Social Institutions: Overview

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Ethics is involved not only with personal decisions and the assessments of individual behavior but also with social institutions, especially, in the contemporary world, with those institutions constituted by scientific and technical professions as well. Classic sociology—as developed by social scientists considered in entries on "Durkheim, Émile," "Marx, Karl," and "Weber, Max," among others—identified a number of basic social institutions such as the family, religion, state, economy, and education. Social institutions in this sense are defined by persons acting in concert to address distinctive human interests; as such they are characterized by social roles that people accept when acting, for instance, in relation with those to whom they have biological links (the family), in relation to that which is seen as sacred (religion), in relation to the exercise of group power (state), and so on. Each social institution is thus defined by and defines a sphere of human behavior, and the roles woven into these institutions traditionally constitute both descriptive or empirical (and in this sense scientific) and prescriptive or normative (and thus ethical) phenomena. Roles both describe and prescribe human behavior within the contexts of social institutions.

Science and technology, while acquiring the status of social institutions, have likewise influenced and altered other social institutions and social roles in at least three overlapping ways. First, technological change over the long sweep of human history has shifted the relative weights or balances between different roles. For thousands of years, during the preliterate period of human history, when humans were primarily hunters and gatherers, the institution of the family occupied the dominant position with only the most modest autonomy granted to religion and even less to those activities now associated with the state, economy, and education. With the domestication of plants and animals, however, divisions of labor arose that in turn gave rise and increasing prominence to religion, state, economy, and education, while also transforming the institution of family (as is considered, for example, in the entry on "Family").

Second, over the course of written history science or the systematic pursuit of knowledge in its various permutations altered fundamental ideas about these basic social institutions and their justifications. Mythical narratives of the gods and relations between gods and humans as the original behavior patterns to be differentially imitated by different social institutions were supplemented by accounts that appealed to patterns in nature. The science of nature slowly introduced alternative understandings of social institutions and social roles, as can be seen, for instance, in Plato's Republic, with its rational account of the need for myths or likely stories about the differences between the social roles of the three basic classes (or social institutions) of artisans, soldiers, and rulers.

Finally, in the modern period, new unifications of science and technology in both the "Scientific Revolution" (sixteenth century) and the "Industrial Revolution" (eighteenth century) intensified the proliferation of social institutions and social roles through the development of scientific disciplines and industrial divisions of labor. These historical changes altered anew the balances between institutions (giving both science and economy, for instance, a weight previously unknown in human history), granted each institution more autonomy or independence, and ultimately relativized the power of particular social roles through their very proliferation. Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, the growing multiplicity and complexity of roles began to be linked and networked in synchronic hybrids of interdisciplinarity and diachronic career changes. (Entries on "Education" and "Interdisciplinarity" are especially relevant in regard to such changes.)

Beyond entries already mentioned, others in the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics break out social institution–related issues in different ways. The perspective of the basic institution of religion finds expression in a series of entries on "Buddhist Perspectives," "Christian Perspectives," "Hindu Perspectives," and more. The basic institution of the state is engaged with entries on "International Affairs," "Military Ethics," "Police," "Science Policy," and "Science, Technology, and Law." Entries on such basic social institutions are complemented by ones on more fine-grained social organizations and agencies (professional societies such as the "American Association for the Advancement of Science"), on related processes (such the emergence of "Professions and Professionalization"), and on ethical questions that repeatedly challenge and are challenged by social institutions (such as "Justice").


SEE ALSO Aristotle and Aristotelianism;Bell, Daniel;Civil Society;Ethics: Overview;Modernization;Nongovernmental Organizations;Plato;Polanyi, Karl;Professional Engineering Organizations;Regulation and Regulatory Agencies;Science, Technology, and Society Studies;Work.