Social Institutions: Definition, types, functions & Features

Social institutions may be defined as practices based on similar principles that display some degree of regularity. More specifically, a social institution is an interrelated system of social roles and social norms, organized around the satisfaction of an important social need or social function (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 particularly true regarding the five major social institutions discussed below. Social institutions are resistant to change; they tend to persist.

However, once a change occurs in particular social institution, it tends to affect the other institutions as well.

Major Types and Functions of Social Institutions

There are many principles around which institution are organized. The five social institutions of major significances are:

  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 institutions fulfill important needs in the society. The primary functions of the five major social institutions are as follows.

1.       The Family

The family is the most important social unit in any society. It is the building block of any society. The family fulfills two basic functions. These are reproduction and socialization. Society reproduces or recreates itself through the family. Children are born in the family to join the society. Parents play the roles of nurturing, caring for, teaching and training children; children are expected to play the roles of good and teachable trainees. The way parents nurture, train and care for their children vary according toe forms of family organization. Nuclear family is a dominant form of family organization in modern, industrialized and urban societies. It usually consists of husband wife and dependent children. In traditional, agrarian and rural societies, Extruded family form dominates. 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 make effective use of the scarce resources. Goods and services have to be produced to meet the basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc. Economic institutions are responsible for organizing the production, exchange, distribution and consumption of goods and services.

3.      Religious Institution

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

Religion and related institutions like magic provide explanations for these puzzling paradoxes of life and provides meaning and purpose for life. It helps people to cope with purposelessness, meaninglessness and sense of alienation and frustration. These institutions also help members of society conform to social values and norms, and play their expected social roles appropriately. They also provide a sense of social solidarity among 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 responsible for providing training for the members of society. It serves as center of knowledge production, exchange, and distribution.

Generally, educational institutions are responsible for the vertical and horizontal transmission of material and non-material cultures. Vertical transmission means over time from one generation to another generation; whereas horizontal transmission means over geographical space or from one society to another. Educational institutions also play the role of preparing members of society for the statuses and roles that re associate with being good 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 the interests and privileges of some sections of society (Personal communication: Dr Teketel Abebe, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Addis Ababa University).

Major social institutions with primary functions

  • The family: procreation and socialization of children
  • Economic institution: organizing production, exchange and consumption of goods and services
  • Political Institution: Maintaining peace and order in society
  • Educational institution: centers of knowledge creation and transmission; transmission of culture from generation to generation
  • Religious institution: Meeting spiritual needs; serving as source of explanatory authority on difficult questions facing human life.

Social institutions may be defined as practices based on similar principles that display some degree of regularity. More specifically, a social institution is an interrelated system of social roles and social norms, organized around the satisfaction of an important social need or social function.