What are the major institutions that determine our social environment?

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Social institutions play a major role in determining the relationships people have with each other, the way they live and interact, in other words, their social environment. We will now briefly discuss the major social institutions.

Religion

Another important aspect of our social environment is religion. Religion may be defined as ‘a more or less coherent system of beliefs and practices concerning a supernatural order of beings, forces, places or other entitles.’ The supernatural order includes only those entities, which are thought to be non-empirical by a particular group. Thus, some people might think of flying saucers as actual entities while some others may treat them as supernatural, sacred entities.

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Religion and Environment

Religious beliefs, rituals and superstitions of the people are directly affected by their environment and economic activity. The objects that are rendered sacred are the objects, which are of particular importance in the environment. Cow, for example, is considered sacred by the Hindus, as cattle are an extremely important resource in agrarian societies. The religious sacredness attached to cows functions to safeguard this important resource in the community. Similarly many natural phenomena like rain, for example, are denitrified in agricultural societies as they are vital for their survival and so it is necessary to somehow control them. However, the same religious beliefs and practices when they outlive their particular economic and environmental context, can seriously restrain exploitation of certain valuable resources for the new mode of production.

Political Institutions

What holds people together? How do people with conflicting ideologies and interests cooperate with each other? How are they brought together to do things they do not really want to do? The answer is, through political institutions. Political process is basically concerned with regulating attainment of public goals. This is important because in any society the ownership of available resources needs to be controlled in some manner.

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Moreover, political processes, according to sociologists have to do with establishment and enforcement of behavioral standards and with circulation of individuals from status to status. Not all members of a society can participate equally in the decision-making processes of that society, only a few control the decisions taken. These also include issues like who generally takes decisions, whose decisions are accepted by other members of the group. The backbone of political institutions is the economic institutions.

Economic Institutions

Economic activity is traditionally defined as an activity concerned with production, distribution and consumption. More generally, it is a provision of goods and securities for the satisfaction of human wants. The goods produced are ‘means’ for the satisfaction of wants. The action, which directly satisfies wants, is therefore non-economic. For example, the act of preparing a meal is economic, but eating it is not an economic activity. An economic activity utilizes scarce resources for production of adequate goods. This process involves four factors of production, namely, land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship. Each economic act may not involve all these four factors at the same time, but they are essential for the overall economic activity of any society. Further, the economic activity of a society is governed by certain normative patterns of that society. Let us call these the ‘economic institutions’. The commonly found economic institutions are property, occupation, contract, market and money. Though they vary widely in form, their essence remains the same. The institution of property delimits the rights of individuals over scarce and valuable resources these resources may be tangible like land and movable assets. All societies have division of labor to some extent; in any case there is at least a division according to the age and sex of its members.

Different societies of the world have very different economies. In the course of their evolution, the human societies have moved from hunting-gathering stage, through pastoralists – farmers to industrialized economy. The economic activity of man – the mode of production, division of labor and so on – is directly dependent on the physical environment of man, as well as his level of knowledge. The physical environment provides specific resources, which have to be utilized by people for their survival. The level of knowledge, technological advance in particular, determines the mode of production by that people.

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Since economic activity is most directly related to one’s survival, the economic environment affects individuals the most. However, it must be realized that economic activity itself is greatly affected by the total cultural environment.

In addition to the above social institutions, education is one more important institution in a society. It helps in socializing members of the society and transmitting to them knowledge, skills, attitudes and the values through formal and informal arrangements with which most of us are familiar. Recently there is an awareness to use education as a means of developing an understanding of the environment.

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