In some ways an institution can be seen as a sort of ‘super-custom’, a set of mores, folkways, and patterns of behaviour that deals with major social interests: law, church, and family for example. Thus, a social institution consists of all the structural components of a society through which the main concerns and activities are organized, and social needs (such as those for order, belief, and reproduction) are met. This was certainly the sense in which the term was used by Herbert Spencer and Talcott Parsons, for both of whom it was central to the notion of society as an organism or functioning system. However, as the functionalist perspective gave way to ideas based on society as being in a state of flux, with less consensus over values, so the Parsonsian association between institution and function also withered away.
The current concept of institution is more fluid, seeing the family or church, for instance, as comprising changing patterns of behaviour based on relatively more stable value systems. This allows sociologists to consider the moral ambivalence of human behaviour as well as its creative effects on social change.
In addition to these more global and theoretical concerns, there is also a tradition of the ethnographic study of institutions that constrain, or from some points of view determine, the behaviour of specific social groups. Chief among these are Erving Goffman's studies of total institutions—for example the mental hospital (see Asylums, 1961
in·sti·tu·tion / ˌinstiˈt(y)oōshən/ • n. 1. a society or organization founded for a religious, educational, social, or similar purpose: a certificate from a professional institution. ∎ an organization providing residential care for people with special needs: an institution for the severely handicapped. ∎ an established official organization having an important role in the life of a country, such as a bank, church, or legislature: the institutions of democratic government. ∎ a large company or other organization involved in financial trading: the interest rate financial institutions charge one another.2. an established law, practice, or custom: the institution of marriage. ∎ inf. a well-established and familiar person, custom, or object: he soon became something of a national institution.3. the action of instituting something: a delay in the institution of proceedings.
The commencement or initiation of anything, such as an action. An establishment, particularly one that is eleemosynary or public by nature.
An institution can be any type of organized corporation or society. It may be private and designed for the profit of the individuals composing it, or public and nonprofit.