Social Institutions in Sociology (Definition and Explanation)

Social Institutions in Sociology (Definition and Explanation)Reviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

social institutions examples and definition, explained below

Social Institutions are the structures that rules society. They are organizations or entities that reproduce the norms, expectations, and functions to meet the social needs of society.

Examples of social institutions include family, government, religion, economy, and education.

Social institutions are co-dependent and constantly interact with one another in everyday society. For example, some religious institutions believe they should have control over governmental and educational institutions.

The concept of social institutions is instrumental to many key sociological theories, and in particular, Dukheim’s functionalism.

Definition of Social Institutions

Social Institutions are organizations or systems that establish relationships, behavior, belief, rules, and norms that arrange society.

According to E.S. Bogardus (1922):

“Social institution is a structure of a society that is organized to meet the needs of people chiefly through well established procedures.”

Social institutions tend to work in combination with each other and share ethics and norms. For example, the government (a social institution) often instates pro-family policies because it recognizes the family as a key social institution for society.

Moreover, all social institutions are not necessarily structured as organizations in its simple form. S. Miller (2010) discusses this and more in the book The Moral Foundations of Social Institutions.

“Nevertheless, some institutions are not organizations, or systems of organizations, and do not require organizations. For example, the English language is arguably an institution, but it is not an organization”. (p.23)

Common Social Institutions

  • Family provides security, economic stability, and emotional connection among its members, usually joined by blood, marriage, or adoption.
  • Government – responsible to maintain order, provide security and general welfare for its citizens.
  • Religion – a system of belief and practices designed to fil the human need for meaning and purpose.
  • Courts – a system that maintains and practices order, rules, and norms.
  • Economy – organizes the production, distribution, and consumption of a society’s goods and services.
  • Education – provides its members with knowledge, jobs, skills, cultural norms and values.
  • Media – distributes information, educates its citizens, and influences behaviour and social values.
  • Science – involves individual scientists working in groups within social institutions, exercising social values, innovation, and activities that meet the needs of society.
  • Medicine – seeks to prevent, diagnose, and treat illnesses and to promote health.
  • Military – provides security, protects, and unify a nation.
  • Prison – protects society from dangerous people (this is a type of institution called a total institution).

See More: Social Institutions Examples

5 Key Social Institutions in Sociology

1. The Family

Family is one of the most important social institutions usually joined by blood, marriage, cohabitation, or adoption. The family forms an emotional connection among its members and serves as an economic unit in society.

The family is culturally universal. Values and norms surrounding marriage are found all over the world in every culture. Furthermore, the family socializes its members by teaching them ideals, beliefs, and norms.

Furthermore, the family also provides emotional support and economic stability. In some cases, the family also acts as caretaker if one of its members is sick or disabled (Little & McGivern, 2016).

Historically, the family has been the key social institution of western societies. However, more recently, other social institutions have begun to replace the family functions.

For example, schools have partially taken on the role of socializing children, and retirement homes have replaced the family as the caretaker of elders.

2. Government

The government is responsible for maintaining order, protecting its citizens, allocating resources, and ensuring general welfare and healthcare.

The government have an important redistributive role to play in the economy – to make sure that resources are properly allocated and to ensure that the poor or those with fewer economic resources are protected. It also encourages trust by providing policy and justice systems which follow a common set of laws.

To maintain these functions, the government is structured through various sub-institutions, such as the police, the national bank, and the courts.

Moreover, the government ensures social services, such as education and healthcare, providing for the common good of its citizens (Little & McGivern, 2016).

3. Religion

Religion is a system of beliefs and traditions designed to fulfil the human need for meaning and purpose (Durkheim, 1915). According to Emile Durkheim, religion includes “things that surpass the limits of our knowledge”.

Religion can be used to inspire moral values and connect individuals into a community, shaping the way people view themselves and the world surrounding them.

Religion sometime includes comfort, security, and education to those that are a part of its community.  Some larger religions have established its own institutions such as hospitals and schools.

