Unfortunately, it is a concept that has not been consistently used by sociologits. The importance of understanding the concept of institution in order to understand society is, at the same time, recognised by all the sociologists.
In fact, Durkheim has gone to the extent of defining sociology as the science of social institutions. Sumner and Keller have said, “Folkways are to society what cells are to the biological organism; institutions are its bones and tissues”. F.H. Giddings regards institutions as “the organs that conserve what is best in the past of human race”.
The term institution has been given various interpretations. Some sociologists have used it in a vague manner also. Commenting on this, Harry M. Johnson writes, both laymen and sociologists often speak of schools, churches, business organisations, prisons, and the like as the institutions of the community. This usage is so frequent that we should be foolish to condemn it”.
(1) Ginsberg. Institutions “may be described as recognised and established usages governing the relations between individuals and groups”.
(2) MacIver and Page. Institutions may be defined as the “established forms or conditions of procedure characteristic of group activity”.
(3) Kingsley Davis. Institution can be defined as “a set of interwoven folkways, mores, and laws built around one or more functions”.
(4) H.E. Barnes. Institutions represent “the social structure and the machinery through which human society organises, directs and executes the multifarious activities required satisfying human needs”.
(5) C.A. Ellwood. Institutions may be defined as “the habitual ways of living together which have been sanctioned, systematised and established by the authority of communities”.
Characteristics of Institutions:
The main characteristics of social institutions may be described here.
(1) Social in Nature:
Institutions come into being due to the collective activities of the people. They are essentially social in nature. After all, institutions are the products of the secular and repetitive forms of social relationships of the individuals.
(2) Universality. Social institutions are ubiquitous:
They exist in all the societies and existed at all the stages of social development. The basic institutions like family, religion, property and some kind of political institutions are observed even in the tribal or primitive societies.
(3) Institutions are Standardised Norms:
An institution must be understood as standardised
procedures and norms. They prescribe the way of doing things. They also prescribe rules and regulations that are to be followed. Marriage, as an institution, for example, governs the relations between the husband and wife. Similarly, the school or college has its own rules and procedures.
(4) Institutions as Means of Satisfying Needs:
Institutions are established by men themselves. They cater to the satisfaction of some basic and vital needs of man. These basic needs are-(l) the need for self-preservation, (2) the need for self-perpetuation, and (3) the need for self-expression.
(5) Institutions are the Controlling Mechanisms:
Institutions like religion, morality, state, government, law, legislation, etc., control the behaviour of men. These mechanisms preserve the social order and give stability to it. Institutions are like wheels on which human society marches on towards the desired destination.
(6) Relatively Permanent:
Institutions normally do not undergo sudden or rapid changes. A change is take place slowly and gradually in them. Many institutions are rigid and enduring. They, in course of time, become the conservative elements in society. Ex: caste, religion, etc. But under the pressure of; circumstances they also undergo changes.
(7) Abstract in Nature:
Institutions are not external, visible or tangible things. They are abstract. Thus marriage cannot be kept in a museum, religion cannot be rated or quantified; war cannot be weighed and law cannot be brought to the laboratory experiments and so on.
(8) Oral and Written Traditions:
Institutions may persist in the form of oral and/or written traditions. For the primitive societies they may be largely oral. But in modern complex societies they may be observed in written as well as unwritten forms.
There may be written institutional forms like constitutions, sacred text books, syllabus, governmental orders, business contracts, examination system, etc., relating to political, religious, educational and economic institutions and so on.
(9) Synthesising Symbols:
Institutions may have their own symbols, material or non-material, Ex. the state has flag emblem, national anthem as its symbols, religion may have its own symbols f like crucifix, crescent, star, swastika; the school may have its own flag or school prayer, marriage may have its own wedding ring or mangala-sutra, and so on.
(10) Institutions are interrelated:
Institutions, though diverse, are interrelated. Understanding of one institution requires the understanding of the other related institutions. The religious, moral, educational, political, economic and other types of institutions are essentially interlinked.
Primary and Secondary Institutions:
Institutions are often classified into (i) primary institutions and (ii) secondary institutions. The: most basic institutions which are found even in primitive societies like religion, family, marriage, property, some kind of political system, are primary in character. As societies grew in size and complexity, institutions became progressive and more differentiated. Accordingly, a large number of institutions are evolved to cater to the secondary needs of people. They may be called secondary institutions. Ex. education, examination, law, legislation, constitution, parliamentary procedure, business, etc.
Sumner makes a distinction between the crescive and the enacted institutions. Those that evolved or developed naturally, unconsciously and even spontaneously are called by him cursive. Those institutions that are consciously and purposefully and in a planned way established are referred to by him as enacted. The crescive ones are more akin to primary institutions whereas the enacted ones resemble secondary institutions.