Organizations as Total Institutions

The analysis of the characteristics of total institutions is the subject of a lengthy essay by Erving Goffman, a Canadian-born sociologist best known for his complex and subtle contributions to the analysis of social interaction. He defined the term as ”a place of residence and work where a large number of like situated individuals cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time together lead an enclosed formally administered round of life” (Goffman 1961: xiii). Shorter versions of his argument were first published in 1957. It was, however, through the longer paper’s appearance as the lead essay in his second book, Asylums (1961: 1-124), that the concept became best known.

The term itself had actually been coined by his graduate school teacher, the Chicago based sociologist Everett Hughes. Hughes had cited nunneries as an example, but Goffman’s development of the idea was based upon his three year study of psychiatric inmates, including a year long period of participant observation in a large mental hospital in Washington, DC. Goff man was, however, at pains to emphasize that he understood the concept to have an altogether wider relevance and applicability. Thus in his analysis, examples of total institutions include not only mental hospitals but also prisons, boarding schools, monasteries and convents, ships, army barracks, and isolated work camps. He further argued that all such enterprises are distinguished by the extent to which they share a distinctive cluster of structural characteristics and internal social processes. For as he points out, most members of modern societies tend to sleep, play, and work in different places, with different co participants, under different authorities and without being subject to some overall design. What distinguishes total institutions, however, is that the barriers between these aspects of life are broken down. Not only are all aspects of life conducted in the same place and subject to the same single authority, those activities are also subject to “batching,” that is, they are undertaken alongside others who are treated alike and expected to do the same things together. Moreover, each day’s activities are imperatively and tightly scheduled in accordance with a system of rules and the demands of a body of officials. This wide ranging system for the coordination of daily activities is purportedly in accordance with a single rational plan through which the official aim of the institution may be fulfilled (Goffman 1961: 5-6).

Some commentators have suggested that Goffman’s use of the word institution is somewhat misleading, in that the term ”social institutions” has a particular cluster of meanings within the sociological literature. It expresses a recognition of the continuity and endurance of social life as it is formed and reformed in and through such phenomena as the law and the family. ”Total organization” has therefore been proposed as an altogether more accurate and appropriate category. Against this, Goffman’s choice of terminology reflects his conception of a total institution as a ”social hybrid, part residential community, part formal organization.” What is insinuated by his employment of the term ”institution” is that the associated social processes are understood as something more than the impersonal workings of bureaucratic procedures or market forces. For they involve the allocation of identities as well as the distribution of duties and the provision of rewards. Hence what is also conveyed is a diffuse sense of the cultural ”embeddedness” of organizational practices. This is a theme that is echoed in the otherwise different approach to organizational analysis of scholars such as Philip Selznick and subsequently Mark Granovetter – influential practitioners of what Charles Perrow (1972) has identified as the ”institutional school” of organizational sociology.

Implications for Inmates and Staff

What Goffman goes on to explore are the effects of the characteristics of total institutions upon the constituting of selfhood, more specifically the selfhood of mental patients. From the point at which they enter into total institutions, inmates’ prior conceptions of their selves are subject to a process of mortification. This occurs directly by way of the institution’s degrading admission procedures, and indirectly through the curtailment of the repertoire of roles and opportunities for interaction that are matter-of-factly available to persons in the world outside. In the institution’s engagement with the resultant diminished self, its staff strive to establish an alternate, all embracing notion of inmate identity, one that is consonant with institutional expectations and which is based upon its control of what were hitherto taken for granted privileges. The objective is to go beyond eliciting an outward behavioral conformity; the intention is to induce the inmate’s active acceptance and internalizing of the institution’s conception of what it is to be a ”proper” person.

Goffman further suggests that there are clear affinities between the reactions and responses of mental patients and those that are typical of the inmates in other types of total institutions. Faced with a restricted range of opportunities for interaction, inmates seek to preserve and protect a sense of self through various strategies of adaptation and adjustment. These latter include fantasizing and intransigence that, in context, are both meaningful and reasonable. But in what Robert Merton and others might well identify as a self fulfilling prophecy, such strategies are typically interpreted as warranting the very control procedures that have served to elicit these kinds of responses. For inmates generally, the modal procedure for ensuring the preservation of the self may thus be one of ”playing it cool,” i.e., being suitably compliant in the presence of staff but supportive of countermores with their peers. What such patterns of interaction suggest with respect to mental patients is thus that it is organizational processes rather than illness which are responsible for the formation of a particular concept of patient identity. As Goffman sardonically notes at one point, ”the staff problem here is to find a crime that will fit the punishment” (1961: 85).

