls, and barbed wire provide physical and symbolic barriers to the outside world and isolate the inmate from the social interaction and support that previously allowed for the construction and maintenance of one’s identity. Further stripping identity are admission procedures and “programming” designed to shape an inmate into an object assimilated into the routine operations of the institution. The loss of personal clothes, control over one’s own appearance, and any trappings associated with the inmates’ “identity kits” further accomplishes what Goffman refers to as “role dispossession.”

Inmates must also share space and interact with others in a way that further abases and challenges the preexisting self-concept. Here Goffman speaks of contaminative exposure: in the social world, individuals have control over the physical space, circumstances, and social relationships that expose them to foreign and contaminating things. In a total institution, however, inmates lose control over any boundaries between themselves and such contamination; they must participate in indignities incompatible with their conception of self.

Once inmates are stripped of their former identity, the total institution attempts to rebuild a new identity by bestowing privilege, or access to desirable good and assets. These items, such as coffee, cigarettes, and control over television program selection, may be of little value outside the total institution. Goffman advises that the privilege system does as much to maintain role dispossession as it does to build the new self-concept.

Critics attack Goffman’s concept of the total institution on a number of counts. Most prominently, they characterize his conceptualization of the total institution as vague, which led to loose application of the term, both in his own work and in that of others. Recent literature from sociology, criminology, and penology shows a less structured conceptualization of the total institution frequently used as shorthand to characterize an oppressive environment that, to varying degrees, isolates its inhabitants from the social world. Many current applications emphasize individuals’ responses to life in a total institution—the development of an “underlife” and coping mechanisms for retaining self-concept—rather than focusing on the concept of total institution itself.


  1. Davies, Christie. 1989. “Goffman’s Concept of the Total Institution: Criticisms and Revisions.” Human Studies 12:77-95.
  2. Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  3. Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Kaminksi, Merek. 2003. “Games Prisoners Play: Allocation of Social Roles in a Total Institution.” Rationality and Society 15(2):189-218.
  5. Malacrida, Claudia. 2005. “Discipline and Dehumanization in a Total Institution: Institutional Survivors’ Descriptions of Time-Out Rooms.” Disability and Society 20(5):523-37.
  6. Manning, Philip. 1992. Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  7. Paterniti, Debora. 2000. “The Micropolitics of Identity in Adverse Circumstance: A Study of Identity Making in a Total Institution.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 29(1):93-119.

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