My first after-school job was as a cook in a restaurant. Although it was many years ago, I still remember the first day well. Everything was confusing. Since I was learning while the restaurant was open, the head cook would show me how to cook each order as it arrived. In between orders, he would teach me rules about kitchen hygiene and show me how and where to prepare and store the ingredients. It was overwhelming. Part way through the day I was convinced that I was going to be fired, but at the end of the shift, the head cook looked at me and said, “You’re going to be fine.” I didn’t believe it at the time, but within a couple of months I really was fine. Not too long after that, I was the one reassuring new employees that they would be okay.
This may seem like a strange introduction to a unit on social structures and institutions, but it has a purpose. We have all been in a situation where we quickly have to learn what to do and how to act. We learn to follow an established pattern of rules and procedures. Over time we become so used to these rules and procedures that we follow them while barely even noticing. Sometimes we even break the rules when we know we can get away with it. Either way, these rules and procedures (the structure) shape our behaviour. Different settings and organizations (institutions) have their own rules and procedures, and when we look at how they all work and interact with each other, we can start to see how different societies have distinct social structures.
In the Identity unit, we learned how the way that we see ourselves (and how others see us) is shaped by our families, education, the media, and other institutions. In this unit, we will explore in greater depth the role of institutions, the ways in which they can deal with social issues, and how they structure our societies.
In sociology, structures are often defined as “relatively stable patterns of social relations” (Brym, 2014, p. 8). They are the actions that are commonly implied (understood as acceptable) in “routine, implicit rule-following activity” (Craib, 1997, p. 113). However, this can be a very vague and confusing definition. For this course, it is more useful to think of social structure as the way that any specific space is organized and the rules people are expected to follow while in that space. Sometimes these rules are explicit (think of signs, instructions, formal contracts), but more often they are simply the ways we have learned to behave through socialization. In any society, the key component to the structure is the development and function of the institutions that make up its core.
Social institutions are established areas within a society that exist to serve an organizing purpose. Society is structured through its institutions. Some examples of institutions include: the economy, the political system, family, education, religion, mass media, and the law. Each of these organize large numbers of individuals in a way that allows us to live together in a relatively stable pattern. In essence, institutions turn individuals into a society. They are the key feature of the way society is organized—the social structure.
A far simpler way to think of them is as an established way of doing things. For example, education is designed to teach young people specific subjects and skills that may be useful in their lives. The law is an organized way to settle disputes between people, to punish those who have hurt others, and to protect communities from those who damage them by taking unfair advantages for themselves. Religion is meant to provide us a moral and ethical framework within which to live our lives and relate to others. Mass media is meant to provide entertainment and information to people who are separated over large distances. All of these are institutions because they exist to serve a social purpose. They arrange the way we live together. Given this, it is interesting to consider how some of these institutions first developed and why they are set up the way they are.
All of the institutions listed in the last sub-topic existed before we were born and will continue to exist long after us. This is what sociologists mean when they describe the social structure as “relatively stable.” While the way they are organized may change, the institutions themselves (family, economy, education) will continue. For social analysis, however, it is useful to consider how they came to exist and whether they still best serve the purpose for which they were designed.
One way to think of social institutions is as the product of historic problem-solving. As societies grew and developed, more formal organized systems were needed for efficiency, safety, and productivity. Historically, as communities became larger and more crowded, and the range of economic activities grew, institutions developed to organize the increasingly complex set of interactions between us. This process did not always happen quickly though. Some institutions developed over centuries. They continue to develop. We constantly shape and reshape them according to our needs. And this does not happen without controversy and compromise.
Take policing, for example. Most of us cannot imagine a society without policing, but the institution of modern policing (publicly employed officers who act to uphold the laws created by the state) is actually less than 200 years old. Prior to the 19th century there were soldiers and people employed in a capacity similar to today’s private security guards. Rulers commanded the army, but had to be very careful about using them too often against their own people for fear that the population would revolt and/or the soldiers would turn against their boss. Wealthy nobles and landowners would employ their own private guards (often former soldiers) to protect their property and households. They received as much protection as they could afford. Most everyone else had to rely on the collective sentiment and energy of the communities in which they lived to deliver justice in the event of a dispute.
As trade and industrialization increased and cities grew, millions of people moved from rural farms and villages to crowded urban areas with factories, ports, and businesses. According to politicians, newspapers, and the general public at the time, crime increased dramatically. Theft, assault, riots, and even murder became pervasive fears throughout society. A solution was needed, and the result was a public police force.
Modern public policing draws from a number of sources but is mostly attributed to Sir Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan Police. What was unique about Peel’s police was that they were not beholden to a ruler or a wealthy landowner, but to the law. They were tasked with enforcing the rules of society equally among everyone. The idea was the police would restore order to society (Silver, 2005). But while it may have sounded good in theory, there was initially a lot of resistance to the new force.
