Test: PSAT Critical Reading

"Goffman's Theory of Institutions" by Joseph Ritchie (2014)

Sociological inquiry often investigates members of society considered to be on its outer edges. These individuals often live in precarious and vulnerable situations. Traditionally, sociologists have studied these groups to gain insight into the lives of people who are forgotten victims of the blind eye of society. In 1961, Erving Goffman published the book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. This book outlined the theory of a total institution as seen in prisons and asylums. Goffman’s interests and theory helped to reveal the inner mechanics of asylums and the process of institutionalization that takes place within a total institution.

According to Goffman’s observations and subsequent theories, a total institution seeks to erode the relationships of an individual with the outside world and consume their personal identities and daily activities. The end goal of a total institution is to break down and deconstruct the barriers that separate the spheres of sleep, play, and work in an individual’s life by conducting all of these aspects of life in the same location under the same authority. In these institutions, Goffman stated that there is an intentional divide between a large, managed group and a supervisor, which often results in feelings of submissiveness and reluctance to leave the institutionalized setting on the part of the “inmates.” This suggests that these restrictive environments lead to the institutionalization of an individual into the group and away from his or her previous, independent life. In these structures, an individual’s admission procedures shape and engineer the new member in what may be described as a process of programming. This programming of an individual is characterized by a “leaving off” of one’s identity and a “taking on” of one supplied by the establishment. Members of these establishments are alienated from their previous lives and encircled by the ideals and principals of the new institution. A prolonged exposure to similar institutions results in a phenomenon known as "disculturation," which is an un-training that renders an individual temporarily incapable of managing certain features of daily life outside the structures of the institutions.

Sociologists often study groups forgotten or ignored by society. Goffman’s work illuminated issues with vulnerable populations at asylums and other institutions. Ethnographic field studies have continued this tradition and in doing so have theorized the causes of many of society’s ills. Goffman’s work is just one example of sociology’s ability to delve into an understudied region of society, propose explanations of issues, and theorize possible avenues of reform.


"Programming" is best described as which of the following choices?

Brainwashing an inmate to believe the institution is his or her identity

Constructing one's personal identity without notable influence from others

The deconstruction of an inmate's personal life

None of the choices describe "programming."

Leaving off one's personal identity and taking on the identity of the institution 

1/36 questions


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