Social Institutions

As individuals, we are continually growing, learning, and developing. It's an exciting part of being a human! We can evolve and become better versions of ourselves. In a way, society is similar to this. It is constantly changing and, over time, adapting to meet the needs of its people.

Social Institutions Social Institutions

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Table of contents

    The structure that society functions on has progressed to meet our current needs, which are mostly technological. But there are countless other ways in which it has changed its structure to what we know as society today.

    • In this article, we will be looking over the main topics relating to social structure.
    • We will primarily focus on social institutions, looking at their definition, examples, characteristics, and different types of social institutions.
    • We will then look specifically at the main types of social institutions: the family, education, and religion.
    • Finally, we will look at how culture and social movements change the structure of society.
    • Understanding these points will help you understand how society is structured and the aspects that can affect it!

    Definition of Social Institutions

    Society is structured in many ways. Some of these may be distinct, while others are harder to recognize. One of the main ways in which society is structured is through social institutions.

    A social institution is often defined as a structure of society that intends to meet the needs of society's members.

    In simpler words, social institutions are elements of society that help it to run. Sociologists see social institutions as important because they help society to function.

    Each social institution is different and performs a unique function that affects society. They often have specific roles or jobs as well as other distinctive characteristics.

    Characteristics of Social Institutions

    Social institutions have certain distinguishing characteristics. They are groups or organizations which aim to perform specific roles in society. This means they contain distinct norms, expectations, and functions that help to maintain the ever-changing needs of society.

    The education system is a social institution. Its role is to educate the younger generations and prepare them for the workplace.

    In most cases, different social institutions involve and affect each other so that they are constantly developing.

    The education system relies on the institution of the government to bring in new policies and laws.

    Social Structure: Culture, Institutions, and Society, city flats with lights on, StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - Social institutions perform roles in society.

    Countless other social institutions perform different roles in society. Let's look at some more examples.

    Examples of Social Institutions

    There are many examples of what a social institution is. The most prominent institutions studied in sociology are:

    • The family as an institution

    • Education as an institution

    • Religion as an institution

    But we can also consider:

    • Government as an institution

    • Economy as an institution

    • Population and demography as an institution

    • Media and technology as an institution

    • Healthcare as an institution

    Each of these individual institutions is explored in detail in our other articles. In these, we examine the inequalities in each institution, variations of institutions, different theoretical perspectives on each institution, and more.

    Types of Social Institutions

    But for now, let's examine these types of social institutions in a little more detail below!

    Remember, this is an overview. For a deeper look at each of the individual institutions, look at our other articles!

    Social Institutions: Family

    The family is one of the key social institutions, yet you may not have recognised it as one straight away. Family life may not seem very 'structured', but it often is! The family acts as a rigid social institution that supports each of its members. Sociologists consider the family as one of the main bases of society because it is where socialization happens first.

    The family as a social institution meets many needs of society. The most basic functions it performs are:

    • Socialization: the family is where the socialization of children primarily occurs. Families all differ structurally, but they still perform the function of socialization. This allows children and younger family members to learn the norms, values, and cultural beliefs of their society.

    • Emotional care: the family provides emotional support for all of its members. This helps them to regulate their emotions to be able to do their everyday jobs and tasks, like going to work.

    • Financial aid: the family also helps financially with all of its members. If one is struggling to support themselves financially, then the family unit often steps in to help. This releases pressure on other institutions like the economy and the government.

    Want more information? Read 'The Family as an Institution'.

    Social Institutions: Education

    The education system is also a fundamental social institution in society, and perhaps one of the most obvious ones! Education is a very structured system that helps us to grow as individuals. It helps to socialize and teach younger generations what they need to know to progress in society.

    Social Structure: Culture, Institutions, and Society, high school classroom teaching, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - Education is used to socialize, prevent crime, and pass down knowledge and skills to pupils.

    Some of the basic roles that the education system takes on are:

    • Socialization: it takes over the role of socialization from the family and helps to instill the dominant norms, values, and cultural beliefs into its students.

    • Preventing crime: the education system helps students to understand the need to respect rules and authority. This means they are more likely to respect government laws and people in positions of authority, like the police, when they mature.

    • Skills and knowledge: the school system provides individuals with skills and knowledge to progress in society. This helps people to get jobs that contribute to society.

    Want more information? Read 'Education as an Institution'.

    Social Institutions: Religion

    Religion is a significant social institution as it has specific beliefs and practices, unique to each society. Although, it's important to note that not everyone is religious. For those who are, however, religious groups roles often aim to provide comfort, instill morals, and socialize individuals:

    • Providing comfort: religion gives comfort to its followers by having a supportive community and providing guidance in the form of religious scripture.

    • Instilling morals: religion teaches moral values for individuals to follow which shapes how people perceive the world.

    • Socialization: members of religious groups are socialized into the cultural beliefs of the group. This helps them to understand which norms and values are accepted.

    Want more information? Read 'Religion as an Institution'.

    Although social institutions are a key way in which society is structured, it's important to explore alternative ways. Institutions go hand in hand with culture and society. So let's explore them both!

    Culture in Society

    Culture is a huge aspect of society, and it creates many structures.

    According to the Cambridge Dictionary, culture refers to:

    the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time."

    Culture is unique to each society and can be unique to each person. Culture is taken from what we experience in society, including particular traditions or beliefs. It structures society by splitting it into subcultures and teaching people norms and values.

    Changing Cultures and Institutions

    Just like institutions, culture changes greatly over time. For example, in American society, American values have changed as society and culture progress. Some key moments of change throughout history are:

    • The American Revolution

    • The French Revolution

    • Industrial Revolution

    • Globalization

    • The Internet Age

    But what changed during these times? There are many components of culture, such as material culture, nonmaterial culture, norms, values and beliefs, subcultures, and counterculture. All of these change and progress alongside society.

    Components and Elements of Culture

    Let's quickly define the terms above:

    • Material culture - physical belongings in our daily lives, e.g., food, money, and cars.

    • Nonmaterial culture - contrasting material culture, the non-tangible aspects of our lives, e.g., ideologies and beliefs.

    • Norms - accepted behaviors in society that are universally shared and understood.

    • Values and beliefs - joint ideas of what is understood as good and bad in society.

    • Subcultures - sections of society that have specific values that differ from the majority of society.

    • Countercultures - when a subculture intentionally rejects parts of the wider society.

    • Language also has a profound place in culture. Individuals from the same society often speak the same language; therefore, outsiders from another culture may find it hard to belong as they communicate differently. Furthermore, language is not always spoken but can refer to symbols, numerals, written speech, and more.

    We can also explore some more complex ideas relating to culture.

    Cultural Universalism, Ethnocentrism, Culture Shock, and Cultural Relativity

    Cultural universalism refers to the idea that the norms and traditions of various unique cultures can be viewed and judged through the standards of a 'universal' culture. Similarly, cultural universals are aspects that are present in all cultures.

    George Murdock (1945) pointed out common cultural universals that we can find in any culture, such as funeral ceremonies, medicine, cooking, and marriage.

    Ethnocentrism was a term coined by sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906). Sumner defined ethnocentrism as how we assume our own culture is the norm and disregard others. We believe our culture is superior because we have grown up as the norm.

    Culture shock is a feeling of being 'out of place' in another culture because the culture's norms are unknown to the individual. For example, traveling to a new country can seem daunting to some as they are unsure which behaviors are suitable to will make them fit in.

    Cultural relativity refers to looking at a person's behavior within the context of their own culture. Behaviors which might seem odd in one culture are completely normal in another.

    Read more about culture in our article 'What is Culture?'.

    What is Society?

    Society is perhaps one of the most common terms used in sociology. But what is society?

    According to Strayer (2015), society can be defined as:

    people who live in a definable community and who share a culture."

    But society is also much more complex than this. Different types of society have existed throughout history:

    Types of Society

    The three commonly spoken about types of society are:

    • Preindustrial society

    • Industrial society

    • Postindustrial society

    Preindustrial society refers to the very first stages of society, such as the hunter-gatherer phase. This is when humans are very nomadic, spending most of their time foraging or hunting for food. There is also a little bit of farming at this stage. Think of how far American society has come from the stage of preindustrial society!

    Industrial society refers mainly to society as it progressed through the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was a period when huge scientific developments were made. This progressed farming and factories by using technology to power production.

    Postindustrial society refers to society after the industrial revolution when the focus fell on producing information and services rather than goods or food. Postindustrial societies thrive from technological advancements such as the internet.

    It's also important to explore how sociological perspectives view society.

    Theoretical Perspectives on Society

    We'll be looking at functionalist, Marxist, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionist views on society, as well as the social construction of reality.

    Functionalist Theory on Society

    The functionalist perspective sees society as working perfectly. In particular, each institution, cultural aspect, and societal phase plays specific roles that help to make society run smoothly. Functionalists believe that all aspects of society are connected.

    Marxist Theory on Society

    The Marxist theory, based on the work of Karl Marx, argues that society is capitalist and exploits those who don't own the means of production (the working class). Marxists believe that the working class constantly suffers from the capitalist social structure, which benefits the owners of the means of production (the ruling class).

    Conflict theory on Society

    Conflict theory suggests that society is in a constant state of conflict because we have a finite amount of resources in the world. Social groups, therefore, must compete for resources, and the groups in power dominate the less powerful.

    Symbolic Interactionist Theory on Society

    Symbolic interactionists believe that society is based on a foundation of interactions between people and the meanings assigned to them. The theory is built on the ideas of Max Weber, who argued that society is built on ideas and modern society has become rationalized in the process of industrialization.l

    The Social Construction of Reality

    The social construction of reality refers to the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966). They explored the idea of society as being based on human interaction. They believed we construct our society, and our reality, based on what others have created before us.

    Read more about society in our article 'What is Society?'.

    In addition to culture and institutions shaping social structures, we will also examine social movements and social change.

    Social Movements and Social Change

    Social movements and social change occur from collective behavior by individuals. Let's define these!

    Social movements are organized groups that aim to achieve the same shared goal.

    Social change is a change within society that is steered by a social movement.

    Collective behavior refers to a large group following the same behaviors, which often differ from social norms.

    The social change of legalizing marijuana has been achieved through social movements and gradual collective behavior.

    If the existing systems of society aren't working for the people, social movements will be organized, which can trigger social change. This can change social structures.

    Read more about social movements and social change in 'Social Movements and Social Change'.

    Social Structure: Culture, Institutions, and Society - Key takeaways

    • Social institutions are elements of society that help it to run. They impact societal structure alongside culture and social movements.
    • The family, education, and religion are all key institutions of society. Socializing and teaching individuals society's norms and values.
    • Culture is defined as the way of life of a particular group of people at a particular time. There are many important components and elements of culture which change over time with society.
    • Society is seen as people who live in a definable community and who share a culture. There are different types of society: preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial.
    • Social movements and social change can change social structure.


    1. Culture. (2022). Cambridge English Dictionary.
    2. Strayer, H. (2015). Introduction to Sociology 2e. Openstax.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Institutions

    What are social institutions?

    A social institution is defined as: a structure of society that is organized to meet the needs of people, chiefly through well-established procedures.

    Why are social institutions important?

    Sociologists see social institutions as important because they help society to function.

    What are examples of social institutions?

    There are many examples of what a social institution is. The most prominent institutions spoken about in sociology are:

    • The family as an institution
    • Education as an institution
    • Religion as an institution

    But there are also:

    • Government as an institution
    • Economy as an institution
    • Population and demography as an institution
    • Media and technology as an institution
    • Healthcare as an institution

    What are the positive effects of social institutions?

    Each social institution is different and performs a unique function which is seen as having a positive effect on society.

    What are the functions of social institutions?

    Each social institution is different and performs a unique function.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: 'All social institutions perform the same function'?

    Which of the following is not a characteristic of social institutions?

    What are the three most prominent institutions studied in sociology?

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