Glenda B. Claborne
Soc 500b
Reading # 1: Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York, NY: Doubleday

I. Describe the moral career of a graduate student using Goffman's stages where applicable.


The stages, which Goffman delineated to describe the "moral career" of mental patients, derive largely from his definition and characterization of a total institution. In the sense that Goffman characterizes total institutions as encompassing and totalizing, and as "symbolized by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs, water, forests, or moors" (p. 4), universities or graduate schools for that matter, can hardly be considered total institutions. Therefore, we do not expect two different frameworks for symbolic interaction, a graduate school and a mental hospital, to effect the same moral career. However, as Goffman sought to do, analysis of the stages through which mental patients change their conception of self and of others can help us to see parallel effects on the self between the social arrangements in a total institution and the social arrangements in a civilian institution.

While the pre-patient phase of an inmate's moral career involves multi-agent-assisted sequences of passing from being a person to being a patient, the pre-admission graduate student is expected to have gone through a series of independent thinking and decision-making regarding the graduate program he/she applies to. However, the inmate and the graduate student face similar threats to the self in admission procedures where the criteria used to assess the applicant may have more to do with the goals of the institution than with the personal goals of the patient or the graduate applicant. After admission, both patient and the graduate student face similar pressures to conform to the institutional goals by which they were admitted in the first place. After admission, the graduate student, just like the new mental patient, is supposed to be better prepared for learning if he/she is first stripped of any intellectual baggage, arrogance or muddle-headedness. The student is exposed to possible humiliations to self. Some students learn to mortify their selves and do whatever is prescribed to get their graduate degree, however boring and numbing that could be. Some find the strength and the creativity to open their selves to the instruction of others and to structural constraints and still feel in control of their graduate education. Some fall by the wayside and it is this last group who would feel compelled to construct a "sad tale" of their failure in order to show that they are not responsible for their failure.

II. How is the self mortified according to Goffman?


Goffman describes the mortification of the self in total institutions in relation to a concept of self that has more room to define itself within the relatively stable social arrangements in an inmate's world prior to entering a total institution. The mortification of the self involves the processes by which this "civilian self" is slowly stripped of its connections to the outside world to the point where the self is given up to be defined by the social arrangements inside the total institution.

The mortification of the self begins when a barrier is placed between the individual in an institution and the wider world. The barrier requires that the individual breaks with his past roles and takes on an institutional role that supersedes any role he/she was accustomed to. In cases where entrance to an institution is voluntary, this break with the past may occur before the individual is admitted into the institution. Institutional admission procedures add more to the initial curtailment of the self through the process of squaring away the individual on the bases of institutional goals that may completely ignore the usual bases on which the individual conceives of himself/herself.

After admission, other direct and immediate assaults to the self include dispossession of things that are invested with self-feelings or of personal things that help one manage a personal front and substitution of these self-invested things with standard issue things. The self experiences a loss of control over its presentation and personal safety.

The self is further mortified by indignities of speech and action that come from an obligation of deference and obedience to staff or authority and that have no compatibility with the individual's prior conception of self. The self can be further violated through contaminative exposure to other people and things that the individual prefers to be separated from in order to protect a concept of self.

In addition to the above elementary and direct curtailment of the self, Goffman also describes the mortification of the self through the "disruptions of the usual relationship between the individual actor and his acts" (p. 35). One of these "disruptions is called "looping" in which the individual's defensive responses to assaults on the self are used instead to rationalize further assaults on the individual's self. By this process, the self is stripped of those protective responses that life outside the institution would normally allow as responses to humiliating experiences in life.

Notwithstanding the effects of total institutions on the inmate's civilian self, Goffman qualifies the self-mortification effects of total institutions by stating that "attachment of the inmate to this civilian self can vary considerably" (p. 47). Furthermore, Goffman tries to drive home the difference between psychological stress on the self and violations of the territories and boundaries of the self. The former may facilitate the latter but, in itself, has nothing to do with the mortification of the self.