As this observation implies, the staff of total institutions face dilemmas of their own. These are a consequence of (1) the difficulties that derive from a conception of people as material to be processed, and (2) the contradiction between what the institution does (functions as a ”storage dump for inmates”) and what staff are expected to say it does (”reforms inmates in accordance with some ideal standard”). A subsequent sociology of organizations literature would identify this latter contrast as having a wider applicability. Thus for Meyer and Rowan (1977: 340), the formal structures of many organizations are understood to be ceremonial and to ”reflect the myths of their institutional environments instead of the demands of their work activities.” As a result, such organizations build gaps between the acceptable public face that is enshrined in their formal structures – upon which they depend for funds and legitimation – and those practices through which their real work gets done. The decoupling of these activities and management of the consequent gaps is thus a responsibility of, and dilemma for, the staff of such organizations.

Goffman may have been sardonic about psychiatry, but he was not hostile to its practitioners. This is indicated by his acknowledgment of the intellectual openness and support of psychiatric staff members, and the receptivity that they accorded to his study. Rather, what was distinctive about Goffman’s argument was that, in the absence of physical indicators of illness, he saw psychiatrists as adept at generating sociological observations. What they produced were data about rule following and rule breaking rather than diagnoses with a material grounding. But as a result of its explicit foregrounding of the social world of the mental patient, Goffman’s study was interpreted as congruent with the emerging anti psychiatry movement associated with the work of Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, and others. His work thus came to be seen as part of a more general critique of the institutionalization of the mentally ill that developed during the 1960s. The associated shift in treatment strategies, with its emphasis on returning inmates to the wider community, linked conservative(s’) concerns with costs to radical(s’) arguments about personal freedom.

Cultural Context and Critical Response

The study’s impact was by no means limited to this milieu, however, or to analyses of the mental hospital. Following the initial presentation of his ideas to an audience of psychiatric professionals, the longer version of Goffman’s essay had first featured as a contribution to Donald Cressey’s (1961) influential volume of papers on the prison. Beyond this, the concept was perceived to be of more general relevance to the sociology of organizations. This is evident from its incorporation in most of the best known collections of readings and its citation in the standard textbooks of the subdiscipline. For example, in 1965 it was referred to in several of the independently authored chapters of the Handbook of Organizations edited by James March. This substantial volume is generally regarded as an authoritative summary statement of the state of play within the field at that time. What total institutions were seen to represent was a categorization of establishments that offered an analytic advance over ”common sense” classifications. Moreover, this was combined with an emphasis upon (inter)actions and meanings rather than what was – at that time -the more conventional focus upon organizational structures. This emphasis facilitated what has come to be recognized as a characteristic oscillation in Goffman’s writing – that between the manifest elaboration and nuanced interpretation of subtle differences and the tacit affirmation of an underlying pattern. For what Goffman’s study sought to signal is that it was not just total institutions but organizations generally that should be viewed as places for generating assumptions about identity.

The specific social and cultural context in which the total institution concept was developed was that of the US during the 1950s. With hindsight, it can be seen to bear the trace of the Cold War concerns of that time. Thus it is possible to discern both (1) the period’s political preoccupation with totalitarianism as a theme and (2) concurrent anxieties about conformity at home, as they were expressed by American cultural commentators and critics such as William Whyte, David Reisman, and C. Wright Mills. Totalitarianism was a notion that both linked together Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (and, prospectively, Communist China) and clearly contrasted with the pluralism that was understood to be a – if not the – defining attribute of American society and politics. Yet what the total institution concept explicitly pointed out was the presence within plural societies of a distinctive category of social establishments in which the preconditions for plural ism were purposely not met. Goffman’s account thus served both to (1) identify affinities between the internal social processes of such local establishments and those of totalitarian regimes and (2) mirror contemporary critical concerns about conformity.

Goffman’s elaboration and qualification of the concept is often witty. It also involves something more than a conventional compromise between conceptual clarity and empirical adequacy; between an elegant idea and its altogether more disorderly social expression. It is presented as if empirical but is in part speculative; presented as comparative but with an emphasis on the mental hospital. Goffman is both prolific in his use of footnotes and eclectic with respect to his sources, drawing upon not just academic journals and monographs but also personal memoirs, anecdotes, novels, and popular magazines as well as his own astute observations. The examples he invokes are therefore better understood as designed to illustrate a concept or to elucidate a process rather than to prove an argument. This characteristic mode of presentation has engaged many commentators and enraged some of them. Its import is both textual/aesthetic and methodological. For example, Patricia Clough (1990: 189) offers what is presently the best account of Goffman’s distinctive literary style, locating its ambivalent appeal in the way that it ”seduces the reader less into the forward movement of a text and more into submission to a detailed behavioral protocol.”

