Examples of total institutions include prisons, boarding schools, work camps, re-education camps, monasteries, and nursing homes.
According to sociologist Erving Goffman (1961):
A total institution may be defined 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 (p. 31).
Goffman analyzes total institutions based on his research on asylums. According to Goffman, total institutions eliminate the boundaries that ordinarily separate work, home, and leisure.
A single authority manages all aspects of life through coercive methods. The people under the control of this authority are called inmates.
Total Institution Definition
A total institution is a type of organization. This type of organization restricts the residents (inmates) to a single site for a long time.
It detaches inmates from life outside and exercises coercive control (which is why Weber calls it a coercive organization). Through coercion and barriers, the total institution systematically seeks to change the identities of the inmates against their will.
In the total institution, a supervisory staff holds the power. The staff treats all individuals in the same way and keeps them in groups throughout daily activities.
There is a tight schedule of these activities according to a general plan (Goffman, 1961, pp. 38-39).
This is a structure that makes the inmates powerless and impairs their personhood or dehumanizes them.
Types of Social Institutions
Goffman distinguishes five sorts of total institutions, each with a distinct role.
There are total institutions:
- Care institutions: “To care for the disabled, incapable and harmless”
- Quarantine intitutions: “To contain those with infectious diseases”
- Prisons: “To protect the community from ‘dangerous’ people”
- Educational and productive: “To enable the collective pursuit of an educational or work task”
- Retreats: “To provide sanctuary for those who voluntarily retreated from society.” (Scott, 2011, p. 9)
Goffman primarily focuses on the first three types – care institutions, quarantine institutions, and prisons.
Total Institution Examples
A Quick Shortlist
- Nursing homes (care)
- Mental hospitals (care)
- Rehab centers (care)
- Orphanages (care)
- Quarantine facilities (quarantine)
- Prison or jail (prisons)
- Refugee applicant processing centers (prisons)
- Re-education camps (prisons)
- Juvenile detention (prisons)
- Boarding schools (education and productivity)
- Workplaces (education and productivity)
- Government labs (education and productivity)
- Universities (education and productivity)
- Religious and spiritual communities (retreats)
- Remote work camps (education and productivity)
- Boot camps (education and productivity)
- The military (education and productivity)
- Monasteries (retreats)
- Yoga retreats (retreats)
- Meditation retreats (retreats)
- Cults (retreats)
- Cruise ships (retreats)
1. Re-education camps
A re-education camp is a facility where people are isolated and detained without due process of law. People are subject to harsh conditions in such a facility.
There were examples of it during World War II (WWII). The German regume placed and terminated millions of minorities, communists, Roma people, homosexuals, and the crippled into camps.
Many never made it out.
Other nation have also done it, albeit in somewhat better conditions. The US forcibly relocated and detained over a hundred twenty thousand US citizens of Japanese ancestry in camps during WWII.
2. Boarding schools
In a typical day school, students leave home to attend school during the day for a certain amount of time and go back home.
Contrasting, students spend their day and night at boarding school, living and studying there. They go home only for their vacations. Boarding school provides education, meals, and accommodation to their students.
According to rules, these schools impose collective arrangements over students’ movements, dressing, dining, bathing, sleeping, and leisure activities.
Boarding schools exercise control over students’ bodies, from wearing uniforms to hairstyles, from walking and sitting straight to self-care and decency. Students have limited space of their own.
A prison is a building or collection of buildings where the justice system forces convicted criminals to live as a punishment.
The prison system, social structures, and criminal justice policy in regulation are related to one another. As of 2021, the US has the highest number of prisoners, followed by China and Brazil.
Despite the increasing number of prisons in the last decades in various countries, their effectiveness in crime reduction is meager.
Prisoners could be subject to inhumane living conditions. The correctional staff could be corrupt and abuse power.
4. Boot camps
Boot camps or military recruit training refer to the initial training provided to newcomers.
During the training, many restrictions apply in terms of mobility. Recruits live at the training site and cannot leave it, coming under the military staff’s command. The personnel controls all the daily routines of the recruits.
Recruits have to obey the rules of conduct, training, and order. They have to act as part of a team in all matters and wear uniforms.
They cannot have long hair or grow a beard. The hierarchical system punishes those recruits who deny following orders or question them.
Such training is physically and psychologically demanding.
According to Warouw (2008), a factory has features resembling a total institution.
People work collectively in factories for long hours, detached from the larger society to produce goods.
The production cycle has its particular time limits and thus demands a certain rhythm at work.
Under supervision, the workers work accordingly. The boss, the owner of the factory, is the authority imposing the rules, structures, and production targets.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) portrays the relationship between workers, the boss, and supervisors regarding production time and rhythm and the role of technology.
The movie also invites the viewers to compare the factory with the prison. “Foxconn City” can be a more recent example (Lucas, Kang, Li, 2013).
A total institution is a type of organization that restricts the residents (inmates) to a single site for a long time. It detaches inmates from life outside, and exercises coercive control.
Through coercion and barriers, the total institution systematically impairs the personhood of inmates. Individuals staying or kept in a total institution can lose their autonomy and identity.
Total institutions eliminate the boundaries that ordinarily separate work, home, and leisure. A supervisory staff holds the power. The staff treats all individuals in the same way and keeps them in groups throughout daily activities.
Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the condition of the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Anchor Books.
Lucas, K., Kang, D., & Li, Z. (2013). Workplace dignity in a total institution: Examining the experiences of Foxconn’s migrant workforce. Journal of Business Ethics, 114(1), 91-106.
Scott, S. (2011). Total institutions and reinvented identities. Cambridge: Palgrave Macmillan.
Warouw, J. N. (2008). Industrial workers in transition: women’s experiences of factory work in Tangerang. In M. Ford & L. Parker (Eds.), Women and work in Indonesia (pp. 104-119). Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]