Chapter 2 - Influences Subchapter: Societal forces

Social institutions

Key points

  • A social institution is any stable structure with roles and hierarchy (or order) that fulfils the needs of the wider society.
  • We all grow up in social institutions. We live, learn and work in social institutions.
  • Social institutions teach us how to behave and how to interact with others.
  • The influence of social institutions is usually positive, but it’s possible for the people inside institutions to abuse their power or reinforce disrespectful norms.
  • We need to appreciate our institutions, but also be prepared to challenge them when necessary.

 

What makes a social institution?

A young family of illustrated characters sitting at a table pouring water.

 

  • Are you in a family? You’re part of a social institution.
  • Are you in a school? Another social institution.
  • Live in a society with government, businesses, courts, hospitals and banks? More social institutions.

 

A social institution is any stable structure with roles and hierarchy that fulfils the needs of the wider society.

Families, schools, sports clubs, churches, community centres, music teachers, gyms, supermarkets… these are all social institutions.

 

Why are social institutions important?

We grow up in social institutions. We live, learn and work in social institutions.

How much of the way that you interact with other people do you think is shaped by these social institutions? Probably a lot, in ways you might not notice.

For instance, school is a place where you learn maths and English. It’s also a place where you learn to listen quietly while somebody else speaks, raise your hand to ask a question, to walk in formation, and to complete work that is set for you.

Social institutions teach us how to behave and how to interact with others.

 

How do social institutions influence the Field Model?

Social institutions can influence how we navigate the Field Model in a few different ways:

  • By shaping our standards of behaviour—for instance, you are learning about this whole Field Model through a social institution right now
  • By informing our beliefs about other groups of people—for instance, reinforcing rigid stereotypes versus more flexible ideas about individuality
  • By creating hierarchies and power structures that in turn create formal relationships and give authority to roles—for instance, teacher/student relationships in a school.

 

Social institutions gone bad

A self-appointed king wearing a crown, with followers who have put shoes on their heads.

 

Most of the time these influences are positive and help us all get along. But there a couple of potential problems to watch out for:

  • Abusing power and hierarchy. In a healthy institution, everyone in the hierarchy benefits. In an unhealthy institution, power is abused by either depriving lower levels of any benefits (all the benefits go to the top), or by using power to force people lower in the hierarchy to do things they shouldn’t have to do.
  • Reinforcing disrespectful social norms. We know that social norms aren’t always good. So it’s possible to have social institutions that continually reinforce disrespectful social norms. For instance, an institution that promotes rigid stereotypes (“Group X is stupid, lazy, and dangerous.”) or teaches that it’s okay to systematically deprive one group of freedoms and rights held by all other groups.

 

What should we do?

  • Appreciate the positive influence that social institutions have on the way you relate to other people.
  • But also look at those institutions with a critical eye.
  • If you are in a social institution that you think is teaching the wrong lessons or abusing its power, think about whether you need to help yourself, support someone else, or work to influence the institution as a whole.