What is Social Institution? Basic concepts in Sociology (2024)

Understanding Social Institution

The concept of the social institution (or simply institution) is one of the most important in the entire field of sociology. In fact, Durkheim has gone to the extent of defining sociology as the science of social institutions. The term “Institution” is sometimes used to refer the organizations or associations and sometimes to designate a normal principle that defines a cluster of important behaviour, such as marriage and property. However, organisation and institutions are two different concepts. While the organization is a group formed to meet a specific goal, e.g., a hospital or a business firm. But the institution is not an actual group or association.

The social institution is a system of beliefs, norms, values, positions and activities that develop around a basic societal need or generally, institutions are patterns of norms that define behaviour in social relationships. Habitualised human actions set the stage for the development of institutions. Institutions are the pre-defined patterns of conduct established by the habitualised human actions.


MacIver and Page:

Social Institutions may be defined as “established forms or conditions of procedure characteristic of group activity.”

Parson and Smelser:

Social Institutions are the ways in which the value patterns of the common culture of a social system are integrated in the concrete action of its units in their interaction with each other through the definition of role expectations and organization of motivation.”

C.A. Ellwood

Institutions are “the habitual ways of living together which have been sanctioned, systematized and established by the authorities of communities.”

W.G. Sumner:

“An institution consists of a concept (idea, notion, doctrine and interest) and a structure (a framework of apparatus).

Thus, all the above definitions imply both a set of behavioural norms and a system of social relations through which these norms are practised.


  1. Institutions are social in nature, i.e., they come into being due to the collective activities of the people. 
  2. Institutions are universal, i.e., they exist in all societies at all stages of social development.
  3. Institutions are Standardized procedures and norms. They prescribe the ways of doing things.
  4. Institutions are the means of controlling individuals. It regulates the conduct of people in society.
  5. Institutions came into existence to satisfy the needs of man.
  6. Institutions are abstract in nature. They are not external, visible or tangible things.
  7. Institutions are relatively stable and permanent and they don’t undergo sudden or rapid changes.

Types of Institutions

Generally, Institutions are classified as:

  1. Primary Institutions: These are the most basic institutions which are even found in primitive societies, like family, marriage, religion etc.
  2. Secondary Institutions: These Institutions evolved to cater the secondary need of people, e.g., education, law, polity etc.

W.G. Sumner also classified institutions into two types:

  1. Cresive: Those that evolved or developed naturally, unconsciously and spontaneously; and take shape in the mores are known as cresive institutions, e.g., property, marriage, religion etc.
  2. Enacted: These are established consciously and purposefully and in a planned way, e.g., education, banking etc. It resembles with secondary institutions.

Major Institutions in Society

  1. Marriage (for regulating sex relationships).
  2. Family (for socialising new members and provisions of group life).
  3. Kinship (tracing the link/relationship between individuals).
  4. Religion (for regulating the belief system of society).
  5. Economy (regulates the system of production and distribution of wealth).
  6. Polity (procedure for regulation of power structure).
  7. Education (provisions of formal learning process).

Functions of Institution

  1. Institutions contribute to the fulfilment of fundamental human needs, like self-perpetuation and self-expression.
  2. Institutions prescribe a particular way of behaviour for the fulfilment of our needs.
  3. Institutions play an important role in social control by regulating human behaviour.
  4. Institutions assign roles and statuses to individuals.
  5. Institutions contribute to unity and uniformity in society.

Difference between Associations and Institutions

When men create associations they must also create rules and procedures for the regulation of the members to one another and for the dispatch of common business. Such forms are usually institutions. The following table shows the difference between association and institution.

Association is a group of people organised for the purpose of fulfilling a need or needs.It represents common procedures. It is an organised way of doing things.
It consists of individuals.It consists of rules and procedures.
Associations are concrete.Institutions are abstract.
Associations are mostly created or established.Institutions are primarily evolved.

Thus, Institutions are the standardized norms and procedures (ways of behaviour) that develop around a basic societal need by habitualized human actions (permanent human activity).


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