Of Skeletons and Shells  (1)

Abridged from Chapter 8 of ATHERTON J S (1989)
Interpreting Residential Life London: Routledge

Notes and references are here. 

This paper builds on the idea of a construct implicit in the policy and practice of residential care—one version of its "working myth" — and explores how it might be elaborated as a tool with more general applicability. The model developed underpins some of the other papers on this site.

1: The Skeleton and the Shell represent two fundamentally different ways of structuring bodies in the animal kingdom.

Every multi-celled animal above the most primitive level requires some means of maintaining its shape, and of enabling it to interact in its chosen fashion with the outside world. Biologists make the distinction between vertebrate and invertebrate animals: we shall distort this a little and refer to skeleton-based and shell-based animals. The skeleton is the kind of structure in which the organs of the body are, as it were, hung around an internal framework: the shell is the alternative structure in which they are packed into a box.

For the moment, we can make the following basic distinctions between the qualities of the two: 







the two structures in themselves leave the animal:



the structures are:



and make growth and adaptation:



Table 1-Basic features of Skeleton and Shell structuring

2: The Skeleton and the Shell represent two fundamentally different tendencies in social relations

The Skeleton view holds that people are normally expected to live on the basis of their own internal resources, contained within their own bodies. They find the basis of their self-hood inside themselves, and the structure for their lives from within. 

The Shell view suggests that the individual can only find a meaningful structure for life with reference to something external, and that there is no adequate basis internally on which to base rules, judgements or performance.

These tendencies may be different, but they do not have to be in opposition. They may be complementary: Eastern societies have traditionally been better than Western at handling such complementarity.

3: It is the general assumption in our society that people will survive on the basis of their personal Skeletons...

"In our society" is a problematic phrase, because our society is pluralist. Further, it is difficult to conceive of a human social structure which is entirely Shell oriented, so all this discussion is a matter of degree.

People are expected to have certain physical skills, a basically adequate intellectual structure, and a different kind of mental structure in the form of a degree of emotional control. Finally, they need some kind of moral structure, which enables them to live with their fellows without hurting or exploiting them and their property more than the dominant ideology of their society allows them to. 

Some people cannot manage at this level, however: their physical, intellectual, emotional or moral Skeletons are not strong enough. 

4: ... and that living in a Shell structure is a response to Skeleton failure.





Less problematic


Overall maturity


Family, school

Physical competence

Physical illness or disability

Hospital, family or hostel

Intellectual competence

Learning Disability

Hospital, school, family, hostel, group home, social education centre etc.

Emotional competence

Mental disturbance

Hospital, family, hostel, + drugs

Moral competence


Supervision ...... prison


More Problematic


Table 3 -Reasons for Provision of Social Shell

If you break a limb, the treatment is for it to be put in splints or a plaster cast, so physical skeleton failure is responded to by the provision of a temporary shell, which takes the strain and pressure off the bone while it knits together again. 

The same system applies in the case of those who are socially 'inadequate': in the event that they are not capable of living 'in the community' (whatever that means), they are admitted to institutions which are designed to function as Shells (see Table 3). It can be seen that as the questions about the nature of Skeleton failure get more complex, so the variety of Shell responses becomes greater, and the part played in decision-making by the political and judicial systems gets larger. 

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To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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