Sociology Index


Total institution is social institution which encompasses the individual, cutting them off from significant social interaction outside its bounds. A total institution is also a place where similarly situated people live together an enclosed kind of life, cut off from the mainstream. Dying in a total institution has become a common practice in the dehumanized world we live in. The most common total institution in the modern globalized world is the old-age home where aged parents are dumped without any mercy. Total institutions are frequently involved in the process of resocialization. In total institutions individuals are detached from their previous sense of identity and re-shaped to accept and absorb new values and behavior.

Examples of total institution include religious orders and monastries, prisons and army training camps. Total institutions subject their residents to harsh treatment and, quite often, abuse, although the nature of this abuse, and whether it occurs at all, obviously depends on which total institution we have in mind.

Nazis starved concentration camp inmates, tortured them, stripped them naked, conducted hideous experiments on them, and, of course, exterminated millions (Gigliotti & Lang, 2005). Whether we are talking about total institutions that are good or bad, they all share certain processes and procedures that make them total institutions.

Several types of total institutions exist: mental asylums, Nazi concentration camps, military boot camps, convents, and monasteries. Some scholars would also say that criminal prisons are total institutions, as they exhibit some of the same processes found in the other types. As this list implies, total institutions can be used for good or bad purposes, and so can resocialization.

Erving Goffman divided 'total institution' into five types:

Total institutions to care for people who are both harmless and incapable, like orphanages and nursing homes.

Total institutions to care for people incapable of looking after themselves, like mental hospitals and total institution established to protect the community, like sanitariums.

Total institutions created to protect the community against what are felt to be intentional dangers to it, like a penitentiary.

Total institutions justified for specific purpose, like boarding schools and army barracks.

Total institutions like convents and monasteries. 

Paul Michel Foucault discussed total institutions in the language of complete and austere institutions - Foucault, Michel, Discipline & punish. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. (1995). Erving Goffman can be credited with popularizing the term 'total institution' through "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions" presented in April 1957 at the Walter Reed Institute's Symposium on Preventive and Social Psychiatry.