The concept of institution is one of the most important concepts in the entire field of sociology. Unfortunately, it is a concept that has not been consistently used by sociologists.
According the Maclver and Page, "Institution is the established forms or conditions of procedure characteristics of group activity."
Prof. Ginsberg defines, "Institutions may be described as recognised and established usages governing the relations between individuals and groups."
Characteristics of Institution
The following are some of the important characteristics of institution.
(1) Satisfaction of specific needs:
Each institution satisfies some specific needs. The family meets the need for controlling the reproductive function, socialising children and providing economic security to its members, while the government meets the need for maintaining order within a society, defending the society against outside attacks and establishing laws.
(2) Prescription of rules:
Institutions prescribe rules and regulations that are to be followed. Marriage as an institution, for example, governs the relations between the husband and the wife. Similarly the school or college has its own rules and procedures.
Institutions are abstract in nature. They are neither visible nor tangible. For example, marriage cannot be kept on museum, religion not be rated, nor war be weighed.
(4) Cultural symbols:
Institutions have cultural symbols. The symbols may be either material or non-material. A country has a flag, an emblem, a national anthem as its symbol. A school may have its own flag, uniform dress etc.
Social institutions are universal. They exist in all the societies and have been found at all the stages of social development.
(6) Social in nature:
Institutions come into being due to the collective activities of the people. They are essentially social in nature. After all, institutions are the products of the secular and repetitive forms of social relationships of individuals.
(7) Institutions are the controlling mechanisms:
Institutions like religion, morality, state, government law, legislation etc. control the behaviour of men. These mechanisms preserve the social order and give stability to it. Institutions are like wheels on which human society marches on towards the desired destination.
(8) Relatively permanent:
Institutions normally do not undergo sudden or rapid changes. Changes take place slowly and gradually in them. Many institutions are rigid and enduring. They, in course of time, become the conservative elements in society. Example - caste, religion etc. But under the pressure or circumstances they also undergo changes.
(9) Oral and written:
Institutions may persist in the form of oral or written traditions. For primitive societies they may be largely oral. But in modern complex societies they may be observed in written as well as unwritten forms.
(10) Institutions are interrelated:
Institutions, though diverse, are interrelated. Understanding of one institution requires the understanding of the other related institutions. The religious, moral, educational, political, economic and other types of institutions are essentially interlinked.