Schools as Total Institutions

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2011). Research Methods in Education. London: Routledge, make mention of Goffman’s 1968 work on Total Institutions.  Goffman’s study was centred on a mental institution, but the findings could equally apply to other institutions, such as the military, a prison, and such like.  The following is a list of the qualities that make an institution a total institution, according to Goffman:

  • The institution is convened for a specific purpose
  • All aspects of life take place in the same place and under the same single authority
  • Every part of the member’s normal daily activities takes place in the company of many others
  • All members are treated the same and are required to do the same things together
  • The daily activities are precisely and tightly scheduled by a controlling authority and officials, and through formal rules that are tightly enforced
  • The sever activities are part of a single, overall plan that is intended to fulfil the aims of the organization
  • There is a division between the managers and the managed (e.g. the inmates and the hospital staff; the teachers and the students)
  • The inmates have limited or no contact with the outside world but the officials do have contact with the outside world
  • Access to the outside world for inmates may be physically or institutionally restricted, controlled or forbidden
  • There is some antagonism between the two groups, who hold hostile stereotypes of each other and act on the basis of those stereotypes, often based on inequalities of power
  • Officials tend to feel superior and powerful whilst inmates tend to feel inferior and powerless
  • The cultures and cultural worlds of the officials and inmates are separate
  • The two worlds – of officials and inmates – have limited penetration of each other
  • There is a considerable social distance between the two groups
  • Inmates tend to be excluded from knowledge of decisions made about them
  • Incentives (for work, behaviour) and privileges have greater significance with the institution than they would in the outside world
  • There are limited and formal channels of communication between the members of the two worlds
  • Release from the institutions is often part of the privilege system (Cohen, Manion, Morrison, 2011, p. 581)

Cohen, Manion and Morrison also add, “It can be seen that these features can apply to several different total institutions, of which schools are an example” (2011, p. 581).

No wonder many students rebel against the prison-like feel of schools.  Would they respond differently if education was delivered in a different way?


3 thoughts on “Schools as Total Institutions

  1. These are quite strong disincentives for institutions. I am not sure how far one can go in applying this to all institutions, in particular educational institutions. What is an institution? Like so many definitions, they can be expanded, depending on the participants and context and the emphasis taken. A general definition could be a group of people (the managers at least) bonded together in a common vision with accepted protocols of organisation and techniques to achieve certain goals and values. This leaves us with many variables. What vision, techniques, goals and values are we talking about and how do they relate to both the manager and managed groups of people? How do the managers relate to the managed group and vice versa, what drives the ‘institution’? Any institution including a school may be expected to be acceptable if all the important facets of its functioning and looking after its people is prioritized. As a structure or model, institutions may not be entirely conducive to building lives and people if it restricts or makes it more difficult to be open and transparent, etc, but a lot can be achieved still if people have a genuine concern for each other (what this means too has to be specified on a personal, social, short-term, longer term level), that should have the greatest impact otherwise there will be problems.


  2. Ron, thanks again for your following and feedback. I think if you re-read the article you will notice that the article is addressing the nature of “total institutions”. Institutions exist, and total institutions have a function, too. I served in the military, and am aware that the military would not function if it were not a total institution. Before robots, factories, also, were total institutions. Mental hospitals, cultish communities, and a whole lot of other things function most effectively when run as total institutions. But, not all institutions are total institutions.

    Schools, in their current configuration, were set up for the purpose of control. Schools do best, what they are designed to do, when they function as total institutions. However, Biblical Christian education is not about control, it is about discipleship, and learning to live life by living life. This is what I have discovered from my reassessment of what the Bible has to say about education.

    Christians should not send their children to total institutions; if they do, then they are making a claim that their children are mentally ill, or need to be trained to fight in a war, or need to have total constraint placed upon their lives so that they can work in a dumb job (like pressing parts in a factory). If Christians have higher aspirations for their children than these, then unschooling through discipleship is the way to go, IMHO.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s