David Schwartz

Beyond Institutions


With this post, I will complete my tribute to Nils Christie, who died on May 27th of this year in Oslo.  He is featured in the final broadcast of this six part series, first broadcast in 1994.  My starting point in this work was a claim made by American community organizer John McKnight in a profile I had done of him the year before, and also available on this site, called Community and Its Counterfeits.  In this series John McKnight claimed that society is composed of two distinct domains: an institutional domain, governed by legal, contractual and administrative norms - in a word,  bureaucracy - and a community domain, where citizens associate for their own purposes, and people matter for themselves.  These domains are distinct and incommensurable, but they are often confused.  This series explored various attempts to address situations normally treated institutionally within community.  It was recognized by the Canadian Association for Community Living with a plaque that hung proudly by the door of my office for many years afterwards.

The first three programmes of the series are taken up with an account of the work done by my friend David Schwartz when he was the director of the state of Pennsylvania's Developmental Disabilities Planning Council and related in a book he had then just published called Crossing the River: Creating a Conceptual Revolution in Community and Disability.  Two of his associates in the work of creating community alternatives to institutionalization, Sharon Gretz and Nancy Lee, are also featured.  The fourth programme begins with sociologist Peter Berger discussing a book he co-authored with Richard Neuhaus called To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy - a work that pleaded for a reinvigoration of civil society as a buffer between individuals and monopolistic mega-institutions.  It continues with Jerry Miller telling the remarkable story of how he dismantled the juvenile corrections system in Massachusetts after he was made the state's Commissioner of Youth in 1969, a story he also tells in his book Last One Over the Wall.  In the fifth programme Miller goes on to talk about his work with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an organization he found to deal with the ills of the American criminal justice system as a whole.  The series concludes, as I mentioned, with Nils Christie talking about his long association with Vidåsen, a Camphill community in Norway for people whom Nils liked to call "extraordinary" in preference to some more pejorative name.  Nils wrote about Vidåsen in a book called Beyond Loneliness and Institutions which also gave its name to the series.