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CYC-Online Issue 135 MAY 2010 / BACK
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The youth as “form”: A potential problem in institutional care

Trevor Harrison

Abstract: Stereotyping and labelling are common practices in everyday life. Institutional settings, in particular, intrude upon perceptions of an other’s individuality. Using Simmel’s concept of “form,” the author looks at the situation of youth in an institutional setting. The evidence suggests that preconceptions of youth in care are common among workers and that these are linked, to a degree, to worker preferences. Finally, some implications for child and youth care are addressed.

Stereotypes are “clusters of preconceived notions regarding various groups” (Baron and Byrne, 1977, p. 155). For the user of the stereotype, the benefits are an enhanced sense of predictability, hence control, and increased speed in getting on with their lives. For the stereotyped person, however, the results are a loss in recognition of their individuality. Stereotyping, and its more theoretically sophisticated soulmate, labelling (Becker, 1963; Scheff 1966), restrict the range of observed and interpretable behaviors performed by an individual or group. This restriction is accentuated in environments where the structure of interaction subsequently limits the expression of “unexpected” behaviors. Particularly important in this regard are what Goffman (1961) termed, “total institutions.” Goffman, Rosenhan (1976), and others, have dealt extensively with the problem of labelling and the loss of individuality in institutional settings. This paper uses Simmel’s (1964) related concept of “form” to address the problem of a loss of perceived individuality among children and youth who enter into total institutions.

Data for the paper were derived from the author’s research at a residential child care institution in Alberta (Harrison, 1985). The research involved participant observation and interviews of the workers. The results have been subsequently validated through informal discussions with others in the child care field and by casual observations of other institutions.

The institution studied held a maximum of twenty residents, ranging in age from ten to seventeen. The average age of residents was approximately thirteen, however.

Simmel’s concept of form
Simmel (1964, p. 22) described form as being like grammar in language. Although it originally arises out of the content, grammar also determines the type and shape of the content being included. The concept of form is particularly useful in analyzing nascent relationships since any interaction presupposes some degree of mutual knowledge by the actors. Ironically, while the relation is the condition under which a picture of the other emerges, the form is also the basis for the relationship in the first instance. According to Simmel, this unity “cannot be expressed otherwise than by saying that we build the first upon the second and, at the same time, the second upon the first” (1964, p. 309).

The youth-as-form
Using Simmel’s concept of form, it is useful to consider whether it is a youth’s totality and individuality which immediately enters into an institution, or whether the admitted entity is merely a generalized “other.” The author’s observations suggest support for the latter possibility. In particular, it seemed that at their moment of entry into the institution, the youths comprised an amorphous grouping, the name of which was “the youth (or child) in need.”

By this name, new admissions were already “known” to the child care staff at the institution, since, by definition, no youth entered the facility except as a youth-in-need. Within this form was contained a cluster of attributes which described both the children's/youths” identity and, specifically, their “problem.” Among these attributes, for example, were “untrustworthiness,” “insecurity,” and “low self-esteem.” However, a more central component underlay this form: the perception that new residents were not “real.”

In short, the youth’s immediate appearance within the institution was not taken at “face value.” Workers viewed the information “given” and/or “given off” (Goffman, 1959) by the residents as a combination of unnaturalness and pretense. The former was seen as resulting from the institution's artificial environment, wherein the child's real self remained elusive. Pretense, on the other hand, was viewed as a product of the child/youth’s conscious and unconscious dissembling of a character both for others and for themselves. Depending upon the degree of perceived unreality of this character, workers interacted with residents under varying conditions of non-confidence or a confidence-within-limits. Particularly during the first month of a child/youth’s stay, behavior was seen as unreal, or “honeymooning.”

For workers, therefore, a major step in being able to “work” a youth was to discover the latter’s real self. One of the latent purposes of “stripping” (Goffman, 1961, p. 20) “the elimination or restriction of personal items which maintain an inmate’s individual identity “is to reduce the means of artifice by which a resident might conceal this reality. These personal items were not viewed by staff as props or aids for identity, but as masks behind which the real self was hiding. By restricting the amount of personalized clothing, make-up, sexual expression, and speech available to the youth, workers believed that the real self could be compelled to emerge.

