Institutions: Definition, Types and Functions of Institutions


When associations are formed, they evolve certain rules, regulations and laws and also certain ways of behaviour, which keep them together. Associations viewed in this way are called institutions. “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 the organisation of motivation” (Parsons and Smelser, 1956). Social institutions are generally patterns of norms that define behaviour in social relationship.

They define how people ought to behave and legitimate the sanctions applied to behaviour. They define the broad rather than the detailed conditions of balancing of performances and sanctions. They set limits within which sanctions are permitted to operate. According to H.E. Barnes (1938), “social institutions are the machinery through which society organises, directs and executes the multifarious activities required to satisfy human needs”.


The term ‘institution’ is sometimes used to refer to organisations or associations and sometimes to designate a normal principle that defines clusters of important behaviour, such as marriage or property.


An organisation is a group formed to meet a specific goal, e.g., a college or a hospital. An institution, however, in not an actual group or association. It is a system of beliefs, norms, values, positions, and activities that develop around a basic societal need. The concept institution is-abstract and is used to refer to a funda­mental form of social organisation that meets a broad social goal.

Long back, W.G. Sumner (Folkways, 1906) defined it as:

“An institution consists of a concept (idea, notion, doctrine, and interest) and a structure (a framework or apparatus).” According to Horton and Hunt (Sociology, 1964), “an institution is an organised system of social relationships which embodies certain common values and procedures and meets certain basic needs of the society”.

In this definition, ‘common values’ refer to shared ideas and goals, the ‘common procedures’ are the standardised behaviour patterns the group follow, and the ‘system of relationship’ is the network of roles and statuses through which this behaviour is carried out.


One of the most inclusive and descriptive definitions is that of Joyce O. Hertzler (Social Institutions, 1946), which is as follows: “Social institution are purposive, regulatory, and consequently primary cultural configura­tions, formed unconsciously and/or deliberately, to satisfy individual wants and social needs bound up with the efficient operation of any plurality of persons. They consist of codes, rules and ideologies …. and essential symbolic organisational and material implementa­tions.” In this definition, Hertzler has explained the purpose, function, mechanism and structure—all the four important elements of an institution.

Emphasising social control as the main function of social insti­tution, Talcott Parsons observes (Essays in Sociological Theory, 1954):

“Institutions are normative patterns which define what are felt to be, in the given society, proper, legitimate, or expected modes of action or of social relationships”.

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


According to W.G. Sumner (Folkways, 1906), institutions are of two types:


(1) Crescive:

Institutions that take shape in the mores are known as crescive institutions. Property, marriage, religion are all crescive institutions.

(2) Enacted:


Institutions that are productions of rational invention and intention such as schools, colleges, corpora­tions, banks etc.

Every major social institution is the product of a long period of trial and error, none was developed in a rational way. It is the product of social process. In its developed form, an institution has a definite structure (machinery) that grows up to control the practices and administer the rules.

E.W. Burgess has offered four-fold classification:

1. Cultural institutions for transmitting social heritage like family, school, church (religious institutions).


2. Economic institutions for organising of services of utility like bank, labour union, commercial and industrial enterprises.

3. Recreational institutions for satisfying human desire of enter­tainment, amusement and play etc.

4. Social control institutions for solving social problems of society and personality.


Institutions develop out of certain human needs or interests. It is an organised way of doing something. They are the standardised solutions to collective problems. Every institution performs some functions—manifest and latent both. Manifest functions are those which are easy to recognise as part of the institution and latent functions which are unintended and may be unrecognised or if recog­nised, regarded as by-product (Merton, 1957).

Manifest functions are of two types:

(1) The pursuit of its objectives, and

(2) The preservation of its own internal cohesion so that it may survive.

The manifest function of mass public education is to enable all to share the knowledge and skills. Some of the latent functions of this activity would be weakening of the control of parents, altering the class system and keeping the youth off the labour market till he finishes the education.

The most fundamental function of institutions, according to Talcott Parsons, is to regulate social relations (social control).

There are two main aspects of these regulations:

(1) The maintenance of relative conformity with the normative requirements of the value pattern; and

(2) The maintenance of relative consistency of the system of institutionalized patterns themselves, both in terms of generality of application and in terms of the different ‘fields’ or ranges of application. In both these senses institutions contribute to, indeed constitute, the primary focus of the integration of any social systems.

Institutions form the foundation of society and supply the basic prerequisites of group life: the reproduction and the socialisation of children (family); the affirmation of values and an approach to non-empirical questions (religion), the transmission of cultural heritage, knowledge, and skills from one generation to the next (education); the production and distribution of goods and services (economy); and social leadership and the protection of individuals from one another and from forces outside the society (politics). Besides these there are also many other important institutions, which perform various functions needed for the maintenance of society.

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