Category Archives: Total Institution


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.



Socialization is the way in which we learn our culture, and the norms of that culture.  Behavioral expectations are referred to as norms.  Violating or deviating from these norms leads to negative sanctions.  Obeying these norms leads to positive sanctions.  We learn the socialization of our culture through various people and groups that are called agents of socialization.  These can include the media, our peer groups around us, our workplace, family, and even governments.  For example, young children may learn some manners from a children’s media show.  Their family may reinforce the socialization of manners with negative or positive sanctions for following or not following these norms of culture.


In contrast to socialization, resocialization is getting rid of old behavior patterns and accepting new ones as a part of a new life transition.  Resocialization occurs best in a total institution setting.  In this setting, a single authority figure inside the institution will decide what activities will be conducted by individuals during the day and when.  The people inside the total institutions have almost their every move set out for them.  If they do not comply to these orders by authority figures, than they will face consequences.  These are some of the factors that make a place a total institution.  Another factor is having every aspect of life within the institution be related towards the goals of the organization.  Examples of total institutions include mental institutions, the military, convents, and prisons.  In a prison institution, the prisoners are forced to dress very similary, do the same activities as other inmates, and share their living spaces with others.  They are stripped of their identities, and are forced to conform to the way everyone else acts and appears because they have no other choice.  Isolation occurs for some

In a penitentiary institution, a degredation ceremony begins to resocialize the prisoners into the institution.  They are stripped of all of their personal belongings including phones, clothes, jewelry, etc.  They are then forced to wear clothes similar to everyone else.  They may begin to lose their sense of self during this degredation ceremony.  From this point on, they have scheduled daily activities and routines that allow for little time to themselves.  Everything they do is based upon the goals of the total institution.


After these degredation ceremonies, prisoners will learn to discard their deviance for the law and take on new behaviors and new social roles inside of the institution.  They may have a daily job to perform, and are made to model the ways in which they are expected to act in the workplace in an effort to resocialize them into a working class society inside of the institution. Agents of socialization that may influence them during this time include family encouragement, media role models, and government counseling programs inside the prisons.  There are also educational programs inside the prisons to help them develop important skills.  For instance, in the following video, inmates work with shelter dogs in an effort to help train them to be more pleasurable to families that will then adopt them.  Caring for these animals also helps to reduce tension within the institution for the inmates.


Resocialization also exists in the form of new life changes.  The disengagement theory discusses the ways in which older people should sever their personal social relationships and give up their social roles that they hold within society.  They are discarding old behaviors such as talking with their friends or going to work every day, for a new role in society.  Their new role in society is to prepare for death.  Some are even forced into retirement homes.  Some cultures practice a more extreme form of disengagement theory.  For example, the Fulani people of Africa force their older people to live next to the graveyard and prepare for death.  They consider them to be already socially dead.  Many people disagree with the disengagement theory, and believe it to be unhealthy for anyone to sever their personal relationships.  Although many believe that older people will be more comfortable if they are retired from their working role in society, most agree that they should still stay active within society.