May 10, 2013

Erving Goffman's asylums and institutional culture in the mid-twentieth-century United States

Harvard Review of Psychiatry
Matthew Gambino


Sociologist Erving Goffman based his seminal work Asylums (1961) on a year of field research at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. Goffman described the mental hospital as a "total institution," in which regimentation dominated every aspect of daily life and patients were denied even the most basic means of self-expression; rather than promote recovery, such conditions produced the sorts of disordered behavior for which men and women were ostensibly admitted. A closer look at the changes transforming St. Elizabeths around the time of Goffman's research reveals a far richer portrait of institutional culture. Group therapy, psychodrama, art and dance therapy, patient newspapers, and patient self-government-each of which debuted at the hospital in the 1940s and 1950s-provided novel opportunities for men and women to make themselves heard and to take their fate into their own hands. While these initiatives did not reach all of the patients at St. Elizabeths, surviving documentation suggests that those who participated found their involvement rewarding and empowering. Goffman explicitly set out to describe "the social world of the hospital inmate." His failure to appreciate fully the capacities of his subjects, however, appe...Continue Reading

  • References7
  • Citations1


  • References7
  • Citations1


Mentioned in this Paper

Outpatient Commitment
Psychiatric Hospital
Psychiatry Specialty
Professional-Patient Relations
Metaplastic Cell Transformation
Diagnosis, Psychiatric
Patient Care Team
Group Therapy
Drama Therapy

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