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Examining social institutions

Updated on November 3, 2010

Five major social institutions

Social institutions are enduring relationships that result from human interaction. Over a period of time, these relationships have established predictable patterns that allow the members of society to pursue life, their dreams and happiness. Social institutions are natural products or creations of societies, the primary function of which is to help societies meet basic needs.  They exist in every known society. They overlap, interact, and support one another. It would be impossible to think of a social order without any existing social institution for they serve as the bedrock of human society.

There are five major social institutions, namely: family, education, economics, politics, and religion. These institutions have shown continuity and stability for they are products of relationships that have long endured the test of time Other social institutions may have developed out of these major social institutions as we see them existing in society at present.

The Family

To put the concept of family into perspective, it is useful to look at the variety of family forms across the world.  What is it that is really essential about the family, and what kinds of structures are possible to meet these needs?  How is the structure of the family affected by surrounding institutions? The family being the most universal of all social institutions has been assigned major responsibilities/functions: 





Regulation of sexual behavior

Ascription of status

The importance of these responsibilities or functions cannot be downplayed that they cannot be assigned to individual initiative.  A family is a relatively permanent group of persons linked together in social roles by ties of blood, marriage, or adoption—and who live together and cooperate economically in the rearing of children.  Hence, the family is not only a biological but a social unit as well.  But the family is only a subset of larger set of relatives we call the kin group

A kin group is the set of relatives who interact on the basis of shared social structure.  Such extent of relationships is made possible by an institution, subsumed in the institution of the family, called marriage.  Marriage is an institutionalized social structure that provides an enduring framework for regulating sexual behavior and childbearing.  Rules for marriage include exogamy and endogamy

The basic unit of the family is the wife-husband pair and their children.  When the married pair and their children form an independent household living apart from other kin, we call them a nuclear family.  When they live with other kin, such as parents or siblings, we refer to them as an extended family.

Whether a society favors nuclear or extended families has a great deal of influence on where a newly married couple will live.  By definition, the nuclear family lives by itself; this is called neolocal residence.  Extended families, however, may exhibit a wide variety of residence patterns.  They may live with the wife’s relatives (matrilocal) or with the husband’s relatives (patrilocal).

Marriage Patterns

In most Western countries, a marriage form called monogamy is practiced; each man may only have one wife. Polygamy is any form of marriage in which a person may have more than one spouse at a time. Polyandry is a form of marriage in which one woman may have more than one husband at a time. Polygyny is a form of marriage in which a man may have more than one wife at a time.


The educational institution is the social structure concerned with the formal transmission of knowledge. It is one of our most enduring and familiar institutions.  Education is a form of socialization that involves systematic, formal transmission of skills, knowledge, and other aspects of culture.  Like all institutions, schools are organized around cultural ideas such as a belief in the accuracy of grades, values of punctuality, and competition, and norms.

Political Institution

Political organization is a part of the total organization concerned with the preservation of the social order within a specified territory by a duly authorized machinery.  The state is the institution whereby order is well achieved.

When we use the term political system, we refer to a recognized set of procedures for implementing and obtaining the goals of a group.  Each society must have a political system in order to maintain recognized procedures for allocating valued resources—in Harold D. Lasswell’s terms, for deciding who gets what, when, and how.  Thus, like religion and the family, a political system is a cultural universal; it is a social institution found in every society.

 Types of Government

A monarchy is a form of government headed by a single member of a royal family, usually a king, queen, or other hereditary ruler.  Most monarchs have little practical power and primarily serve ceremonial purposes.

An oligarchy is a form of government in which few individuals rule.  It is rather an old method of governing which flourished in ancient Greece and Egypt.  Today, oligarchy, often takes the form of military rule. 

A dictatorship is a government in which one person has nearly total power to make and enforce laws.  Dictators typically seize power and rule primarily through the use of coercion, often including torture and execution.  Frequently, dictatorships develop such overwhelming control over people’s lives that they are called totalitarianTotalitarianism involves virtually complete governmental control and surveillance over all aspects of social and political life in a society.  Political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski have identified six basic traits that typify totalitarian states: (1) large-scale use of ideology; (2) one-party systems; (3) control of weapons; (4) terror; (5) control of the media; and (6) control of the economy.

In a literal sense, democracy means government by the people.  Of course, in large, populous nations, government by all the people is impractical at the national level.  Consequently, democracies are maintained through a mode of participation known as representative democracy.       

Economic Institution

Economic organization involves production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.  People are led to produce goods and services because of need and use. They produce goods because they are culturally desirable or indigenous to the group.  In spite of the controversies regarding economic behavior, two salient features remain outstanding:  (1) the universality of the process of production, distribution, and consumption; and (2) the organization of products.

