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Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  1,106 ratings  ·  47 reviews
Asylums is an analysis of life in "total institutions"--closed worlds like prisons, army camps, boarding schools, nursing homes and mental hospitals. It focuses on the relationship between the inmate and the institution, how the setting affects the person and how the person can deal with life on the inside.
Paperback, 386 pages
Published 1961 by Anchor Books
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Just in passing - the edition I read had a much better cover, the black and white photograph of a woman's hands covering her face with a cigarette between her fingers pretty much summed up my feelings about this book.

There is a sentence in Moab is My Wash Pot where Stephen Fry, at least, I’m nearly positive he’s not quoting someone else, says that it is easier for someone who has been to a public boarding school to be in prison than it is for anybody else in society. Not the most endearing adver
Feb 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people who run institutions. teachers.
Recommended to Rob by: john taylor gatto
one of the most subtle, restrained, ferocious diatribes i have ever read. you can feel the fire roiling deep underneath the text, piercing the surface in quick flashes. should be required reading for all schoolteachers.

four long essays stemming from a year (1955-56) Goffman spent observing the daily operation of a huge (7000 inmates!) mental hospital. they were published separately, and in fact the first two are skippable - interesting at moments, but suffering from a great weight of psychobabbl
Aug 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
'm not a sociologist, a student of sociology or really, even that interested in sociology. I read about this book in David Orland's, Prisons: Houses of Darkness, where Orland often referred to Goffman's work in this book. I was not disappointed.
Goffman uses a mixture of field observation and references to literature to describe and critisize the theory and practice of the "Total Institution". As the reviewers note below, a "total institution" is an elastic concept. Goffman focuses on "strong" ex
Aug 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An astute set of essays on the ways people find to maintain a self within an institution whose purpose is to control a person's every activity. Full of glancing observations of the strange ways people seek status, or worry about losing it, for example this passage about a customer of a service business such as a repair shop: "The client thinks, 'Is this server really competent? Is he acting in my own interests? Is he overcharging? Is he discreet? Is he secretly contemptuous of me because of the ...more
Sophy H
Jun 28, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars

Admittedly I didn't read this entire book in great depth.

Although the subject is of great interest to me, the anecdotal style writing concerning both patients and staff in institutions, rendered me a little disinterested. I felt like some paragraphs were repeats of what I had previously.

The book nevertheless highlights the great power and entitlement disparity in mental health facilities and their psychological effect on the patients. Although the book was written in the 1960's and f
Dimitris Tsioumas
May 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Excellent analysis about total institutions. Goffman descripes all the variations of total insitution and espesially mental institutions. And he shows us how patients and the worker in this institutions interact to each other.
Sary Fairchild
It was easier to read this book if I kept reminding myself that it was written in the 1950's. Psychiatric hospitals are nothing like this nowadays. But I appreciate they used to be different. Anyhow, I don't like that Goffman made some jabs at psychiatric nurses, implying that they are the nurses who didn't know how to draw blood (apparently, this is all that nurses do...?) and so couldn't get a job anywhere else. I think this guy needs to spend a day as a psychiatric nurse and see if he changes ...more
Natalie (CuriousReader)
Read for school. I especially found the essay concerning the life inside prisons to be of interest, although some things certainly were hard to read (especially concerning shaming and degrading actions). Some parts of the book are definitely outdated but a lot of the general points are still relevant.
Bill H.
Dec 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
This was assigned for a college course called "Alienation and Mental Illness". An interesting look at how the conditions and treatment of in patient psychiatric hospitals strip one of their sense of self to the extent that the appearance of illness is greatly enhanced.
Mar 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
dated like a motherfucker. however, the first essay still holds weight well enough where it comes to describing and denoting goffman's view of 'total institutions.'
Jan 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I actually enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. I knew I would appreciate it as a historical text, one that had such an impact on the deinstitutionalization movement and a key example of the thoughts on mental illness at the time. But I found his writing style quite enjoyable, especially considering that it's a study on such a serious matter. He writes in a very clear, intelligible way and even difficult concepts were made easy to understand. I did think there were perhaps too ma ...more
Alice Harbin
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
Published in 1961, the book relates to an earlier time, about 1956, as there is about a 5 yr delay between researching, writing, and publishing. Since the articles relate to prisons as well as mental hospitals, and since I have worked in both, my curiosity brought me to read this book. In addition, I believe it was recommended to me in my student days.
Reading it was a labor as it was written from a sociological perspective, which for me is cumbersome reading, to say the least.
However, I believe
Overall, this has to be celebrated as a great piece of work. However, it is very dry and a bit boring; it takes some determination to plough through.

Some of the sentences and paragraphs are overly-complicated and unnecessarily long-winded, which is a shame in that this takes away from the messages trying to get through.

All 4 essays are worth a read but essays 3 & 4 are really where it’s at. If you can only bear to read one of them, go for number 4.
Aug 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Tragic, realistic, horrible, but also interesting analysis in this book.

Not everyones cup of tea, but helps to understand why people experiencing these kind of places want to and/or try to forget their experiences.

