Of Skeletons and Shells (4)


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Contextual Remarks

This is a slightly amended version of a chapter in a book about the application of systems thinking to the understanding of some of the peculiar things which happen (good, bad and just strange) in residential establishments. Shifting the target, as it were, to more general concerns would have involved more work that I currently have time for, so I have left it almost in its original form. Still, it requires some explication.

"Residential establishments" are mainly care homes for young, old, or physically, sensorily or mentally impaired people; but it does not take too much adaptation to apply the ideas to:

    • general hospitals
    • psychiatric hospitals
    • residential (boarding) schools
    • holiday hotels
    • and parallel institutions attended on a day basis.

If you are at all familiar with the literature you will recognise an overlap with Goffman's category of the "total institution" (1968). The perspective taken here is more analytical than Goffman's, seeking to explore the value-base which leads to the practice he describes. It is worth reading Jones and Fowles' (1984) critique of Goffman and others, such as Zimbardo (1972) as a background to this discussion.

The Reed Oscillation Model

I also preface these notes with thanks to Bruce Reed of the Grubb Institute. I was privileged to be a member of the Committee of Christian Teamwork when he was developing the theory, to have been a sounding-board for some of his ideas, and to have helped check out the comprehensibility of some of them in what would now be called focus groups, and to have explored some of them in my M.Litt thesis "Dependence and the Practice of Religion" (U. of Lancaster, 1974).  The Reed model, of oscillation between extra-dependence and intra-dependence, was set out in The Dynamics of Religion (1978).

[Bruce died on 4 November 2003: I am planning to re-write this paper in his memory, and to make it more comprehensible in the process. He was my supervisor, mentor and guru for almost twenty years, and an inspiration to many others.]

Having said that, the models were never the same, and have diverged over the years. Bruce's concern and focus was always more to do with the individual psychology of intradependence and extradependence: this model was conceived from the beginning in relation to the social environment of the individual and the values implicit in that environment. Its roots are more sociological than psychological. It is a frustrating and fruitless, if tempting, exercise to map the one onto the other: to attempt such a mapping is to lose much of the value or illumination to be found in either model.


Note that the paper was originally published in 1989, so the references are now rather dated. Many of the original citations have been edited out in the abridgement, so notes on the relevance of the texts are included here.

APTER M (1989) Reversal theory: motivation, emotion and personality London; Routledge

    A psychological theory with parallels to the present discussion

BENEDICT R (1967) The Chrysanthemum and the Sword London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

BRICKMAN P, RABINOWITZ V C, KARUZA J, COATES D, COHN E, and KIDDER L (1982) "Models of Helping and Coping" American Psychologist 37(4), pp 368-84

    Categorises approaches to helping in terms of the extent to which the client is held responsible for the problem and/or the solution. Shell approaches deny responsibility for the solution.

DAVIS A (1981) The Residential Solution London: Tavistock

    Explores residential provision in relation to the original and primary social shell, the family.

ERIKSON E (1965) Childhood and Society Harmondsworth: Penguin

    Erikson's famous "eight stages" developmental sequence is an epigenetic model like Maslow's: it emphasises the need for recapitulation of earlier stages in order to make progress, rather like oscillating back (regressing) into Shell.

FURNHAM A and BOCHNER S (1986) Culture Shock: psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments London: Methuen

    Explores the experience of people forced into Skeleton and deprived of Shell by environmental upset, even when chosen.

GOFFMAN E (1968) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates Harmondsworth: Penguin

JONES K and FOWLES A J (1984) Ideas on Institutions: analysing the literature on long-term care and custody London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

    Excellent critique of studies such as Goffman and Zimbardo

KIM, TRIANDIS et al (1994) Individualism and Collectivism London: Sage Publications

    Essays based on Hofstede's construct and research: parallels with Skeleton and Shell value systems jump out at you.

MASLOW A (1987) Motivation and Personality (3rd edition) New York: Harper and Row

MILLER E J and GWYNNE G V (1972) A Life Apart London: Tavistock

    Seminal exploration of how the natural tendency of care establishments is in the direction of Shell structuring.

REED B D (1978) The Dynamics of Religion London: Darton Longman and Todd

SELIGMAN M E P (1975) Helplessness: depression, development and death New York: W H Freeman

    Explores one possible outcome of life in a Shell

SELYE H (1974) Stress without Distress Philadelphia: Lippincott

    Introduces "eustress" (excitement) or the urge to move into Skeleton

ZIMBARDO P (1972) "The Pathology of Imprisonment" Society (USA) April 1972

    Negative Shell environment experimentally created and terminated. But see Jones and Fowles' critique, and note the BBC TV series in 2000(?) The Experiment which re-ran the original experiment with very different outcomes.


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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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