Outsider Inspections of Closed Institutions: An Insider Ethnographic View of Institutional Display

Authors: Andow, C.

Journal: Sociological Research Online

Volume: 25

Issue: 4

Pages: 682-697

eISSN: 1360-7804

DOI: 10.1177/1360780420906832


This article questions the value of internal inspections of closed institutions by external agencies, drawing on my unanticipated experience of being deeply immersed as a researcher inside a Secure Children’s Home at the time of an inspection. I describe how an ethnographic approach enabled me to see a dramatic change in the staff–young people relations – from adversarial to cooperative – in the presence of outside inspectors. I make sense of this change through an original application, and novel extension, of Goffman’s theorising. I conceptualise the staff and young people as insiders of a ‘total institution’ working together to perform a misleadingly harmonious ‘institutional display’, motivated by a shared sense of institutional identity. I argue that although the potential for insider misrepresentation can be acknowledged, the extent of it cannot be known by outsiders. This finding is of significance for social policy as closed institutions accommodate vulnerable populations and cases of institutional abuses attest the need for external monitoring. This article calls for recognition of the inherent limitation of external face-to-face inspection processes, and research into new methods of assessment.

Source: Scopus