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Social Institutions

Social institutions are stable features of a society or culture. They include organizations, systems, structures, roles, norms, and traditions that provide stability and continuity to a community. Social institutions serve as a collection of resources with knowledge, information, skills, and values that affect individuals and define how people behave in their society. To a sociologist, families, sports teams, religions, hospitals, and healthcare systems are all considered to be institutions. Other social institutions include cities, festivals, holidays, traditions, and schools.

Last updated: Sep 5, 2022

Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

Definition

A social institution is a group of individuals with a common purpose, goals, and norms.

Types of Social Institutions

Community

A community may be a group of people who live in the same geographic region or a collective of individuals with shared interests and goals. An example of a geographic community would be people in a town or city whose common interest is their community’s safety and prosperity. An example of a non-geographic community would be the LGBTQ community, whose members seek equal rights and opportunities for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Transgender Persons having a sense of persistent identification with, and expression of, gender-coded behaviors not typically associated with one’s anatomical sex at birth, with or without a desire to undergo sex reassignment procedures. Gender Dysphoria, or queer Queer Gender Dysphoria.

Community service organizations

Community service organizations serve a community by fulfilling a need or providing an opportunity to participate. For example, a local social service organization may sponsor projects such as clearing litter or providing scholarships to needy students. A local club, such as a chess club, may invite participants to learn and enjoy the game. On a national or international level, community service organizations that are considered social institutions include AmeriCorps and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Schools as social institutions

Schools are institutions in the sense that students come together to obtain scientific knowledge, develop skills, acquire values, and develop good habits (e.g., study habits, self-discipline, and hygiene). School as a social institution prepares students to contribute to society and have a productive future. In addition to mastering the curriculum, students also learn to interact with others, both peers and teachers. Interaction governs behavior, teaching children to conform to established norms and values and to negotiate outcomes.

Family as a social institution

In sociology, the family is considered a social institution. Individuals learn to define goals and expectations through parents and other family members. The family influences the individual’s habits, beliefs, and values and helps define normalcy.

Traditionally, a family is defined as a group of people related to an individual by blood, marriage, or adoption. A nuclear family consists of parents, siblings, and offspring. An extended family consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The nuclear family tends to have a more significant impact on individual social norms compared to the extended family. The term “family” can also describe a basic social unit consisting of one or more adults and the children they care for, or any group of people that substitutes for those related by the classic definition.

Community members, too, teach values or beliefs that affect an individual’s decisions. Individuals may turn to others outside of the traditional family unit when they are stressed or need support. While families and education influence our goals, expectations, norms, and genetics Genetics Genetics is the study of genes and their functions and behaviors. Basic Terms of Genetics also play an essential role in defining behaviors (including criminal behavior) and the ability to interact socially.

Epigenetics refers to the environment’s effect on our genes Genes A category of nucleic acid sequences that function as units of heredity and which code for the basic instructions for the development, reproduction, and maintenance of organisms. DNA Types and Structure.  For example, an epigeneticist may study families who have endured trauma or tremendous stress during their lives to determine whether second- or third-generation individuals show signs of anxiety Anxiety Feelings or emotions of dread, apprehension, and impending disaster but not disabling as with anxiety disorders. Generalized Anxiety Disorder or depression. Surprisingly, anxiety Anxiety Feelings or emotions of dread, apprehension, and impending disaster but not disabling as with anxiety disorders. Generalized Anxiety Disorder disorders are significantly more common up to the third generation, even when the parents (second generation) reported no major stressful events in their lives.

The main goals of the family as a social institution are:

  • Reproduction
  • Protecting offspring
  • Teaching children how to interact socially
  • Showing affection and love
  • Teaching offspring how to function in society
Family

Five functions of family

Image by Lecturio

Historically, reproduction was an important goal of the family as a social institution. Before the availability of antibiotics, children and adolescents sometimes died of infectious diseases before adulthood. Therefore, families had many children to ensure the generation’s survival in their society.

Today, families tend to have fewer children because of medical advances and changing societal norms. A larger family may be financially challenging to support, and a family’s integration into society is no longer influenced by size.

Families are also more diverse these days compared to the historically traditional institution; today’s families include blended members (children from previous relationships), gay/lesbian members, and grandparents.

In this era, society is more aware of potential adverse effects on offspring from factors such as divorce or domestic violence. Divorce has become more common in North America and has led to more remarriages and blended families. Domestic violence is reported more frequently than in the past, and there is greater awareness of its effect on individuals’ social skills. Violence in the family unit can affect children, spouses, and elders. In addition to physical violence, neglect and verbal abuse are detrimental to those involved.

Healthcare institutions

Healthcare institutions monitor public health and provide facilities to help individuals maintain health as well as treat and prevent diseases and injuries. Medicalization refers to identifying or categorizing a condition as requiring medical treatment or prevention.

Healthcare delivery varies across communities. It is affected by access, socioeconomic status, and age. Social epidemiology examines disparities in health and medical care Medical care Conflict of Interest based on social factors and how those disparities affect health. The illness experience refers to the process of being ill and how individuals react to and cope with this change in their personal identity.

Religion as a social institution

Religion and religious rituals and practices can be traced back to ancient times when humans began forming social institutions. Religion can be considered a reflection of the need to establish norms, values, and morals as well as the need to belong to a social institution. Strict religious adherence, however, has led to historical conflicts and social isolation. Secularization—the process whereby religious thinking, practice, and institutions lose social and political significance—has emerged partly as a result. Increased education in history, culture, and science has lessened people’s need to believe in religious dogma.

Governments as social institutions

Governments are important social institutions responsible for setting rules and enforcing them to define how individuals integrate into society. Legal institutions help us to regulate society and prevent crime, as they enforce law and policy.

While governments can affect people and their interactions with one another, people can also influence the government through democracy. In a democracy, citizens help shape their government’s decisions, goals, and expectations. 

In contrast, an authoritarian society has a single leader or small group of leaders who do not allow public participation in government. This is usually synonymous with a dictatorship. 

The classic definition of communism is a society in which all property is publicly owned. Each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs. This concept is distinct from socialism, in which all citizens share equally in economic resources as allocated by a democratically elected government.

In countries with a monarchy, a single royal family rules the county and has power over the government. One family member is an established figurehead. Today, these entities are rare; nations that still have royal families are usually known as constitutional monarchies, in which the monarch remains the official head of state but other government figures are elected democratically.

Conclusion

Social institutions play important roles in forming society as well as maintaining its integrity, function, and prosperity.

References

  1. Mayseless, O, & Popper, M. Reliance on leaders and social institutions: an attachment perspective. Attach Hum Dev. 2007 Mar;9(1):73-93. PubMed PMID: 17364483.
  2. Bowles, S, Choi, JK, & Hopfensitz, A. The co-evolution of individual behaviors and social institutions. J Theor Biol. 2003 Jul 21;223(2):135-47. PubMed PMID: 12814597.
  3. Littlewood, R. Social institutions and psychological explanations: Druze reincarnation as a therapeutic resource. Br J Med Psychol. 2001 Jun;74 Part 2:213-222. PubMed PMID: 11802837.
  4. Korgen, K, & White J. The engaged sociologist. Chapter 6; 5th edition.

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