Total institution

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A total institution is 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, formerly administered round of life.[1]:44[2]:855[3] The concept is mostly associated with the work of sociologist Erving Goffman.[4]


The term is sometimes credited as having been coined and defined by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman in his paper "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions", presented in April 1957 at the Walter Reed Institute's Symposium on Preventive and Social Psychiatry.[4]:1 An expanded version appeared in Donald Cressey's collection, The Prison,[5] and was reprinted in Goffman's 1961 collection, Asylums.[1][3][4]:1 Fine and Manning, however, note that Goffman heard the term in lectures by Everett Hughes (likely during the late-1940s seminar, "Work and Occupations").[6] Regardless of whether Goffman coined the term, he can be credited with popularizing it.[7]


Total institutions are divided by Goffman into five different types:[3][8]

  1. institutions established to care for people felt to be both harmless and incapable: orphanages, poor houses and nursing homes.
  2. places established to care for people felt to be incapable of looking after themselves and a threat to the community, albeit an unintended one: leprosariums, mental hospitals, and tuberculosis sanitariums.
  3. institutions organised to protect the community against what are felt to be intentional dangers to it, with the welfare of the people thus sequestered not the immediate issue: concentration camps, P.O.W. camps, penitentiaries, and jails.
  4. institutions purportedly established to better pursue some worklike tasks and justifying themselves only on these instrumental grounds: colonial compounds, work camps, boarding schools, ships, army barracks, and large mansions from the point of view of those who live in the servants' quarters.
  5. establishments designed as retreats from the world even while often serving also as training stations for the religious; examples are convents, abbeys, monasteries, and other cloisters.

David Rothman states that "historians have confirmed the validity of Goffman's concept of 'total institutions' which minimizes the differences in formal mission to establish a unity of design and structure."[9]:xxix[10]:101

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault discussed total institutions in the language of complete and austere institutions.[11]:231

Nursing homes[edit]

According to S. Lammers and A. Verhey, some 80 percent of Americans will ultimately die not in their home, but in a total institution.[2]:853


Sociologists have pointed out that tourist venues such as cruise ships are acquiring many of the characteristics of total institutions. Tourists may not be aware that they are being controlled, even constrained, but the environment has been designed to subtly manipulate the behavior of patrons. These examples differ from the traditional examples in that the influence is short term.[13][14]:106


John Paul Wright, professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, has characterized many modern American universities as total institutions:

Billion dollar institutions now police students' Halloween costumes, their private text messages, their social media posts, and even their external voluntary associations. Faculty and staff, too, are finding their words—written, spoken, and even sung—subject to formal, and more often secret, investigation. Almost every aspect of life on many campuses is now subject to unprecedented surveillance and potential sanction.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Frank, Jacquelyn (2002). The paradox of aging in place in assisted living. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 44. ISBN 0-89789-678-5.
  2. ^ a b c d Lammers, Stephen; Verhey, Allen (1998). On moral medicine: theological perspectives in medical ethics. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 855. ISBN 0-8028-4249-6.
  3. ^ a b c "Extracts from Erving Goffman". A Middlesex University resource. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
  4. ^ a b c Goffman, Erving (1961). Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Anchor Books.
  5. ^ Donald R. Cressey, ed. (1961). The Prison: Studies in Institutional Organization and Change. New York: Holt.
  6. ^ Fine, Gary Alan; Smith, Gregory W. H. (2000). Erving Goffman. Vol. 1–4. SAGE. p. 36. ISBN 0-7619-6863-6.
  7. ^ Michael Tonry (29 September 2011). The Oxford Handbook of Crime and Criminal Justice. Oxford University Press. p. 884. ISBN 978-0-19-539508-2. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
  8. ^ Goldstein, Martin; Goldstein, Inge (1984). The experience of science: an interdisciplinary approach. Springer. p. 231. ISBN 0-306-41538-0.
  9. ^ Rothman, David (2002). The discovery of the asylum: social order and disorder in the new republic Check |url= value (help). Transaction Publishers. pp. xxix. ISBN 0-202-30715-8.
  10. ^ Chriss, James (1999). Counseling and the therapeutic state. Transaction Publishers. p. 101. ISBN 0-202-30624-0.
  11. ^ Foucault, Michel (1995). Discipline & punish. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 231. ISBN 0-679-75255-2.
  12. ^ Bryant, Clifton (2003). Handbook of Death and Dying. SAGE. p. 495. ISBN 0-7619-2514-7.
  13. ^ George Ritzer and Allan Liska, "'McDisneyization' and 'Post-tourism:' Complementary Perspectives on Contemporary Tourism," Tourism: The Experience of Tourism, ed. Stephen Williams, vol. 4, New Directions and Alternative Tourism (London: Routledge, 2004), 65-82.
  14. ^ Rojek, Chris; Urry, John (1997). Touring cultures: transformations of travel and theory. Routledge Publishing. p. 106. ISBN 0-415-11125-0.
  15. ^ John Paul Wright (2017). The University as a Total Institution,, 02 Jan 2017, accessed 14 June 2017

Further reading[edit]