Part 4

Social Institutions

Social institutions are important structures in all societies. The fundamental aspect of all social institutions is that they meet basic human needs and are VERY difficult to change. In fact, once someone challenges a tradition, they are often met with opposition from members of society. (I think an excellent example would be our society’s opposition to same sex marriage). One question we should ask ourselves is how would the family be affected if we allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry? Would it really cause the family to no longer be a legitimate institution?

Social institutions are very difficult
to change.

According the Berger and Luckmann, social institutions arise out of our repeated interactions. One person observes the other’s behavior and attaches motives to their actions. As these actions are repeated over and over again, behaviors become predictable and social roles are developed. Once behaviors become crystallized, they are passed from generation to generation as “objective realities.” In other words, we internalize these behaviors and assume they are natural to all societies.

A sociologist named Talcott Parsons devoted a great deal of time trying to understanding the importance of social institutions in society. He suggested that each social institution has a separate function which contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Using the organismic analogy, Parsons and other Functionalists pointed out that society is like a living organism. Functionalists believed that society could be analyzed in the same way that the physical sciences had studied the human body. They sought to understand social institutions as if they were parts of a living organism. For instance, in the human body, there are organs that work together in a healthy, stable system. Each organ has its own function or purpose. Without the lungs, for instance, the circulatory system would fail to operate and oxygen would not make its way to other parts of the body. This is a necessary function for all humans.

With this in mind, Parsons pointed out that like the human body, society is a system of interrelated parts that work together to create stability. Social institutions are equated with the body’s organs. When one part is failing to function properly, other social institutions step in to take over some of those functions in order to maintain stability. Parsons said that all societies have requisite needs that must be met by social institutions. He identified these requisite needs as:

  1. Goal Attainment. The need to set goals and make decisions. This function is met in the human body by the brain; in society it is met by the government.
  2. Adaptation. This typically involves distributing vital resources and raw materials throughout the system in order to provide a means (energy, power) to achieve goals. In the human body, this need is met through the digestive system; in society, it is met through the economy.
  3. Integration. This involves the need to regulate all of the different parts of the system into a coherent, cohesive whole. In the human body, integration is met through the central nervous system. In society, the need for integration is met by establishing common values, beliefs, and norms. This need is met through the laws or the legal system.
  4. Latent Pattern Maintenance. This involves the need to indirectly preserve patterns of behavior needed for survival. In the human body, this need is met through the automatic nervous system; in society, it is met through the family, education and religion.

Parsons’ abstract analytical scheme allows us to take a broader view of social institutions and understand how they operate as an orderly system of interrelated parts. But social institutions are not always in a constant state of stability and order. Many times there are changes that occur in society which cause one institution to become dysfunctional. Robert Merton used the term dysfunction to refer to a part of society that is not working properly. A social institution becomes dysfunctional when it fails to meet its proper function or needs. We hear this term applied to the family more so than any other social institution. Perhaps this is because the family is affected more often by changes in society than most other institutions.

Society, especially modern society, is in a constant state of change. According to Parsons’ equilibrium theory, when change occurs in one part of society, it causes other social institutions to adapt and change as well. For example, at the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, women and children worked in factories for long hours and low wages. As a result of the lack of supervision and social control mechanisms, there was an increase in the amount of crime and juvenile delinquency in urban centers. Living in rural, agricultural communities, children worked closely with family members. They were raised in a close-knit environment where there was little opportunity for deviance. In order to keep children out of the workforce and provide a safe environment, the government passed child labor laws and made it mandatory for them to attend public schools.

What changes have we seen spurred on by the more recent Information Revolution? How has the family and other social institutions been affected by globalization and the Postindustrial Society? We will explore some of these changes throughout this unit and seek to gain a greater understanding of the purpose and function of social institutions.