Institutions are organizations, or mechanisms of social structure, governing the behavior of two or more individuals. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intentions, and with the making and enforcing of rules governing human behavior. As structures and mechanisms of social order among humans, institutions are one of the principal objects of study in the social sciences, including sociology, political science and economics. Institutions are a central concern for law, the formal regime for political rule-making and enforcement.
Historically, a distinction between eras or periods, implies a major and fundamental change in the system of institutions governing a society. Political and military events are judged to be of historical significance to the extent that they are associated with changes in institutions. In European history, particular significance is attached to the long transition from the feudal institutions of the Middle Ages to the modern institutions, which govern contemporary life.
Although individual, formal organizations, commonly identified as "institutions," may be deliberately and intentionally created by people, the development and functioning of institutions in society in general may be regarded as an instance of emergence; that is, institutions arise, develop and function in a pattern of social self-organization, which goes beyond the conscious intentions of the individual humans involved. As mechanisms of social cooperation, institutions are manifest in both objectively real, formal organizations, such as the U.S. Congress, the Roman Catholic Church or the Bank of England, and, also, in informal social order and organization, reflecting human psychology, culture, habits and customs.
Most important institutions, considered abstractly, have both objective and subjective aspects: examples include money and marriage. The institution of money encompasses many formal organizations, including banks and government treasury departments and stock exchanges, which may be termed, "institutions," as well as subjective experiences, which guide people in their pursuit of personal economic well-being and wealth. Powerful institutions are able to imbue a paper currency with certain value, and to induce millions into cooperative production and trade in pursuit of economic ends abstractly denominated in that currency's units. The subjective experience of money is so pervasive and persuasive that economists talk of the "money illusion" and try to disabuse their students of it, in preparation for learning economic analysis.
Marriage and family, as a set of institutions, encompass both formal and informal, objective and subjective aspects. Both governments and religious institutions make and enforce rules and laws regarding marriage and family, create and regulate various concepts of how people relate to one another, and what their rights, obligations and duties may be as a consequence. Culture and custom permeate marriage and family.
Economic analysis commonly identifies institutions with the "rules of the game". In this common view, institutions may be regarded as the makers and enforcers of rules, laws and regulations, and the creators, in effect, of a game, in which individuals act strategically, but predictably. Well-functioning institutions direct and contain this self-interested behavior in ways that result in positive outcomes from social cooperation. Other institutions, such as the feud, may be regarded as negative outcomes of a failure to develop strong institutions of social cooperation.
Sociology traditionally analyzed social institutions in terms of interlocking social roles and expectations. Social institutions created and were composed of groups of roles, or expected behaviors. The social function of the institution was served by the fulfillment of roles. Basic biological requirements, for reproduction and care of the young, are served by the institutions of marriage and family, by creating, elaborating and prescribing the behaviors expected for husband/father, wife/mother, child, etc.
One of the major divisions in the social science concerns which human organizations are interpreted as artificial and thus limited in their longetivity and which are seen as based in nature (including human nature) and thus eternal. For example, to the broadly-defined liberal camp, both markets and capitalism are seen as "natural", while Marxists see them as human creations. Similarly, feminists see institutions of patriarchy as artificial and thus impermanent. Their defenders appeal to "human nature" and the like.
Last updated: 10-16-2005 08:50:25