Moreover, religion is sometime used to create political control. Different sociologists discuss this and to what degree and how religion impacts society.

Max Weber was a German sociologist known for his dissertation on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Weber believed that religion functions as a form of confirmation and can be a force for social change. Karl Marx however, viewed religion as an “opium” for the people, preventing individuals to focus on life here and now. 

4. Economy

Sociologists define economy as the social institution that organizes the production, distribution, and consumption of a society’s goods and services.

The economy consists of three sectors: the primary sector, the secondary sector, and the tertiary sector.

The primary sector uses raw materials directly from nature, such as agriculture, fishing, forestry, and mining.

The secondary sector includes all industries that processes raw materials and transform it into finished products, such as manufacturing and construction.

The tertiary sector includes all industries that provide services to individuals and businesses, such as education, healthcare, and informational technology services. (Fisher, Allan G. B. (1939)

5. Education

According to functionalist theory, education is the social institution that passes on social and cultural values, and teaches young people their role as cogs in the social machine.

As a social institution, education socializes children and young adults by teaching them the social norms, values, and cultural traditions. Education also provides people with the skills and knowledge they need take part of society.

Education also has several hidden and unstated functions. This includes the development of social networks, improving the ability for students to work in groups, and political and social integration (Little & McGivern, 2016).

Education may also help to reduce crime rates by giving children and young adults alternatives to criminal activity.

The social institution of education is culturally universal, although the values, teachings and accessibility to the educational system varies from country to country. A country’s wealth is in most cases directly proportional to the quality of its educational system.

In poorer countries, money is often spent on more urgent needs such as food and shelter, diminishing economic investments in education (Little & McGivern, 2016).

Durkheim’s Theory of Social Institutions

Emile Durkheim’s functionalism theory in sociology argues that social institutions are central to a functioning society.

Social institutions such as the church, the family, and the government, are instrumental for:

  • Passing down cultural values
  • Ensuring people have productive roles in society
  • Preventing social disintegration
  • Maintaining morals and values
  • Etc.

According to Functionalism, all the social institutions work like organs in a body. Each has its purpose and value, and each supports one another to ensure proper functioning of society.

However, many sociologists also argue that social institutions need reform. For example, the social institution of the family may need reform because in its traditional nuclear family format, it was exclusionary of people who didn’t match the normative, restrictive, gendered, and heteronormative ideal of “mom, dad, and kids”.

Related Theory: Resource Mobilization Theory


Society is structured by social institutions that contains specific norms, rules, beliefs, and functions. They include, among other, family, government, religion, economy, and education.

All social institutions correlate with each other. The government, for example, allocates resources hence includes the institution of economy. Religion holds the belief system, values and norms of a community that often includes educational and healthcare institutions.

Moreover, the family is seen by sociologist as the most important social institution, and marriage is culturally universal. In India, for example, marriage is a way of changing your caste system, hence also impacting religious and societal status of a family. The family also provides economic stability to its members, hence includes the social institution of economy.

Social institutions thus functions in various ways, they allocate resources, create meaning, maintain order, provide healthcare and welfare, educates, and connects people by family ties.

Reference list

Bogardus, E. S. (1922). A history of social thought. University of Southern California Press.

S. Miller, (2010). The Moral Foundations of Social Institutions – A Philosophical Study, Cambridge University Press.

Little, W., McGivern, R., & Kerins, N. (2016). Introduction to sociology-2nd Canadian edition. BC Campus.

Fisher, Allan G. B. (1939). Production, primary, secondary and tertiary. Economic Record.

Durkheim, E. (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology. Macmillan.

Macionis, J. & Plummer, K. (2005). Sociology: A global introduction. Pearson Education.

Weber, M. (1936). Social actions. London: SAGE.


Pernilla Stammler Jaliff (MSSc)

Pernilla Stammler Jaliff has a master’s degree in Political Science and in Investigative Journalism. She has published several academic articles, and reports on human rights and sustainability for different NGOs. She also works independently as an investigative journalist writing articles on environmental issues such as the lithium and oil industry.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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