Brotherhood in voluntary total institutions: What we learn from the French Foreign Legion and Cistercian monasteries

Total institutions are geographically delimited places of residence and work, where people live separated from the outside world. Unlike coercive total institutions that people are forced into, voluntary total institutions consist of members who have chosen to enter them. Does this mean that members are also free to leave? And to what extent are such institutions actually “total”?

This lecture addresses fundamental questions regarding the characteristics of voluntary total institutions based on two different research projects: On the one hand, a unique ethnographic study of the French Foreign Legion, one of the world’s most legendary forces. On the other hand, a study of several French communities within the contemplative monastic order Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

These two types of voluntary total institutions are not only total, but also “greedy”, exercising pressure on members to avoid ties with other institutions or persons that might make claims that conflict with their own demands. This means that greedy institutions do not only regulate relations to outsiders, but also relations among insiders. Promoting fraternal relations, at the expense of individualized relationships is one crucial way of doing so. The lecture presents this concept and highlights its usefulness in relation to, for example, discussions on “brotherhood” in different collectivist organisations or groups like the biker clubs, prison gangs, and fraternal orders.

Mikaela Sundberg är docent i sociologi och även verksam som lektor vid sociologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.

Läs mer om boken A Sociology of the Total Organization Atomistic Unity in the French Foreign Legion:


Filip Wijkström, docent vid Handelshögskolan i Stockholm och Director of Stockholm Center for Civil Society Studies.  

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