There are various ways to analyze an institution like psychiatry. One of the most common is by mining examples. You might, for example, talk to few survivors who seem to embody what befalls most folk subject to psychiatric rule (a common research sampling strategy called by the unfortunate name “typical cases”; see Patton, 2000). Or you might pen a stirring phenomenological account based on your own experiences. All, without question, highly worthwhile.
A very different approach that I wish to demonstrate and would encourage other critics to consider employing now and then is choosing a single entry point—a moment where something feels wrong and which, for reasons that you may not yet fathom, appears to hold the promise of helping you open up the institution—and then seeing where it can lead you. This is a part of a method known as institutional ethnography (see Smith, 2006 and Smith and Turner, 2014). For the purposes of this article, I will give a simplified version and will introduce you to the bare beginnings of an inquiry—one that I found myself falling into but a couple of weeks back. The entry point is the arrival of a letter. I choose it partly because it is helpful as a demonstration, albeit also because it indeed unlocks a direction and modus operandi that it behooves us to be aware of.