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Cult Med Psychiatry. 2010 Dec;34(4):555-70. doi: 10.1007/s11013-010-9188-5.

'Real relationships': sociable interaction, material culture and imprisonment in a secure psychiatric unit.

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London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, WC1E 7HT, UK.


Research into the character of social relationships in psychiatric inpatient facilities has focused on face-to-face interaction between individuals and within groups in the communal areas of wards. Using theories developed in material culture and media studies, this article argues that patients' relationships to goods, namely, photographs, cards and gifts from family or friends, televisions and radios, are important mediators and constituents of sociability. In an ethnographic study of a medium-secure psychiatric unit, I show how these goods are put to use in private space in ways that reflect and mitigate the constraints of incarceration and stigmatization. The data were derived from 3 months of participant observation on a male and a female ward at a unit in the south of England, including a series of anthropological interviews with 19 patients. This article highlights two important findings. First, potentially isolating activities are perceived by patients as sociable, in that watching television and looking at photographs in their room helps to counter feelings of loneliness and isolation. Second, potentially sociable activities, exchanging goods or watching the communal television, are often practiced in such a way as to maintain distance between patients in acknowledgment of the constrained and volatile nature of these relationships. This suggests that patients aspire to retain a sense of the artificiality of their situation, preferring to confine their notion of 'real' relationships to those that exist outside the institution.

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