Publication Date

April 2015


Karl Scheibe


College of Letters


English (United States)


In 1961, the sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term, “total institutions,” referring to spaces that are “defined by a spatial separation from the external world,” as denoted by physical markers such as ‘locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs, water, forest, or moors’ (Goffman, 1961, p.4). He suggested that these barriers were created or utilized by greater society to keep the external world safe from the threat, “dangers and nuisance(s)” of deviant conduct by nonconforming individuals (Goffman, 1961, p.352). This essay will focus on two specific total institutions—the prison and the asylum, and I will attempt to investigate the idea of “deviance.” I outline the manner in which definitions of abnormality have shifted throughout time, and I investigate transformations in the manner of confinement under changing historical models. Ultimately, I argue that a fundamental tension has persisted across time in total institutions between their purported aim—to reform or redeem individuals, and the manner in which they function both theoretically and operationally. This tension lies in the manner in which total institutions degrade individuals through language as well as action.



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