Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!

Social Institutions



Fair Use

Social Institutions
by D. Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca-Zinn

From: In Conflict and Order, 9th Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001 (pp. 47-49)

One distinguishing characteristic of societies is the existence of a set of institutions. The popular usages of this term are imprecise and omit some important sociological considerations. An institution is not anyone or anything that is established and tra­ditional (for example, a janitor who has worked at the same school for forty-five years). An institution is not limited to specific organizations, such as a school or a prison or a hospital. An institution is much broader in scope and importance than a person, a custom, or a social organization.

Institutions are social arrangements that channel behavior in prescribed ways in the important areas of social life. They are interrelated sets of normative elements— norms, values, and role expectations—that the people making up the society have devised and passed on to succeeding generations in order to provide permanent solu­tions to society’s perpetually unfinished business. Institutions are cultural impera­tives. They serve as regulatory agencies, channeling behavior in culturally prescribed ways. “Institutions provide procedures through which human conduct is patterned, compelled to go, in grooves deemed desirable by society And this trick is performed by making the grooves appear to the individual as the only possible ones” (Berger, 1963:87).

For example, a society instills in its members predetermined channels for mar­riage. Instead of allowing the sexual partners a host of options, it is expected in U.S. society that the couple, composed of a man and a woman, will marry and set up a conjugal household. Although the actual options are many the partners choose what society demands. In fact, they do not consider the other options as valid (for exam­ple, polygamy polyandry or group marriage). The result is a patterned arrangement that regulates sexual behavior and attempts to ensure a stable environment for the care of dependent children. The current demand by state legislatures that gay part­ners should not be allowed to marry illustrates the strict institutional demands of society over individual behavior.

Institutions arise from the uncoordinated actions of multitudes of individuals over time. These actions, procedures, and rules evolve into a set of expectations that appear to have a design, because the consequences of these expectations provide solutions that help maintain social stability The design is accidental, however; it is a product of cultural evolution.

All societies face problems in common. Although the variety of solutions is almost infinite, there is a functional similarity in their consequence, which is stabil­ity and maintenance of the system. Table 2.1 cites a number of common societal problems and the resulting institutions. This partial list of institutions shows the type of societal problems for which solutions are continually sought. All societies, for instance, have some form of the family, education, polity, economy and religion. The variations on each theme that are found in societies are almost beyond imagination. These variations, while most interesting, are beyond the scope of this book. By look­ing at the interrelated norms, values, and role expectations that provide pat solutions to fundamental societal problems we can begin to understand U.S. society.

Institutions are, by definition, conservative. They are the answer of custom and tradition to questions of survival. Although absolutely necessary for unity and sta­bihty, institutions in contemporary U.S. society are often outmoded, inefficient, and unresponsive to the incredibly swift changes brought about by technological advances, population shifts, and increasing worldwide interdependence.

As we look at the institutions of U.S. society we must not forget that institutions are made by people and can therefore be changed. We should be guided by the insight that even though institutions appear to have the quality of being sacred, they are not. They can be changed, but critical examination is imperative. Social scientists must look behind the facades. They must not accept the patterned ways as the only correct ways. This is in the U.S. heritage-as found in the Declaration of Indepen­dence. As Skolnick and Currie have put it,

Democratic conceptions of society have always held that institutions exist to serve man, and that, therefore, they must be accountable to men. Where they fail to meet the tests imposed on them, democratic theory holds that they ought to be changed. Authoritarian governments, religious regimes, and reformatories, among other social systems, hold the opposite: in case of misalignment between individ­uals or groups and the “system,” the individuals and groups are to be changed or otherwise made unproblematic. (Skolnick and Currie, 1970:15)





Societal Problem...................................................................................Institution

Sexual regulation; maintenance of stable units that ensure
continued births and care of dependent children .....................................Family

Socialization of the newcomers to the society..........................................Education

Maintenance of order, the distribution of power......................................Polity

Production and distribution of good and services; ownership
of property...............................................................................................Economy

Understanding the transcendental; the search for meaning
of life and death and the place of humankind in the world.......................Religion

Understanding the physical and social realms of nature............................Science

Providing for physical and emotional health care.....................................Medicine