Anthropology and Total Institutions
The presence of total institutions within our overall societal structure provides a unique opportunity for anthropologic inquiry through the standardization of individual behaviors. First introduced by sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1957 essay On the Characteristics of Total Institutions, the concept of total institution is used to describe “social arrangements which regulate, under one roof and according to one rational plan, all spheres of individuals’ lives — sleeping, eating, playing and working” (Goffman, Lemert and Branaman, 1997, p. 54). While total institutions exist in multiple forms throughout society, ranging from orphanages and nursing homes to army barracks and mental hospitals, perhaps no other organizational establishment embodies Goffman’s conception of a total institution better than the modern prison. The intensely structured and overtly authoritarian environment fostered inside a prison system epitomizes a total institution because its “total character is symbolized by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside” (Goffman, 1961). Prison inmates conduct every aspect of their lives according to a strictly regimented schedule, acting in a single location and under a single authority while in close proximity to others, all while struggling to adhere to the institutions stated plan or mission. The modern prison is a classic representation of a total institution and prison inmates inevitably resort to proven anthropological patterns, including schismogenesis, resistance, presentation of the self and boundary creation, in an effort to successfully negotiate their positions within the overall structure. By examining the anthropological methods used by inmates in response to the pressures of total institutions, a more complete understanding of both Goffman’s theory and the human psyche will be attained.
The repressive atmosphere and sheer violence which is endemic to nearly all modern prisons serves to relegate its inhabitants to anonymity by stripping inmates of their previously held sense of identity. The homogenization of personal signifiers like clothing, appetite and access to media, engineered by prison administrators in an attempt to mandate conformity, inevitably results in a phenomenon known as schismogenesis. This anthropologic tendency, first explicated by Gregory Bateson in the 1930’s, is defined literally as “the creation of division” and occurs when members of a total institution form artificial partitions within the overall group based on competition and rivalry. The originator of the term defined schismogenesis as a “progressive unilateral distortion of the personalities of the members of both groups, which results in mutual hostility between them and must end in the breakdown of the system” (Bateson, 1935, p. 181), and the effects of schismogenesis are routinely observed inside prison systems.
A prison inmate’s seemingly unhesitant impulse to align themselves with fellow inmates along strictly racial lines is the first indicator that schismogenesis has affected an individual’s psyche. Despite an utter lack of preconceived racial bias, the vast majority of prison inmates rely on ethnicity when determining their relationship to a fellow inmate. The formation of prison gangs, which are the foundation of prison hierarchy, is based solely on the concept of racial divisions. Because this spontaneous stratification is “largely motivated by the perceived need to establish ethnic boundaries,” the process accentuates seemingly minor differences until “the last bond of communality (is) broken and the process of schismogenesis completed” (Bartels, 1990, p. 8). Prison inmates also engage in schismogenesis to negotiate their positions within a total institution through the further formation of various subdivisions, each seeking to assert its dominance and force other groups into submission. Homosexuals of every race are ostracized from prison groups and are forced to coalesce into factions which are typically mistreated and abused by more dominant groups. Called complementary schismogenesis, this trend is also prevalent in the case of child molesters and sexual deviants; inmates who are systematically separated from, and shunned by, the group at large.
In response to the ubiquitous presence of authority figures and the complete removal of personal freedom, prison inmates resort to resistance in many forms when struggling to reclaim the sense of identity so thoroughly expunged by life in a total institution. In anthropological terms, resistance encompasses the “everyday, ordinary, indirect strategies through which (inmates) play through symbolic sanctions with the limits of power imposed on them” (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009, p. 3). In attempting to monitor and regulate the behavior of prisoners serving life sentences, the imposition of punishment becomes ineffective and inmates begin to utilize resistance to restore their own sense…