Asylums (book)

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Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates
AuthorErving Goffman
CountryUnited States
SubjectTotal institutions
PublisherAnchor Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)

Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates is a 1961 collection of four essays by the sociologist Erving Goffman.


Based on his participant observation field work (he was employed as a physical therapist's assistant under a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health at a mental institution in Washington, D.C.), Goffman details his theory of the "total institution" (principally in the example he gives, as the title of the book indicates, mental institutions) and the process by which it takes efforts to maintain predictable and regular behavior on the part of both "guard" and "captor", suggesting that many of the features of such institutions serve the ritual function of ensuring that both classes of people know their function and social role, in other words of "institutionalising" them. Goffman concludes that adjusting the inmates to their role has at least as much importance as "curing" them. In the essay "Notes on the Tinkering Trades", Goffman concluded that the "medicalization" of mental illness and the various treatment modalities are offshoots of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution and that the so-called "medical model" for treating patients was a variation on the way trades- and craftsmen of the late 19th century repaired clocks and other mechanical objects: in the confines of a shop or store, contents and routine of which remained a mystery to the customer.

The book comprises four free-standing essays: On the Characteristics of Total Institutions, The Moral Career of the Mental Patient, The Underlife of a Public Institution and The Medical Model and Mental Hospitalization.

The writings of the sociological master Erving Goffman are aimed at the general public rather than just academia. His seminal work "Asylums," rich in humanistic care, not only contains profound insights and inspiring concepts but also concretely illustrates the power of "public sociology" — sparking a deinstitutionalization movement across the United States and persuading government bureaucrats to allow communities to embrace "mental patients" anew. "Asylums," published over fifty years ago, has transcended sociology and entered various other fields, remaining ever relevant. Surveying the era we live in, with various forms of total institutions proliferating, Goffman's insightful revelations will once again lead us to see through various obscured hidden worlds.

The book consists of four essays. The first chapter, "Characteristics of Total Institutions," provides a comprehensive examination of social life within institutions, heavily citing two examples — mental asylums and prisons. This chapter outlines the topics to be elaborated on in subsequent chapters and their place within the overall discussion. The second chapter, "The Moral Career of the Mentally Ill," examines the preliminary impacts of "institutionalization" on the social relationships of those who have not yet become inmates. The third chapter, "The Underlife of Public Institutions," focuses on what people expect from inmates in terms of attachment to an institution that is supposed to be a fortress, as well as how inmates maintain some distance from these expectations. The fourth chapter, "Medical Models and Mental Hospitalization," shifts the focus back to institutional staff, using mental hospitals as an example to examine the role of medical viewpoints in presenting the situation to the inmates. Cited sources[1]


Asylums brought Goffman immediate recognition when it was published in 1961, and by the 1970s had become required reading in some introductory sociology courses, according to socialist author Peter Sedgwick, who considered the book a "powerful and compelling study" and the recognition it brought to Goffman "thoroughly deserved".[2]


After experiencing the mental illness of person close to him first-hand (presumably his first wife who committed suicide in 1964) Goffman remarked this book would have been "very different" had he written it after the experience.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 厄文.高夫曼 (November 2012). 精神病院. Translated by 群學翻譯工作室 譯; 萬毓澤 校訂. 群學出版有限公司. ISBN 978-986-6525-62-9.
  2. ^ Sedgwick, Peter (1987). PsychoPolitics. Pluto Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-86104-352-9.
  3. ^ Mechanic, David (June 1989). "Medical Sociology: Some Tensions Among Theory, Method, and Substance". Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 30 (2): 148. doi:10.2307/2137009. JSTOR 2137009.