After consulting several textbooks used in introductory Sociology courses, I found that Sociologists view the structure of society as founded upon several social institutions. To quote one such textbook, social institutions are
“relatively enduring clusters of values, norms, social statuses, roles, and groups that address fundamental social needs.” (Thompson & Hickey, 2005)
That same textbook suggests there are five social institutions. They are:
- Economy (Thompson & Hickey, 2005)
Another textbook suggests that there are ten social institutions. They are:
- Mass Media (Henslin, 2007)
From these authors and others, we learn that social institutions occur in a society to meet the basic needs of its members and that there are several such institutions extant in most societies, including ours. Notice that the longer of the two lists divides government into politics, law, and the military. The two lists are presented not to suggest that one is right or wrong, but to demonstrate that perspectives on the topic may vary in the terms or categories used to define similar ideas. For our purposes here, government is a single institution, which includes the subcategories politics, law, and the military.
What is not clear from a cursory view of social institutions is the relative power between them. Which institutions are most influential to the members of society; family, religion? The answer likely varies for different societies, and likely varies by history in any given society. As Thompson and Hickey point out in their definition above, social institutions are built upon the values and norms of a society, which vary between societies, and may change with time in any particular society.
How much of a role does the institution of government play in a free society? Or perhaps the better question is, “how much of a role should government play in a free society?” The answer to both questions is; it depends upon values and norms. If a society values authoritarian behavior, then a government more powerful than the other institutions is likely. But if the members of a society value independent behavior with fewer limitations, then the institution of government is likely to be less powerful than the other institutions.
Is it possible to manage societal challenges using institutions other than government, or have we become too comfortable with government taking charge? Or do we prefer the government take charge? Since the early days of the US there has been a division between those who argued for a powerful government and those who argued for a less powerful government. Those who argued for a powerful government did so because they thought that most people in society were unable to make good decisions and caring for them is the business of benevolent elite. Those who argued for a less powerful government did so because they thought that people were able to make good decisions and would do well with as little government intrusion as possible.
The political give and take since the days of the founders has kept the US somewhere between the extremes of these two perspectives. The interesting thing is that the question of the relative power of the institution of government remains, and each generation of US has the opportunity to wrestle with the issue. Could other institutions of society do what government does to provide our basic needs, or is having a someone in charge that can take care of things just easier? This is a question we must decide in our present day, and whatever answer we choose will be associated with our values and norms. What do you value; independence, or the comfort of governance?
For additional reading:
Henslin, J.M. 2007. Essentials of Sociology: A down to earth approach, Seventh Edition. USA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Thompson, W.E., Hickey, J.V. 2005. Society in Focus: An introduction to Sociology, Fifth Edition. USA: Pearson Education, Inc.