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Topics in Sociology: Social Institutions

Social institutions are established or standardized patterns of rule-governed behavior. They include the family, education, religion, and economic and political institutions.


Major Perspectives


  • Social institutions are determined by their society’s mode of production.

  • Social institutions serve to maintain the power of the dominant class.


  • Social institutions are interdependent but no single institution determines the rest.

  • The causes and consequences of social institutions cannot be assumed in advance.


  • Set the stage for later functionalist analyses of institutions by concluding that religion promotes social solidarity and collective conscience.

Functionalist theory

  • The social institutions listed in this section (along with other social institutions) fulfill functional prerequisites and are essential.

Conflict theory

  • Social institutions tend to reinforce inequalities and uphold the power of dominant groups.

  • Emphasizes divisions and conflicts within social institutions.

Symbolic interactionism

  • Focuses on interactions and other symbolic communications within social institutions.


1. The Family:

A socially defined set of relationships between at least two people related by birth, marriage, adoption, or, in some definitions, long-standing ties of intimacy.

Key Questions
  • How do families vary across different societies, historical periods, classes, and ethnic groups?

  • How are authority, resources, and work distributed within families?

  • How do parents, particularly mothers, balance the demands of work and family?

  • What are the causes and effects of divorce, domestic violence, and single parenting?

  • Marx: The family upholds the capitalist economic order by ensuring the reproduction of the working class and by maintaining housewives as a reserve labor force.

  • Functionalist theory: Functions of the family include socializing children, regulating sexual behavior and reproduction, distributing resources, providing social support.


2. Education:

A formal process in which knowledge, skills, and values are systematically transmitted from one individual or group to another.

Key Questions
  • How do educational practices vary across different societies and historical periods?

  • How does education affect individuals’ subsequent activities and achievements?

  • What are the effects of class, race, and gender on educational institutions and experiences?

  • What are the causes and consequences of various trends in education, such as grade inflation, violence in schools, and increasing public funding of religious instruction?

  • Marx: Education serves the capitalist order by producing skilled workers with habits such as punctuality and respect for authority.

  • Functionalist theory: Functions of education include transmitting shared values and beliefs, transmitting specific knowledge and skills, sorting individuals based on skill, and establishing social control over youths.

  • Conflict theory: Educational tracking systems and other differential treatment of students reinforce social inequalities.

  • Symbolic interactionism: Face-to-face interactions in the classroom can have long-range consequences for students’ educational achievements.


3. Religion:

A unified system of beliefs and practices pertaining to the supernatural and to norms about the right way to live that is shared by a group of believers. Sociologists treat religion as a social rather than supernatural phenomenon.

Key Questions
  • How do the world religions differ? How are they similar?

  • How have religions developed and changed, and why do people engage with them?

  • What is the relationship between religion and other aspects of social life such as stratification, deviance, and conflict?

  • What are the causes and consequences of contemporary trends such as secularization, the splintering of religious groups, and shifting church–state relationships?

  • Marx: Religion is the “opium of the people”—it masks domination and diverts workers from rebelling against exploitation.

  • Weber: Classified religions by their approach to salvation:

    • Ascetic religions require active self-mastery; mystical religions require passive contemplation.

    • Other-worldly religions require focus on the next life (e.g., heaven); this-worldly religions require focus on earthly life.

  • Durkheim: Religion provides social solidarity and collective conscience; it expresses and celebrates the force of society over the individual.

  • Functionalist theory: Functions of religion include providing meaning for life, reinforcing social norms, strengthening social bonds, and marking status changes (e.g., marriage).Dysfunctions, according to some, include justifying persecution.


4. Economic Institutions:

Sociologists understand the economy as the set of arrangements by which a society produces, distributes, and consumes goods, services, and other resources.

Key Questions
  • What institutions and relations characterize different economic systems (e.g., capitalism, socialism, and feudalism)?

  • How do consumption and leisure patterns differ among various cultures, historical periods, and social groups?

  • How do the structures of business organizations affect productivity, job satisfaction, and inequalities?

  • What are the causes and consequences of contemporary trends such as economic liberalization, declining unionization, and increased consumer debt?

  • Marx: Economic organization (the means and relations of production) determines the major features of any society.

  • Functionalist theory: Functions of economic institutions include: production and distribution of goods, assignment of individuals to different social roles such as occupations.


5. Political Institutions:

Institutions that pertain to the governance of a society, its formal distribution of authority, its use of force, and its relationships to other societies and political units. The state, an important political institution in modern societies, is the apparatus of governance over a particular territory.

Key Questions
  • How do political institutions differ across historical periods and societies?

  • How do different social groups participate in political institutions, and with what consequences?

  • How and why do individuals participate in political processes such as voting or joining lobbying groups?

  • How are political institutions related to other aspects of society, such as the economy and the mass media?

  • Weber: Defines the state as an authority that maintains a monopoly on the use of violence in its territory. See Classical Sociological Thinkers > Max Weber > Key Concepts > Legitimate Authority.

  • Functionalist theory: Functions of political institutions include protection from external enemies, resolving group conflicts, defining societal goals, and strengthening group identity and norms. Pluralism, a particularly functional type of political institution, entails distribution of power among many groups so no one group can gain control.

  • Conflict theory: Pluralism and democracy are illusions that invite the powerless to believe that they have a voice in governance, when in fact their control is quite limited.