Placing an institution into the subcategory of a total institution is more a matter of degree than simply qualifying with an affirmative or negative. The shades of gray are somewhat ironic considering the decisive imagery of the phrase itself. Current thinking from sociologists places a degree of totality on any given institution, not only those that are traditionally viewed as totalitarian. To give an example used often enough in the media to run the risk of becoming a cliché, shopping centers and casinos have perfected the art of isolating their clientele from the outside world. With no easily accessible exits, no clocks, no view of the sun or sky, and dodgy cell phone reception, it can be easy to find oneself spending a great deal more time and money in these establishments then intended. Although these places have intentionally adopted an aspect of totality to obtain profit, most people would be hesitant to actually label them as total institutions. Rather, they utilize concepts of totality to control one aspect of their respective clients, rather than their every action.
The view that all social institutions have degrees of totality is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s conflict theories. As in many of the theories of social conflict, the presence of a degree of totality in most or all social institutions lends weight to the argument that social institutions aim to exert control over their respective members. That control does not have to be negative. To give an example, family is considered a social institution, of which marriage is a part. Marriage shows characteristics of totality. In particular, it is widely accepted that a degree of isolation is expected in favor of social interaction with the nuclear family. Assuming this hypothetical marriage is a happy one, the benefits of marriage outweigh the sacrifices, making the presence of totality benign. However, from a purely analytical perspective, the institution of marriage preserves itself through control of its members’ outside interactions. This is a key factor in a total institution.
The aforementioned idea that all institutions display totality in degrees means that institutions not generally considered totalitarian can still be analyzed with the totality concept in mind. Marriage has already been given as an example. The shopping centers and casinos mentioned earlier apply equally well. Corporations make vast sums of money using sociological concepts to generate profit.
Institutions with a high degree of totality have been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny in recent decades. Re-socialization is an important issue that strongly affects the way we handle dangerous members of our society. Re-socialization is the process we use to purge a person of unwanted traits or behaviors that are the result of their initial socialization, or to instill positive traits and behaviors they may be missing. The prison system and military organizations are perfect examples of re-socialization at work. In theory, prison sentences are no longer meant to merely be punishment for crimes committed. The process of re-socialization is applied in order to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them to rejoin society. The level of success is arguable, if only due to a lack of budgeting and priority, but the ideal of rehabilitation exists at the very least.
Unlike the prison system, the large military budget and the higher priorities veterans receive over inmates have been the cause of a great deal of change in this example of a total institution. The results of an ever increasing awareness of the effects of total institutions’ can be seen in the military’s handling of both recruits and veterans. Military trainers have long expressed the idea that before you build a person up, you have to break them down. This is the most fundamental part of the re-socialization process used by total institutions. A recruit’s sense of identity is the largest barrier to responding to socialization, so it is the first thing to be attacked. Hair and clothes are made generic, contact with the outside world is extremely limited, and personal choice is almost nonexistent. Stress levels are kept as high as possible while recovery periods are made shorter. During their initial training, army recruits are lucky to get five hours of sleep per day, and not always consecutively. Activities are carefully controlled and monitored for several months. Better standing of total institutions has led to changes in these practices in the past decade. The military is adopting philosophies of strengthening without degradation. Sleep schedules are longer and stress levels are generally kept at a lower state. One of the reasons for this is that the process of institutionalization has been found to have harmful long term effects. The obsolete nature of institutionalization can be seen when the extreme control exerted by prison systems succeeds only to create model prisoners, who re-offend when they are released back into the population. The same can be said of soldiers. A person may do very well in their assigned role as a soldier, but their new adjustment can cause trouble when they are exposed to the outside world once again.
Totality in our social institutions is not only an issue for those who enlist in the military, or send their children to a boarding school. Because totality exists in degrees in every social institution, and because these institutions tend to attempt increased control over time in order to maintain their power over members through sanctions, it is important to understand how these total institutions’ methods apply in everyday society.