Concomitant with the suppression of “false” information, attempts at supplementing the form of the child-in-need with “true” information began immediately upon the youth’s admittance to the institution. Information about the youth, such as age, reason for detention, family background, and so forth, became part of the youth’s personal file. Psychological tests were administered and scored, becoming part of a youth’s character profile. The youth’s day-by-day behavior was also appended to this dossier. It is obvious, however, that the potential pool of information concerning any individual is eminently large. For this reason, information about any youth must go through a process of selection and interpretation.

For workers, this process presents no small, if often unconscious, problem. Workers at the observed institution saw their task as one of sifting through the available information and selecting “significant” occurrences or patterns of occurrences from the youth’s behavior. As a guide to which behaviors might be selected for observation and reporting, the form was of critical importance.

Indeed, the institution's day-to-day operations were replete with examples of how the form of youth-in-need affected the observation and interpretation of information about particular residents. For example, the attribute of manipulativeness often foreshadowed later staff -youth interactions, as when, on one occasion, a youth’s apology for a recent behavior was interpreted by a worker as being merely an insincere attempt to negate the consequences of his actions. Instead of bridging the gap in the youth-worker relationship, the apology became a negative appendage to the original act. In short, the youth’s behavior was interpreted in a way consistent with a particular aspect of the general form, i.e., manipulativeness.

Another example is provided by the case where a youth’s distress and subsequent refusal to eat lunch was interpreted by staff not merely as “moodiness,” but as “testing the system” and “attention seeking.” Perhaps, above all, it was seen as an unacceptable assertion of a part of the youth’s self which had no formal recognition by the workers. On another occasion, a youth’s nose bleed was interpreted by staff as being self-inflicted for the purpose of gaining attention.

In short, acts, responses, and emotions which might be considered normal, or even ignored, in the outside world gained a special significance within the institution. Each act became, potentially, a “communication-beyond-itself,” data indicative of a youth’s more essential problem. Finally, the form also acted to provide a retrospective interpretation of youths” behaviors in their more distant pasts. Perhaps the most interesting example of this involved workers occasionally hypothesizing that certain youths might have unconsciously gotten themselves locked up in order to obtain help in dealing with their problems. In this way, the best interests of the youth (from the perspective of the workers and other professionals) were made congruent with the youth’s own perceived inner needs and desires.

Types within the form
Within the form of youth-in-need, workers differentiated certain types of clients, particularly “delinquent youths” and “emotionally-disturbed youths.” These two types were rather quickly recognized by workers on the basis of information provided to them by outside sources, such as parents, social workers, or, of course, the courts. More importantly, however, these categorizations appeared to conform to Mennerick’s (1974) description of “good” and “bad” clients as found among service workers in other fields. Workers more or less unconsciously evaluated youths according to the five dimensions which Mennerick found used in other similar workplaces: facilitation of work, control, gain, danger, and moral acceptability.

For example, delinquent youth did not interfere with the functioning of the institution. They merely did their time. They were capable of cost/ benefit calculations and, thus, amenable to the control offered by the institution's system of rewards and punishments. Delinquent youths could be enjoyable for the staff to work with insofar as they were predictable. Their predictability rendered them more-or-less safe. And, finally, although workers rejected the behavior of the delinquents, they did not seem to have negative reactions to the delinquent-as-person. For all of these reasons, delinquent youths were generally viewed by workers as “good clients.”

Emotionally disturbed children, on the other hand, presented a problem to the workers. They required “excess” attention. Unless supervised constantly, they were seen as likely to interfere with the smooth running of the institution. They negatively affected group dynamics, often creating conflicts among the rest of the youth. Emotionally disturbed children were also seen by workers as not knowing how to perform their roles, a problem likely to manifest itself in a lack of deference for workers and the creating of “inappropriate” scenes. Emotionally disturbed children were viewed by workers as irrational, reactive, and unpredictable. For workers, these attributes rendered the possibility of essential change as minimal, while optimizing the potential of these
youths to be dangerous. Finally, the deviant behaviors in which emotionally disturbed youth engaged were not easily separated, by workers, from their intrinsic character. While workers were able, to some extent, to identify with delinquent “pranks,” the behaviors of emotionally disturbed youths (i.e., glue sniffing or bed wetting) were not as easily understood or, hence, accepted by workers. Together, these qualities made emotionally disturbed youth less desirable clients than delinquent youths, in the eyes of many child and youth care workers.

