Prisons and beyond: The sociology of 'total' institutions SOCIO4128

  • Academic Session: 2023-24
  • School: School of Social and Political Sciences
  • Credits: 20
  • Level: Level 4 (SCQF level 10)
  • Typically Offered: Semester 2
  • Available to Visiting Students: Yes

Short Description

This course takes as its starting point one seminal Sociological essay, Erving Goffman's 'On the characteristics of total institutions', contained in his book Asylums. After examining this essay in depth, we will consider contemporary and later criticisms of this text. The course will then examine several examples of current (more or less) total institutions and to what extent they have changed over time. We will start with prisons, moving on to (psychiatric) hospitals and nursing homes, before leaving the last choices up to the students. While Goffman focused on identity in total institutions, the course will go beyond this. Each week will encourage students to think critically about the 'totality' of total institutions, the societal function of these institutions and how they shape social life and identity within them and after 'release'. It also pays attention to the power(ful) in these institutions and the different impacts of bureaucracy in such settings. At the end of the course, we will examine the future of total institutions and their alternatives in different contexts. Students will be encouraged to take an increasingly active part in the course.



Requirements of Entry

In order to take this course, students need to have met the requirements for entry into the Sociology Honours Programme. This means achieving a grade of 'D' or better in Sociology 1A and 1B and a 'C' or better in Sociology 2A and 2B. Students also have to comply with the College of Social Science regulations for progression to Honours.

Excluded Courses





Annotated bibliography on 'total' institutions, with 10 sources (word limit 1,500 words). (30%)


3,000 word essay on one of the essay questions (70%)

Are reassessment opportunities available for all summative assessments? Not applicable for Honours courses

Reassessments are normally available for all courses, except those which contribute to the Honours classification. Where, exceptionally, reassessment on Honours courses is required to satisfy professional/accreditation requirements, only the overall course grade achieved at the first attempt will contribute to the Honours classification. For non-Honours courses, students are offered reassessment in all or any of the components of assessment if the satisfactory (threshold) grade for the overall course is not achieved at the first attempt. This is normally grade D3 for undergraduate students and grade C3 for postgraduate students. Exceptionally it may not be possible to offer reassessment of some coursework items, in which case the mark achieved at the first attempt will be counted towards the final course grade. Any such exceptions for this course are described below. 

Course Aims

The aim of this course is to give students the opportunity and skills to examine the legacy and impact of one piece of sociology and to apply their developing sociological knowledge to the concept of total institutions (Goffman). This will enable them to

■ Gain a deep understanding of Goffman's concept of total institutions

■ Develop a critical understanding how the state and other actors control individuals within and beyond institutions.

■ Understand 'Asylums' as a product of its time (early 1960s) and place (the US) and the implications of this for its relevance elsewhere and today.

■ Develop an understanding of the function and effects of different total institutions

Intended Learning Outcomes of Course

By the end of this course, student will be able to:

■ Assess criticisms of the concept of 'total institutions' as well as counter-criticisms

■ Critically evaluate the impact of 'Asylums' on practice (e.g. de-institutionalisation) and sociology as a discipline

■ Interpret the function and effects of the prison, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals from a sociological point of view 

■ Apply the concept of total institutions to examples of such institutions of their own choice and compare different institutions' functions, effects and power dynamics

■ Evaluate the relevance of the concept of 'total institutions' today in Western and non-Western societies.

Minimum Requirement for Award of Credits

Students must submit at least 75% by weight of the components (including examinations) of the course's summative assessment.