The Concept of Social Institution

The Concept of Social Institution

What is meant by social institution? Elaborate the multidimensional functions and characteristics of family?


The Concept of Social Institution

In every society there are certain basic social needs, it is a must for the society to meet these needs for the survival and satisfaction of its members. In each society, therefore, people create social institutions to meet these needs. What is an institution? The sociological concept of the term is different from its common usage. An institution is not a building; it is not a group of people; it is not an organization; An institution is a system of norms to achieve some goal or activity that people feel is important, or more formally, an organized cluster of folkways and mores centered around a major human activity. Institution are structured processes through which people carry on their activities. Institutions do not have members; they have followers. This is a subtle but important distinction. Let illustrate: a religions is not a group of people; a religion is a system of ideas, beliefs, practices, and relationships. A mosque is an association of people who accept the beliefs and follow the practice of Islam. The clear cut distinction between an institution and an association is that the institution is always the organized systems of ideas and behaviour ; the association is the organized group of people engaging in the behaviour.

Sociology, (6th ed.), 1984, P.B. Horton and C.L. Hunt, P.2I1.


This distinction can best be illustrate by studying the following list, in which associations and institutions are contrasted.


A corporation

A railroad

An army

A college

A newspaper

A television network

A family

A government

A hospital

A theatrical company









The Family



The drama


The Social Order, (3rd ed.), Rober Bierstedt, P. 323

According to Horton and Hunt, An institution is an organized system of social relationships which embodies certain common values and procedures and meets certain basic needs of the society. In this definition, “common values” refers to shared ideas and goals, the “common procedures” are the standardized behaviour patterns followed, and the “system of relationships” is the network of roles and statues through which people carry this behaviour. Thus, the family includes a set of common values about love, children, family life), a set of common procedures (child care, family routines) and network of role and statuses (husband, wife, grandparents, baby, teenaged child) which form the system of social relationships through which family life is carried out. Five important basic institutions in complex societies are the family, religion, political order, economic, and education.

The Family

The family is the most basic of all social institutions. It existed among our ancestors long before the human species evolved to its present physical form, and it remains the basic social unit in every society. Though, family is an important social institution and it remained important in the past too but what is the future of this important institution. Several modern sociologist believe that the functions the family performs in the society are very important. With such functions the existence of the family cannot be vanished. There seem little variations in the functions but are sure about the need of the family to the society. But, on the other hand, Tofler, in his book, “The Future Shock”, writes that keeping in view the changing trends in the values and norms of the society, some institutions will be no more required. Particularly, about marriage as an institution, he perceive “Perhaps we are the last married generation.”

What exactly is a family? Our idea of the family tends to be a very ethnocentric one, because it is often based on that middle-class ideal family so faithfully portrayed on TV commercials. We usually think of a family as consisting of a husband, a wife, and their dependent children. This particular family pattern, however, is far from typical. It is, in fact, a relatively recent development in human history.

Definition and Characteristics of the Family:

First, family consists of a group of people who are in some way related to one another. Second, its members live together for long periods. Third, the adults in the group assume responsibility for any offspring. Fourth, the members of the family form an economic unit – often for the production of foods and services (when the members share agricultural tasks) and always for the consumption of goods and services. We may say that the family is a relatively permanent group of people related by ancestry, marriage, or adoption, who live together and form an economic unit and whose adult members assume responsibility for the young.

We lead our lives in two kinds of families. One is the family of orientation, into which we are born and the other is the family of procreation, which we later create ourselves. In every society marriage is the foundation of the family. Marriage is a socially approved sexual union of some permanence between two or more people. This union is usually inaugurated through some socially approved procedures. The offspring from such a union is considered legitimate, because their parents – both mother and father – are known and they both take the responsibility of the care and protection of the infant. Children born into a family that has not been formed through marriage may be considered illegitimate, because although their mother is known, there may be nobody to assume the social role of father.

The family is a unit within a social network of relatives, or kin. Kinship refers to a network of people created by common ancestry, adoption, or marriage. In traditional societies, kinship provides important basis for social organization. In modern societies kinship looses its importance. A kinship network is a highly complicated affair, as you will know if you have ever tried to construct your own family tree. Your primary relatives – mother, father, brother, sister, spouse, daughter, and son — give a total of seven possible types. Your secondary relatives — the primary relatives of your primary relatives, excluding your own primary relatives – provide 33 additional types, ranging from mothers-in-law to nephews. If you further include tertiary relatives ~ the primary relatives of your secondary relatives, excluding your own primary and secondary relatives ~ you have 151 more types, giving a grand total of 191.

The Functions of the Family

The family performs several basic social functions which are imperative for the maintenance of the entire social order.

Regulation of Sexual Behaviour:

No society allows people to mate at random, and no society regards sexual behaviour purely as a matter of private choice. The marriage and family system provides a means of regulating sexual behaviour by specifying who may mate with whom under what circumstances they may do so.

Replacement of Members:

A society cannot survive unless it has a system for replacing ::s members from generation to generation, the family provides a stable, institutionalized means through which this replacement can take place, with specific individuals occupying the social roles of mother and father and assuming defined responsibilities.


Newborn infants do not become fully human until they are socialized, and the primary context for this socialization is the family. Because the child is theirs, the parents normally take particular care to monitor its behaviour and to transmit to it the language, values, norms, and beliefs of the culture. Although many of these socialization functions have been taken over by other institutions in modern society — such as education, religion, or entertainment – the family remains the earliest and the most significant agency of socialization.

Care and Protection:

The family is able to offer the care, protection, security and love that are vital to its members. Infants need warmth, food, shelter, and affection. The family provides an intimate atmosphere and an economic unit in which these needs can be provided. The adult family members, too, provide one another with material and emotional support that cannot be readily obtained outside the family context. The productive members take care of those who, owing to reasons of age or other incapacity, cannot care for themselves.

Social Placement:

Legitimate birth into a family gives the individual a stable place in society. We inherit from our family of orientation not only material goods but also our social status.-We belong to the same racial or ethnic group and usually to the same religion and social class as our parents belongs to. Our family background is the most significant single determinant of our status in society.

Sociology, 1977, IAn Robertson, Worth Publishers, Inc. P.315-318 

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