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Facultatea de Sociologie şi Asistenţă Socială

Erving Goffman

Student: Dumitru Raluca-Ana

Sociologie Anul I, seria 2
Universitatea Bucureşti 2009

Ewing Goffman, a sociologist U.S. spends about three years trying to know the
American institutions, especially the period spent in hospital St. Elizabeth Washington. Run
in such research under a false identity, the study without knowing the truth, it is perfectly
integrated into the system to study the participatory method of observation but added ideas
and experiences from others. The papers compiled in „Asylums” were originally published in
academic journals. Although this was the case, „Asylums” caught the public imagination
because it presented for questioning many shibboleths about helping services and the people
who worked in them. Ideas taken to be truths and professional practices and social institutions
that were previously beyond question became, with Goffman’s work, open to question. Were
these institutions really all they were supposed to be? Did the staff in them always act in the
best interests of the inhabitants? Although Goffman was not the first to ask these questions, he
was one of the first to put them in language that was accessible and interesting to the lay
reader. In „Asylums” Goffman looks at the people in these institutions and seeks to interpret
their experience rather than justifying the system that contained them: „Many total institutions
most of the time seem to function merely as storage dumps for inmates but, they usually
present themselves to the public as rational organizations designed consciously, through and
through, as effective machines for producing a few officially avowed and officially approved
Erving Goffman's „Asylums” is still the subject of much debate amongst sociological
circles. Furthermore, Goffman's ideas gained recognition and influence far beyond limited
academic circles and he is probably the best known sociologist amongst readers of this type of
papers. Not unlike other sociologists, Goffman places the study of society at the centre of his
work. He suggests that society exists in contradistinction to the individual, as concepts and as
entities, and that any relationship between them is complex and problematic.
The relationship between the individual and society is based both on a voluntary
agreement as well as an inevitable necessity. Throughout his work, Goffman maintains that
the relationship is fixed and that no individual wishes, nor is able, to escape or avoid it.
Rather, individuals find ways through which they either adapt to oppressive societies or attach
themselves to alternative ones which can exist alongside, within or outside the main one.
Thus, in „Asylums”' first essay, Goffman describes several ways through which a inmates
manages to survive within the total institution he has found himself or herself in, and claims
that the key for a successful survival, one through which the individual still retain an
acceptable view of self, is through forming contacts and strategies which facilitates the stay
but do not challenge it.
According to Goffman, the structural interdependency between an individual and
society is indestructible and essential to the human condition. The individual has no option
but to enter some kind of arrangement of this order.
In „Asylums”, Goffman suggests that the notions of deviancy and normalcy are
directly related to what context that behavior is seen or preformed within. Thus, the same
behavior will be deemed acceptable in one context and unacceptable in another. When the
individual is no longer capable of making those distinctions themselves and control and
modify their behavior accordingly, he or she is seen as deviant, and social controls are used
against them. Successful survival is therefore dependent upon the success of the individual in
making "secondary adjustments" to the social order and learning to internalize and hide those
aspects of themselves which are not beneficial for preserving that order.
Goffman traces what happens to an individual from the moment they enter a total
institution. In Goffman's view institutions are places where individuals are separated from the
rest of society for a period of time and lead a life of strict rules after the official institutions.
These individuals are united by the same problems, succeeding a smoothing, bringing them all
at the same status. Goffman's definition of total institutions is very broad and open to
criticism. He includes in it nunneries, prisons, mental hospitals and army barracks as well as
the Soviet labor camps and the Nazis concentration camps. It is the broadness of this
definition, though, which allows Goffman to make use his findings to make the general
observations about society which he does.
Institutions are five ways:
• Institutions harmless but for people with problems: orphanages, hostels for the
• Institutions for people who can not look after themselves and that represents a threat
to the society: psychiatric hospitals, sanatoriums.
• Institutions that protect the society from those who are an intentional threat: prisons,
concentration camps and war.
• Institutions such as boarding schools, labor camp where special activities are normal.
• Religious institutions: monasteries and hermitages.
He describes the numerous ways in which this official self is stripped of all its
characters, in an attempt to force it to take on the new official self which the institution
requires of the individual. Goffman offers no way in which the individual can resist this
process of dehumanization and accepts that the institution wins every time, leaving the
individual with no option but to conform. The individual learns fast what is expected of him
or her and responds accordingly, wanting above all to survive. Goffman does not allow for
open challenging of the process as an option for survival and cites no such examples.
The way in which the individual survives in by withdrawing into the performing self,
making secondary adjustments and learning "to play" the system. An illustration of this
process is evident in Elia Kazan film of Rocky Graciano's, the middle weight boxer life.
Rocky is shown to be moving from one institution to another, fighting the system, and
everybody else, along the way, till in one prison he is offered to join the prison boxing club
and use his hatred in order to carve himself a way out. His hatred, which previously was used
against the system, is now incorporated into it, bringing him personal gain and at the same
time protecting society from its effects. This is then a case in which the performing self has
become harmonious with the official self and integrated itself with society's expectation,
therefore no longer being a threat. A different example which illustrates Goffman model is
that of Robert Maxwell. One can say that Maxwell has managed to play the system for so
long, until the contradiction between his performing self, the reality of what he was doing,
and the official self, how he was portraying himself to the world, became so great as to be
unbearable. Rather then face the humiliation and the sanctioning that the primary adjustment
to his new official self would have required of him, the image of the crook, Maxwell chose to
opt out of the system altogether, by withdrawing from the world. These two examples show
the two extremes of the range of possibilities which Goffman offers his "actors": acceptance