Within these two essential types, of course, workers made further differentiations according to such factors as gender, age, and culture, etc. However, within the initial form of youth-in-need, the categories of delinquent or emotionally disturbed were primary in providing staff with a schema for interacting with youths in the days immediately following their admission.

Breaking the form: The emergence of individuality
Despite the initial limitations of the form and the institutional structures which further limited the emergence of information about the youths, their individuality was often able to emerge. The two primary factors influencing this emergence were 1) the development of a relationship with (particularly) a key worker and (2) time.

With time and with increased interaction between workers and youth in contexts which allowed the latter’s individuality to emerge, workers” preconceptions about each youth were supplemented by information unique to the individual. As personal information about youth burgeoned, they became increasingly distinct. The knowledge about each was no longer contained within the parameters of the form. Hence, they became individuals.

As the form receded and the individual youths emerged, changes occurred in the interactions between them and the workers. These changes were commensurate with the needs of the new relationship for the involved parties to treat each other as individuals. For example, while they liked the general framework provided by rules and regulations, workers came to dislike their inflexibility when dealing with youths whom they had come to know as individuals. This new relationship was often heralded by other changes, insofar as workers were now more likely to allow themselves and the youths “role releases” (Goffman, 1961, p. 94). It was in the course of these changes, finally, that the true therapeutic relationship arose, through which the essential work of child and youth care was eventually realized.

Discussion and implications
This paper has dealt with the problem of individual identity as it pertains to the entry of youths into institutions. Using Simmel’s (1964) concept of form, it has been suggested that child and youth care workers often possess an already existing perception of youths who enter into their facilities and that this limited perception maybe subsequently reinforced by the structure of institutional life. This finding is congruent with other examinations of the labelling process (Becker, 1963; Scheff 1966), particularly as it occurs in institutions (Goffman, 1961; Rosenhan, 1976). It has also been suggested that, similar to Mennerick (1974), child and youth care workers tend to differentiate between what they perceive as good and bad clients.

An implication of the first finding is that the theoretically and practically stated aim of child and youth care to provide individualized treatment (Adler, 1976) may be denied by factors within actual institutional settings. In regard to the second finding (worker typologies), the effects of this (apparently common) occurrence may be twofold: 1) The time spent by workers with “good clients” may be quantitatively and qualitatively greater than that spent with “bad clients–; and 2) There may be greater pressure exerted by workers upon social workers and management to move the bad clients to other facilities.

However, the results of this study also offer a glimmer of hope insofar as they suggest that the individuality of youths placed in institutions, and the beginnings of meaningful treatment, maybe facilitated by 1) time and 2) the development of individualized worker-youth relationships. This finding gives some support to the belief that success in treating youths is negatively related to the number of placements (Cavanaugh, Allison and McCoy, 1983) and positively related to the youth’s formation of a positive relationship with an involved worker (Beker, Hustad, Gitelson, Kaminstein and Adler, 1972).

In conclusion, the results of this study suggest that persons working with children and youth in institutions should be aware of personal or institutional factors which may inhibit an understanding of the individualism of their clients.


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Baron, R.A. and Byrne, D. (1977). Social psychology: Understanding human interaction. Toronto, ON: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Becker, H.S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York, NY: Free Press.

Beker, J., Hustad, S., Gitelson, P., Kaminstein, P. and Adler, L. (1972). Critical incidents in child care: A case book for child. care workers. New York, NY: Behavioral Publications.

Cavanaugh, Mr. Justice J.C., Allison, F.J. and McCoy, E.E. (1983). Board of review: The child welfare system. Edmonton, AB: Queen's Printers.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Harrison, T. (1985). Child care staff in a children's institution. Unpublished master’s thesis (Sociology), University of Calgary, Calgary, AB.

Mennerick, L.A (1974). Client typologies: A method of coping in the service worker-client relationship. Sociology of Work and Occupations, 1. pp. 396-418.

Rosenhan, D.L. (1984). On being sane in insane places. In P. Watzlawick (Ed.), The invented reality (pp. 117-144). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Scheff, T.J. (1966). Being mentally ill: A sociological theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Simmel, G. (1964). The sociology of Georg Simmel (Ed. Kurt Wolff). New York, NY: The Free Press.

This feature: Harrison, T. (1991). The youth as “form”: A potential problem in institutional care. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 6, 3. pp. 33-39.


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