Social Institutions: Definition, types, functions & Features

Socialinstitutions may be defined as practices based on similarprinciples that display some degree of regularity. More specifically, a socialinstitution is an interrelated system of social roles and social norms,organized around the satisfaction of an important social need or socialfunction (Team of Experts, 2000).

In general, a social institution is an established pattern of behavior that is organized to perpetuate the welfare of society and to preserve its form. From the above definition, we can observe that social institutions have got some important functions. Three of such main functions are: (a) perpetuation of the welfare of society, (b) preservation and maintenance of the form of society, and (c) meeting the major needs of the members of society. A society is functionally integrated and held together by social institutions.

Social institutions are universal. They vary from time to time and across cultures, in terms of complexity, specialization, scope, formality and organization. But their basic nature and purpose are similar everywhere.

These features are particularlytrue regarding the five major social institutions discussed below. Social institutionsare resistant to change; they tend to persist.

However, once a change occurs inparticular social institution, it tends to affect the other institutions aswell.

Major Types and Functions of Social Institutions

There are many principles aroundwhich institution are organized. The five social institutions of major significancesare:

  1. Economic institutions: those that deal with economic and property relations;
  2. Polity and law: Those that are concerned with social control with politics and law government, the police, court, etc. Read:
  3. Religious institutions: Those concerned with the supernatural magic and religion;
  4. Family: those based on principles of kinship, meaning, social relations created by descent and marriage; and
  5. Educational institutions: those that deal with the need for training individuals in the roles, values, skills, knowledge, attitudes etc which are associated with being a citizen and a worker. read: functions of schooling

Each institution performs two types of social function: These are:

  • primary functions, which are also called manifest,explicit, or direct functions; and
  • secondary functions, which are also called indirect,hidden, or latent functions. Through these functions, social institutionsfulfill important needs in the society. The primary functions of the five majorsocial institutions are as follows.

1.       TheFamily

The family is the most importantsocial unit in any society. It is the building block of any society. The familyfulfills two basic functions. These are reproduction and socialization. Societyreproduces or recreates itself through the family. Children are born in thefamily to join the society. Parents play the roles of nurturing, caring for,teaching and training children; children are expected to play the roles of goodand teachable trainees. The way parents nurture, train and care for theirchildren vary according toe forms of family organization. Nuclearfamily is a dominant form of family organization in modern, industrialized andurban societies. It usually consists of husband wife and dependent children. Intraditional, agrarian and rural societies, Extruded family formdominates. It consists of husband, wife/ wives, their children, and other relatives(Henslin and Nelson, 1995; Calhoun et al. 1994)

2.      Economic Institution

Every society needs to makeeffective use of the scarce resources. Goods and services have to be producedto meet the basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc. Economicinstitutions are responsible for organizing the production, exchange,distribution and consumption of goods and services.

3.      Religious Institution

This asocial institution isresponsible for meeting (providing) spiritual needs of the members of the society.There are puzzling questions about the meaning of the human life, humandestiny, the universe, and other questions.

Religion and related institutionslike magic provide explanations for these puzzling paradoxes of life and providesmeaning and purpose for life. It helps people to cope with purposelessness,meaninglessness and sense of alienation and frustration. These institutions alsohelp members of society conform to social values and norms, and play theirexpected social roles appropriately. They also provide a sense of social solidarityamong members of society.

4.      Political Institution (Government and Law)

These social institutions are responsible for protecting the society from internal disorder, crime and chaos; as well as from external threats and invasion. They are responsible for maintaining peace and order at micro and macro levels; enforcing social control; and maintaining the welfare and well-being of society.

5.      Educational Institution

This social institution is responsiblefor providing training for the members of society. It serves as center of knowledgeproduction, exchange, and distribution.

Generally, educational institutionsare responsible for the vertical and horizontal transmission of material and non-materialcultures. Vertical transmission means over time from one generation to anothergeneration; whereas horizontal transmission means over geographical space orfrom one society to another. Educational institutions also play the role ofpreparing members of society for the statuses and roles that re associate with beinggood citizens and workers, holding various occupations.

Before ending this section it is important to note that although the foregoing way of presenting the nature and function of social institutions is often common in some of standard text books in introductory sociology, we also need to view them in a critical and conflict theory approach. From such perspectives, social institutions may be functional for some and dysfunctional (meaning positively harmful and damaging) for other individuals and groups in a society. This is partly because they often exist and operate in the context of class division and social stratification, unequal access to power and resources. From this point of view, social institutions may not be functional to all members of society equally.

They may exist to promote theinterests and privileges of some sections of society (Personalcommunication: Dr Teketel Abebe, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology,Addis Ababa University).

Major social institutions withprimary functions

  • The family: procreation and socialization ofchildren
  • Economic institution: organizingproduction, exchange and consumption of goods and services
  • Political Institution: Maintainingpeace and order in society
  • Educational institution: centers ofknowledge creation and transmission; transmission of culture from generation togeneration
  • Religious institution: Meetingspiritual needs; serving as source of explanatory authority on difficult questionsfacing human life.

Socialinstitutions may be defined as practices based on similar principles that displaysome degree of regularity. More specifically, a social institution is aninterrelated system of social roles and social norms, organized around thesatisfaction of an important social need or social function.

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