Prisons as total institution semiospheres


  • Erik Kõvamees Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Jakobi St 2, Tartu 51014, Estonia



semiosphere, semiosis, boundary, core, periphery, total institution, prison, prison ethnography


The main objective of this article is to combine Juri Lotman’s theory of the semiosphere – including its concepts of boundary, core, and periphery – with Erving Goffman’s theory of the total institution. The purpose is to develop a framework conducive to examining the prison as an object of study, equally emphasizing both its internal as well as external relations. This work positions itself within the contexts of the relative decline of the field of prison ethnography, few or no studies done applying semiotic metalanguage to the prison or the total institution, and none applying the theory of the semiosphere to either. This work is oriented according to an analytical or neutral mode; its point is not to offer a normative programme, but to offer a new description of the research object and a new language of description in which to speak of this object. The secondary objectives of this article include demonstrating that Lotman’s theory of the semiosphere and Goffman’s theory of the total institution are compatible, that Lotman’s theory actually refines Goffman’s original, that Lotman’s theory taken independently and Goffman’s theory as refined by Lotman’s are both compatible with the direction of contemporary prison ethnography, and that the framework presented in this work has the potential to reinvigorate the field of prison ethnography.


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How to Cite

Kõvamees, E. (2020). Prisons as total institution semiospheres. Sign Systems Studies, 48(2-4), 297–325.