‘Cottage Six: The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment’ by Howard W Polsky

Howard W Polsky (1962) Cottage Six: The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment New York: Wiley

Howard W Polsky (1928–2003) obtained his BA from Chicago University before studying for an MSW in group work and a PhD in social psychology at the University of Wisconsin. He was then funded by the Russell Sage Foundation to undertake the research which, when published as Cottage Six, became and remained his most celebrated work. He joined Columbia University’s School of Social Work in 1961, remaining there until his death in 2003.

Key Ideas

–           The institution is more important to the residents than to the staff.

–           Staff behaviour can reinforce a resident culture.

–           The behaviour of the members of a culture does not always reflect the values of the culture.

–           Changes of personnel do not always involve changes in culture.

–           “A neutral stance is impossible in a delinquent society”. (Polsky, 1962, p. 117)

–           The stages by which residents and staff are acculturated into a social system are similar.

–           The victims within a particular social structure find ways of taking out their feelings, if necessary on inanimate objects.

–           Major disruptions do not change the social structure because those that threaten it are expelled.

–           The staff operated separately in two distinct cultures whereas the residents integrated meeting their psychological needs with the social structure.

–           “Inner growth does not come in a social vacuum”. (p. 175)


In Chapter 1 Orientation, Howard Polsky describes the cottage homes founded in the first decade of the 20th century to serve as a custodial institution for delinquent Jewish boys. A psychologist had been appointed in 1917, a psychiatrist in 1926 and the first psychiatric social worker in 1928. When in 1934 the homes had been re-organised as a single institution with a child guidance clinic for boys and girls, there had initially been resistance to the concept but gradually an open community had developed with several children attending local schools and some older adolescents going out to work.

At the time of his research, there were about 195 residents, 140 boys between 8 and 18 in three junior, two intermediate and three senior cottages and 55 girls between 12 and 18 in three cottages; they were mostly Jewish children, less than 10% being non-Jewish. Referrals came from welfare agencies, private sources and the courts, the latter accounting for about 50% of referrals. The institution only accepted those for whom a non-residential placement was not viable and only when there was a place in the cottage assessed as best meeting their need.

Each cottage was run by a married couple and children were expected to go to school or work and do chores; each saw a social worker weekly and had an individual education programme which emphasised vocational as well as general educational subjects. Treatment plans focused on individual psychotherapy offered through a team of psychiatrists and psychiatric social workers. However, the senior cottages were seen more as a holding operation and lots of the ‘rule-breaking’ that took place would have been better seen as normal adolescent behaviour; the institution discouraged punishment.

He concludes with an account of current thinking on the concept of a delinquent subculture, noting that there were few data and nothing to show whether what people said correlated with their actual behaviour. He observes that the cottages were more important to the residents than to the staff, who had other allegiances, and sets out his assumptions going into the research.

In Chapter 2 Setting, he observes that the boys came from families whose values were not necessarily shared by society as a whole and that there was a cottage tradition that boys were always up to no good chasing the girls.

The administration saw Cottage 6 as the end of the line for tough boys and this was expressed in exaggerated displays of masculinity, aggression, hardness and wisdom. Among the problems were that staff knew there were problems relating to relationships with girls but provided few chaperoned events to enable positive relationships to develop while the boys rationalised the girls as ‘sluts’ to justify their attitudes to them. Cottage 6 was also seen as the non-academic cottage.

The married couples were left largely to run the cottages. The social workers’ focus on individual work left little room for group awareness and recreation was not used for its therapeutic potential. An O.D. (Officer of the Day) was responsible for daily discipline.

In Chapter 3 Techniques of participant observation, he describes how the seating in the dining room expressed the hierarchy in the cottage with Table III accommodating the leadership clique and, if that was full, one member would move to Table I; similarly, one member moved to Table V when Table I was full. When someone at Table III wanted something, he called for it but, when someone wanted something from Table III, he went to collect it. The houseparents did not interfere in this. ‘Inferior’ boys displaced their feelings on other ‘inferior’ boys rather than attacking the leadership clique.

In Chapter 4 Deviant processes, he describes how the aggressive culture was reinforced by aggressive discussions led by the dominant boys, which did not necessarily result in any action, and by periodic beatings of ‘inferior’ boys which might be started by the leader and carried on by his lieutenants.

The culture was expressed in deviant activities such as gambling, threatening gestures, ranking of boys in various ways including their perceived sexual prowess and scapegoating. Each resident had to find their own way of coping with this.

In Chapter 5 The cottage social structure, he notes that Cottage 6 had fewer interactions with the other cottages. There was a correlation between the bedrooms and the dining tables and consensus about status among boys and staff. Boys tended to have one of five roles: toughs, con-artists, quiet types, bushboys (that is, the more childish) and scapegoats. The last tended to be a long-term role from which it was less easy to escape. Compared with Cottage 7, in Cottage 6 status was more likely to be defined by aggression and fights.

In Chapter 6 Social change, he describes the data collection process and what happened after there was a turnover of boys in Cottage 6, focusing on the ‘careers’ of four boys within the social structure and observing that the overall social structure remained while individuals changed their positions in it.

In Chapter 7 The participant observer in a deviant subculture, he describes how, as part of the deviant subculture, he had to go through an initiation ceremony in which he was made to observe and then invited to do something illegal. He reports that he took some time to find the correct ‘pace’ for participant observation, had to undergo a long period of testing and continued to be used as a scapegoat by lower status boys.

He continued to be a focus for delinquent seduction and had to avoid both delinquency and the observation of it as well as being drawn into aggression and hostility. He concluded from his own difficulties about recording his reactions that “A neutral stance is impossible in a delinquent society” (p. 117).

Though the boys’ suspicions turned into toleration and finally acceptance as an insider/outsider, they never understood the ‘observer role’ and, in any case, he had to become involved to achieve anything.

In Chapter 8 Cottage parents, he notes the difficulties the institution had in obtaining competent houseparents; the existing houseparents had gone through the same phases of testing, engaging and then obtaining control by becoming part of the boys’ control system which new boys had to navigate. They had engaged primarily by focusing on physical care and confronting boys in these areas but ultimately they were pragmatists, partly because they knew they lacked the professional status to enforce things.

In Chapter 9 Double standard complementarity, he notes that 55 professionals left the campus every day, leading to very different staff-resident ratios in the evening and at weekends and to problems being ignored because the disappearing professionals ignored them.

There were many examples of deviant behaviour with, for example, the weaker boys taking their feelings out on animals, other boys or the fabric but none of this disrupted cottage or institutional rhythms unless there was a major disruption. Staff accommodated to the deviancy but didn’t deal with it; for example, boys would go through an induction process which failed to mention the boys’ initiation ceremonies.

The staff responded to major incidents of disruption according to the boys’ status with beatings by higher status boys tolerated but not by lower status; when boys were expelled, it normally preserved the status quo. These attitudes carried over into school and work with the outcomes of absconding or absenteeism dependent on the boy’s status.

In other words, the boys created a structure to which staff accommodated; when boys became victims to it, staff resolved their feelings by

  • denouncing destructive relationships
  • partially accepting the deviant subculture as beyond their control
  • periodic cleanups.

The way disruption was resolved reinforced deviancy while collective punishments were used as a way of allowing staff to control the aggressive boys.

In Chapter 10 Cottage culture and therapeutic milieu, he notes that the social workers who did the individual interviews were the most removed from cottage life and from the boys’ backgrounds and that the culture tended to prefer specific solutions to problems from within a limited range.

Among the boys their relationships with others tended to be hierarchical and individualistic and their activities to have little connection with anything else; their view of human nature was that everyone was rankable within a structure.

By contrast, the staff tended to have individualistic, future-oriented relationships and to have a mastery-over-nature orientation.

From the perspectives of sociology and psychotherapy it was interesting to see how the boys accommodated their psychological needs to the social structure. But both staff and boys verbalised democratic values while blaming provocation for anything non-democratic in their behaviour.

While the structure remained the same and the same deviant values persisted over intakes, different leaders would have different styles though they all tended to use repeated criticism of the ‘inferior’ boys to inhibit their collective action. In effect, there were two separate societies in the institution: the professional and the cottage.

