Melanie Jordan – Institutional (e.g. prison) settings and mental health: Goffman revisited?

Institutional (e.g. prison) settings and mental health: Goffman revisited? According to Goffman (1961), upon entrance to total institutions (prisons, asylums, monasteries, army camps, etc.) inmates may begin ‘a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self’ (p. 24). Inmates’ conception of self ‘is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified’ (p. 24). The processes of admission to an institution mark ‘a leaving off’ (p. 27) from the ‘conception of himself made possible by certain stable social arrangements in his home world’ (p. 24) and ‘a taking on’ (p. 27) of ‘activity whose symbolic implications are incompatible with his conceptions of self’ (p. 31). However, is consideration and/or utilisation of this — albeit seminal — institutionalisation work of Goffman (1961) apt today? (N.B. You are warmly invited to note your comments below this post).

In relation to the prison milieu, it is argued ‘social integration may play a different role for persons incarcerated in total institutions than among the general population due to unique prison conditions’ (Lindquist 2000:431). For example, Schmid and Jones (1993) found inmates’ ‘prison careers’ (p. 439) to be creative processes ‘through which inmates must invent or learn a repertoire of adaptation tactics’ (p. 439). ‘A person who is incarcerated for the first time becomes a “prisoner” but does not automatically acquire a meaningful status within the prison world’ (p. 439, double quotation marks in original); this suggests individuals move from free society with its (either prescribed or imagined) statuses to the prison setting with its absence of meaningful ascribed statuses. Incarceration experiences are, therefore, somewhat subjective and fashioned by individual prisoners. It is reported the prisoner population shares ‘the experience of being pulled in psychologically different directions’ (p. 443). Notably, assimilation into the penal environment remains salient here — in the 1990s.

To return to the broader application of Goffman’s work, more recently — in 2011 — Mac Suibhne (a Senior Registrar at St Brigid’s Hospital, Ardee, Ireland) concluded: ‘Goffman’s key role was in humanising patients and drawing attention to the patterns of interaction that dehumanised them’ (p. 1). Arguably, this notion of de/humanisation of patients/persons in institutional settings appears somewhat perennial — as a pertinent academic, clinical, political, etc. topic (e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8101325.stm or the BBC1 Panorama programme Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed (May 31st, 2011). Thus, perhaps renewed attention to Goffman’s mid-twentieth century work is appropriate for health and social care academics, clinicians, etc. today?

Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates, London: Penguin Books

Lindquist, C. (2000) ‘Social integration and mental wellbeing among jail inmates’, Sociological Forum, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 431–456.

Mac Suibhne, S. (2011) ‘Erving Goffman’s Asylums 50 years on’, The British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 198, pp. 1–2.

Schmid, T. and Jones, R. (1993) ‘Ambivalent actions: prison adaptation strategies of first-time, short-term inmates’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 439–463.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Melanie Jordan – Institutional (e.g. prison) settings and mental health: Goffman revisited?

  1. Nick Manning

    Maybe we should at least split this process three ways: the incoming prisoner can comply with this process (a) under duress, and unwillingly, or (b) passively, as an instrumental acceptance or (c) positively, as a solution to personal stresses outside.

  2. Melanie Jordan:
    Nick, I agree. Also, further to this three-way demarcation of admission to institutions (specifically prisons), perhaps the recently published work of Prins re. prisons and transinstitutionalisation is relevant? I would argue that this debate is well worthy of contemporary consideration. Full details via: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21655941

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