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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Cambridge as Total Institution

Erving Goffman defined a total institution as a 'place of residence and work where a large number of like-minded individuals, cut off from wider society for an appreciable amount of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life'. Institutions he had in mind were mental asylums, prisons, prisoner of war camps, concentration camps; as well as less punitive others, such as sanatoria, leperosaria, army barracks, monasteries and even some boarding schools.

'Cambridge is a total institution. Discuss.'

This is the question I've decided to set myself, out of a deteriorating sense of academic purpose, an inability to revise and a need to find new and less guilt-inducing ways to procrastinate.


A prerequisite for a total institution is that sleep, play and work take place in the same place. In society generally, it is a fair assumption that one might wake up in his house, go to work at the office, retire to the golf course to chill out for a bit, before returning home to family and his bed. The central feature of total instituions can be described as a breakdown of the barriers ordinarily separating those 3 spheres of life.

I woke up at 11:30 today, in my tiny cupboard of a room in Homerton (incidentally after having a range of weird dreams but no matter). I switched on my laptop and staggered off for a piss. I sat down at my desk and read some Erving Goffman. I got hungry; I ate in my room. I worked for a while this afternoon. I chilled out here, watching 4OD, and now I'm listening to Eels whilst dubiously revising/procrastinating by writing this. Then I will hop off my scummy desk chair into bed. If I went and stood on the lawn outside East House and looked up at the windows, I daresay there will be many others doing the same. Working, living, relaxing, sleeping, playing, reading: all in their confined spaces.


In a total institution, the fulfilment of human needs is dealt with bureaucratically - all you need to keep you alive will be provided for by the institution.

I direct you to CUSU, where you will find your political rights, your sexual health, your mental stability, your academic services, your official information and your every faxing and photocopying whim catered for. Hungry reading this? You can go down to hall or to the buttery. Wearing dirty clothes? Go to your on-site laundry room. Preggo? Call your welfare officer. Ill? Visit the college nurse. Religiously ambiguous? Chaplain.


In a total institution, activities that carried direct gratification on the outside are made fruitless and seemingly futile. Thus the soldier may find himself cutting a lawn with a pair of nail clippers as a disciplinary punishment. The prisoners may be forced into labour, pointless or otherwise, for which they get no material reward. In the total institution, work does not lead to a dispensible wage; instead, fear is instilled in inmates about the consequences of NOT doing the work. This is coupled with incentivising things that would be taken for granted on the outisde; for example, a prisoner may behave perfectly for a month in order to be granted a phonecall.

In Cambridge, which students haven't begged the question of what in the holy fuck is the point? In no occupation would you expect to work over 12 hours a day for no other incentive than for your own good. So we work towards exams... what do they measure? Only how much work you have done. It's exam term and a girl who lives on my corridor has mentioned that she will get up early to start work so that she can allow herself an hour to watch Over the Rainbow. Is it really worth it?


In a total institution, whether there is too much work forced upon them (as in the forced labour of a Nazi death camp) or too little, so that they fall into extremes of boredom (as in those who rock to themselves, retreatist, in a mental asylum), those who enter the institution being work-motivated are likely nonetheless to be ground down and demoralised by the persistent work culture of the total institution.

This one needs little elucidation. All I will say to elaborate is that in the September before I matriculated, I found myself pre-reading in Doncaster Library, thinking keenly about how the Cambridge experience will expand my academic horizons, entrench my convictions and push me to reach my potential. Two weeks after matriculating, after gulping from the ceremonial Homerton Horn, I found myself sat in my pants at 3pm missing lectures only to eat Ryvita, watch Youtube clips of japanese scare pranks and bash myself off. If ever there was a case study of demoralisation, it lived in 333 West House in Michaelmas 2008.


New inmates (read: freshers) enter the total institution with a personal identity and a unique way of life and set of experiences that set them apart from other inmates. The institution sets about a process of DISCULTURATION - an 'untraining' which renders the inmate less capapble of managing certain features of daily life in the real world, if he ever leaves.

Can you remember your first supervision, when you realise that despite being top of the class for the 13 years leading up to this pedagogical stand-off, you are actually brainless, ineloquent and pathetic. And gradually, the cultural currents of Cantabrigia catch you and sin you around - you probably don't evn notice it happening - so that when you return back to your hometown you feel somehow alien. My own experience of returning back to Doncaster, my genuinely much-loved hometown for all my life, was this sense of unease at how fat everybody was and a distrust of shopworkers. Further examples of disculturation can be found in the SPS library, where, after reading Foucault and Lacan for 4 hours, students leave unable to socially interact: my own experience of this was telling a Big Issue seller I wanted him to bite me, in a skewed pursuit of banter.

And there is more; but regrettably the panopticon is conditioning a sense of guilt into me as I'm writing this; that unseen but omnipresent force of the institution incorporeal, whsipering into my conscience, breathlessly, "Stop writing blogposts, and do some fucking spider graphs"

So I leave you with the 4 tactics Goffman identifies of how inmates cope with life inside the institution. If you agree that Cambridge is a total institution - bedfellow to Belsen, Bedlam and the barracks - maybe this will be useful for you.

- Situational Withdrawl - becoming completely insular and withdrawing entirely from all semblances of an external reality, living only within the confines of your mind. Think along the lines of a mental patient who does not communicate but merely moves around silently in the ward, the Romanian orphan who has not been spoken to who is closed off to the social world, or the stereotypical CompSci.

- Intransigent Line - adopting a flagrant refusal to obey the institution and its rules. These people often do not last long; in many total institutions, physical pain, torture and even death may been inflicted upon these transgressors. In Cambridge, these rules essentially constitute doing academic work; so such transgressors can be considered to be practicing what Homertonians may understand to be the Gadsby Effect.

- Colonisation - when the inmate builds up a virtual experience of the outside world from the few external influences that remain for them. This could be the soldier in the bunkers who is motivated by the thought of returning to his wife. This could be the prisoner who keeps his sanity by merely thinking of the beauties of freedom and counting down the days. Or, in Cambridge, it could be the Lawyer who works themself to the extent of autism with their eyes fixed solely on their life after leaving the oppressive manacles behind.

- Conversion - accepting the rules and striving for perfect. This could be the perfect prisoner, who follows the rules without question, is subservient and helpful to prison officers and who thus incurs merits such as small but significant freedoms, such as special duties. Here, it could be the student who grafts away, eternally mindful that they must be on time, of passable quality, diligent in supervisions and getting the most from their time here.


Anyway, I must get back into my cell; revision beckons.


  1. I love this.

    Particularly, "Ill? Visit the college nurse."

    It looks like, "Have you suddenly found that you are three years old? Visit the college nurse."

    But there are other merits in the content of this pseudo-essay.

    And I agree with the going-back-home-all-disculturated thing.