People were suspicious of the idea of the police. It looked, to many, like an attempt to create a permanent army that would be stationed within the city—a practice that since ancient Rome had been rightfully feared as the first step towards establishing a dictatorship. The proposal was unpopular among citizens, politicians, and journalists. The phrase “No standing armies!” was taken up around the city. In order for society to accept the police, they were forced to demonstrate their legitimacy (Ignatieff, 1979). They did this by establishing a set of principles, and a system of accountability such that officers who did not act according to the law could be disciplined or removed (Source: “Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement,” n.d.). Thus, public policing is an example of how social institutions were created to deal with historical social issues.
Of course, by now you know that it could never be so simple and tidy. While it may be true that institutions are examples of historical problem-solving, critical thinking challenges us to ask who was in a position to do this problem-solving and whose interests did the proposed solution really serve. Such is the case with policing. While public police officers were technically responsible for upholding the law beyond any ruler or individual, we have to ask, who made those laws? And who were the laws designed to protect? In 19th-century England, the clear answer to both questions was wealthy land- and factory owners.
Rather than fighting crime, much of the early work of the new public police involved protecting private property. This was particularly important as more and more previously common areas were purchased by wealthy elites (see the video in the Go Deeper section to learn more about this). Even more significantly, when thinking of policing today, the public police were used to break up strikes and protests by factory and dock workers demanding better conditions and higher pay for their work. These protests were declared illegal within the law, but that law was created and used to protect the interests of the wealthy class. There is little need to protest when everything is already working in your favour.
Institutions are created and shaped by people, but some people have more power than others to shape these institutions in ways that benefit them. Thus, we can see that institutions are formed ideologically. They conform to the way those in positions of power believe society should work. In the above example, we focused on policing (and the law), but the same scrutiny can be brought to all of society’s institutions. What ideologies shape education, for example? How is the media structured to protect dominant interests? What assumptions and ideas are considered foundational to the way that our economies are run? How do things like religious and family values get used in public to promote certain viewpoints and responsibilities? So many of the issues and topics covered in this book stem from the complex interaction between ideologies and institutions and the effects these things have on our individual lives.
Watch this video to learn more about how and why the commons became private property in England. (Source: Geof Glass, 2011)
While we collectively shape institutions, with some people having far more influence than others, another crucial consideration in social analysis is how these same institutions shape us. Thinking back to the unit on identity, we can see perhaps even more clearly now how the way society is organized and the various rules and expectations within its structure and institutions profoundly affect the way we behave and, ultimately, how we see ourselves and others. Institutions shape us both socially and psychologically. One of the most well-known examples of this is the infamous Stanford Prison experiment.
In 1971, Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo recruited 24 male college students to participate in a mock prison experiment. Twelve of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners and the other 12 were randomly assigned to be prison guards. The basement of the psychology lab at Stanford was transformed into a jail cell, and the students were given just basic instructions on how the experiment would work (Zimbardo, 2005). What resulted is one of the most controversial and widely discussed social science experiments of the 20th century. Watch the following documentary, keeping in mind how prison functions as an institution and the kinds of pressures it places upon all the individuals involved. Also consider how in almost all countries around the world, most people who are released from prison not only reoffend but go on to commit more serious offenses than the ones for which they were first sent to prison.
Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment (Source: Zimbardo, Musen, & Stanford University, 2004)
We create institutions, but these same institutions go on to shape us in very powerful ways. An awareness of this is crucial for critical thinking and social analysis. Identities, ideologies, and social institutions collectively structure our lives. They, themselves, are all structured by relations of power.
Established areas, organizations, or groups of organizations within a society that coordinate our actions and interactions with each other. Examples include: the economy, the political system, family, education, religion, mass media, and the law.
The arrangement of social institutions into relatively stable patterns of social relations. The way a society is organized.
Social Structure and Institutions in Global Citizenship: From Social Analysis to Social Action (2021) by Centennial College, Selom Chapman-Nyaho is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) unless otherwise stated.
Introduction photo by Sean Lee on Unsplash
Brym, R. (2014). New society (7th ed.). Nelson Education.
Craib, I. (1997). Classical social theory. Oxford University Press.
Geof Glass. (2011, July 19). 2. The English Enclosures [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/l0nM5DU4ADI
Ignatieff, M. (1979). Police and the people: The birth of Mr. Peel’s blue locusts. New Society, (49), 443–445.
Peel’s principles of law enforcement. (n.d.). Ottawa Police Service. https://www.ottawapolice.ca/en/about-us/Peel-s-Principles-.aspx
Silver, A. (2005). The demand for order in civil society. In T. Newman (Ed.), Policing: Key readings (pp. 7–24). Routledge.
Zimbardo, P. (2005). The pathology of imprisonment. In J. M. Henslin (Ed.), Down to earth sociology: Key readings (13th ed.). Free Press.
Zimbardo, P., Musen, K., & Stanford University. (2004). Quiet rage: The Stanford prison experiment [Film]. New York: Insight Media.
Social Structure and Institutions