What Social Institutions Do?

Published 28 Apr 2017

Our society is made up of various social institutions. Social institutions imply roles, rules, and relationships in a given society. The most prominent social institutions include the family, government, religion, law and education. Although, there are other social organizations affecting our lives, I opted to present the aforementioned social systems primarily because these are the ones that shape our lives extensively.

The functionalist perspective argues that social institutions transpire because of certain structural necessities as posited by Herbert Spencer. As such, social institutions have specific functions or utilities in the society particularly in our socialization process. Social institutions maintain order and provide our basic needs on a structural and organizational basis. Social institutions also maintain social cohesion and it also provides psychological stability among the members of a given society.

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The conflict perspective looks at social institution as a mechanism to maintain the rights and privileges of a few powerful groups while aggravating the helplessness of the majority. Conflict theorists argued that social institutions are intrinsically conservative and they only address the concerns of the elite and the majority.

To provide a comparison of how functionalist view differs from the conflict view in looking at social institutions, I am going to discuss the functionalist and conflict views of the family as a case in point. Functional theorists contend that the family is the basic social entity that allows maintenance of the larger social systems. It also provides the basic needs of the society. In the words of the functional theorists, the family provides four basic functions namely sexual, reproductive, social and economic needs of individuals.

The family provides us the early stage of our socialization process. Economically, it provides us our needs such as clothing and shelter. It is in this particular system, where we learn to differentiate gender and sex and discover our own sexuality. We also learn values and norms within our own families. To summarize, the family in effect, offers us a definition of how we live our lives as we relate to others.

The conflict theory on the other hand argues that the family per se is a system in conflict. According to many theorists in this school, conflict is typical within a family and harmony seems challenging. Further, they asserted that conflict is a basic element of human social life even within one’s family. Such conflicts can be traced from the differences in individual’s motives, values, needs, goals, and resources, and power assertion. In conflict perspective, a family is viewed as a unit which involves people with different interests and power so that this can become a source of conflict such as conflict over the division of labor in households, power relations, and gender roles.

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