Troubling Institutions – exploring spaces of security and care

By Anna Schliehe

On the 11th of December 2014 the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at Glasgow University hosted a day conference on ‘Troubling Institutions’, an event that considered the different spaces of institutional care through the lens of carceral and asylum geographies. The conference fits into a broader series of events that have been happening throughout the past few years centering around the theme of asylum and post-asylum spaces. 2014 is an important year for institutional care in Glasgow, as this month marks 200 years of organised psychiatric care in the city, which has allowed a unique opportunity to critically re-explore issues of mental health and institutional care. A range of events have taken place throughout the year that allowed conversations which have led us, as a group, to think further about the enormous complexity of ‘the institution’. In many ways, the title of this conference conveys our diverse reflections on these debates and discussions throughout the year. For example, can we think of institutions as themselves troubling or are we (society, community, individually) troubled by the presence? Are we unsure about how to deal with the institutions contemporary role in society or concerned about retelling the histories they may contain? Do we wish to trouble the conceptual landscape around the institution – shake the ideas from the Foucault’s and the Goffman’s back to life in this ever changing landscape of care or find new lenses to unpick these institutional foundations? Can our (perhaps that of academics) troubling of institutions be itself disruptive or disturbing to the everyday workings of these institutions? How can we really deal with the troubling nature of the stories these institutions and the experiences within them reveal? All of these questions (and so many more) haunt much of our individual research into mental health and carceral geographies and we wanted to find a way to extend these critical conversations that we have been encountering throughout the year into the role of closed institutions.

This event opened the conversation up to carceral geography, criminology, media studies and many other disciplines which was reflected in the line-up of presenters and discussants as well as the audience. The first presentation of the day was held by Tom Disney who told us about his research on institutions for children and young people in a Russian orphanage. This was discussed by Karen Lury with a lively account of media representations of similar institutions and the depiction of children in film. Annie Crowley followed on from that and drew connections to her own doctoral research on vulnerable girls and young women in Scottish institutions and wider institutional landscapes.

The second session which focused on asylum and post asylum institutions was kicked off by Victoria Wood and Sarah Curtis who gave us an insight into their new paper on Nostalgia, Therapeutic Landscapes and the psychiatric hospital. This was discussed by Jenny Laws who introduced her follow-up of a research project on how a new psychiatric hospital building affects patients and how the old building triggers emotional responses. Louise Boyle drew connections between nostalgia, solastalgia and her own research on social anxiety disorder and the importance of social media and the internet more generally.

The third session of the day looked at carceral geography and penal institutions with a presentation by Dominique Moran on prisons as troubling institutions which was discussed by Jen Turner, Sarah Armstrong and Marguerite Schinkel. The mixture of geographical and criminological debate touched on issues of long-term imprisonment, openness and closedness of penal institutions, boundaries and architecture and design. The lively debate that developed at the end of the session was carried over into the fourth ‘open’ session of the day that was chaired by Chris Philo who also gave us a summary of earlier discussions and an outlook as to what debates on ‘troubling institutions’ can achieve.

We were really happy to be able to welcome so many people to join us from such diverse backgrounds. ‘Troubling institutions’ could only scratch the surface of different spaces of security and care but we think it made clear how important research into these environments is. The interest in the conference also showed that it is still very much a timely matter and touches many different practices and theories. There is scope for further conceptual debates as well as more practice based involvement. This has been a special opportunity for us to be able to link different disciplines and sub-disciplines and have such a lively and interesting discussion. It was great to be able to join up different initiatives and networks like SCCJR, carceral geography and our own asylum and post-asylum network. Particular thanks go to the SCCJR for providing a small exhibition by their artist in residence Jenny Wickes on institutional spaces of punishment.

Conceptualising different settings and institutions under the umbrella of security and care makes it possible to see them as a group of spaces that are all – to varying degrees – involved with similar practices and future perspectives. These alternating poles allow for debates on risk and protection; patients, inmates and offenders; agency and mobility; as well as the design of these spaces that is inherent in the built structures. Questions of health, well-being and possibilities for improvement are at the heart of all these institutions – the differing understandings and outcomes of these concepts provide a starting point for geographical engagement and critical analysis. This conference was meant to explore closed institutions, such as prisons, hospitals, children’s homes and asylums, and their implications from a range of disciplinary perspectives including human geography, criminology and sociology. By bringing together these different voices this event wanted to connect the expertise across the disciplines and encourage interdisciplinary conversations on the possibilities, boundaries and future directions of this field of study.


Welcome and Introduction (Cheryl McGeachan[1] and Anna Schliehe[2])

Session 1               Institutions for Children and Young People

Presentation 1 – ‘Childhood Institutions – The Orphanage’ – Thomas Disney[3]

Discussants [Karen Lury[4], Annie Crowley[5]]

Session 2               Mental Health Institutions

Presentation 2 – ‘Therapeutic Landscapes’ and emotional ties to past settings; salvage and abandonment as considerations in Psychiatric Hospital design’ – Sarah Curtis[6] and Victoria Wood[7]

Discussants [Jenny Laws[8], Louise Boyle [9]]

Session 3               Penal Institutions

Presentation 3 – ‘Troubling Institutions: Prisons and the Design of Carceral Space’ – Dominique Moran[10]

Discussants [Jen Turner[11], Sarah Armstrong[12], Marguerite Schinkel[13]]

Session 4               Discussion

 “Free Session” chaired by Chris Philo[14]

Closing Comments (Anna Schliehe and Cheryl McGeachan)


[1] Lecturer, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow

[2] Doctoral Researcher, Human Geography, University of Glasgow

[3] Doctoral Researcher, Human Geography, University of Birmingham

[4] Professor of Film & Television Studies, University of Glasgow

[5] Doctoral Researcher, Criminology, University of Glasgow

[6] Executive Director – Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience in the Department of Geography, Durham   University

[7] Research Associate, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University

[8] ESRC – Future Research Leader in the Department of Geography, Durham University

[9] Doctoral Researcher, Human Geography, University of Glasgow

[10] Reader in Carceral Geography, University of Birmingham

[11] Research Associate, Department of Criminology, University of Leicester

[12] Senior Research Fellow, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow

[13] ESRC Future Research Leader, Criminology, University of Glasgow

[14] Professor of Geography, University of Glasgow

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