Social Institutions

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Social Institutions

I. THE CONCEPTShmuel N. Eisenstadt



Social institutions are usually conceived of as the basic focuses of social organization, common to all societies and dealing with some of the basic universal problems of ordered social life. Three basic aspects of institutions are emphasized. First, the patterns of behavior which are regulated by institutions ( “institutionalized") deal with some perennial, basic problems of any society. Second, institutions involve the regulation of behavior of individuals in society according to some definite, continuous, and organized patterns. Finally, these patterns involve a definite normative ordering and regulation; that is, regulation is upheld by norms and by sanctions which are legitimized by these norms.

These elements of institutions have been emphasized, in varied fashion, by most of the existing definitions (see, for instance, Gouldner & Gouldneh 1963). Therefore, it is tentatively suggested that institutions or patterns of institutionalization can be defined here as regulative principles which organize most of the activities of individuals in a society into definite organizational patterns from the point of view of some of the perennial, basic problems of any society or ordered social life.

Major institutional spheres

It is the basic “points of view” discussed above which have delineated the major institutional spheres or activities in all societies. Again, in the literature there seems to be a relatively high degree of consensus as to the nature of these spheres.

There is the sphere of family and kinship, which focuses on the regulation of the procreative and biological relations between individuals in a society and on the initial socialization of the new members of each generation. The sphere of education extends from the family and kin relationships and deals with the socialization of the young into adults and the differential transmission of the cultural heritage of a society from generation to generation. The sphere of economics regulates the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services within any society. The political sphere deals with the control of the use of force within a society and the maintenance of internal and external peace of the boundaries of the society, as well as control of the mobilization of resources for the implementation of various goals and the articulation and setting up of certain goals for the collectivity. The sphere of cultural institutions deals with the provision of conditions which facilitate the creation and conservation of cultural (religious, scientific, artistic) artifacts and with their differential distribution among the various groups of a society. Last, there is the sphere of stratification, which regulates the differential distribution of positions, rewards, and resources and the access to them by the various individuals and groups within a society.

Institutional principles

Institutions are very close to, but not identical with, groups or roles that are organized around special societal goals or functions. Thus, not only are the principles of political regulation effective with regard to those groups whose major function is some kind of political activity—be it administration or mobilization of power—but they also regulate various aspects of groups whose predominant goal or function is economic, cultural, or educational. Similarly, principles of economic regulation also organize various aspects of groups or roles that are predominantly cultural or political. The same applies to any institutional sphere with regard to any other group or role within the society.

Institutional units and resources

However, there exist in each society definite groups and roles which deal predominantly with one of the major institutional problem areas. These groups tend to have some structural “core” characteristics, which are explainable in terms of their major institutional function or placement. Thus, for instance, small kinship-structured domestic groups with reproductive, sex-regulating, and socialization functions (which are not necessarily any particular type of the nuclear family) seem to constitute the basic units of the familial institutional sphere (see Levy & Fallers 1959). Similarly, each such institutional sphere has its own specific resources, such as labor, commodities, or money in the economic sphere or support and identification in The political sphere (Parsons & Smelser 1956; Parsons 1964).

It is thus one of the major concerns of the comparative study of institutions to analyze the extent to which different societal goals or functions are performed by the same or by different groups. [SeeSocial INSTITUTIONS, article onCOMPARATIVE STUDY.]

Explanation of institutionalized behavior

Although the basic institutions can be found in one form or another in every society, societies vary greatly in the concrete regulative principles upheld by any such institutions. They vary especially in the more specific “partial” institutional crystallizations, such as various ritual ceremonies or bodies of customs, on the one hand, and bodies of folkloristic traditions or styles of art, on the other. These concrete institutional principles and structures may vary in the extent of their universality; that is, the extent to which they can be found within a wide range of societies, the extent to which they are spread within any given society, and the extent to which they are institutionalized.

The existence of institutions, both as regulative patterns and as basic institutional spheres (but not necessarily of any specific type of institutional principle or organization), has been considered as given in the very nature of society. Institutions constitute a part of the basic definition of society and are concomitant with the very existence of ordered social life (Parsons 1964).

Thus, institutionalized behavior can be seen as the most general evolutionary universal in the history of human society. It constitutes one of the basic emergent qualities of human, as distinct from prehuman, society. However, there are few adequate explanations of the ways in which these patterns of normatively regulated behavior first arose.

