Social Institutions: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Kimberly Devore

Explore the inner workings of how societies establish subsystems that facilitate their survival. Learn about how each of these institutions contributes to the overall functioning of a society.

We also recommend watching Socialization and Social Isolation: Definition & Case Studies and Social Roles: Definition and Types of Social Roles

Definition

Have you ever asked yourself what the purpose of an economy is? Or, why governments even matter? Try to think of government and economy like parts of a bicycle. Each piece serves a different purpose to the overall operation of the bike. In sociology, social institutions, such as economy and government, are the 'bike parts' and the overall society is the 'bicycle.'

Social institutions, which are established sets of norms and subsystems, support each society's survival. Each sector carries out certain tasks and has different responsibilities that contribute to the overall functioning and stability of a society. This helps to decrease chaos and increase structure.

While societies may differ in how they establish these responsibilities, they all have economic, governmental, family, educational and religious institutions.

Economy

You can think of the economic institution like the tires on the bicycle. Without them, the bike will not move. In society, without an economic system, the transfer of materials would break down. The economy is responsible for managing how a society produces and distributes its good, services and resources. There are two dominant economic systems in the world: capitalism and socialism. Both of these have the same purpose but are structured differently. It's like having a pair of racing tires and a pair of all-terrain tires. Both will roll but do so differently.

For example, in China, a socialist society, the government controls the management of its goods and resources, with little say from the citizens. In the United States of America, a capitalist society, businesses and citizens control much of the materials, with some regulation from the government.

Government

The governmental institution develops and implements rules and decides how to manage relations with other societies. Much like the handlebars on a bike, it helps decide what direction to go and how to get there. The four main types of governments throughout the world are democracy, authoritarian, monarchy and totalitarian. Each has differing views on who runs the government, as well as the amount of freedom and opinions the citizens are allowed to have.

For example, in the United States of America (a democratic government) the citizens' opinions and freedoms are respected and are essential to selecting who manages their government. In January 2013, President Barack Obama was sworn into office for his second term, as a direct result of the citizens' votes.

US citizens supporting President Obama
President Obama speaking to US citizens

Family

The family institution serves the purpose of nurturing and socializing children, passing on generational traditions and providing a sense of belonging and identity. Just like a kickstand holds up a bicycle, the family system creates a similar support for individuals.

For example, the British Royal Family has of passed on generational traditions. Queen Elizabeth's values and customs have been passed down through the generations, as seen with her son Prince Charles and her grandson, Prince William.

The generations of the British Royal Family
British Royal Family

Education

When talking about speeds on a bicycle, the higher the level the more strenuous and difficult. You can look at the educational institution in the same way. The purpose is to provide information to develop skills, values and knowledge, preparing individuals for adulthood and responsible citizenship. There are various levels of education that include primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. Each level increases in difficulty.

For example, in the United States, students go through primary (K-8) and secondary (high school) education. Tertiary education, also known as college, is an optional educational institution that allows individuals to expand their knowledge base.

Religion

The religion institution provides individuals with a set of beliefs, values and practices that provide a base for the correct way to live. It helps them to understand and give meaning to the universe. It creates a foundation of comfort, much like a bicycle seat. There are numerous religions throughout the world, including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.

For example, in Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness are important practices to reach enlightenment. This differs from Islam in which ritual prayers are a key aspect. Followers of Islam pray five times per day.

Summary

So, the next time you find yourself pondering why societies are structured the way they are, remember to think of it as a bicycle. In order for the bike to work correctly, it needs tires, a handlebar, a seat, a kickstand and speeds. Societies are the same way, each needing different institutions to fulfill certain responsibilities. Without each of these working properly, societies would malfunction and not survive.

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