Ontario’s Institutional Cycle: Considering the Relationship Between Fictional Narratives and Policy Discourses in the Construction of Mental Disability

  • Karen McCauley Assistant Professor, School of Social Work Laurentian University
  • Duncan Matheson Associate Professor and BSW Program Coordinator, School of Social Work, Laurentian University
Keywords: fiction, institution, mental disability, novels, policy


There is a substantial literature theorizing ways that fictional narrative informs how identity is constructed and experienced in day-to-day life.  However, there has been very little research on the ways that constructions of disability in fictional literature have influenced, or been influenced by policy discourse.  This study takes some preliminary steps toward an interdisciplinary analysis of literary and policy discourses over the course of Ontario’s institutional cycle in order to explore the nature of the relationship between constructions of mental disability in novels and social policy.  A snowball sample of novels containing characters with mental disabilities was refined to a smaller sample published within the originally identified phases of this institutional cycle: between 1839 and 2009.  Findings from the literary analysis identified an additional phase within the original institutional cycle.  Also, the finding that policy rhetoric extolling the advantages of deinstitutionalization are not affirmed in novels published within the reform phase of the cycle (1960-1986) suggests that the social inclusion of people of with mental disabilities is far from assured in a post-institutional era.  The research findings documented in this report support a contention that ongoing exploration of relationships between policy and literary constructions of identity may help explain other historical social policy patterns or cycles. 

Author Biographies

Karen McCauley, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work Laurentian University

Karen McCauley is an Assistant Professor at Laurentian University’s School of Social Work (Sudbury campus) where she teaches social policy, administration, foundations of practice and critical disability studies.  She has worked as a program manager in a community living organization; and her interdisciplinary approach to research is informed by an interest in ways that fiction and nonfiction literature may expand social work knowledge about the human condition. 

Duncan Matheson, Associate Professor and BSW Program Coordinator, School of Social Work, Laurentian University

Duncan Matheson is an Associate Professor at Laurentian University’s School of Social Work (Barrie campus), teaching social policy and administration in the School’s BSW and MSW programsTogether with the Roeher Institute, he was instrumental in the development of Ontario’s first online social science elective on disability studies.  He initiated and manages Social Policy in Ontario <www.spon.ca>, a research tool for informed critical analysis and public participation in the assessment of health, education and social services.



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