Erving Goffman’s ‘total institutions’ warrant inclusion in a comprehensive theory of management

Cannons, such as one located at Old Mill Toronto in the Kingsway neighbourhood, serve as a reminder of the concept that “war is work that soldiers do.” The concept is discussed in a previous post about Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (2011), a study by Sönke Neitzel, a historian, and Harald Welzer, a sociologist and social psychologist. Jaan Pill photo

Another heavy gun, a retired cannon, is located at Marie Curtis Park in south Etobicoke. You can read more about the cannon by doing a Google search for “Cannon at Marie Curtis Park Preserved Stories.” Jaan Pill photo

As I have noted, John Hendry provides an impressive and valuable overview of management theory and practice in Management: A Very Short Introduction (2013).

According to a blurb, the Very Short Introductions of which close to 400 have been published by Oxford University Press, “are for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way in to a new subject. They are written by experts, and have been published in more than 40 languages worldwide.”

Management and morality

Chapter 10 of John Hendry’s overview, which addresses management and morality, brings to mind Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘total institution.’

In such institutions, the rules – and sense-making and storytelling – of everyday life outside no longer have validity for their members. The link in the previous paragraph outlines the concept.

In Chapter 8, modern organizations are characterized as settings from which questions of morality are excluded. Chapter 6 describes “strong individualizing tendencies of contemporary management” (p. 116), a theme that points in the same direction as Chapter 8.

Chapter 2, on the other hand, “pictures management practice as an inherently social activity that would seem to have an essentially moral dimension” (p.116). This picture would, Hendry adds, be reinforced by the socializing tendencies described in Chapter 5 and sense-making and storytelling functions of management outlined in Chapter 9.

Dehumanizing effects of bureaucratic technology

Hendry adds that the tension that he describes – between management viewed as not concerned with morality, and management viewed as having a moral function – is endemic to management.

The links embedded in the quotations that follow refer to previous posts.

Traditional bureaucratic corporation

“The traditional bureaucratic corporation,” Hendry asserts on p. 117, “was in many ways a traditional moral community, modelled on the societies in which it operated. Hierarchical structure was accompanied by an ethic of duty, in which each member served the interests of the whole by conscientiously playing his or her particular part.”

Hendry adds, however, that critics view such a corporation as “morally disabling.”

Zygmunt Bauman

“The bureaucracy,” the critics would argue, according to Hendry, “established rules for everything and the manager, acting as an office holder rather than as an individual person, could not do other than follow those rules, even if the purposes of the organization were quite unethical. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman pointed to the bureaucratic organization that made possible the Holocaust as an example of the dehumanizing effects of bureaucratic technology.”

Hendry’s own conclusion is that the state of affairs in history when a bureaucracy was “turned to immoral ends by unscrupulous leaders … was essentially a pathological state. It relied on the exercise of power, through charisma and coercion, in ways that were completely alien to the bureaucratic ideal. In a properly functioning bureaucracy the leader or chief executive is as much a servant of the community as anyone else.”

Whether Hendry’s conclusion, about what has happened in the past, is valid, or adds to our capacity to make sense of what management entails, is a matter of opinion.

One can add, as is evident from The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (1974), among other accounts, that in some cases in history, genocide has proceeded without much assistance from bureaucracy.

Marjorie H. Goodman and Vasily Grossman

The discussion concerning the tension related to the morality, or lack of morality, of bureaucratic organizations brings to mind the work of Marjorie Harness Goodwin (2006) and Vasily Grossman (2005).

Linguistic anthropology

As outlined at an earlier post, linguistic anthropology provides an apt means by which asymmetrical power relationships in society can be analyzed, and provides a basis whereby destructive social scenarios including bullying can be addressed in ways that possess a likelihood of achieving positive results.

Chapter 16 in The Handbook of Language Socialization (2014) by Marjorie H. Goodwin and Amy Kyratzis, entitled “Peer Language Socialization,” reviews the broader context within which linguistic anthropology contributes to our understanding of how we as citizens are socialized from an early age “through language and to use language.” The latter quotation is from the opening paragraph of Chapter 16 of the handbook in question.

Linguistic anthropology may, by way of illustration, entail a detailed analysis of a video recording of a specified social interaction, for example of children at a playground at recess. Requisite permissions to video and audio record would be obtained beforehand in such research.

