Social institutions are a central object of study within the social sciences, they represent enduring patterns of organization or structures built up around some social function, religions, governments and families are all institutions that have stood the test of time because they provide essential structure and serve basic functions within social systems.1 The concept of a social institution is one of the most complex concepts within all of the social sciences, but also a very powerful one in that it provides some kind of unifying concept to all forms of organization within a social system. As such an institution are what we would call in systems theory a subsystem, they are mesolevel structures between the individual and the whole macro system of a society, thus we can think of institutions as subsystems, that perform differentiated functions and provide critical structure.
Structure & Function
There are two primary interpretations to this concept of an institution, it may be understood with reference to structure or function. For example in this definition from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, they defined institutions as, “structures or mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community.“ We can see in this definition the idea that institutions primarily exist to maintain order and structure. But here is another widely used definition for social institutions as ”a persistent constellation of status, roles, values and norms that respond to important societal needs.” This interpretation places emphases on the idea of social needs and institutions as mechanisms for performing functions to solve those needs.2
Social institutions emerge from, and are a determinant of, the actions and relations between agents. Institutions are at the end of the day a type of social system, thus composed of agents and relations through which they are interdependent. All systems perform some function, they take in resources of some kind and process those according to some set of instructions in order to generate an output, in order to perform this function the system needs some form of order or structure to enable the coordination of the elements in performing that process. Systems perform their function only ever to some degree of efficiency, that is to say with any system we can define a simple parameter that maps from a low level of efficiency to a high-level efficiency.
This degree of efficiency is a very fundamental parameter to a system that really defines its manifest state. When we say that the system is at a low level of efficiency we mean that more of the resources that are being inputted to the system are being consumed by the components within the system as opposed to being processed into functional outputs. At this low level of efficieny, the system is being defined by the consumption of resources, we have already discussed this dynamic when talking about negative interdependencies that resulted in competition or conflict between the components for access to these rival resources, out of this dynamic emerges relations of dominance within a stratified hierarchical system. At this low level of efficiency we are in a component based regime as described by the area of sociology called conflict theory.3 Inversely above a certain degree of efficiency, when there is more throughput than consumption the system comes to be defined by the function that it performs. Within a functional regime components have to adapt and organize themselves in relation to each other to best facilitate the overall function, this is self-organization and through it we get the emergence of a new level of organization in order to support the collective process. This functional regime to a social system is described within sociology by the theory of functionalism.4
Functionalism is a theoretical understanding of society that posits social systems are collective means to fulfill social needs. In order for social life to survive and develop in society there are a number of activities that need to be carried out to ensure that certain needs are fulfilled. In the structural functionalist model, individuals produce necessary goods and services in various institutions and roles that correlate with the norms of the society, these institutions, roles, norms, and values are interdependent in maintaining a functional equilibrium within the entire system. Within this paradigm, order is seen to derive from the interdependencies between the social system’s constituent parts within what is called organic solidarity. Organic solidarity is social cohesion based upon the dependence individuals have on each other in advanced societies. Although individuals perform different tasks and often have different values and interests, the order and very solidarity of society depend on their reliance on each other to perform their specified and collective tasks. The term organic here is referring to the interdependence of the component parts.5
In contrast to functionalism, conflict theory is a social theory that posits that the distribution of resources between elements within a social system is the primary factor and determinant of the structure to that system. As such it is focused on the unequal distribution of resources, arguing that individuals and groups within society have access to differing amounts of material and nonmaterial resources. Thus the social structure that emerges out of this is seen to be essentially a mechanism for more powerful groups to use their resources in order to exploit groups with less power. According to the conflict perspective, society is made up of individuals competing for limited resources and this competition over scarce resources is at the heart of all social relationships.6 Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order. This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources. Social order is maintained by domination, with power in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and social resources. Conflict theory sees society as a dynamic entity constantly undergoing change as a result of competition over scarce resources. Whereas functionalism understands society as a complex system striving for balance and stability, the conflict perspective views social life as competition that leads to change. In reality, almost all social institutions are a combination of these two, they are both structure and function, both cooperation and conflict, static and dynamic, but by looking at these two extremes we can better understand the key drivers that make up the complexity of a social institution.
This model to institutions is equally applicable across all types and scale, from families to governments. For example, if we take the two dominant theories of international politics, structural realism, and liberal theory we will see this recurring pattern. Structural realism posits that states live in an anarchic international system, a system where there is no higher authority, where you are vulnerable to attack from any other component in the system and due to this states will strive for the greatest power, with all components being governed but the structure of the distribution of power within the overall system. The liberal theory of international relations posits that the fundamental ordering force within the international community is what is called complex interdependency that is the connections and interdependencies between the interests of all forms of groups within different societies.7