Social Institutions in Sociology: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published June 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Social Institutions are the structures in society which influence how society is structured and functions. They include Family, Media, Education and the Government.

Key Points

  • A social institution is a group or organization that has specific roles, norms, and expectations, which functions to meet to social needs of society. The family, government, religion, education, and media are all examples of social institutions.
  • Social institutions are interdependent and continually interact and influence one another in everyday society. For example, some religious institutions believe they should have control over governmental and educational institutions.
  • Social institutions can have both manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are those that are explicitly stated, while latent functions are not.
  • Each social institution plays a vital role in the functioning of society and the lives of the people that inhabit them.

What Are Social Institutions?

A social institution is an established practice, tradition, behavior, or system of roles and relationships that is considered a normative structure or arrangement within a society.

Bogardus - "A social institution is a structure of society that is organized to meet the needs of people chiefly through well established procedures."

H. E. Barnes - "Social institutions are the social structure & machinery through which human society organizes, directs & executes the multifarious activities required to society for human need."

Broadly, they are patterns of behavior grouped around the central needs of human beings in a society. One such example of an institution is marriage, where multiple people commit to follow certain rules and acquire a familial legal status in relation to each other (Miller, 2007).

Social institutions have a number of key characteristics:

  1. They are enduring and stable
  2. They serve a purpose, ideally providing better chances for human survival and flourishing.
  3. They have roles that need to be filled
  4. Governing the behavior and expectations of sets of individuals within a given community.
  5. The rules that govern them are usually ingrained in the basic cultural values of a society, as each institution consists of a complex cluster of social norms.

They also serve general functions, including:

  1. Allocating resources
  2. Creating meaning
  3. Maintaining order
  4. Growing society and its influence

The five major social institutions in sociology are family, education, religion, government (political), and the economy.

Family

The family is one of the most important social institutions. It is considered a "building block" of society because it is the primary unit through which socialization occurs.

It is a social unit created by blood, marriage, or adoption, and can be described as nuclear, consisting of two parents and their children, or extended, encompassing other relatives. Although families differ widely around the world, families across cultures share certain common concerns in their everyday lives (Little & McGivern, 2020).

As a social institution, the family serves numerous, multifaceted functions.The family socializes its members by teaching them values, beliefs, and norms.

It also provides emotional support and economic stability. In some cases, the family may even act as a caretaker if one of its members is sick or disabled (Little & McGivern, 2020).

Historically, the family has been the central social institution of western societies. However, more recently, as sociologists have observed, other social institutions have taken the place of the family in providing key functions, as family sizes have shrunk and provided more distant ties.

For example, modern schools have in part taken on the role of socializing children, and workplaces can provide shared meaning.

Education

E. Durkheim - "education can be conceived as the socialization of the younger generation. It is a continuous effort to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling and acting which he could not arrived at spontaneously."

John J. Macionis - "Education is the social institution through which society provides its members with important knowledge, including basic facts, jobs, skills & cultural norms & values."

As a social institution, education helps to socialize children and young adults by teaching them the norms, values, and beliefs of their culture. It also transmits cultural heritage from one generation to the next. Education also provides people with the skills and knowledge they need to function in society.

Education may also help to reduce crime rates by providing people with alternatives to criminal activity. These are the "manifest" or openly stated functions and intended goals of education as a social institution (Meyer, 1977).

Education, sociologists have argued, also has a number of latent, or hidden and unstated functions. This can include courtship, the development of social networks, improving the ability for students to work in groups, the creation of a generation gap, and political and social integration (Little & McGivern, 2020).

Although every country in the world is equipped with some form of education system, these systems, as well as the values and teaching philosophies of those who run the systems, vary greatly. Generally, a country's wealth is directly proportional to the quality of its educational system.

For example, in poor countries, education may be seen as a luxury that only the wealthy can afford, while in rich countries, education is more accessible to a wider range of people.

This is because in poorer countries, money is often spent on more pressing needs such as food and shelter, diminishing financial and time investments in education (Little & McGivern, 2016).

Religion

Religion is another social institution that plays a significant role in society. It is an organized system of beliefs and practices designed to fill the human need for meaning and purpose (Durkheim, 1915).

According to Durkheim, “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.”

According to Ogburn, “Religion is an attitude towards superhuman powers.”

Religion can be used to instill moral values and socialize individuals into a community. Religion plays a significant role in shaping the way people view themselves and the world around them.

It can provide comfort and security to those in need. Large religions may also provide a basis for community support, establishing institutions of its own such as hospitals and schools.

Additionally, It can also be used as a form of political control or as a source of conflict. Different sociologists have commentated on the broad-scale societal effects of religion.

Max Weber, for example, believed that religion can be a force for social change, while Karl Marx viewed religion as a tool used by capitalist societies to perpetuate inequality (Little & McGivern, 2016).

Government

The government is another social institution that plays a vital role in society. It is responsible for maintaining order, protecting citizens from harm, and providing for the common good.

The government does this through its various sub-institutions and agencies, such as the police, the military, and the courts. These legal institutions regulate society and prevent crime by enforcing law and policy.

The government also provides social services, such as education and healthcare, ensuring the general welfare of a country or region's citizens (Little & McGivern, 2016).

Economy

The economy is a social institution that is responsible for the production and distribution of goods and services. It is also responsible for the exchange of money and other resources.

The economy is often divided into three sectors: the primary sector, the secondary sector, and the tertiary sector (Little & McGivern, 2016). The primary sector includes all industries that are concerned with the extraction and production of natural resources, such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining.

The secondary sector includes all industries that are concerned with the processing of raw materials into finished products, such as manufacturing and construction.

The tertiary sector includes all industries that provide services to individuals and businesses, such as education, healthcare, and tourism (Little & McGivern, 2016).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, June 23). Social Institutions in Sociology: Definition & Examples . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/social-institution.html

References

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Durkheim, E. (2016). The elementary forms of religious life. In Social Theory Re-Wired (pp. 52-67). Routledge.

Little, W., McGivern, R., & Kerins, N. (2016). Introduction to sociology-2nd Canadian edition. BC Campus.

Macionis, J. J., & Plummer, K. (2005). Sociology: A global introduction. Pearson Education.

Meyer, J. W. (1977). The effects of education as an institutionAmerican journal of Sociology83(1), 55-77.

Ogburn, W. F. (1937). The influence of inventions on American social institutions in the future. American Journal of Sociology43(3), 365-376.

Miller, S. (2007). Social institutions In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Schotter, A. (2008). The economic theory of social institutions. Cambridge Books.

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