What Is a Total Institution?

Definition, Types, and Examples

Alcatraz prison in San Francisco
Alcatraz prison is a classic example of a total institution. Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

A total institution is a closed social system in which life is organized by strict norms, rules, and schedules, and what happens within it is determined by a single authority whose will is carried out by staff who enforce the rules.

Total institutions are separated from wider society by distance, laws, and/or protections around their property and those who live within them are generally similar to each other in some way.

In general, they are designed to provide care to a population who is unable to care for themselves, and/or protect society from the potential harm that this population could do to its members. The most typical examples include prisons, military compounds, private boarding schools, and locked mental health facilities.

Participation within a total institution can be either voluntary or involuntary, but either way, once a person has joined one, they must follow the rules and go through a process of leaving behind their identity to adopt a new one given to them by the institution.

Sociologically speaking, total institutions serve the purpose of resocialization and/or rehabilitation.

Erving Goffman's Total Institution

Famed sociologist Erving Goffman is credited with popularizing the term "total institution" within the field of sociology.

While he may not have been the first to use the term, his paper, "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions," which he delivered at a convention in 1957, is considered the foundational academic text on the subject.

Goffman, however, is hardly the only social scientist to write about this concept. In fact, the work of Michel Foucault was acutely focused on total institutions, what happens within them, and how they affect individuals and the social world.

Goffman explained that while all institutions "have encompassing tendencies," total institutions differ in that they are far more encompassing than others.

One reason is that they are separated from the rest of society by physical attributes, including high walls, barbed wire fences, vast distances, locked doors, and even cliffs and water in some cases (such as Alcatraz prison.)

Other reasons include the fact that they are closed social systems that require both permission to enter and leave, and that they exist to resocialize people into changed or new identities and roles.

5 Types of Total Institutions

Goffman outlined five types of total institutions in his 1957 paper.

  1. Those that care for those who are unable to care for themselves but who pose no threat to society: "the blind, the aged, the orphaned, and the indigent." This type of total institution is primarily concerned with protecting the welfare of those who are its members. These include nursing homes for the elderly, orphanages or juvenile facilities, and the poor houses of the past and today's shelters for the homeless and battered women. 
  2. Those that provide care for individuals who pose a threat to society in some way. This type of total institution both safeguards the welfare of its members and protects the public from the harm they can potentially do. These include closed psychiatric facilities and facilities for those with communicable diseases. Goffman wrote at a time when institutions for lepers or those with tuberculosis were still in operation, but today a more likely version of this type would be a locked drug rehabilitation facility.
  3. Those that protect society from people who are perceived to pose a threat to it and its members, however that may be defined. This type of total institution is primarily concerned with protecting the public and secondarily concerned with resocializing/rehabilitating its members (in some cases.) Examples include prisons and jails, ICE detention centers, refugee camps, prisoner-of-war camps that exist during armed conflicts, the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, and the practice of Japanese internment in the United States during the same period.
  4. Those that are focused on education, training, or work, like private boarding schools and some private colleges, military compounds or bases, factory complexes and long-term construction projects where workers live on-site, ships and oil platforms, and mining camps, among others. This type of total institution is established on what Goffman referred to as "instrumental grounds," and are in a sense concerned with the care or welfare of those who participate, in that they are designed, at least in theory, to improve the lives of participants through training or employment.
  5. Goffman's fifth and final type of total institution identifies those that serve as retreats from wider society for spiritual or religious training or instruction. For Goffman, these included convents, abbeys, monasteries, and temples. In today's world, these forms still exist but one can also extend this type to include health and wellness centers that offer long-term retreats and voluntary, private drug or alcohol rehabilitation centers.

Common Characteristics

In addition to identifying five types of total institutions, Goffman also identified four common characteristics that help understand how total institutions function. He noted that some types will have all characteristics while others might have some or variations on them.

  1. Totalistic features. The central feature of total institutions is that they remove the barriers that typically separate key spheres of life including home, leisure, and work. Whereas these spheres and what happens within them would be separate in everyday life and involve different sets of people, within total institutions, they occur in one place with all the same participants. As such, daily life within total institutions is "tightly scheduled" and administered by a single authority from above through rules that are enforced by a small staff. Prescribed activities are designed to carry out the aims of the institution. Because people live, work, and engage in leisure activities together within total institutions, and because they do so in groups as scheduled by those in charge, the population is easy for a small staff to monitor and manage.
  2. The inmate world. When entering a total institution, whatever the type, a person goes through a "mortification process" that strips them of the individual and collective identities they had "on the outside" and gives them a new identity that makes them a part of the "inmate world" inside the institution. Often, this involves taking from them their clothing and personal possessions and replacing those items with standard issue items that are the property of the institution. In many cases, that new identity is a stigmatized one that lowers the person's status relative to the outside world and to those who enforce the rules of the institution. Once a person enters a total institution and begins this process, their autonomy is taken away from them and their communication with the outside world is limited or prohibited.
  3. Privilege system. Total institutions have strict rules for behavior that are imposed on those contained within them, but also, they have a privilege system that provides rewards and special privileges for good behavior. This system is designed to foster obedience to the authority of the institution and to discourage breaking the rules.
  4. Adaptation alignments. Within a total institution, there are a few ways people adapt to their new environment once they enter it. Some withdraw from the situation, turning inward and only paying attention to what is immediately happening to or around them. Rebellion is another course, which can provide morale to those who struggle to accept their situation, yet, Goffman points out that rebellion itself requires an awareness of the rules and a "commitment to the establishment." Colonization is a process wherein the person develops a preference for "life on the inside," while conversion is another mode of adaptation, in which the inmate seeks to fit in and be perfect in their behavior.
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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Is a Total Institution?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/total-institution-3026718. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). What Is a Total Institution? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/total-institution-3026718 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Is a Total Institution?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/total-institution-3026718 (accessed January 28, 2023).