Beats, pauses, and intonation contours

The resulting recordings are converted into a script that bears similarities to a motion picture script. However, in the research analysis, the inflections, beats, pauses, intonation contours (which can be analyzed using Pitchworks), and emphases of spoken dialogue are included in the detailed script – which, in turn, serves as a key element in a subsequent research report.

In contrast, with a motion picture script, it is the actors who would be responsible for bringing the script to life – for example by deciding where the beats will be, in the spoken dialogue – in the course of acting out a series of specified scenes.

In a sense, in the form of research that linguistic anthropology entails, from what I can gather, a segment of everyday life is recorded, and through a process akin to reverse engineering, a detailed script – more precise and detailed than a motion picture script – is presented to the reader.

Goodwin approaches the study of social interactions in a manner that builds upon the work of Erving Goffman.

The work of filmmaker Laura Poitras similarly demonstrates elements of a Goffmanesque approach toward sense-making, storytelling, and themes of relevance to linguistic anthropology among other academic disciplines.

A Writer at War (2005)

Among other works, Vasily Grossman is the author of A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, 1st ed. (2005).


An April 6, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “The System: Two new histories show how the Nazi concentration camps worked.”

An April 22, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Oskar Groening, former Auschwitz guard, describes camp in chilling detail at trial.”

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

A May 7, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘Forbidden Films’ Exhumes Nazi Poison From the Movie Vaults.”

The opening paragraphs read:

“The Third Reich was not only a totalitarian state but also a total multimedia regime. Seven decades after its fiery collapse, the embers remain — including some 1,200 feature films produced under Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Are they historical evidence, incitements to murder, fascist pornography, evergreen entertainments, toxic waste or passé kitsch? All of the above?

“Those questions are raised by ‘Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film,’ a documentary essay by the German filmmaker Felix Moeller, opening May 13 at Film Forum for a weeklong, free-admission run.

“Mr. Moeller, born 20 years after Germany’s defeat, is concerned about what he sees as youthful disinterest in the Nazi period and the concurrent rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe. He arrived at “Forbidden Films,” he said by telephone from Berlin, after making ‘Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,’ a documentary about the family legacy of Nazi Germany’s most celebrated director, Veit Harlan. Harlan’s most notorious film, “Jew Süss” (1940) — a period melodrama in which a Jewish moneylender connives to take control of the duchy of Württemberg — is as incontrovertibly anti-Semitic as it was enormously popular.”

[End of excerpt]

Also of interest: Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010).

A Feb. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘My family resisted the Nazis’: why director had to film Alone in Berlin.”

An Aug. 15, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary: ‘No one believes me now, but I knew nothing’: Brunhilde Pomsel worked at the heart of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. As a film about her life is released, she discusses her lack of remorse and the private side of her monstrous boss.”

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    An Oct. 3, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Ambiguous figure illusions: do they offer a window on the mind? Do you see a wife, or a mother-in-law in this picture? Ambiguous figures have intrigued scientists since the 1800s, but what can they tell us about our visual system?”

    I mention the above-noted article because ambiguity drives scams and scamming.

    I have had a strong interest in the role of ambiguity as it relates to visual representations; I became particularly interested in the topic in the 1960s when I read Art and Illusion. The link in the previous sentence refers to the edition of the study that was published in 2000. A blurb reads:

    Considered a great classic by all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities, Art and Illusion examines the history and psychology of pictorial representation in light of present-day theories of visual perception information and learning. Searching for a rational explanation of the changing styles of art, Gombrich reexamines many ideas on the imitation of nature and the function of tradition. In testing his arguments he ranges over the history of art, noticing particularly the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks, and the visual discoveries of such masters as Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, as well as the impressionists and the cubists. Gombrich’s triumph in Art and Illusion arises from the fact that his main concern is less with the artists than with ourselves, the beholders.

    [End of text]

    Another book from the 1960s that has had a strong impact on me in subsequent years is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959).

    The latter study is by Erving Goffman. Some years ago, I was thinking of posting information about the latter author at my website. At first, I thought, “Who would be interested in Goffman, who wrote so long ago?” But then I began to notice that he was still being sited, extensively. As it has turned out, one of my posts about Goffman is among the most widely-visted pages at my website:

    Erving Goffman began his graduate work in Chicago in 1945

    Another page about Goffman that has been widely read is entitled:

    Erving Goffman’s “total institutions” warrant inclusion in a comprehensive theory of management

    The fact that readers have responded to the two, above-noted posts is of much interest to me. the response underlines for me that social media is indeed a two-way, interactive process, a two-way street.


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