by TheEditor

Categories: Investigative, Rights

Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates,” written by sociologist Erving Goffman and published in 1961, is a seminal work in the field of sociology and particularly in the study of social institutions and mental health care. The book offers a profound analysis of life in “total institutions,” particularly focusing on psychiatric hospitals. The work has had a significant impact on the field of psychiatry and the broader understanding of institutional settings such as extended stay rehabilitation facilities, prisons, and Special Hospitals.

Relevance to Modern Psychiatry:

In contemporary psychiatry, Goffman’s insights continue to inform discussions around patient autonomy, the stigma of mental illness, and the design of mental health care systems that prioritise patient dignity and social integration.

“Asylums” by Erving Goffman provides critical insights into the nature of life within psychiatric institutions, underlining the importance of dignity, autonomy, and the societal perception of mental illness. Its contributions are integral to the fields of sociology, psychiatry, and the ongoing dialogue about mental health care reform.

Historical context and production:

  1. Era of Publication (1961): The book was published during a time when psychiatric institutions were under less scrutiny, and the deinstitutionalisation movement had just begun to gain momentum in the Western world. The traditional approach to mental health treatment was still dominant, often characterised by long-term institutionalisation.
  2. Research Methodology: Goffman’s insights were based on his fieldwork at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he worked incognito as an assistant to the athletic director. This provided him with a unique vantage point to observe the daily life and interactions within the institution.
  3. Influences: Goffman’s work was influenced by the broader context of the emerging field of symbolic interactionism in sociology. This perspective emphasises the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviours, and how these meanings are refined through interaction.

Key Learnings from “Asylums”:

  1. Concept of Total Institutions: Goffman introduced the concept of “total institutions” as places where individuals are cut off from wider society and lead an enclosed, formally administered life. Examples include psychiatric hospitals, prisons, monasteries, and military barracks.
  2. Inmate World and Staff World: He described the sharp divide between the world of the staff and the inmates, highlighting how institutional life strips individuals of their identity and imposes a new one based on the institution’s needs.
  3. Mortification of the Self: Goffman discussed the process of “mortification of the self,” where an individual’s identity is systematically stripped away and reconstructed in line with the institution’s requirements, often leading to a deterioration of the individual’s sense of self.
  4. Secondary Adjustments: He also explored the ways in which individuals in these institutions make “secondary adjustments” — small acts of rebellion or nonconformity as a means to retain some sense of self and autonomy.
  5. Influence on Deinstitutionalisation: Goffman’s work contributed significantly to the deinstitutionalisation movement, highlighting the dehumanising effects of institutional settings and advocating for more community-based care models.
  6. Critique and Legacy: While Goffman’s work was groundbreaking, it also attracted critique for its generalisations and lack of empirical data. Nevertheless, it remains a cornerstone in sociological and psychiatric literature, profoundly influencing how mental health institutions and care are perceived and reformed.

Goffman’s Core features of Institutional Life

Batch LivingInmates live and act as a large batch or group, with activities conducted en masse.Strips away personal autonomy and individuality, as everyone is treated uniformly.
Barrier to Social IntegrationInstitutions create a physical and social segregation from the wider society.Leads to a disconnection from previous social roles and relationships, impacting identity and sense of self.
Block Treatment and Role StandardisationActivities, treatment, and routines are standardised and imposed across all inmates, regardless of individual differences.Dehumanising “one size fits all” approach, fails to address unique needs.
Total Control of Daily LifeInstitutions exert extensive control over the daily lives of inmates, including basic activities like eating, sleeping, and working.Leads to dependency on the institution and erosion of personal autonomy.
Mortification of the SelfA process where an individual’s former identity and autonomy are systematically stripped away and reconstructed in line with the institution’s requirements.Deterioration in self-concept and self-esteem, resulting in institutional dependency.
Secondary AdjustmentsInmates develop mechanisms and behaviours to adapt to and resist the constraints of institutional life.Acts of resistance enable inmates to retain some sense of self and autonomy.
Social Hierarchies and Staff-Inmate DynamicsRigid hierarchies exist within the institution, both among staff and inmates.Power imbalances and social dynamics further entrench control and dependency mechanisms.
InstitutionalisationThe process by which inmates become acclimatised and adapted to the life inside the institution.Long-term inmates may face challenges reintegrating into society, accustomed to institutional life.

Criticisms of Goffman

Erving Goffman’s “Asylums” has been influential in the fields of sociology, psychiatry, and beyond, but like any seminal work, it has faced its share of criticisms and objections. These critiques mainly revolve around his methodology, generalizability of findings, and his perspectives on mental illness and institutions. Despite these criticisms, “Asylums” remains a foundational text in the study of institutions and the sociology of mental illness. Goffman’s work has had a lasting impact on how institutions are understood and critiqued, influencing policy, practice, and further research in the field. His insights continue to be relevant in discussions about institutional care, patient rights, and the social dynamics of closed environments.

Methodological Concerns:

  1. Participant Observation: Goffman’s research was based on participant observation during his time at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Critics argue that this approach may lead to subjective interpretations and biases. His role as an observer, rather than a direct participant, might have limited his insight into the true experiences of patients.
  2. Lack of Empirical Data: Some critics point out that Goffman’s conclusions were not backed by quantitative data. His work is more descriptive and interpretive, which raises questions about the empirical validity of his findings.

