Total Institution: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:00 Total Institutions Definition
  • 1:10 Total Institution…
  • 2:13 Total Institution Examples
  • 3:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
According to the sociologist Erving Goffman, boarding schools have more in common with cults than we may think. In this lesson we'll look at his concept of total institutions, which are places or organizations whose members are very similar, and are separate from society at large.

Total Institutions Definition

What comes to mind when you think of the military? Or a cult? Or maybe an assisted-living facility? Well, if you're thinking like a sociologist, you might note that these institutions all require living in very close quarters with others who share similar traits. These are also places where people might dress and act the same, and may be composed of people who share nearly identical beliefs and worldviews.

These are examples of what we call total institutions, which is a concept developed by the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman. According to Goffman, who is credited with coining the term in his 1957 paper 'On the Characteristics of Total Institutions,' a total institution is an organization that is, in some ways, separate from the rest of society. It's kind of like a mini-society itself. People within a total institution are usually controlled by some authority, and they don't have a lot of independence. Let's go over total institutions in more detail, and examine some examples of total institutions in our society.

Characteristics of Total Institutions

Goffman broke down the concept of total institutions into a few different categories based on the intended function of the institution. Total institutions might be intended to care for individuals who cannot take care of themselves, or they might be intended to house people who pose a threat to society, or they might be intended to provide a service, such as protection, to the larger society.

There are a few characteristics that total institutions have in common with one another, whatever their intended purpose. For Goffman, the most significant characteristic of total institutions is that they all involve a kind of separation from the rest of society. When we're not part of a total institution, we usually work and sleep in separate places. We interact with different sets of people depending on whether we're at home or at work or out with our friends. But in a total institution, we don't have these boundaries, and don't really encounter different kinds of people or activities. Goffman called this the totalizing aspect of institutions, which means, in this case, the all-encompassing nature of them.

Total Institution Examples

Mary's grandmother is very old, and she is unable to care for herself on her own. Mary and her family decide that her grandmother should move into a nursing home. This is an example of a total institution meant to care for someone who can no longer care for herself.

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