Functionalist explanations

The emergence of institutions in the history of human society, the presumed universality of some structural forms (for example, the incest taboo) as well as variations in the different concrete institutional forms in various societies (for example, the development of a market economy as compared with a barter economy) have been explained in several ways. One rather common explanation is in terms of the needs of individuals and of societies ( “societal needs") and of their interrelations. Thus, institutions (both institutions in general and varying concrete institutional patterns in particular) are explained as providing for such presumed needs and assuring the survival of the society and the adequate functioning of individuals within it.

Thus, for instance, Claude Levi-Strauss (1949) explains the prevalence of cross-cousin marriage in terms of the “survival” or the “best adaptation” of society. Homans and Schneider (1955) criticize this explanation mainly in terms of the inadequacy of such a “final-cause theory” of social behavior; they argue for the preferability or necessity of explaining such marriage arrangements in terms of the “efficient causes” of certain types of individuals’ needs, engendered by the specific social or kinship structure within which these individuals act.

Other common explanations—especially of various concrete institutional patterns—have been couched in terms of needs of other institutions; of broad sociodemographic and technological trends, or what can be called “ecosystems,” and conditions; or of some basic, universal psychological laws governing human behavior. A specific concrete institutional pattern (for example, political or economic) has been explained as being conditioned or necessitated by or congruent with the “needs” and prerequisites of the functioning of certain organized systems in other institutional spheres (cultural, familial, etc. ) or as emerging from some broad ecological or demographic condition.

Thus, for instance, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940), in their introduction to African Political Systems, explained the difference between segmentary and centralized African political systems in terms of certain broad demographic trends, such as relative density of population, as well as in terms of the propinquity of certain kinship and family institutions to each of these types of political structures. Similarly, the development of feudal or patrimonial political systems has often been explained either in terms of some basic economic-ecologic condition (such as barter or “natural” economy) or in terms of the “needs” of political or cultural institutions (Hintze 1929; Coulborn 1956). The institutional patterns of pastoral nomadism have often been explained in terms of the ecological pattern of the steppe (Lattimore 1940), and those of the “ports of trade” in terms of the total ecological-political constitution of their hinterland (Chapman 1957; Arnold 1957).

An explanation of institutional patterns in terms of psychological tendencies or in terms of a combination of psychological tendencies and sociostructural laws can be found in George Murdoch’s analysis (1949) of kinship nomenclature and settlement, which combines various principles of psychoanalysis, learning theory, and some elementary postulates of structural anthropology. A similar attempt is Swanson’s analysis of religious beliefs in terms of psychological responses to the exigencies or problems inherent in or derived from different patterns of social settlements (1960).

Various partial institutions, that is, bodies of customs and folklore such as initiation rites or patterns of sorcery, have often been explained in terms of their gratification of various needs or their resolution of psychological conflicts which develop between the members of society; this approach is typical of the “culture and personality” school. The conflicts are seen as developing primarily from the encounter between the institutional setting of the society, especially as it is mediated through the process of socialization (Whiting 1954; Whiting et al. 1958), and the individual’s basic needs or innate predispositions, or as conflicts between different societal norms and institutions.

Shortcomings of functionalist approach

All these varied explanations, however fruitful they may be as starting points for an explanation of institutions in general or institutional patterns in particular, do not provide adequate explanations. Insofar as they attempt to deal with the general emergence of institutions, they usually do not go beyond the mere restatement of the basic emergent quality of institutions, which is intrinsic to the very nature of human society. Insofar as they attempt to explain institutional variations in terms of individual or societal needs, they tend to explain the particular by the more general. Insofar as any concrete institutional constellation is explained in terms of its relation to the “needs” of other institutional spheres, such explanations are usually ad hoc and not subsumed under more-general principles. Explanations in terms of ecological or demographic settings or “laws” are also usually couched in ad hoc terms. Attempts to formulate more-general laws usually fall into the fallacy of the older, deterministic geographical schools and cannot account for the possibility of a great variety of institutional responses to similar ecological conditions (for a criticism of all these approaches that is still methodologically valid, see Sorokin 1928).

In general, such explanations evince several weaknesses from the analytical and methodological points of view. The first weak point of such analysis has been the assumption of the uniformity or homogeneity of any given institution within a society. Moreover, the explanation of any given institutional form by reference to the needs of individuals and society necessitates the clear distinction between the needs of individuals and those of society; however, most of the existing analyses rarely specify either the ways through which various specific needs of different groups are articulated within a society or the ways by which presumably societal types of activities take their place in the social structure. Still less do they specify the ways and mechanisms through which the two types of needs become linked.

In addition, these analyses tend to assume that such needs must be fulfilled. They fail to investigate the degree to which they are satisfied and the conditions that facilitate or impede satisfaction. Most of these explanations lack full explication of the different possibilities or alternative solutions to the problems or needs which are generated in a given society and of the conditions under which any single solution tends to develop.

