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

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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’ (Goffman 1961) working together to perform a misleadingly harmonious ‘institutional display’ (Goffman 1959), motivated by a shared sense of institutional identity (Campbell 1958). 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 paper calls for recognition of the inherent limitation of external face-to-face inspection processes, and research into new methods of assessment.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSociological Research Online
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2020


  • Goffman
  • ethnography
  • groups
  • insiders
  • inspections
  • institutions
  • outsiders
  • secure accommodation
  • 2020

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