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What Is A Total Institution

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

This paper will argue that the model of the ‘total institution’ can offer insight into the workings of the Caribbean sugar plantation under slavery. In attempting to make this connection, it is essentially looking at the model in the light of the history of the sugar plantation, as well as looking at the history through the lens of the theory. And so it will argue that the model offers some insight, but that there are clear limits to its applicability. The theory of the total institution is a theory of relationships, not of the institution that contains them.

Also – the point is not to argue that the plantations were designed as total institutions, but that the total institution model contains widely applicable truths about the nature of human social organisations, and the place that individuals find in them, that explain particular aspects of the plantation.

The one great difference between the plantation and the ‘total institutions’ that inspired the development of the concept is that the purpose of plantations is profit, through the production of a commodity, while this is seldom the case with asylums and prisons; even if they are run for profit, their aim is to achieve control, not to produce anything by means of this control.

What is a total institution?

“Total institution” is a concept introduced by the sociologist Erving Goffman in his book Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (1961) to describe an institution that functions by monopolising the reality of those inmates it seeks to control. There are two aspects of the concept that relate to the institution of the sugar plantation. The first concerns the way in which power is exercised to a degree that makes all those involved as ‘inmates’ and supervisors bound to follow its dictates. The total institution is one which encompasses every aspect of its inmates’ relationship with the world, and controls them by controlling their understanding and their motivations. The other aspect of the total institution concerns the inmates themselves – they internalise the rules and perspectives of the institution, and define themselves by their standards; essentially investing their identity in the role they are taught to play. Goffman argued that this was true of those with authority in the institution, as well as those whose behaviour and consciousness it was designed to shape.

Perhaps the most important thing about this model, with respect to the sugar plantations, is that Goffman did not see the total institution as a narrowly defined tool, invented to control inmates, on the lines of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ (Smith, 2008). Rather, it is a natural outcome of the evolution of universal human and social realities within institutions which pursue their ends through a close control over the circumstances and behaviour of their inmates, because this control is effective.

The power of the total institution

The most powerful argument for the usefulness of the total institution model with respect to the sugar plantation is the way in which the plantation could function with such minimal physical control.

Murrell (2000, 14) suggests that religion played a central role in achieving the domination that allowed slavery to persist. The complex and ambiguous role of religion in the culture of the plantation economies cannot be pursued here in any detail, but it seems fair to suggest that religion played the role that the therapeutic and normative discourse of psychology plays in Goffman’s account of the asylum.

A measure of the power of the slave plantation as a total institution, one which shaped the behaviour and understanding of its ‘inmates’, would be the longevity of the social relations it defined between people. The extent that plantation economies, along with the racial domination and colonial power that enabled them, survived after the abolition of slavery suggests the degree to which the social relations and identities defined during slavery had shaped the word-view of former slaves and their descendants.

And slavery, in exercising virtually unlimited domination over people seen as ‘naturally’ subordinate, imposed a model of family structure and gender relations on slaves which served the economic interests of their masters,(Wiltshire-Brodber, 2002) without respect for the innate desire which all people have for the closeness and security of a family. According to the total institution model, this would result in slaves embracing the roles defined for them, and internalising the identities that these roles define. And there is evidence of this effect in the way that gender relations in Caribbean societies, especially among the poorest sectors of society, continue to reflect patterns and identities that have their roots in the logic of the plantation. Matrilocal patterns of family structure and a strong belief in the value of female autonomy are combined with a strong patriarchal ideology (Momsen, 2002).

Limits of the total institution model.

While the total institution model can explain a great deal about the manner in which plantations functioned under slavery, there are limits to its applicability. These limits fall under two categories, which correspond, in a sense, the perspectives of those controlling, and those controlled by, the institution of the plantation. The first set of limits is illustrated by the many ways in which the total institution was subverted. The pattern of these subversive activities varied from island to island, and probably from plantation to plantation, included the survival of African religions, hidden or evolved into syncretic African-Christian forms such as sateria and used to define an identity distinct from that hypocritically imposed by western religious institutions, the persistence of secret practices, from planning for rebellion to distilling to informal patterns of domination and association, and the recourse to escape, at least on larger islands.

