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An institution has a purpose. Institutions are permanent, which means that they do not end when one person is gone. An institution has rules and can enforce rules of human behavior. The word "institution" can be used in two ways. It can mean a very broad idea, or a very "specific" (narrow) one. For example:
- Government is an institution in the broad sense. Westminster Parliament is an institution in the specific sense.
- Education is an institution in the broad sense. Harvard University is an institution in the specific sense.
Institutions, in the broad sense, are found in every society. The way that each institution works is different in different cultures. Some important institutions are:
- Marriage- This is how society protects itself by controlling the way people live together, have children and care for them.
- Education- A society controls how young ones are prepared to be useful adult members of society.
- Kinship- Society controls how people who are related, or not related, should act to each other. This includes inheritance.
- Religion- Societies have ways in which people's religious beliefs are celebrated.
- Law- Societies decide what is right and wrong, and what punishments there are for doing wrong.
- Trade- Societies have ways of controlling the way food and other goods pass from one person to another.
- Defence- Societies set up institutions to protect themselves against attack.
Some societies have many institutions in the "specific" sense. These societies have an organised government, schools, hospitals, churches, clubs, armies, markets, courts and places for entertainment. Some societies have very few of these things, but this does not mean that there are no "institutions". The way in which the people relate to each other may have just as many "controls" as in a society with schools, markets and a government. An example of a society that has lots of "specific" institutions is Western Europe. An example of a society with very few specific institutions is the society of the Australian Aboriginal people before the 20th century.
Historians look at institutions to find differences between eras or periods. They sometimes judge political and military events by the effect that they had on institutions.
- Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY.
- Greif, Avner (2006), Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, Cambridge University Press.
- North, D. (1990), Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Schotter, A. (1981), The Economic Theory of Social Institutions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.