Oral Presentation The 26th International Nursing Philosophy Conference 2023

Nursing as a Total Institution (#34)

Danisha Jenkins 1 , Jess Dillard-Wright 2
  1. San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, United States
  2. UMass Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA

In this presentation we interrogate the ways institutions telescope and where nursing fits into the arrangement. Healthcare under the auspices of late stage capitalism functions as what sociologist Erving Goffman called a total institution. This total institution mortifies nurses and patients, demanding conformity, obedience, perfection. This capture, which resembles Deleuze’s enclosure, entangles nurses in carceral systems and gives way to a post-enclosure society, an institution without walls.  Institutions telescope, creating bigger and smaller scales of abstraction. Inspired by Goffman, we recognize that focusing our gaze on narrowly closed institutions like the asylum gives us insight into the function of individual and interpersonal relations under total institutions. However, this downstream gaze averts our line of sight from the broader structural institutions that give rise to the societies of control; more covert and insidious for their invisibility.  Nursing is a total institution because the profession is life-blood for the successful operation of neoliberal capitalism’s most powerful commodities (healthcare), but also for its critical function to the prison industrial complex. Sucked up into the gears of healthcare as a total institution, nurses either function as intended or are cast aside. Nursing can be a force for liberation  but it requires us to see patterns and possibilities. We outline the ways in which the healthcare industrial complex demands nurse conformity and how that operationalizes nurses in service to the institution. We assert that nursing must foster a radical imagination for itself in order that we might conjure more just, equitable futures for caregivers and care receivers alike. To tease out what a radical imagination might look like, we dwell in paradox: getting folks the care they need in capitalist healthcare systems; engaging nursing’s deep history to inspire alternative understandings for the future of nursing and how nursing might divest from extractive institutional structures.