In Chapter 11 New perspective on sub-cultural deviancy and treatment, he summarises the project, noting that the successful boys succeeded in both the professional programme and in the cottage culture, while the unsuccessful succeeded in neither.

He argues that the decline in a group focus has been paralleled by a rise in individualism in society which has left a gap in deviant subcultural theory because the research to date had focused on the links between a deviant subculture and its external culture and the total working of an internal social system had never been analysed.

There is a need to consider social relationships as well as individual psychotherapy. “Inner growth does not come about in a social vacuum” (p. 175).

As a result of his research, the institution planned to attach social workers to the cottages, get the psychiatrists working alongside the houseparents and develop an integrated structure.

In the Epilogue, he reveals that 17 of the 28 boys had settled in community, mostly near home, nine were continuing to commit offences and six of them were in jail while five were in mental institutions. These outcomes generally reflected the social status the boys had had in the institution.


The nearest parallel to Cottage Six is Mr Lyward’s Answer (Burn, 1956), another exercise in participant observation, which took place in the same decade. But the differences rather outweigh the similarities with Michael Burn clearly a staff member who did not disclose his true role to the boys. Also, as a journalist, he did not come to his work with the academic background which Howard Polsky was to bring.

Though unremarked at the time, his observation that “A neutral stance is impossible in a delinquent society” (p. 117) is significant in the wider context of debates about the nature of science. While social scientists often strive for ‘objectivity,’ natural scientists (Capra, 1982; Prigogine and Stengers, 1984) have recognised that this is unachievable, not just in specific situations but in any scientific endeavour. Those who affect neutrality in their dealings with children are deceiving themselves.

Interestingly, A.S. Neill (1962), George Lyward and the unnamed Jewish institution had all started at around the same time from the premise that individual psychotherapy was the way forward, the difference being that A.S. Neill and George Lyward quickly abandoned it, preferring to rely instead on the milieu for the therapy. Later Millham et al. (1975) were to find that the only schools with a significant boy culture or one hostile to the staff were those that sought to be therapeutic communities, suggesting that the culture found in Cottage Six was an artefact of the institution: “Troublesome behaviour in an institutional setting is produced by the institution rather than being an attribute of the individual” (Cawson and Martell, 1979, p. 37). Polsky’s comment that “Inner growth does not come in a social vacuum” (p. 175) is central to Wolins’s analysis (1973) of the relationships needed by people at different stages in their cognitive development.

At the time, Cottage Six tended to be picked up by those who were anxious about group care as an example of everything that can go wrong in an institution, ignoring the fact that this was one particular cottage in eleven whose culture was not representative of all the cottages. Now it would be clearer that the institution’s initial reaction of re-organising the professionals within the institution would be unlikely to succeed because the system that needed changing was the social system of the cottage which did not disadvantage the high status members of the system but did nothing for the low status members. Skeels (1966), for example, had taken a disadvantaged group, children who were unlikely to be adopted, and changed the system to benefit them while King et al. (1971) were to show that the relationships between the heads of the units and the children were the key to quality care, not the professionals.

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton See also Children Webmag May 2009.

Capra, F (1982) The turning point: science, society and the rising culture London: Wildwood House

Cawson, P and Martell, M (1979) Children referred to closed units DHSS Research Report No 5 London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag December 2009.

King, R D, Raynes, N V and Tizard, J (1971). Patterns of residential care: sociological studies in institutions for handicapped children London: Routledge & Kegan Paul See also Children Webmag April 2009.

Millham, S, Bullock, R and Cherrett, P (1975) After grace, teeth: a comparative study of residential experience of boys in approved schools London: Human Context

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz Originally published 1960 Summerhill: a radical approach to child rearing New York: Hart See also Children Webmag July 2009.

Polsky, H W (1962) Cottage Six: the social system of delinquent boys in residential treatment New York: Wiley

Prigogine, I and Stengers I (1984) Order out of chaos: man’s new dialogue with nature London: Heinemann

Skeels, H M (1966) Adult status of children with contrasting early life experience: a follow-up study Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 31 (3), 1-65 Extracts reprinted in M Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful Group Care Chicago: Aldine See also Children Webmag June 2009.

Wolins, M (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care In D M Pappenfort, D M Kilpatrick and R W Roberts (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Chicago: Aldine

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