Social Institutions – Definition, Characteristics and Role

This article defines and describes the concept of a social institution, its essential characteristics, and its role in society.  

What does the term ‘social institution’ refer to?

The term ‘social institution’ refers to an interconnected system of social norms and roles revolving around the achievement of some basic social needs in society. To put it in simple words, it is an organized pattern of beliefs and behavior that are centered on basic social needs.

In other words, it refers to a mechanism or pattern of social order focused on meeting social needs. 

What are the basic social institutions?

Sociologists classify society into five social institutions that are: 

  • Politics  
  • Religion
  • Economy 
  • Education

What are the elements of a social institution?  

The elements that characterize a social institution include a group of people having common social interests; material resources; norms and a social need to be fulfilled. 

The table given below illustrates the elements of a social institution with reference to Politics 

Elements  Examples 
People Politicians, Public
Social needs Protection of life, property,  smooth functioning of society, organized life, etc. 
Material resources  Offices, buildings, vehicles, human resources, etc.  
Norms  Political norms i.e. president would appoint university VCs, provincial governors, Chief Justice, judges of Supreme and High courts with the advice of the Prime Minister.  

What are the characteristics of a social institution? 

Social institutions are universal in nature and tend to persist. Their basic nature and purpose are more or less similar in all societies. However, variance exists in terms of formality, complexity, scope, and structural organization.  

Functions of a social institution 

Social institutions have different functions to be performed. Fundamentally there are two types of social functions that social institutions perform i.e. primary functions, secondary functions. Through these functions, social institutions fulfill important needs in society.

Primary functions

The primary functions of social institutions are also called manifest, explicit, or direct functions. They are the most basic functions that distinguish one institution from another. For example, the primary function of education is the transmission of culture. That is to say, instill and transmit the social norms values, and beliefs into the next generation which no other institution does primarily. 

Secondary functions

Though the primary functions differ across the social institutions, they cannot be completely divorced off from the institutions. Thus the primary functions of one institution may be acting as the secondary function of others.

Thus secondary functions refer to indirect, hidden, or latent functions that include all functions except for the primary functions.

To make it easy, let’s take an example of the need for man’s socialization. As a matter of fact, the earliest socialization takes place in a family structure thus making it a basic function of a family. This does not mean socialization is not a function of other social institutions. It is also a function pertaining to other social institutions but with a secondary preference.

Schools i.e. kindergarten level and above also endeavor to provide an enabling environment for socialization from an early age. Though the basic aim of education is to transfer the social norms, values, and beliefs into the next generation, they undertake such activities which may help socialization. Thus school efforts aimed at providing opportunities for socialization at schools are an example of secondary functions. 

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I am a social activist and educationist. I write on politics, culture, education and economy.

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