Social institutions: Definition, Characteristics, Types, Examples

What are social institutions?

Societies are an abstract concept but it is universally agreed upon that a society is built up of certain norms, rules and traditions that maintain social order and stability. These norms and rules are required. They form gradually over consensus and are always subject to change depending on the people that make up the society. In order to execute and maintain these rules, social institutions exist. According to H. E Barnes, social institutions are ‘the social structure & machinery through which human society organizes, directs & executes the multifarious activities required to society for human need.’ They are broad conceptual frameworks that look into and govern a particular aspect of societal life. The family, for example, is a major social institution. It exists to socialize children and carry out functions to help establish communal order.

what are social institutions

Adding on to the word of Barnes, Bogardus has described social institutions as a specific structure organised to meet the particular needs of the people through well-established procedures. This definition helps understand the role and functions of social institutions. It also helps in narrowing down the different social structures which can be considered as social institutions. Institutions are, therefore, structures of conventions and social norms that regulate social activity. In addition to regulating social activity, they also facilitate social activity and further relationships. Often times institutions are interlocked with each other and one must function in accordance to the other. For example, the family and education. M.K Radhakrishnan points out how social institutions are particularly important in multi-cultural societies, the roles they must fulfil are significant. According to him, social institutions are structures that develop over time that organize important activities to ensure cultural values are upheld.


Human interaction and development frequently create new structures and organizations. However, that does not mean that all social structures are institutions. Sociologists have come up with certain defining features that allow us to recognise what is and is not a social institution. According to Searle, institutions

1) impose functions.

2) have deontic properties.

3) has a distinction between constitutive and regulative rules.

4) has collective intentionality.

Society collectively imposes a function on a physical phenomenon, so if we were to take education as an institution, the masses have collectively imposed the role of educating young children in schools and colleges. The key feature of institutional facts is that the functions imposed exist by virtue of the collective character. According to Searle, the imposition of a functional role and deontic properties go hand in hand. Therefore, along with the assignment of a function, they are given status with deontic properties, and these properties are regarded as powers. This status-functions balance is created and sustained by ‘collective intentionality’.

Social institutions, therefore:-

  • Have certain definite objectives
  • Have procedures formulated based on customs & dogmas
  • Depend upon the collective
  • Are a means of controlling individuals, as every institution has a set of rules that must be obeyed by the collective as well as the individual.
  • Are formed for the fulfilment of primary needs

Major five types of social institutions

  1. Religion

Religion has crossed boundaries and cultures and still exists as a major social institution in the 21st century. Religious beliefs help individuals cope with abstract concepts such as life and death. Yes, it is possible to observe and physically see life through death but religion gives it purpose and explains the unexplainable. Religious institutions such as churches, temples and mosques have codes of conduct that extend to the life outside of these sacred areas. There are certain norms and rules one must follow in order to be accepted by the people of the community. If these norms are broken, individuals will face consequences such as ostracisation and shunning from the community. Religion deeply influences the way one thinks and acts so it performs a far greater role than being a place of worship. In countries such as India, religion deeply influences politics and one’s standard of living. This can be seen in America with the Christians as well.

Durkheim talks about the sacred and the profane, when looking at religion as a social institution, it is important to view how the aspects of the sacred influence our lives on an individual and collective level. Religion is also a means of social control as it dictates what can and cannot be done in society. A lot of religious scriptures have been cited to defend homophobic acts, they also discuss what is considered ‘moral’ and ‘righteous’. Lastly, as a social institution, it provides social support and helps communities grow.

2. Family

The family is where primary socialisation takes place, it is considered an important part of development and structures the way one lives. Values, morals and beliefs taught during the ages of 4-18 have a direct and observable impact on how a child views and reacts to the world. It is beyond just raising a child. The definition of what constitutes a family has changed over history but the characteristics remain the same, it is 1) A mating relationship, 2) A form of marriage, 3) A system of nomenclature, 4) A means for the economic provision and 5) Involves common habitation. The family and society are interconnected as families combined to constitute a society. Parents are not only tasked with the responsibility of raising their child, but also socialising them to adhere to the norms and rules of the society they live in. They must also teach children about the different cultures that exist and the proper etiquette to follow in different situations. Parents share information with children that were passed down from their parents.

3. Education

Schools are an important part of a child’s growth and development, that is why people emphasise the need to send children to physical schools rather than homeschooling them. During the sixteen years at school, children imbibe values and knowledge that exist outside the official curriculum. This is often referred to as the hidden curriculum. Rules and norms that were taught by parents and religious institutions are reinforced, along with this they learn new rules that can only be taught at an institution such as the school. For example, the idea that one must not cheat to gain merit can only be truly taught in a school setting. Educators teach children to be kind, to learn to work together, to work hard for good results and so on. When children engage in acts such as bullying and harassment, they are punished for their bad behaviour. Schools help children transition from their safety net into the real world where they are held responsible for their actions.

4. Politics

As Robert Dahl stated, politics is an unavoidable facet of human existence, because regardless of time and culture, humans are involved in some political system or the other. They may not resemble each other but a system exists. It is needed because in order to function properly and have stability a set of rules and regulations that govern the masses is required. Politics can be understood as the method through which we mobilize resources appropriately and appoint individuals with power to make decisions. In order for society to function and continue fucntioing over generations, it is crucial that the people are willing to accept collective norms and regulations. Each generation must be willing to abide by the basic rules of that society or come to a general consensus of decision-making. Political socialisation, therfore, is an important role that these institutions play. They must ensure that the members of society acquire political attitudes and actively participate in political decision-making.

5. Media

The final major social institution is the media. The media is often discussed in relation to politics because of how frequently the two domains overlap. Especially today, in the 21st century, the media has a major influence on the political desicions that are made. Since the introduction of the newspaper, media outlets have a major role in shaping how people think. Today, both news media and entertainment media socialise individuals and send across messages that are subconsciously imbibed. For example, when an individual does something that disrupts the peace in society, news outlets will frame the incident as negative using negative words, harsh tones and visually unapealling images. This sends across the message that this particular act is not condoned by the general public. Similarly, recurring themes can be identified in the entertainment industry that reflect how people perceive things in the real world.

            Media can influence how people perceive other institutions such as gender, marriage, and religon as well. For example, the constant projection of Islam as a harmful religion feeds into the minds of islamophobes and convinces the general population that the core ideologies of this religion is bad. While the media exists to transfer and spread information, it reinforces norms, values and beliefs that bound the walls of society.

Social institutions, therefore, exist to provide society with guidelines on how to behave and react both on a collective and individual level. They are a combination of positions, roles, norms, and values within specific types of social structures. Such institutions keep tabs on the members of society and ensure that those who disrupt social order are punished. Social institutions help in the process of socialization and encourage societies to maintain healthy social relationships. They cultivate human behaviour and most importantly do not remain stagnant. Social institutions transform and develop with the people of the community. This influence works both ways- individuals can influence social institutions to alter their way of functioning and vice versa.

Also Read: Social Roles and Examples

Share on:

Prathyusha Madhu is a student at FLAME University, currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology. Her interests lie in poetry and music.