Religion is interesting in that it so clearly plays an ambiguous role as an institution in the history of slavery. On the one hand, it contained elements that helped define a collective identity that subverted plantation authority. On the other hand, it was a source of comfort and control that made plantation life bearable and persuaded slaves not to rebel. It was partly an affirmation of African identity, partly a European lesson in being content with one’s place. In the famous words of Karl Marx, religion was “at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress….the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” (Marx, 1843/2002)

Economics and the limits of the total institution

The total institution is not generally an economic unit as well. It tends to exist – as in the case of asylums, prisons, concentration camps – in order to control the behaviour of those who are institutionalised. If it has an economy, in the narrow sense, it is an economy of efficient control, or exists to occupy people, like political prisoners; in a way that pays for the costs of the institution that imprisons them. The sugar plantation was an immensely profitable economic institution, however, and the economic models that evolved to produce sugar, the justifications for slavery and murderous racial oppression these entailed, and the social structures that emerged to make this violent form of slavery work, should all be seen in the light of the economic motivations they elected.

It is tempting to imagine that slave societies did not obey a strict economic logic, in the same sense that capitalist societies do. Some historians (e.g. Genovese, 1989) have tried to make this point in order to define capitalism’s distinctly rationalising, dehumanising and commodifying logic. But it seems clear that plantations were subject to economic logic. The difference in plantation models between those colonies most reliant on a steady arrival of new slaves, such as Haiti and those less so, illustrates that the economic exigencies defined by a particular form of productive activity are real and complex. The intensity of the exploitation that characterised Haiti is well established (Bellegarde-Smith, 1990). The economic limitations on the function of the plantation as a total institution are also, in a sense, the limits that the total institution model defines for the economic activities involved.

Plantation economies were dedicated to making money, and they made a great deal of it for their plantation owners and their colonial rulers. They were for the most part seen as primitive and unpleasant places by those who made their immense fortunes there rather than societies with any redeeming, justifying values or institutions. An individual or institution dedicated to making money does not exercise more physical control than is necessary. Physical control is expensive, in the number of overseers it requires and in the limits it imposes on the activities of working people. And in the case of an economic unit like a slave plantation, with its vastly-outnumbered overseers, too much control might cause as much unrest as it prevents. It makes better economic sense to find the balance between too much control and too little, and to live with the limits (rebellion, subversive religious and magical practices, escape, clandestine romance and petty economic activities) that this permits. The most extreme form of resistance is rebellion itself, and there were many rebellions, large and small, among the slaves of the Caribbean. Perhaps one measure of the degree to which economic calculation dominated the logic of plantation slavery is that the possibility of rebellion persisted – perhaps it made more economic sense to risk the occasional bloodbath than to exercise the degree of rigorous control that would reduce the risk.


The ‘total institution’ model applies to institutions that function by means of control over the perceptions and sentiments of their inmates, rather than by means of physical force. This paper has argued that the model offers insights into the way in which slave plantation societies functioned, and were able to exercise such cruel authority with recourse to so little active control. The plantation is in fact a good test and confirmation of the model. The power that plantation owners and the government forces that supported them exercised was absolute, but it was not exercised in the form of absolute physical control.

This paper has also argued that there are limits to the applicability of the model – which reflect the economic motives driving the institution of the plantation. The strength and persistence of the cultural legacy of slavery – in syncretic religions, in family structures – and of a social order that allowed plantation agriculture to continue after the end of slavery all paint a picture of a complex reality in which the control of the total institution extended no further than was necessary to ensure a profitable sugar industry.

The point is that the model of the total institution illuminates general truths about the nature of authority that help explain how and why, once the decision was made to develop Caribbean economies on the basis of slavery was, why the institution of slavery developed developed there as it did, why it persevered, and why – in the case of Haiti – it was overcome.

References Cited

Bellegarde-Smith, P. (1990) Haiti: The Breached Citadel. Westview Press.

Genovese, Eugene D. (1989) The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. Middletown,CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Goffman, Erving. (1961) Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates

Marx, Karl John C. Raines (2002) Marx on Religion Editor John C. Raines Philadlphia: Temple University Press, 2002

Momsen, Janet. The Double Paradox, in Gendered Realities: Essays in Caribbean Feminist Thought Editor Patricia Mohammed Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2002

Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel (2000) Dangerous Memories, Underdevelopment, and the Bible in Colonial Caribbean Experience in Religion, culture, and tradition in the Caribbean Authors Editors Hemchand Gossai, Nathaniel Samuel Murrell London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, Philip (2008) Punishment and culture Chicago:University of Chicago Press.

Wiltshire-Brodber, Rosina (2002) Gender, Race and Class in the Caribbean in

Gender in Caribbean Development: Papers presented at the Inaugural Seminar

of the University of the West Indies Women and Development Studies Project Edited by Patricia Mohammed and Catherine Shepherd Kingston:Canoe Press UWI

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