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Fragments of home in youth care institutions

Peter Lang International Academic Publishers
Publication Date
  • Youth Care
  • Home
  • Total Institutions
  • Privacy
  • Integrity
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Sociology
  • Criminology
  • Social Sciences


A youth care institution may seem like a sort of regulated home. It does not resemble a home in the sense of a private household, and the youth living there usually do not define it as a home, but it seems like a home in the sense of being a place where youth in treatment spend most of their days and nights. But is that what a home is? In many cases, people in modern societies are not supposed to spend their days at home but at work or in school, so that their home functions as an intermediate location in a series of other locations (Goffman 1961/1990: 5-6). That kind of arrangement is also what youth care institutions typically try to simulate. After breakfast, the boys and girls are supposed to leave their wards and go to separate school buildings or separate study rooms (if not, the day is devoted to rehabilitation sessions, treatment meetings, or the like). When the day is over, they all “go home” to their wards. On weekends, they may be allowed to go to their “real” homes outside the institution, depending on how their behavior has been evaluated and on having a home (deemed as “proper”) to go to. It is only when they are sick that they are allowed to stay in their room or ward a whole day. In this respect, a youth care institution does not resemble a home but rather a boarding school, with its characteristic pendulum movement between institution (weekdays) and “home” (weekends). Simultaneously, it resembles a prison. The boys and girls cannot choose for themselves if they are to “go home” or not. If they happen to feel more “at home” in the institution than in any other place, they cannot prolong their stay merely for that reason. The institution has forced itself upon the youth’s lives and made itself into their “home” for a definite period of time, whether they like it or not. It seems clear that we cannot take for granted if or how a youth care institution (or any people-processing institution, for that matter) is “really” or “really not” a home, or if it is, precisely to what extent. The more we speculate, the more we must acknowledge the need to put “home” in quotation marks, indicating a relativistic and socially contingent approach. First, I will discuss the institutional regulation of what could be called “home practices” for boys and girls in residential treatment by providing examples of how enactments of personalization are constrained by rules and routines, first and foremost invoked and upheld by staff. This sketch provides a background to the youths’ maneuvers and tactics, referring to Goffman’s Asylums (1961/1990) and Gubrium’s (1975/1997) Living and Dying at Murray Manor. I motivate my interest in personalizations by historical as well as contemporary connotations of “home.” Since the rise of “home” as a powerful idea among the bourgeoisie in the seventeenth century, privacy and comfort have been central (Mallett 2004: 66; Rybczynski 1986). The concept has become so deeply conflated with “being oneself” and “being relaxed”⎯home is often seen as a haven that frees us from “external role expectations” (Mallett 2004: 71; also see Saunders & Williams 1988: 88)⎯that a home not only can be equated with the environment or habitat of a person (Mallett 2004: 62), it can also be said to realize a person or “mirror” his or her “inner self” (Marcus 1995/2006). With the help of this historical, theoretical, and ideological background, it does not seem farfetched to interpret young people’s ways of personalizing a residential institution, and the institution’s efforts to regulate or standardize these ways, in terms of home practices. Second, I will turn to the accomplishment of two home-related components among the youth under treatment⎯privacy and integrity⎯in order to further specify the “doing” and “undoing” of home in these contexts. By “doing privacy,” boys and girls in youth care institutions engage in a construction process to distract or escape the gaze of staff. They strive to create and maintain a place for themselves, a personal corner of an institution, spatial or symbolic or both (cf. Goffman 1961/1990: 244; Emerson, Fretz & Shaw 1995: 79-80). By “doing integrity” an even subtler home-related practice is accomplished: the practice of maintaining one’s moral self in relation to others. The intense social life in an institution includes a wide range of potentially self-transforming powers regarding personal and moral details of one’s interactionally achieved identity (Goffman 1961/1990). Youth may make themselves “at home” by responding to this in ways that are comparable to phrases like “not in my house!” or “hey, I actually live here!”

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