Everyday life inside a Secure Children's Home: A Goffmanesque Analysis

Authors: Andow, C.

Editors: Edwards, R., Fleming, J. and Stevens, A.

Conference: University of Southampton, Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences


Secure Children’s Homes are locked institutions for young people aged between 10 and 17. There are two routes of entry into these institutions. One is through a civil court process, when the deprivation of liberty is deemed necessary to ensure the safety of the young person (‘welfare’). The other is through the youth justice system, when a young person has been charged with, or convicted of, a criminal offence (‘justice’).

This ethnographic case-study - involving 396 hours of participant observation over seven months, 24 interviews with staff, and 14 interviews with young people - provides a unique insight into how the mix of welfare and justice placements plays out in everyday life inside a Secure Children’s Home.

Drawing on key concepts from Goffman’s theorising - including his ‘dramaturgical perspective’ (1959), his conceptualisation of ‘Total Institutions’ (1961), and his work on ‘stigma’ (1963) - this interpretative sociological study explores perceptions, social interactions, identities and power relations. This Goffmanesque analysis reveals that in this case, the young people were viewed, and viewed themselves, as heterogeneous on the grounds of legal status. However, the distinction that was made by (most of) the staff and (all of) the young people - between the ‘Welfares’ and the ‘Criminals’ - masked the difference that really mattered: the accommodation of those who self-injured, alongside those who did not. Goffman’s theorising makes visible how the young people acted to demonstrate their agency in ways that expressed these contrasting identities, and how the staff reinforced their differences, within a continuing battle for control.

This thesis contributes to knowledge because Secure Children’s Homes have evaded sustained academic attention. It makes a conceptual contribution by demonstrating the heuristic value and contemporary relevance of Goffman’s theorising in this substantive social context. Additionally, it supports those who claim that a Goffmanesque perspective can conceptualise issues of power.

Source: Manual