Formal Institutions: Definition and Examples

formal institutions, explained below

Formal institutions refer to the established social structures in a society, characterized by rule-bound and standardized behavior (Scott, 2014). They include institutions like the government, legal systems, schools, churches, and businesses.

Their key value is that they contribute to socialization, passing on norms and values. For exmaple, schools teach not only academics but societal norms in a process called the ‘hidden curriculum’.

Formal institutions tend to function as stabilizers in society. Sociologists call them ‘agents of control’. Depending upon your perspective, this is a positive feature (i.e. ensuring cultural norms are passed-on through society), or a negative feature (reinforcing inequalities and injustices).

Article Key Points

  • Formal institutions are rule-bound structures like governments and schools.
  • Formal institutions contribute to socialization and can stabilize society.
  • Examples include government bureaucracies, educational systems, legal systems, etc.
  • They are compared to informal institutions, which reinforce unwritten societal norms.
  • Functionalists believe formal institutions are necessary for maintaining social order.
  • Conflict theorists believe formal institutions are designed to maintain social inequalities.

Formal vs Informal Institutions

One of the simplest ways to conceptualize formal institutions is by comparing them to informal institutions.

To start, let’s provide a simple comparison of definitions:

  • Formal institutions are those structures in a society that maintain an observed pattern of rule-guided behavior.
  • Informal institutions refer to unofficially accepted, usually unspoken, norms and practices that guide individual behavior within society (Korgen & Atkinson, 2020).

Central to their differences is that formal institutions follow explicit rules and regulations, whereas informal institutions operate on implicit, uncodified norms.

For example, formal institutions usually have an explicit hierarchy. A military bureaucracy, for example, will have formal rankings that establish who is in charge in which situation. Informal institutions, on the other hand, do not possess a clear hierarchy. Rather, they’re reinforced through informal social norms and behaviors.

Similarly, in formal institutions, rules are typically enforced through legal or procedural means. (Think about traffic laws being enforced by traffic police.) On the other hand, in an informal institution, norms are often enforced socially through mechanisms like peer pressure or social ostracism (Ritzer, 2015).

Overall, both formal and informal institutions are fundamental to the functioning of any society. They guide individual behavior, but in different ways. Formal institutions rely on codified rules, official regulations, and legal enforcement, while informal institutions operate based on unwritten norms, social pressure, and cultural values.

Features/AttributesFormal InstitutionsInformal Institutions
NatureCodified, officially sanctioned, and systematic.Unwritten, socially shared rules, often culturally-based (Ritzer, 2015).
ExamplesGovernments, legal systems, banks, educational institutions.Norms, customs, traditions, taboos, family structures.
EstablishmentTypically established through official channels, like legislation or organizational charters (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006; Delaney, 2015).Arise organically within a society over time based on shared values and norms (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006; Delaney, 2015).
FlexibilityTend to be more rigid due to codified rules and bureaucratic structures.More adaptable and fluid as they evolve with societal values and practices.
EnforcementThrough legal or official means, like penalties or sanctions (Delaney, 2015).Social pressures, ostracism, and peer enforcement.
PurposeProvides structure, standardization, and predictability in society (Ritzer, 2015).Helps in societal cohesion, identity, and understanding shared expectations.
AccessibilityAccess can sometimes be limited by barriers like bureaucracy, costs, or regulations.Usually more accessible as they’re an intrinsic part of everyday social life (Nehring & Plummer, 2014).
Change MechanismThrough revisions in laws, regulations, or organizational reforms.Gradual evolution as societal attitudes, beliefs, and values change.

Examples of Formal Institutions

1. Government: The government is a formal institution that executes rules and laws within a specific territory. It’s typically categorized into several branches, such as the legislative (makes laws), the executive (carries out laws), and the judicial (evaluates laws).

2. Educational System: This institution provides structured learning to individuals. Schools and universities fall into this category, with standardized curricula, clear hierarchies of educators, and official accreditation and testing systems (Nehring & Plummer, 2014.

3. Financial Institutions: These are entities like banks and credit unions, which operate under strict regulations and protocols. They provide economic services involving monetary transactions, loans, investments, and saving provisions to individuals and businesses.

4. Legal Systems: Legal systems are the courts and associated entities that interpret and enforce laws. This formal institution involves several levels, from local courts to the supreme court, with stipulated procedures and officials like judges and lawyers.

5. Healthcare System: This formal institution provides medical services from routine check-ups to emergency medical care. It encompasses hospitals, clinics, insurance providers, and pharmaceutical companies, all operating under stringent regulations to ensure patient safety and care.

6. Religious Organizations: Places of worship like churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples operate under formalized structures, with defined hierarchies (pastors, rabbis, imams, priests) and formalized rituals and practices.

7. Military: The military is a formal institution tasked with defense duties. It operates under strict hierarchical structures with clear rules for rank, order, and conduct.

8. Labor Unions: Labor unions work to protect the rights and interests of workers within various industries. They have formal rules for membership, established hierarchies, and their procedures for collective bargaining are governed by labor laws.

9. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): NGOs are entities that work on various social, cultural, or environmental issues. Despite being non-governmental, they have formalized structures, including recognizable hierarchies and official protocols for their operations.

10. Media Organizations: Media outlets like newspapers, TV networks, and online news platforms operate under formal regulations. They have organized structures for reportage, editing, and production, and they adhere strictly to journalistic standards and ethics.

Sociological Perspectives on Formal Institutions

From a functionalist perspective in sociology, formal institutions maintain order, create structure, encourage socialization, enforce rules, and slowly but surely, shape societal norms and values. From a conflict theory perspective, in contrast

Functionalist Perspective

The functionalist perspective views formal institutions as crucial structures maintaining order, stability, and efficiency within society (LeVine, 2017).

Based on Durkheim’s work, this perspective equates society to a human body, with various institutions serving different functions to support the overall health and balance (Korgen & Atkinson, 2020; Scott, 2014).

A functionalist might view the government as regulating societal norms (similar to a brain), the healthcare system as working to keep the population healthy (an immune system), and educational institutions as prepping individuals for their adult roles (like a growth process).

This approach emphasizes the interdependent roles of institutions. For example, the legal system needs laws provided by the government, and the educational system needs financial support from the government and the economic institution. Despite each institution having its primary function, all are intertwined and essential for the smooth operation of society (Calhoun, 2002; LeVine, 2017).

See Also: Socialization Examples

Conflict Theory Perspective

Conflict theory takes a more critical view of formal institutions. It asserts that formal institutions serve as tools for power and control, reinforcing societal inequality and privilege (for example, through total institutions theory).

In this perspective, inspired by Karl Marx, institutions like the legal system and the government don’t functionally serve society fairly, but instead, cater more to the interests of the upper classes or the ruling factions, thereby perpetuating power imbalances (Calhoun, 2002).

For instance, conflict theorists might argue that the educational system reflects and intensifies class disparities. They would point to how affluent districts have better-funded schools than lower-income areas.

Instead of equalizing opportunities, the education system may widen social gaps, illustrating how formal institutions may inadvertently perpetuate societal divisions (Delaney, 2015).

Go Deeper: Conflict Theory vs Functionalism

Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

Through the lens of symbolic interactionism, formal institutions are observed at a micro-level, focusing on the symbolic communication and interactions occurring within them.

This perspective looks at how individuals within institutions create shared meanings and react towards symbols and social cues (Ritzer, 2015).

For instance, a symbolic interactionist researcher might explore how the students and staff in an educational institution attach meaning to grades or how medical professionals in a hospital interpret different colored emergency codes.

A key point in this perspective is that these interpretations can change over time, affecting the organization and functioning of the institutions (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006). Suppose progressive attitudes towards grades as not the sole indicators of intelligence take hold in a school. In that case, it might lead to a shift in its educational approach, underlining how the collective interpretations of individuals within an institution can impact its structures and norms.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Formal Institutions

Structure and Order: Provides a defined framework for societal behavior (e.g., governments enforcing laws or educational institutions laying down the curriculum). (Giddens & Griffiths, 2006).Rigidity: Stability can lead to being slow to adapt, e.g., revising an outdated law can be lengthy (Scott, 2014).
Standardization: Ensures consistency in processes and practices (Swedberg, 2018).Depersonalization: Standardized processes can neglect unique individual needs, e.g., education systems failing specific learning styles/needs (Ritzer, 2015).
Accountability: Mechanisms ensure responsibility for actions taken (e.g., an independent judiciary system holds entities accountable).Bureaucracy: Can lead to inefficiency due to their own procedures (Swedberg, 2018), e.g., long wait times at the motor vehicle department – see: Max Weber, Bureaucratization.
Protection of Individual Rights: Defends the rights of individuals (e.g., legal system provides a platform for justice).Inequality: Can inadvertently foster or perpetuate social inequalities, e.g., higher education less accessible to economically disadvantaged.

Key Points

  • Formal institutions are rule-bound structures like governments and schools.
  • Formal institutions contribute to socialization and can stabilize society.
  • Examples include government bureaucracies, educational systems, legal systems, etc.
  • They are compared to informal institutions, which reinforce unwritten societal norms.
  • Functionalists believe formal institutions are necessary for maintaining social order.
  • Conflict theorists believe formal institutions are designed to maintain social inequalities.


Nehring, D., & Plummer, K. (2014). Sociology: An introductory textbook and reader. London: Routledge.

Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. New York: Sage Publications.

Calhoun, C. (2002). Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LeVine, R. A. (2017). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Second Edition. New York: Elsevier.

Giddens, A., & Griffiths, S. (2006). Sociology. London: Polity.

Delaney, T. (2015). Connecting sociology to our lives: An introduction to sociology. London: Routledge.

Korgen, K. & Atkinson, M. (2020) Sociology in Action. New York: Sage.

Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swedberg, R. (2018). Max Weber and the idea of economic sociology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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