Total institutions

Goffman coined the term ‘total institutions’, to refer to a class of concentrated power. In many ways he anticipated the themes that were later to become popular in Foucault’s (1977) work – the power of incarceration, rules and surveillance – although instead of focusing on design he studied action, which undoubtedly gave greater acuity to his analyses: in Goffman we are dealing with what people actually do, not what the designers of their institutions would have them do. In this respect Foucault is as erroneous as Parsons, dwelling in the space of normative expecta- tions rather than enacted social actions.

Institutions are total when they surround the person at every turn and cannot be escaped; they produce and reproduce the normalcy of life inside the institution, however abnormal it might seem from outside (Deleuze 1992). Thus, total institu- tions are organizations that contain the totality of the lives of those who are their members. As such, people within them are cut off from any wider society for a relatively long time, leading an enclosed and formally administered existence. In such contexts, the organization has more or less monopoly control of its members’ everyday life. Sometimes, total institutions comprise practices and operating mechanisms which inscribe domination on a particular bio-political target, such as those classed as insane, criminal, Jewish, indigenous, fallen women, schoolchildren in elite boarding schools, orphans, sailors, etc. Goffman’s argument is that total institutions demonstrate in heightened and condensed form the underlying orga- nizational processes that can be found, albeit in much less extreme cases, in more normal organizations. He chose extremes because the everyday mechanisms of authority and power were much more evident there than in the world of the corporate ‘organization man’ (Whyte 1960).

If Goffman (1961) anticipated some aspects that Foucault (1977) was later to stress, the latter still missed a great deal. Total institutions are not just premised on surveillance, on the gaze, as Foucault suggests. While Foucault stresses that ‘the techniques of surveillance, the “physics” of power, the hold over the body, operate according to the laws of optics and mechanics, according to a whole play of spaces, lines, screens, beams, degrees, and without recourse, in principle, at least, to excess, force or violence’ and that it ‘is a power that seems all the less “corporeal” in that it is subtly “physical’’’ (1977: 177), he misses the characteristic aspect of the most sig- nificant total institutions of the twentieth century. Their means have been over- whelmingly violent, based upon confinement against the will of those subject to it, and abuse of the dignity and bodies of those confined. Foucault suggests that in the total institution there is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself. (1980: 155)

One must protest that this makes power far too ideational. With David Ackles (1969) we might ask ‘Do your absent bodies hear your souls’ lament?’ The soul may become the prison of the body, but the body can become, literally, the inmate of the institution, and once therein, free to be inscribed in the worst possible ways – as we shall see. Thus, although using a concept of total institution associated with Goffman (1961), and ideas of surveillance often associated with Foucault (1977), we shall take these concepts into a far more corporeal modernity than the latter entertained as a part of the modern condition. For Foucault, the corporeality of power belongs to pre-modern times, not the modern age.4 As has been suggested by Hacking (2004), there is a need to bridge between discourse in the abstract and face-to-face behavior, between Foucault and Goffman.

Total institutions are often parts of a broader apparatus, such as a prison or detention center, as a part of a criminal justice or immigration system. Total insti- tutions do not just include organizations that make people inmates against their will, however, or in which people can become institutionalized to an accommoda- tion. They can also include organizations founded on membership contracted on voluntary inclusion: for instance, a professional army, a boarding school, a resi- dential college, or a religious retreat, such as a monastery or nunnery. Several types of organization can be a total institution:

  • Places to put people that the state deems incapable of care for the self (these people, who vary historically and comparatively, have included the ‘feeble’, the ‘lunatic’, the ‘disabled’, the ‘indigent’ and the ‘old’).
  • Restrictive organizations that institutionalize people who pose a threat to others, such as people with communicable diseases of contagion who are legislatively contained in sanitaria for the duration of their disease.
  • Punitive organizations, such as prisons, gulags, concentration camps, reform schools, prisoner-of-war camps, or detention centers for asylum seekers.
  • Organizations dedicated to a specific work task, such as boarding schools, military barracks, and vessels at sea, or remote company towns.
  • Retreats from the world, such as monasteries, abbeys, convents, or growth and learning centers.

What these very different types of organizations have in common that make them total institutions are the following. Each member’s daily life is carried out in the immediate presence of a large number of others. The members are very visible; there is no place to hide from the surveillance of others. The members tend to be strictly regimented by formal rational planning of time. (Think of school bells for lesson endings and beginnings, factory whistles, timetables, schedules, and so on.) People are not free to choose how they spend their time; instead, it is strictly prescribed for them. Members lose a degree of autonomy because of an all-encompassing demand for conformity to the authoritative interpretation of rules.

If we accept Goffman’s analysis, it becomes evident that the essential core of organization is power. Organizations exert power over their members by making them do things that they would not otherwise do and take on identities that they would not otherwise have assumed. And, if people obey orders voluntarily then the power is sanctified as authority. Authority is experienced in the normalcy and legit- imacy of power, as what it is one will do and should do, in terms of legitimate, often superordinate, expectations. Under certain conditions these expectations can frame surprising outcomes.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *