Social institutions are organized patterns of beliefs and behavior that are centered on basic social needs. Examples of social institutions include the family, religion, the economy, education, health care, and government. Social institutions can be viewed as the locus of social problems as well as important players in addressing social problems.
All societies have social institutions; they may be thought of as cultural universals that were first described by the anthropologist George Murdock as general practices found in every culture, such as sports, food preparation, and funeral ceremonies. However, social institutions are more complex, dealing with broad areas of people’s behavior, and they have much greater social impact than a single cultural universal.
Social institutions such as the government or the economy are such regular, ongoing elements of society that they are often regarded as “permanent” and that a situation is “just the way things are.” However, taking a longer sociohistorical perspective will identify major changes in a social institution such as the family, reminding us, for example, that remarriage after a spouse dies, much less the notion of divorce, was not always socially acceptable or even legal. Students of social problems often try to rethink how social institutions can be organized to develop solutions to social problems and do not accept their current organization as static.
One way to study social institutions is to examine how they fulfill essential functions using the functionalist (or structural-functionalist) perspective. To survive, any society or relatively permanent group must accomplish five major tasks, or functional prerequisites:
- Replacing personnel. Any group or society must replace personnel when they die, leave, or become incapacitated. This function is accomplished through such means as immigration, annexation of neighboring groups, acquisition of slaves, or sexual reproduction.
- Teaching new recruits. No group or society can survive if many of its members reject the established behavior and responsibilities. Thus, finding or producing new members is not sufficient. The group or society must encourage recruits to learn and accept its values and customs. Such learning can take place formally in schools (where learning is a manifest function) or informally, through interaction and negotiation in peer groups (where instruction is a latent function).
- Producing and distributing goods and services. Any relatively permanent group or society must provide and distribute desired goods and services to its members. Each society establishes a set of rules for the allocation of financial and other resources. These rules must satisfy the needs of most members to some extent, or the society will risk the possibility of discontent and ultimately disorder.
- Preserving order. Societies must defend themselves from threats from both without and within. Contemporary issues, as well as controversies, of immigration, surveillance, terrorism, military buildup, private security, prisons, gated communities, disarmament, and treaties concerning nuclear weapons are all manifestations of the need to maintain order.
- Providing and maintaining a sense of purpose. People must feel motivated to continue as members of a group or society in order to fulfill the first four requirements. Many aspects of a society can assist people in developing and maintaining a sense of purpose. For some people, religious values or personal moral codes are paramount; for others, patriotism or tribal identities are especially meaningful.
This list of functional prerequisites does not specify how a society and its corresponding social institutions should perform each task. For example, one society may protect itself from external attack by amassing a frightening arsenal of weaponry, while another may make a determined effort to remain neutral in world politics and to promote cooperative relationships with its neighbors. No matter what the strategy, any society or relatively permanent group must attempt to satisfy all these functional prerequisites for survival. If a society fails on even one condition, it runs the risk of extinction.
Conflict theorists do not concur with the functionalist approach to social institutions. Although theorists of both perspectives agree that institutions are organized to meet basic social needs, conflict theorists object to the implication that the outcome is necessarily efficient and socially desirable.
From a conflict perspective, the present organization of social institutions is no accident. Major institutions, such as education, help to maintain the privileges of the most powerful individuals and groups in a society, while contributing to the powerlessness of others. To give one example, public schools in the United States are financed largely through property taxes, an arrangement that allows people from more affluent areas to provide their children with better-equipped schools and better-paid teachers than people from low-income areas. As a result, children from prosperous communities are better prepared to compete academically than children from impoverished communities. The structure of the nation’s educational system permits and even promotes such unequal treatment.
Social institutions operate in a social environment with a great deal of inequality by social class, race, gender, and age. From the perspective of conflict theorists, social institutions perpetuate inequality across society and from one generation to the next.
Related to the conflict perspective as an approach to social institutions is the feminist perspective, which considers how the relative role of women has been ignored. Generally, this approach observes that social institutions establish the “rules of the game” that typically advantage men. Historically in most societies, men organized institutions and outlined the norms. Institutions are symbolically interpreted from the standpoint of men as reflected in men being “head of the family” or a male divinity figure serving as the focus of religious worshipers who are guided and directed largely by men.
Another aspect of women’s subordinate status is that, more than any other group; they are confined to certain occupations. Some sex-typed jobs for women, such as nursing and teaching, pay well above the minimum wage and carry moderate prestige. Nevertheless, they are far lower in pay and prestige than such stereotyped male positions as physician, college president, or university professor. When they do enter nontraditional positions, women as a group receive lower wages or salary.
Male dominance of high-paying occupations such as corporate executive and financial manager is well documented. Women dominate in other occupations, but they tend to be lower-paying, such as secretaries, seamstresses, health care workers, and domestic workers. Trends show the proportions of women increasing slightly in the professions, indicating that some women have advanced into better-paying positions, but these gains have not significantly changed the overall picture.
How pervasive is segregation by gender in the workforce? To what degree are women and men concentrated in different occupations? U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics researchers have compiled a segregation index to estimate the percentage of women who would have to change their jobs to make the distribution of men and women in each occupation mirror the relative percentage of each sex in the adult working population. This study showed that 54 percent of women and men workers would need to switch jobs to create a labor force without sex segregation. Despite a steady decline in such segregation, the decrease was not as great in the 1990s as in earlier decades.
Social institutions affect our everyday behavior, whether we are driving down the street or waiting in a long shopping line.
Interactionist (or symbolic interactionist) theorists emphasize that our social behavior is conditioned by the roles and statuses we accept, the groups we belong to, and the institutions within which we function. For example, the social roles associated with being a judge occur within the larger context of the criminal justice system. The status of “judge” stands in relation to other statuses, such as attorney, plaintiff, defendant, and witness, as well as to the social institution of government. Although courts and jails have great symbolic importance, the judicial system derives its continued significance from the roles people carry out in their social interactions. As we approach social problems related to criminal justice, the relationships among and the social network of all these roles need to be considered.
No one perspective of social institutions is correct by itself, but taken together the four approaches help us understand social institutions and their relationship to social problems.
- Aberle, David E., A. K. Cohen, A. K. Davis, M. J. Leng, Jr., and E. N. Sutton. 1959. “The Functional Prerequisites of a Society.” Ethics 60(January):100-111.
- Acker, Joan. 1994. “Gendered Institutions: From Sex Roles to Gendered Institutions.” Contemporary Sociology 21:565-69.
- Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday.
- Mack, Raymond W. and Calvin P. Bradford. 1979. Transforming America: Patterns of Social Change. 2d ed. New York: Random House.
- Murdock, George P. 1945. “The Common Denominator of Cultures.” Pp. 123-42 in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, edited by R. Linton. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Weinberg, Daniel H. 2004. Evidence from Census 2000 about Earnings by Detailed Occupation for Men and Women. CENSR-15. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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