In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Institutions

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Texts

Anthropology Institutions
Katie Rose Hejtmanek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0156


Anthropology recognizes two kinds of institutions: total institutions and social institutions. Presently, the term institution most often refers to the kinds of places that organize people completely or “total institutions,” a concept developed in Goffman 1961 (see Foundational Texts). Michel Foucault’s work has been extremely influential in the development of anthropological studies of institutions (Foucault 1994 and Foucault 1995, see Foundational Texts). His position that clinics and prisons become sites of knowledge and power, and discipline and surveillance have led many anthropologists to ethnographically investigate prisons, hospitals, psychiatric asylums, homeless shelters, convents, child institutions, schools, organizations, and weapons laboratories. Bridging Goffman and Foucault results in what I term formal institutions, as some of these institutions do not have a totalizing organization but are still formally organized and structured to operate as sites of disciplinary power. Like Foucault, historians have taken up the history of prisons and insane asylums in an effort to understand how such institutions have become part of the social landscape in North America and Europe. Such scholarship has significantly shaped ethnographic accounts. Therefore, I have included separate sections for historical accounts of prisons and asylums. Like Goffman 1961 and Caudill 1958 (see Foundational Texts), anthropologists have entered into these places to do research, live, and reveal their inner workings. The discussion of formal institutions here includes scholarship that investigates insane asylums, child institutions, hospitals, organizations, other formal institutions, prisons, and schools. Throughout the history of anthropology, however, the term institution has often referred to social institutions, or the organizing structures that shape everyday life for people in nonindustrial societies. Douglas 1986 and Spiro 1965 (see Foundational Texts) provide foundational examples of these kinds of institutions and the way societies are organized around and through them. Despite never defining what an institution is, Douglas 1986 explores how institutions “think” and how they shape individual cognition, a structural analysis of social and personal life. Spiro 1965 explores how various societies have numerous patterns of social institutions, and an anthropological imperative is to analyze these structures and patterns. Many anthropologists follow these examples and have explored social institutions including kinship, exchange, religion, and political organizations. The discussion of social institutions here includes scholarship on economics, kinship, bureaucracies, and political institutions, including state and nonstate structures, social change and multiple institutions, and religion.

Foundational Texts

The annotated bibliography on institutions is separated into two kinds of institutions: formal or total institutions and social institutions. Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic (Foucault 1994) and Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1995) are the foundation texts on formal and total institutions; Foucault introduces the reader to the history or “archaeology” of asylums and prisons and illustrates how their construction was facilitated by a particular moment in history. For example, he examines the link between the development of medical knowledge and the proliferation of clinics. These institutions reveal how knowledge and power take shape via institutional structures. Goffman 1961 and Caudill 1958 are also foundation texts on the ethnography of institutional life. Goffman identifies and defines a “total institution” and both he and Caudill lived in these institutions as researchers. Douglas 1986 and Spiro 1965 are foundation texts on social institutions. Douglas 1986, How Institutions Think, is foundational for understanding how the term “institutions” has been used in anthropology to organize the way scholars think about social organization. Spiro 1965 is a classic example of this practice as the author examines the patterning of social institutions including kinship, economics, ecology, and politics.

  • Caudill, William A. 1958. The psychiatric hospital as a small society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674598737

    Caudill spent two months living in the Yale Psychiatric Institute to report on the social structure there. This text includes that data on the “feelings” of the place as a patient and a social scientific assessment on the hierarchical structure, varying levels of authority, and communication practices.

  • Douglas, Mary. 1986. How institutions think. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press.

    Douglas investigates the relation between individual minds and social institutions, how institutions shape cognition, and how cognition shapes social bonds and thus institutions. In this aggregation of lectures at Syracuse University, Douglas examines cooperation and solidarity, an essential question of anthropology, and what she considers an underrepresented element of cognition.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1994. The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. New York: Vintage.

    Originally published in 1973. Foucault traces the development of the medical profession and the institution of the clinic or hospital. He illustrates how medicine that sought to structure knowledge so as to discursively enable disciplinary ideologies and practices centered on the body, disease, and the authority (knowledge/power) of the medical gaze.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.

    Michel Foucault chronicles the era of prisons and houses of confinement. Foucault illustrates how power through governmentality are woven into the architecture of the prison, the organization of time therein, and the ways subjects enact their subjectification or docility, the goal of the prison. Originally published in 1977.

  • Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Anchor.

    Here Goffman coins the term “total institution” and makes way for an understanding of the kind of institution where people live, cut off from wider society, and lead an enclosed, formally administered life. Goffman examined these institutions, ethnographically arguing that both staff and inmates conformed to a new social order.

  • Spiro, Melford E. 1965. A typology of social structure and the patterning of social institutions: A cross-cultural study. American Anthropologist 67.5: 1097–1119.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1965.67.5.02a00010

    In this classic text, Spiro cross-culturally examines the ways various kinds of cultural groups, with varying social structures, pattern their institutions. Here social institutions are “kinship, economics, ecology, and politics,” and they are the structural mechanism by which people are organized in society.

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