Finally, most of these analyses do not specify the ways in which both such needs and their relations to various structural arrangements may change. They usually assume that the same conditions which explain the initial development or crystallization of a given institutional pattern also necessarily explain its continuity. Hence, most of these analyses do not deal explicitly with the processes of change of institutions, especially the ways in which a given institutional arrangement may become defunct.

Interaction and exchange

Despite their deficiencies, all the varied explanations of institutions can serve as starting points for analyses of institutions, institutional variability, and processes of institutionalization. Perhaps the most important insight to be derived from these explanations is that the analysis of any concrete institutional pattern has to start from the existence of institutional arrangements as inherent in the very nature of human society; any such concrete pattern is the result of the interactions between people placed in different structural positions and between the pressures of organizational and other environmental forces as they impinge on these activities. This indicates the possibility of viewing processes of institutionalization as processes of exchange between different persons, groups, organizations, and spheres within a society (for various analyses of institutions in such terms, see L&vi-Strauss 1949; 1958; Homans 1961; 1962; Eisenstadt 1965).

Analyzing exchange processes

In order to attempt such analysis, it is necessary to specify, first, between whom such exchange takes place; second, the commodities exchanged; and last, the patterns and mechanisms and conditions of such an exchange or exchanges.

The answer to the first question seems to be easy. Institutional interaction and exchange take place between different people or groups who find it useful, from the point of view of the implementation of their varied goals, to undertake processes of exchange with other people. But the individuals or groups who engage in such exchange are not randomly distributed in the society. Such exchange takes place between people placed in structurally different positions, that is, in different cultural, political, family or economic positions, which in themselves may be outcomes of former processes of institutional exchange. Their very aspirations and goals are greatly influenced by their differential structural placements and their prior organizational settings. Similarly, the resources which are at their disposal—such as manpower, money, political support or religious identification—are determined by these institutional positions and vary according to the specific characteristics of the different institutional spheres. These resources serve as means for the implementation of various individual goals, and they may in themselves become goals or objects of individual endeavors. But resources always evince some tendency to become organized in specific autonomous ways, according to the specific features of their different institutional spheres; this can be seen, for instance, in the fact that in any society the exchange of economic resources is organized in different ways than is the exchange of political or religious resources.

Institutionalized commodities

Institutional resources differ in many ways from those types of commodities, such as attitudes and individual sentiments and activities, which are exchanged in purely interpersonal, “face-to-face” relations (contrast Romans 1961, chapter 18). Several differences are of special importance. One such difference is that institutionalized commodities have, even within a primitive society, in which the scope of their flow and exchange is relatively restricted and fixed, a much wider scope of generality (that is, applicability to wider sets of situations), and they are relatively interchangeable between different groups and in different situations in the society. Thus, for instance, bridewealth, whether in the form of cattle or right in land, is composed of commodities which can be used (that is, exchanged) in other situations by the recipients, in their relations with others; this does not hold true, on the same level of generality, for interpersonal sentiments. Second, most institutional exchange is indirect. This indirectness is of two types. One is what may be called a series of barter exchange between distant groups, as, for instance, the continuous barter of commodities between different kinship and territorial groups in certain primitive societies (Bohannan & Dalton 1962; Firth 1951). The other and perhaps more important type of indirect exchange is the more “impersonal” one which is effected through the flow of various media of exchange, such as money, or through more generalized political support or cultural or religious identification (Parsons & Smelser 1956; Parsons 1963a; 1963b; Smelser 1963).

Use of generalized media of exchange is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of institutional exchange. True enough, such media of exchange become, from the psychological point of view, direct rewards, reinforcements for the persons concerned. But from the organizational point of view, they have an autonomy of their own (as evident, for instance, in the specific characteristics of the market for money or labor), and their becoming a primary reward only reinforces this autonomy.

Third, and closely connected with the foregoing, is the fact that the flow of these media and of the respective commodities is regulated by sets of formalized norms, which regulate in a relatively continuous way the rates of exchange between different commodities and uphold the legitimacy of the generalized media of exchange.

Last, the variety of the commodities which are exchanged within wider institutional settings, such as the economy or the polity, and between such settings is necessarily much greater than in interpersonal relations.

Institutional entrepreneurs

The direct or indirect exchange of various institutional resources between individuals or groups which attempt to use these resources for the implementation of their goals constitutes, however, only one aspect of institutional exchange or of the crystallization of institutional patterns.

