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on 28 May 2004
As a Nurse Lecturer I recommend this book to all my mental health students. I first read it as a first year trainee psychiatric nurse and it saved my career. There I was sitting in a care of the elderly ward in a mental hospital thinking "what the (*&^ is going on here!?", ready to pack it in, and then I started to read this book. As I progressed through the book it all began to make sense and Goffman became my hero! What a man, what a researcher, what a writer. His theory is punctuated here and there with anecdotes and as such his writing is highly accessible. Fortunately, the world I experienced as a student and that Goffman wrote of is dying, but its vestiges linger and this book is still useful today. This book will one day become a historical account, but will always stand a a testimony to the need for and effectiveness of covert qualitative research.
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Goffman worked in an asylum how they were termed and began to reflect on how they were constructed. In particular he focused on the development of madness and how it was manufactured within the asylums structures. As such he was an active force in anti-psychiatry, although later critiqued for not going far enough. Goffman failed to have a theory of power and failed to link the asylum back to eugenics and the desire to create a norm and its opposite.

However within this book, there is a revolution unfolding. Goffman took the everyday world and dissected it, showing the presumptions drawn upon to create normality. And furthermore he exposed how this normality is in effect dysfunctional.

nherent power. It also illuminates how little social values have shifted. Looking not just at the asylum but the total institution- boarding school, concentration camp, prison.

As such he highlights how the institution is not fussed about cure, only whether the person fits into the milieu and becomes utterly degraded by their acquiescence, the surrender of their autonomous self to fit into the group identity. All entailing differnt forms of emotional violence being enacted upon the supplicant and they deteriorate as a result. This is the total institution.

Goffman predates Foucault by a considerable extent and offers considerable insight into the construction of regimes aiming to regulate behaviour. The language is obtuse and could be clearer but the ideas he uses are resonant. I can fully understand why this book is still prescient as all the institutions still exist.

As for mental health being a biological condition, this just highlights the indoctrination of the undergraduate with ersatz science still continues. There is no evidence whatsoever for any genetic rational for any mental health condition. One of the key critiques within this book is Goffman's launch upon scientific pomposity- the notion it can use its concepts to explain mental health. Science makes a living from mental health but fails to cure it. After all, when a corpse is dissected you would have to show me a gene for

ADHD
Autism
Drug Addiction
Bi Polar
Schizophrenia
Paranoia

No you can't? Science has not discovered the genes yet?

Faith- not wanting to know what is true. Nietzsche
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on 24 November 2009
As a sociology postgraduate and teacher, I have come across this book many times in my academic career. Asylums is the result of many years of observation of mental institutes and is an excellent title that is easily accessible by any one studying at A-level or higher. If you plan to study and look at this book in great depth, then I would recommend looking first at Goffman's 'Frame Analysis' As with most of Goffman's work, it is best understood through his own words, as it can be open to interpretation and when reading other authors like Giddens, I feel more like I am getting their interpretation and opinion rather than the raw information.

It is a good segway into symbolic interactionist thought and discussion, though basic prior knowledge of the symbolic interactionist tradition would be useful, it does put you into the thick of the theory. This and its follow up paper 'Stigma. Notes on the management of spoiled identity' have been used countless times on my degree and postgraduate courses. Other works that may also interest you that also works on the idea of roles and dramaturgy is P.G.Zimbardo's prison experiment, which gives further validity to Asylums.

It is important to remember that this is not a medical text book, it is not meant to explain mental illness in any way, but rather show how his theory can be used to explore roles, stigma and identity, picking extreme cases like those within total institutions.
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on 8 August 2011
Erving Goffman's Asylums was first published in the same year as Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness. Dutch historian Gemma Blok claims that these two books, by drawing attention to the terrible conditions in mental institutions, inducted a new era in psychiatry. Whether they actually had that impact is debatable, but neither are about conditions in mental institutions.
Asylums is not specifically about asylums, mental institutions, or psychiatry. It is about what Goffman calls "total institutions." Why the book is called Asylums remains obscure.

Total institutions are places where people, called inmates by Goffman, live, work, eat, sleep, and carry on all their social activities. Examples of voluntary total institutions are monasteries and ships' crews. Semi-voluntary total institutions might be boarding schools or sanatoria. Involuntary total institutions are compulsory military service, jails, concentrations camps, and mental institutions. Some total institutions have live-in staff. Others have staff coming in from the outside, serving as a bridge to society at large.

Goffman is interested in the relationships that develop in total institutions: inmates among themselves, inmates and staff, and staff among themselves. He draws on a vast array of anecdotes from various kinds of total institutions. Of course the relationships in involuntary institutions will inevitably reflect the bad conditions and/or injustices of these places, but this is not Goffman's primary concern. He has no problem comparing, for instance, a mental institution to a monastery, when discussing the alternative forms of communication developed by their inmates.

From the point of view of opposition to psychiatry, the most outstanding feature of Asylums may in fact be that Goffman makes such comparisons. Inmates are inmates to Goffman, psychiatric or not. Although not denying the existence of mental illness, Goffman assigns no role to it in influencing interpersonal relationships. The inmates of mental institutions he describes behave as rationally as inmates of other total institutions, and develop similar relationships and coping strategies, unless they are so brain-damaged that they are more like fixtures.

In the last section of the book, constituting only about 50 pages out of 336 (in the edition I read, which was published posthumously in the UK in 1986) Goffman examines psychiatry as a profession. He points out the social role of the psychiatrist as opposed to the service role of other physicians. Today we would call it eminence based medicine as opposed to evidence based medicine.
If you're looking for testimony about how bad conditions were in mental institutions, Asylums will disappoint you. If you're interested in micro-societies - Goffman calls them shadow societies - then you will surely find Asylums as fascinating as I did.

Copyright © MeTZelf
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on 6 February 2014
Having read a portion of his study on Total Institutions for an OU course (K101) I gave in to temptation to buy the whole book and although I haven't read it all yet, I am loving his research and the way he writes.
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on 21 October 2003
The fact that this collection of essays has been in print for almost four decades is consistent with its enduring signficance. Although Goffman draws on his research in mental institutions, his writings in this book have much broader relevance. In particular, they have to do with the nature of identity, the processes whereby organizations and groupings seek to change the identities and selves of their members, and the strategies used by group members to resist those changes. At a broader level, this book is about the relationship between person and the groups of which s/he is a part. Extremely well written, and very readable with excellent use of illustrative examples, this set of essays provides unparalleled insights into and understandings of the relation between person and society.
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on 18 April 2014
I have made this book required reading for my students. Although a little long in the tooth now, the concepts have not changed. The lessons are delivered intelligently and in a way that is easy to read and understand.
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on 20 February 2014
Great quality book in every way. Goffman's work is a must read. Great for students as you can simply read one of the 4 essays for most work on total institutions and the self!
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on 10 December 2013
I haven't read this myself as it was for my son;s course work at uni but he hasn't complained so it must have been useful.
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on 14 February 2016
arrived on time,would definitely use again thank you
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