Especially important to read for someone who has seen people been tormented, badly treated in the circumstances or places described in this book. Or even more so, if having experienced these surroundings or (mal)practises themselves.
Feb 18, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Ethnography of life in asylums. a sociological view of "total institutions" done in the 1950's. Interesting stories, and landmark book on certain aspects of how institutions influence behavior, if a bit dated.
Oct 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very readable, very interesting. One of the few uni books I'd recommend reading outside having too
Sarah Guldenbrein
Nicely written. An easy read for theory. I like the micro-level focus and his use of ethnography, but overall not particularly useful for my work.
Nov 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Goffman spent time in a mental institution and documented his experiences from the patient’s point of view. What started out as reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest quickly turned to problematic similarities between mental institutions and concentration camps. Other “total institutions” that Goffman compared to mental institutions were religious monasteries, military camps, and prisons. It is interesting to compare institutions like mental institutions, concentration camps, and prisons ...more
Jul 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-work
I finally finished this book. The essays in the book can be read separately or all together. They each can stand alone and say a lot about the mental illness system and psychiatry.

Goffman is great. I have known about this book for years, and I fianlly got around to reading it. After I read Stigma, I wanted to read more Goffman.

Asylums is a book of Essays based upon Goffman's sociological work in total institutions, particularly mental hospitals. The essay on the characteristics of total institut
Mar 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
Goffmann sets out to do a Micro-interactive analysis of what he describes as one of the primary "total institutions" of modern times; the Asylum. The Asylum takes us trough the different perspectives o the patients, the staff, and therapists as they interact in these tightly structured environments, shaming all that presupposes that micro-interactionist`s cannot deal with macro-structures of social life.

A pleasant read, especially the last chapter on the different, non-converging, interests tha
Scott Sheaffer
Apr 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this for a history class while in college. I was in a religious scholarship program that functioned as a cult. The 12 students receiving the scholarship were not allowed to attend any social events outside the group and were more or less prevented from interfacing with society outside the "program". As far as I could see there was no relevance between this book and the history we were studying. It's possible that the professor suggest I (and I alone) report on this book to help me to gain ...more
Nov 10, 2014 added it
Shelves: sociology
Okay, I got his idea about social roles and identity through organizational participation. I was just so surprised that in the 1960s, monastery could be treated more or less as parallels to institutions such as mental hospitals and even prisons as Goffman did not have trouble of quoting biographical accounts of monks/nuns and prisoners simultaneously. Were the monks and nuns the same sort of "inmate" as the "patients" he discussed at length (well, of course, the sort of long-term psychiatric hos ...more
Jan 01, 2015 rated it liked it
Considered a seminal work on the subject and an influence in the deinstitutionalization of America’s mentally ill.
The first ‘essay’ of the four that make up the book was the hardest to get through, because the author tries to define ‘total institutions’ as a class, using a wide range of examples from mental hospitals to concentration camps and prisons and monestaries and naval vessels. The other three essays deal almost exclusively with mental hospitals and felt stronger for it, particularly whe
Nov 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Here Goffman defines the concept of a "total institution" -- a place where all activities are done in the same place, carried out around others, tightly scheduled, and done according to a plan. The places can be as distinct as nursing homes, elite boarding schools, and asylums. The major players are the inmates and the staff. He argues that the self is take from the individual in a total institution. The inmates use subversive behavior, situational withdrawal, colonization, and conversion to cop ...more
Dec 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic
The description of the asylum as an institution is dated-- we don't call them asylums much nowadays, though I did hear 'nuthouse' yesterday. Still, the connections that Goffman makes between the way life is organized in the mental institution and the way that the patients react to this is really eye-opening. If you've been a patient, work in such a place, or are a social scientist interested in the way institutions affect their members, this will be worthwhile.
Feb 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is the most useful book that I read during my entire university education!

Reading this book helped me see everyday institutional interactions in a whole new way and helped me understand power and authority in modern society.

Celia Haig Brown referenced this book when writing "Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School."

I think that this book would be useful for anyone who want to understand social control, oppression, and power in society.
Sep 28, 2007 rated it really liked it
This book is an honest and starteling look at what its like for the individuals that live in a totally controlled environment. It shows the similarities between groups of people one would never compare such as mental patients and boarding school students and discusses the effects of a total institution on their psyche.
Oct 28, 2007 rated it liked it
Good description of what goes on in the asylum, and makes the necessary claim that "the asylum" is "the total institution" (like the prison, boarding school, cloister). Good description of HOW these institutions exist. But WHY do they exist? (A much more important question.) He should have waited a year and read Foucault.
Apr 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic
Probably the most insightful thing I've read on mental hospitals. Based on extensive participant observation at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., Goffman tries to describe the 'moral career' of the mental patient, which articulates the process all patients experience, often painfully, as their old "self" is problematized and then systematically stripped away.

Sep 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A very important book. It critically examines how the labels we give to people can result in self fulfilling prophecies. The book is especially pertinent when it comes to the treatment of people from marginalized groups such as people from lower socioeconomic classes, racial/ethnic minorities, people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and others who are considered to be "deviant".
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Erving Goffman (June 11, 1922 – November 19, 1982) was a Canadian-born sociologist and writer.

Considered "the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century" (Fine, Manning, and Smith 2000:ix), as a subjective analyst, Goffman's greatest contribution to social theory is his study of symbolic interaction in the form of dramaturgical analysis that began with his 1959 book The Presen

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“Here I want to stress that perception of losing one’s mind is based on culturally derived and socially ingrained stereotypes as to the significance of symptoms such as hearing voices, losing temporal and spatial orientation, and sensing that one is being followed, and that many of the most spectacular and convincing of these symptoms in some instances psychiatrically signify merely a temporary emotional upset in a stressful situation, however terrifying to the person at the time. Similarly, the anxiety consequent upon this perception of oneself, and the strategies devised to reduce this anxiety, are not a product of abnormal psychology, but would be exhibited by any person socialized into our culture who came to conceive of himself as someone losing his mind.” 15 likes
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