Writing About a Mental Hospital

Visits to all of our field sites in Sociology 215 are meant to do three things:

(1) Encourage you to think about readings and class topics and to use those materials in your discussion of the field experience;
(2) Raise issues for you about participation in community life and political activity and to discuss how engagement and social responsibility, or disengagement and social irresponsibility happen;
(3) Give you field experiences to prepare you for other courses that will have more intensive field experiences, like Anthropology/Sociology 201.

Your paper is not meant to be long. Three or four pages is enough. You also should not try to write about all of the themes given below. Pick your focus, state it, and give lots of description and detail to develop your points.

One of the most important things about the time you spend observing is that you should not be passive. Be involved in activities and, most importantly, talk to people. Try especially to meet people other than the hosts who bring us into the settings. In addition to the main participants in the program (the kids in a school), seek out and talk to some of the people who are more in the background---office people, family members, custodial staff. Look at the questions given for each assignment and ask people in the setting what they think about the issues that are listed.

Asking you to visit a Mental Hospital has three objectives.

1. The first is to encourage you to think about what mental hospitals are for.

There are many stereotypes about mental hospitals and one of your tasks is to think about the expectations you had and how the reality differs. Some people in mental hospitals are affected by chronic mental disease and have extended stays but today many people come to the hospital for short periods of time to deal with acute episodes or for diagnostic purposes. To the extent you can do so find out why people are in the hospital, what their hospitalization is supposed to achieve, and from this give an explanation as best you can of the need and value of the institution.

2. A second objective is for you to think about the personal experience of becoming resident in a hospital and how it would affect your sense of identity.

Visiting a total institution like a mental hospital one tends to emotionally distance oneself from the residents. One of your tasks is to get to know the residents as people and think of how it would be yourself to be in this setting. One of the elements to consider is what transformations of self might accompany being a resident. Erving Goffman talks about this in terms of a "moral career". What can you say about the transformation of self that happens as one becomes a resident and what effects do you think this transformation might have.

3. A third objective of this visit is for you to think about and understand the nature of a total institution.

Total institutions are residential facilities where the staff comes and goes but where clients, inmates, or patients remain confined so that their freedom is restricted and they cannot leave the facility. One consequence is a sharp difference in status and outlook between the inmates and the staff which usually is manifested in power and hierarchical relationships. Inmates tend to have radically restricted rights to exercise power and autonomy and so observers talk about how "deviant" behavior is sometimes an effort to exert power by the powerless. A second consequence is that institutions develop an informal system of exchange that allow inmates to enjoy conveniences or acquire commodities that are technically forbidden. This exchange system is call the "underlife" of the institution. What evidence do you see of the institution's underlife? Look on ERES for a chapter on the hospital underlife.