Any pattern of behaviour which by repetition, traditional sanction and legal reinforcement acquires a degree of coercion could be described as a social institution: marriage would be a good example. The use of the term institution in sociology, meaning established aspects of society, is close to that in common English usage. However, there have been some changes over time in the exact conceptualization of the term, and there are differences in the analytical precision with which it is used. In some ways an institution can be seen as a sort of ‘super-custom’, a set of mores, folkways, and patterns of behaviour that deals with major social interests: law, church, and family for example. Thus, a social institution consists of all the structural components of a society through which the main concerns and activities are organized, and social needs (such as those for order, belief, and reproduction) are met. Social institutions are forever being modified because they rest on repetition
(and hence may change if large numbers of people stop acting in accordance with them or become selective in precisely how they will support them) but they have a degree of solidity that allows us to forget that they are human creations. In many traditional societies social institutions are bolstered by being given supramundane origins: marriage, for example, is often presented as a divine obligation. Modern societies are more likely to admit the human origins of social institutions and justify them by claims for efficiency: in the West marriage is now commonly defended with the claim that it provides the most effective way of meeting a wide variety of personal and social needs.
A very useful way of grouping social institutions is as follows:
(a) kinship institutions deal with marriage, the family and primary socialisation;
(b) political institutions regulate access to and the use of power;
(c) cultural institutions deal with religious, artistic and scientific activities;
(d) stratification institutions deal with the distribution of social positions and resources; and
(e) economic institutions produce and distribute goods and services.
A term used to describe the adverse psychological effects on individuals of residence in institutions, especially of long stays in large-scale institutions, such as mental hospitals and prisons. Most frequently mentioned effects, whose precise causes are debated, are dependency, passivity, and lethargy. These effects are sometimes termed institutionalism. Therefore, institutionalisation is the process whereby social practices become sufficiently regular and continuous to be described as institutions. The notion is a useful corrective to the view that institutions are given and unchanging entities, indicating that changes in social practice both modify existing institutions and created novel forms. This is the correlate of the idea in role theory that people have some freedom to role make in their interactions with others and do not simply act our prescribed patterns of behaviour.
The concept of institution is widely used in sociology, though often without precise specification. Different schools of sociology treat it in different ways. For example, funcionalists can see institutions as fulfilling the needs of individuals or societies. This is the sense in which Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945) used the term. For both of whom it was central to the notion of society as an organism or functioning system. However, as the functionalist perspective gave way to ideas based on society as being in a state of flux, with fewer consensuses over values, so the functionalist association between institution and function also withered away. The phenomenologists may concentrate on the way in which people create or adapt institutions rather than merely respond to them.
The new institutional theory, developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The basic proposition is that the actions of organisations are not determined solely by the logic of economic and technological factors, but also by the institutions which comprise their social environments. These include, for example, the state, professions, and other organisations, together with the values of culture of the broader society in which an organisation is embedded. Institutional pressures influence both organisational goals and means.
It follows from the basic proposition that organisations within a particular institutional environment should tend to be similar. For example, it is a leager rewuirement of the Germand system of Industrial democracy in large firms that employees’ representatives occupy a certain proportion of seats on company’s top board of directors and that managers also consult regularly with employees about workplace issues vial works councils. This legal framework, enacted by the state, reflects, and is reinforced by, a wider culture that values participative management. Thu business organisations in Germany are likely o share similarities in their stricture and how they are managed and to doffer from organisations in, say, the UK or USA. Institutionalists contend that organisations select institutionalised practices which are appropriate within a particular environment.
Institutional theory is a useful corrective to the notion that there is a simple link between economic and technological variables and how organisations act. This link is made in the contingency approach to organisational theory and also in the rational profit-maximising assumptions of neo-classical economics.
The current concept of institution is more fluid, seeing the family or church, for instance, as comprising changing patterns of behaviour based on relatively more stable value systems. This allows sociologists to consider the moral ambivalence of human behaviour as well as its creative effects on social change. In addition to these more global and theoretical concerns, there is also a tradition of the ethnographic study of institutions that constrain, or from some points of view determine, the behaviour of specific social groups. Chief among these are Erving Goffman's studies of total institutions—for example the mental hospital (Goffman, 1961).
In a more recent synthesis, Richard Scott (2008) argues:
Institutions are comprised of regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements, that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.
Scott, W.R. (2008). Institutions and Organisations. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage