Temporary Total Institutions | 1932


Thinking out loud about how all these things have institutionalisation in common: Asylums, Care Homes, Prisons, Yoga Retreats, Cruise Ships and the Workplace.

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Temporary Total Institutions

I recently re-picked up Erving Goffman’s 1961 essay collection: Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates.

The book is chock full of really interesting observations from his time as a physical therapist’s assistant at a mental institution in Washington, D.C in the late 1950s. One that has always stuck with me is the essay β€œNotes on the Tinkering Trades” about the nature of the “Medicalisation” of mental illness.

He posits that the so-called “medical model” for treating patients was a variation on the way trades- and craftsmen of the late 19th century repaired clocks and other mechanical objects: in the confines of a shop or store, out the back which meant the process remained a mystery to the customer. 

The main part of the book however is taken up by the notion of the β€˜Total Institution’.

Social Establishments are institutions in the everyday sense of the term. Places such as rooms, Suites of rooms, buildings in which the activity of a particular kind regularly goes on. 

Some establishments like Grand Central Station are open to anyone, others like the Laboratories of Los Alamos are felt to be somewhat snipey about who is let in. Shops and Post Offices have a few fixed members who provide a service to a continuous-flow members. Others like a home involve a less changing set of participants.

Erving Goffman – Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates.

Institutions as I understand it are both physical and psychic space. Made up of rules and social norms which shape the behaviour of the people working on an activity within them.

For example: Prisons make efforts to maintain predictable and regular behavior on the part of both “guard” and “prisoner” suggesting that many of the features of institutions serve the function of ensuring that both classes of people know their function and social role. Or other words “institutionalising” them.

The degree in which an institution is β€˜Total’ is very much on a spectrum. The encompassing or total character of an institution is measured by the barriers to social intercourse with the outside world. Impediments to departure are often built right into the physical structure of many institutions. Locked doors or high walls.

Total institutions are divided by Goffman into five different types

  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 work like 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. 

I think it’s important we reflect on the idea of total institutions as a classification. When 36.7% people aged 85 or over die in a care home in the UK. Or note that America has 655 people in jail per 100,000. Not all Total Institutions are labour camps or secure units as Foucault thought about them in Discipline and Punish however.

Whilst the wider cultural frameworks that supported members of the population to self select for a life inside a total institution like a monastery or a convent are diminishing they haven’t completely gone away.

With that out the way I’d like to introduce the idea of a Temporary Total Institution, as a counterpoint to the (thankfully) diminishing interest in the Temporary Autonomous Zone

Modern sociologists have pointed to cruise ships as having many of the characteristics of a total institution. Tourists may not be aware that they are being controlled, even constrained, but the environment has been designed to subtly manipulate the Behaviour of patrons. 

I would also add. Airports, Themeparks and Airplanes, Summer camps for those who grew up in Americana and also think about the working conditions of a foxconn factory with dormitories.

These examples differ from the traditional examples in that there influence is short term. But as β€˜totalness’ is on a sliding scale: I would also add Yoga retreats, meditation getaways etc. to this list.

All are places that one can voluntarily enter for a short period but have to surrender agency and become institutionalised in some sense. People fly halfway around the world to enter an ashram for example.

Whilst he was talking about mental institution Goffman concluded that adjusting inmates to their role has at least as much importance as “curing” them. Most ascetic or monastic traditions have rituals of welcome, so too do 5 star hotels that are locked down like a compound with high walls.

The idea of a Temporary Total Institution is one of the reasons I got involved in the unMonastery project way back in 2013 a social clinic for the future. unMonastery is a place-based social innovation aimed at addressing the interlinked needs of empty space, unemployment and depleting social services by embedding committed, skilled individuals within communities that could benefit from their presence.

If you their book of greater and lesser omissions produced after their first run in Matera in 2015 it quickly becomes clear that developing modes of institutionalisation was a key concern. Many of the people who have participated in unMonastery have come away with a fascination with the benedictine rule or as Kei Kreutler observed on twitter the other day:  

Projects, ideas, thought forms all have unique orbital velocity (the speed at which they stick in reality, when maintenance becomes minimal). 

Kei Kreutler – Twitter

It is the minimal maintenance of a project that I think speaks to the maturity of an institutionalisation process. The shared reality. 

I think it’s vital that we turn back to optimizing physical spaces, and reassess how people come together to get things done.
How do conferences adjust its participants beyond playing lipservive to welcome with a boring speech in its opening quote unquote ceremony. Or how do all the new horizontal worker owned cooperatives that are springing up ensure quick entry into β€˜work mode’ without the institutionalisation of hierarchy and having a boss?

My hunch is that we will need to reappraise our cultural squeamishness around technology of ritual.

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6 responses to “Temporary Total Institutions | 1932”

  1. […] week I wrote on Temporary Total Institutions, which lead to an exchange with Sam Hart – Dweb or de-centralised web researcher & […]

  2. […] For new listeners Back in Episode 19-32 I talked about Temporary Total Institutions […]

  3. […] We talked about institutions and asylums back in Episode 19-32 on Temporary Total Institutions.Β  […]

  4. […] DAOs are worlds, rigid code spaces made up of people and software. They are … total institutions. (See Episode 19-32). […]

  5. […] Organisations and institutions are techno-social systems or put simply, *worlds*. They have systematised and official processes of remembering and ways of working. And less official ways of understanding things like mission, values or strategy. In 2023 you can ask β€˜what’s your company’s lore?’ and a decent number of people will understand what you’re asking. But back in 2014? Not so much. It was quite hard to convince senior colleagues at Gartner to hear me out. […]

  6. […] related. Way back in Episode 19-32 I talked about Temporary Total Institutions. And concluded with brief proposal of developing better β€˜rituals of welcome’. 4 years later, […]

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