 Economic Systems

Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are largely private hands and the main incentive for economic activity is the accumulation of profits.  In practice, capitalist economic systems vary in the degree to which private ownership and economic activity are regulated by government. 

Contemporary capitalism features extensive government regulation of economic relations.  A monopoly exists in a market when it is controlled by a single business firm.  Domination of an industry allows the firm to effectively control a commodity so that it can dictate pricing standards of quality, and product availability.  An oligopoly is a market with relatively few sellers.  In numerous industries in the U.S., a few companies largely dominate the field and exclude new enterprises from the marketplace.

Socialist theory had its roots in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Under socialism, the means of production and distribution in a society are collectively rather than privately owned.  The basic objective of the economic systems is to meet people’s need rather than to maximize profits.  In theory, socialist countries use the wealth of the people as a collectivity in order to provide health care, housing, education, and other key services for each individual and family.  In practice, socialist economic systems vary in the extent to which private ownership is tolerated.


Religion is founds in every known society.  It gives individual believers an explanation for life, a guide for ethical behavior, and an explanation for human problems that cannot be answered by reason alone.


Monotheism is the belief in only one God. There are three major world religions that are monotheistic: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Polytheism is the belief in the plurality of gods. There are many groups who claim to be worshipping many gods but the most dominant are the following: Hinduism, Buddhism (its variant form which is Mahayana), Falun Gong, Jainism, Mayan Religion and the Wicca.

Ethical religion is a form of worship that does not have a god or deity as a direct object of worship. Its system of beliefs is anchored on some ethical tenets which guide its adherents in their conduct. Two examples are Confucianism and Scientology.

Totem worship: A totem is any entity which watches over or assists a group of people, such a family, clan or tribe. Totemism is a form of religion which is associated with shamanistic practices. There are evidences to show the widespread practice of totemism in places such as North America among the Indians and in Northwest Pacific, China, and Zimbabwe.


Creation of the sacred: The basic element of religion is the presence of the sacred. The secular or the common is separated from the sacred aspects of human experience resulting into the recognition the “divine” thereby imposing a strong influence on the overall personality of the individual.

Ritual: A set of actions often believed to have symbolic value prescribed by religion and performed at regular intervals for the purpose of reinforcing beliefs, traditions and practices.

System of religious beliefs is the set of doctrines that define the group’s assent to the basic questions of life, conduct, and salvation.

Organization of believers

Ritual in secular life


Evolution of the family: The evolution of the family provided the impetus for the expanded role of the patriarch to perform some functions other than that of being head of the family or the clan.

A force of social cohesion: Religion is a very effective force of social cohesion ever since the beginning of humankind. It brings individuals closer to each other even as it offers security from perceived threats, the promise of the afterlife, and liberation or freedom from fear—just to name a few.

Agent of social control: Religion serves as an agent of social control inasmuch as it performs certain functions in the development of individuals. It is a means of transmitting certain socially acceptable practices that equip individuals with the knowledge and skills on how to behave in society.

Religion Today

Variety: Many religious groups today are characterized with variety and style although the fundamental elements that make them unique from each have been retained. Post-modernism has made a profound influence on religion that in some cases, members leave their churches because they feel that their religions have not been effective at all in addressing their quest for meaning and the purpose of life.

Optimistic view of life: Modern religion has been in the forefront of providing its members a positive attitude towards life.

Pluralism: While religions in the 19th century tend to be exclusive and vocal in their claims that theirs is the only way to salvation, religion today has to contend with the problem that pluralism presents which asserts that there is not one true religion at all.

Increased religious membership: As societies experience stress and progress, more and more people will look for explanation of the tension and distress they experience through religion. The yearning for knowing and the desire to connect to the supernatural is a common experience of post-modern man who found himself in the rat-race of this world filled with madness and cynicism.

Organization of Religious Behavior

Sociologists have found four basic forms of religious organization: (1) the ecclesia, (2) the denomination, (3) the sect, and (4) the cult.  Distinctions are made between these types of organizations on the basis of such factors as size, power, degree of commitment expected from members, and the historical ties to other faiths.


An ecclesia is a religious organization that claims to include most of or all the members of a society and is recognized as the national or official religion.  Examples include the Lutheran Church in Sweden, the Catholic Church in the Philippines, Islam in Saudi Arabia, and Buddhism in Thailand.


A denomination is a large, organized religion that is not officially linked with the state or government.  It also has an explicit set of beliefs, a defined system of authority, and a generally respected position in society.


A sect may de defined as a relatively small religious group that has broken away from some other religious organization to renew what it views as the original vision of the faith.


A cult is a generally small, secretive religious group that represents either a new religion or a major innovation of an existing faith.







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