Methodological Issues and Conceptual Developments

The concept has also prompted a related debate over methodology. First of all, the study had benefited from Goffman having taken up a yearlong position as the assistant sports coach in a large mental hospital. This location both placed him outside the main line of authority and allowed him substantial freedom of movement. But the subsequent account does not read like a conventional ethnography, in that the reader is not provided with background material on the research site nor even any quotations from informants. It is instead what Philip Manning (1992: 9) refers to as the ethnography of a concept rather than the ethnography of a place. Second, Goffman acknowledges that the characteristics of total institutions are neither peculiar to total institutions nor shared by every one of them. Rather, they are present to an intense degree, and in later published versions of his analysis he (somewhat misleadingly) invokes the notion of ideal types as a methodological war rant for his emphasis on the similarities between total institutions. Subsequent studies have, by contrast, sought to identify and to explain the differences between them in accordance with a more obviously comparative intent.

Thus Lewis Coser (1974), in noting that that there are overlaps between ”total” and his own notion of ”greedy” institutions, nonetheless insists on the distinctiveness of the latter. Examples of greedy institutions include traditional domestic servitude, the Bolsheviks, and the Catholic priesthood, and the total loyalty and commitment which they seek from their membership. Although they may in some instances make use of the physical isolation characteristic of total institutions, they are actually defined by, and are concerned to construct, symbolic barriers between insiders and outsiders. They also tend to rely upon voluntary compliance rather than enforced coercion -itself one of the salient distinctions within total institutions that is blurred by Goffman’s analysis. And in an independently conceived but somewhat similar initiative, Amitai Etzioni (1975: 264—76) put forward the notions of scope and pervasiveness, understood as discrete variables rather than as principles of organizing. Organizations whose participants share many activities are identified as broad in scope, whereas narrow organizations are those which share few. Pervasiveness refers to the normative boundaries of a collectivity whereas scope refers to its action boundaries. That these do not necessarily coincide leads Etzioni to suggest a systematic distinction between two kinds of ”total organizations”; both are, by definition, high in scope but one (e.g., the prison) is low and the other (e.g., the nunnery) high in pervasiveness. It is suggested that this distinction is linked, in turn, to other kinds of differences.

Nevertheless, almost 50 years after it was first introduced, what has come to seem most contemporary about the concept of the total institution is what it has to say about the general relationship between any organization and the process of identity formation. “Contemporary” because of the influence of Michel Foucault’s writings upon current versions of the sociology of organization and the processes of subject formation. If Goffman’s essay is filtered and read through such a framework, then – the differences in their respective idioms notwithstanding – what emerges are some striking parallels. There are clear affinities between total institutions and Foucault’s notion of carceral organizations, and between their respective conceptions – Goffman’s ethnographic, Foucault’s historical – of what Foucault meant by disciplinary practices and normalizing power. Thus when Goffman observes that ”Built right into the social arrangements of an organization, then, is a thoroughly embracing conception of the member – and not merely a conception of him qua member, but behind this a conception of him as a human being” (1961: 180), what he indicates is that he sees total institutions as the limit cases of a general tendency.


  1. Burns, T. (1992) Erving Goffman. Routledge, London.
  2. Clough, P. (1990) Reading Goffman: Toward the Deconstruction of Sociology. In: Riggins, S. (Ed.),Beyond Goffman: Studies on Communication, Institution, and Social Interaction. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, pp. 187-202.
  3. Coser, L. (1974) Greedy Institutions. Free Press, New York.
  4. Cressey, D. (Ed.) (1961) The Prison. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, New York.
  5. Etzioni, A. (1975) A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, and enlarged edn. Free Press, New York.
  6. Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Doubleday Anchor, New York.
  7. Manning, P. (1992) Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  8. March, J. (Ed.) (1965) Handbook of Organizations. Rand McNally, Chicago.
  9. Meyer, J. W. & Rowan, B. (1977) Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Cere­mony. American Journal of Sociology 83: 340-63.
  10. Perrow, C. (1972) Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay. Scott, Foresman, Glenview, IL.
  11. Perry, N. (1974) The Two Cultures and the Total Institution. British Journal of Sociology 25: 345-55.

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