Generalizability of Findings:

  1. Specific Institutional Focus: Goffman’s observations were primarily derived from a single institution. Critics argue that this might not accurately represent other psychiatric hospitals or total institutions, thus limiting the generalizability of his conclusions.
  2. Changing Institutional Contexts: The conditions and practices in psychiatric hospitals and other total institutions have evolved since Goffman’s time. Critics suggest that his findings may be less applicable to contemporary settings.

Perspectives on Mental Illness and Institutions:

  1. Negative Portrayal of Psychiatry: Goffman’s portrayal of psychiatric institutions as oppressive and dehumanising has been criticised by some in the psychiatric community. They argue that his work overlooks the therapeutic intentions and benefits of these institutions.
  2. Impact on Deinstitutionalisation: Some critics contend that Goffman’s work contributed to the deinstitutionalisation movement, which, while well-intentioned, led to challenges in community care and support for the mentally ill.

Interpretative and Theoretical Critiques:

  1. Overemphasis on Negative Aspects: Critics argue that Goffman focused excessively on the negative aspects of institutional life, potentially overlooking positive dynamics or rehabilitative aspects.
  2. Theoretical Generalisations: Some sociologists and psychiatrists have questioned the broader theoretical generalisations Goffman makes from his specific observations, arguing that they might not hold true across different types of institutions or contexts.

Revolutionising Mental Health Care through Goffman’s Lens

The Journey Begins: Imagine a mental health facility where the journey of care begins not with the relinquishment of personal identity, but with its celebration. Upon arrival, patients are greeted in a space that feels more like a community centre than a hospital. Walls adorned with art, comfortable seating areas, and open spaces invite interaction and relaxation.

Personal Narratives and Identity Respect: Each patient’s story is central to their care. In this facility, practitioners sit down with patients, listening to their life stories, understanding their identities beyond the clinical diagnosis. This narrative approach ensures that treatment plans are not just about managing symptoms but nurturing the whole person.

The Environment That Heals: The physical environment of the facility is designed to feel like a vibrant community. Patients have access to a variety of spaces – a garden for those who find solace in nature, art studios for creative expression, kitchens for culinary therapy, and tech hubs for digital skills development. Each space offers opportunities for skills development, therapeutic engagement, and personal growth.

Empowering Patient Autonomy: Patients are encouraged to make choices about their daily lives – from the food they eat to the activities they participate in. This empowerment is a deliberate move away from the total control typically exerted in traditional psychiatric settings, recognising that autonomy is a critical part of healing and self-esteem.

Evolving Staff-Patient Dynamics: Staff members are seen as facilitators rather than controllers. They work alongside patients, guiding and supporting rather than directing. This approach fosters a sense of partnership in the healing process, breaking down traditional power hierarchies.

Community Integration: Recognising the perils of social isolation in institutional settings, the facility actively promotes community integration. Local community members are invited to lead workshops, participate in activities, and share their experiences, thereby enriching the social fabric of the facility and reducing the stigma associated with mental health care.

Preparing for the World Beyond: As patients prepare to transition out of the facility, a dedicated team works with them to develop a reintegration plan. This includes skills training relevant to their goals, support in rebuilding social networks, and ongoing outpatient support services.

Continual Evolution through Feedback: The facility operates on a model of continual evolution, actively seeking feedback from patients and staff. This feedback is used not just for minor adjustments, but for transformative changes in care practices and environmental design.

Outcome: The result is a mental health care facility that is a microcosm of a supportive, understanding, and empowering society. It is a place where the journey through mental health challenges is met with respect, dignity, and an unwavering belief in the potential of each individual.

In this envisioned model, Goffman’s insights are not just integrated but are the driving force behind a radical rethinking of mental health care. By focusing on the individual’s experience, autonomy, and integration into a supportive community, the facility transforms from a place of mere treatment to a space of true healing and personal growth.

Conclusion and summary

In the realm of mental health care, the insights gleaned from Erving Goffman’s “Asylums” serve as a critical lens, offering a perspective that can profoundly reshape approaches to patient care. The concept envisions a transformation from the cold, impersonal confines of traditional institutions to nurturing environments echoing the richness of human experience. Here, each patient’s story forms the foundation of a unique treatment path, challenging the conventional uniform approach.

The emphasis shifts from the mere management of symptoms to holistic nurturing of individual identity. In these revitalised spaces, rigid hierarchies and depersonalised routines give way to environments celebrating autonomy and personal expression. Staff and patients engage as collaborators, fostering a therapeutic alliance grounded in mutual respect and empathy.

Inspired by Goffman’s insights, this new paradigm calls for dismantling the barriers of traditional institutionalisation, aiming for a system where the transition from patient to individual is an immediate reality. In such a setting, the stigma associated with mental health care dissipates, replaced by a culture of openness, understanding, and adaptation to evolving needs.

As this exploration of Goffman’s world concludes, it leaves an open invitation to reimagine and actively shape a mental health care system that resonates with the dignity and complexity of the human spirit. These insights are not merely conceptual but serve as guiding principles for tangible transformation in the field of mental health.


Asylums 50 years on – Seamus Mac Suibhne, British Journal of Psychiatry Vol 198, issue 1, 02 January 2018


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