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The term institutionalisation is widely used in social theory to denote the process of making something (for example a concept, a social role, particular values and norms, or modes of behaviour) become embedded within an organization, social system, or society as an established custom or norm within that system. See the entries on structure and agency and social construction for theoretical perspectives on the process of institutionalisation and the associated construction of institutions.

The term 'institutionalisation' may also be used to refer to the committing by a society of an individual to a particular institution such as a mental institution. The term institutionalisation is therefore sometimes used as a term to describe both the treatment of, and damage caused to, vulnerable human beings by the oppressive or corrupt application of inflexible systems of social, medical, or legal controls by publicly owned, private or not-for-profit organisations or to describe the process of becoming accustomed to life in an institution so that it is difficult to resume normal life after leaving.

In the United States and most other developed societies, severe restrictions have been placed on the circumstances under which a person may be committed or treated against their will as such actions have been ruled by the United States Supreme Court and other national legislative bodies as a violation of civil rights and/or human rights, see e.g. O'Connor v. Donaldson. Thus a person is rarely committed against their will and is never committed for an indefinite period of time.[1]

The term 'institutionalisation' may also be used in a political sense to apply to the creation or organisation of governmental institutions or particular bodies responsible for overseeing or implementing policy, for example in welfare or development.

In a corporate context, individuals who work within large established organisations can become socialised into organisational values and norms, and values and norms may become institutionalised. It has been suggested by some writers that such supportive structure and routines may in some cases lead to a narrowing or reduction in individual critical judgement and reasoning. This accepting mental outlook, can lead to oversight and slowed reaction to changes outside the organisation, thus hindering adaptation to new circumstances. Institutionalisation, therefore, is an important element of the analysis and management of corporate or organisational culture and important in relation to issues of organisational change.

The idea or concept of the term 'Institutionalisation' is well explained in the 1994 American drama film The Shawshank Redemption. The movie explains how Brooks Hatlen, one of the oldest convicts at Shawshank, upon his release, finds himself unable to cope with life on the outside, and soon commits suicide.


Institutionalisation as a socio-political phenomenon

During the period of the industrial revolution in Europe many countries went through a period of 'institutionalisation', which saw a large expansion and development of the role of government within society, particularly into areas seen previously as the private sphere. Institutionalisation is also seen as being an important part of process of modernization in developing countries, involving again the expansion and improved organization of government structures.

Public and civic organisations acquired great authority and wealth during and in the century following the Industrial Revolution in the UK and other rapidly developing nation states. The growing demands of industry for high volume labour supplies in the nineteenth century also created an ethos in which the needs and rights of the unproductive or vulnerable individual were deemed less important than the needs of society as a whole. Large numbers of beggars and high rates of crime and disease were a consequence of the massive social and economic changes experienced in the period following the battle of Waterloo. Social unrest from the Peterloo riots onwards resulted in a significant Chartist challenge to established authority on the streets of major cities like Sheffield, Manchester, and Glasgow in the 1840s.

During the period from 1850 - 1930 many types of institutions were created by public subscription, parliament and local authorities to provide housing, healthcare, education, and financial support for individuals in need. At the upper end of the scale, public boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow were founded or greatly extended to meet the growing demand for the education of the children of those in colonial service overseas. These were seen as models of social improvement, and many inferior imitations followed for the lower social orders. Virtually every borough in the UK was required by legislation to make provision for paupers, homeless, released prisoners, convicted criminals, orphans, disabled war veterans, older people with no means of support, deaf and blind schools, schools and colonies for those with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

Distinguishing features of such institutions were frequently, but not exclusively:

  • communal dormitories
  • communal kitchens and dining facilities
  • rural, isolated locations
  • restrictions on personal liberty and possessions
  • uniforms
  • oppressive, authoritarian regimes
  • strict systems of rules and codes of conduct
  • boards of visitors or trustees, usually drawn from the ranks of the upper middle classes, the so called "great and good"
  • hierarchical systems of management
  • compulsory religious attendance
  • involvement of inmates as unpaid or poorly-rewarded labour in return for small privileges
  • widespread abuse of human rights, dignity
  • rigid separation of the sexes
  • excessive reliance on medication and physical restraints

Many of these organizations, whilst originally expressing idealistic aspirations and aims, became "total" institutions within a generation or two of their foundation, providing in some cases cradle to grave housing, occupation and social control. Founding charters usually proclaimed beneficial outcomes of "reform" (or rehabilitation ) of character through moral and occupation education and discipline, but in practice inmates were often trapped in a system that provided no obvious route of escape or promotion. As late as the 1950s, in Britain, several hundred thousand people lived in Victorian asylums and "colonies".

Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his opus The Social Contract that "Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude". Institutionalisation is a similar process.[2]

Deconstruction of major social Institutions

The dangers of institutions were chronicled and criticised by reformers almost since their foundation. Charles Dickens was an outspoken and high profile early critic, and several of his novels, in particular Oliver Twist and Hard Times demonstrate his insight into the damage that institutions can do to human beings.

Enoch Powell, when Minister for Health in the early 1960s, was a later opponent who was appalled by what he witnessed on his visits to the asylums, and his famous "water tower" speech in 1961 called for the closure of all NHS asylums and their replacement by wards in general hospitals:

"There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside - the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defences which we have to storm." [1]

Scandal after scandal followed, with many high profile public inquiries. These involved the exposure of abuses such as unscientific surgical techniques such as lobotomy and the widespread neglect and abuse of vulnerable patients in the USA and Europe. The growing anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s and 1970s led in Italy to the first successful legislative challenge to the authority of the mental institutions, culminating in their closure.

During the 1980s and 1990s the hospital population started to fall rapidly, mainly because of the deaths of long-term inmates. Significant efforts were made to re-house large numbers of former residents in a variety of suitable or otherwise alternative accommodation. The first 1,000+ bed hospital to close was Darenth Park in Kent, swiftly followed by many more across the UK. The haste of these closures, driven by the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, led to considerable criticism in the press, as some individuals slipped through the net into homelessness or were discharged to poor quality private sector mini-institutions.

The resistance of many institutions to change predicted by Enoch Powell has continued into the 21st century, and there are still several thousand people permanently resident in the dwindling asylums and long stay hospital replacement campuses scattered across the UK.

See also


Further reading

  • Report of the Committee of Inquiry into allegations of ill-treatment of patients and other irregularities at the Ely Hospital, Cardiff, HMSO 1969 [2]
  • Extracts of the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Normansfield Hospital - British Medical Journal, 1978, 2, 1560-1563 [3]
  • Erving Goffman Asylums
  • Whyte, William H., The Organization Man, Doubleday Publishing, 1956. (excerpts from Whyte's book)


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