of the official self and playing the system, or psychic and possible physical withdrawal from
Goffman has been criticized for generalizing from his study of this particular class
onto the whole of American society. Giddens takes issue with this criticism and suggests that
despite claims that Goffman is cynical, idiosyncratic and restricted to the Middle Class milieu,
Goffman certainly indeed them to be general and in Giddens's view also succeeded in doing
The importance of class analysis to Goffman is illustrated in „Asylums” where he
emphasized the importance of the keeping the boundaries between the staff and inmates clear
in order to maintain the existing order. Their separateness becomes essential to their existence
and identity as unique groups. Any crossing of the lines between them weakens both groups
and poses a threat to the social order which they form. Thus Goffman explains the seeming
reluctance of the inmate to rebel against his or her situation. As Goffman believed that the
official self is a product of the demands society makes upon the individual, we can now see
that change in the individual can only occur as a result of changes in the social order, and as
Goffman had a fixed view of social orders, changes can never occur. Or if they occur, they are
of a minor order, of secondary adjustments made by individuals and absorbed by social orders
without causing any disruptions. In this context, it could be useful to consider an example
from social work practice. It has been shown by some writers that any removal of black
children from their cultural and familial background into white environment can be as
damaging to the child as the trauma which they suffered at home.
Goffman fails to acknowledge the possibility of collective action as a way of change.
Collective actions such as strikes, sabotage or escape were common in all total institutions
which Goffman studied, even the harshest such as the Nazi concentration camps. For
example, both in Auschwitz and Treblinka groups of inmates have managed to gather enough
strength and against the worst odds sabotage part of the gas chambers. Furthermore, studies of
survivors from the camps suggest that the key factor in survival, apart from luck, is due to
people remaining within groups with which they had some degree of affinity.
Here in “Asylums” Goffman speaks about the awful conditions that were in the
institutions that he studied, but there are some examples in the written history that are in
contradiction. One of them is the book “Gracefully insane” written by Alex Beam. He
describes is the now legendary McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and in this fascinating,
gossipy social history, Boston Globe columnist Beam pries open its well-guarded records for
a look at the life of the storied institution. McLean is best known today for its parade of
famous patients like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Ray Charles and all three
Taylor children. But these notable „visitors” followed in the footsteps of generations of
privileged clientele drawn primarily from Boston's most elite families. The hospital offered
private rooms, tennis courts, a bowling alley and the latest cures. Beam traces the hospital's
place in the history of psychiatric treatment, from the early days of ice water therapies and
moral management through the introduction of modern psychopharmacology. He discusses
McLean's current condition both individuals nor insurers can afford McLean’s long-term care,
and the downsized hospital faces an uncertain future. More than a history of a psychiatric
institution, the book offers an unusual glimpse of a celebrated American estate: the Boston
aristocracy that produced, for nearly two centuries, an endless stream of brilliant, troubled
eccentrics and the equally brilliant and eccentric doctors who lined up to treat them.
Another book that speaks about the bad conditions that are in the mental hospitals
from America is „A Mind That Found Itself” that is a autobiography that tells the story of a
young man who is gradually enveloped by a psychosis. His well-meaning family commits
him to a series of mental hospitals, but he is brutalized by the treatment, and his moments of
fleeting sanity become fewer and fewer. His ultimate recovery is a triumph of the human
spirit. As Robert Coles has noted, the book improvised the virtues of clinical analysis, as well
as personal reminiscence, all rendered with a novelistic eye for the particular, for emotional
nuance, for chronological progression. Steadily, forthrightly, we come in touch with the
nature of delusions and hallucinations: the complex, symbolically charged, nightmarish world
of fear, suspicion, irritability and truculence. Recovered from his illness, Beers began a
lifelong crusade, through the National Committee for Mental Hygiene and the American
Foundation for Mental Hygiene, to revolutionize the care and treatment of the mentally ill.
The persuasive chronicler of mental illness became a sophisticated, pragmatic organizer and
What I read in Goffman’s book was shocking. He relates the cruel reality of
institutions aimed to protect people in need, but they are not doing something else than to
increase the suffering. In this way appears the desire to change something in a world where
people are treated inappropriate and also appears the feeling of frustration because our
individual power to change something is smaller than the problems which are. But all that we
do is to resume talking about what is happening in our groups, with people that are as revolted
as us and also shocked of the sad reality of which they take part.
In the chapter in which Goffman speaks of hospital-patient relationship, is showing
that between patient and staff should be a relationship of trust, considering the respect that the
staff should give to the patient and the gratitude and the money that this one gives it to them.
Unfortunately this is not the reality. Medical staff is insufficient in number, insignificant for
the needs of patients and thus can not be controlled. However this did not entitle them to treat
them as some objects from the simple reason that they have reached that place, some even
without their will. This raises the question of access of patients to appropriate treatment of
certain specialists, and especially during the period they need.
Unfortunately the reality expressed here is a cruel one and shows how many changes
should be made in the health system in America and beyond. If we look around us we see the
same events from individuals who are hospitalized for a problem which in stead of curing is
going worse and they end suffering and losing their identity and faith in people and especially
the confidence in their own person. The few positive examples have failed to make me
believe that such "gregarious" treatment might have even the smallest impact on an individual
with problems in such an institution. What patients need most is attention, affection, are the
things that are missing from the beginning by a system that seems to be more affected than
those who get to use it.
Erving Goffman, Aziluri: eseuri despre situatia sociala a pacientilor psihiatrici si a
altor categorii de persoane institutionalizate; trad. de Anacaona
Mindrila, Iasi, Polirom, 2004
Clifford Whittingham Beers, A Mind That Found Itself- An Autobiography, Online
Distributed ProofreadingTeam, October, 2004