Any institutional exchange also necessarily includes exchange between, on the one hand, those individuals or groups that are able to articulate varied collective goals and crystallize valid, acceptable norms and, on the other, those individuals, groups, or strata that are willing to “pay” something for the crystallization and upholding of such norms. Payment is made, not in the form of an equivalent “commodity,” such as the setting up of other types of norms or goals, but by offering in return altogether different types of resources, such as money or political support. They are willing to provide such payments, presumably, because the articulation of goals and norms provides some sort of response to a felt need for some general stability and order or to various more specific needs that may arise in different situations. Hence, the capacity to create and crystallize such norms, articulate various goals, establish organizational frameworks, and mobilize the resources necessary for all these purposes (such as the readiness to invest in the appropriate activities) is a basic aspect or constituent of the flow of exchange in any society.

Thus, for instance, it has been shown that the institutionalization of The political systems of the great empires of antiquity was dependent not only on the existence of certain broad sociodemographic conditions and various potential needs among broader groups and strata of the relevant societies but also on the emergence of political entrepreneurs (the future emperors and their entourages) who were able to articulate the new political goals, organize their framework, and mobilize the resources necessary for their functioning. Insofar as such entrepreneurs did not arise, the appropriate political systems did not become institutionalized (Eisenstadt 1963b).

Similarly, the development and institutionalization of new types of political or economic organizations or enterprises is greatly dependent on the emergence of various entrepreneurs who are able to articulate new goals, set up new organizations, and mobilize the resources necessary for their continuous functioning (Gerschenkron 1962; Hoselitz I960; Eisenstadt 1963a).

This capacity to set norms and organize various institutional frameworks is closely related to control over basic institutional positions and resources, such as power, wealth, or symbols. But the mere control of such resources is not sufficient to assure the effective institutionalization of such norms and the successful articulation of varied societal goals. Special capacity for such norm setting and for the articulation of goals is not always confined to the various hierarchically superior positions representing the given structural units of a society; indeed, this capacity may often be distributed, at least in part, without regard to hierarchy (Shils 1961).

The activities of people in crucial positions, from which norms and organizations are set up, are not, of course, entirely random. They are regulated by the structural (that is, institutional) placement of their positions, by the limits set by needs and systematic properties of their own and of other institutional spheres, by the basic “structural core” of each institutional sphere or subsphere, and by the “coercive core” of the structure of the organizational forms from which they start. These limits are not, however, fully fixed at any concrete situation; and the process of institutionalization is to a great extent a process of innovation of various appropriate institutional norms and organizational frameworks, as well as a process of setting up, beyond such structural cores and pre-existing organizational settings, new types of structural frameworks.

It is presumably people in such positions or aspiring to them who are especially sensitive to what may be called societal needs, and who may be oriented to taking care of those activities and problems that may be necessary for the maintenance and continuity of given social organizations and institutions. But they are always interested in the maintenance and continuity not only or mainly of the society in general but of some specific type of organization which best suits their own orientation and goals. The concrete institutional framework which emerges in any given situation is the outcome not only of some general appropriateness of a given solution proposed by such people to the groups acting in this situation but also of the relative success of different competing groups of such leaders and entrepreneurs, who attempt to impose, through a mixture of coercive, manipulative, and persuasive techniques, their own particular solution on a given situation. But we need not assume that such people will always emerge when a need for their activities presumably develops within the society or parts thereof, and we have to recognize that in any given situation adequate institutional arrangements may fail to crystallize.

Institutional exchange and human needs

Thus, attempts to analyze processes of institutionalization in terms of the needs of individuals, groups, and social systems point out several basic characteristics of the exchange between and within these different spheres of social life. First, they point outthat any such needs are not “universal” and unchanging but, rather, become differentially structured in different societies or parts thereof. Moreover, such needs are not randomly or equally distributed among the members of a given society but are crystallized in different ways among people occupying different structural positions. Thus, it is especially necessary to specify those positions in which the occupants may develop special sensitivity to so-called societal needs.

Second, most of the exchange which takes place in institutional settings is an indirect exchange, in which generalized media of exchange play a crucial role. The more direct interpersonal exchange, in which individual attitudes and sentiments constitute the most important commodities, is not necessarily homologous to the indirect and institutional type of exchange. However, these attitudes and sentiments may constitute very important conditions for crystallizing and maintaining frameworks of institutional exchange.

Third, while in each institutional sphere there exist certain minimal prerequisites of its effective functioning, together with certain basic structural characteristics and types of commodities, yet the crystallization of any concrete institutional system—that is, of any concrete norms and frameworks of exchange—is set within broad limits by the above considerations. In other words, crystallization depends on the form taken by the position, power, and needs of the various groups and individuals in any given situation.

Finally, the mere development within any society or parts thereof of certain needs does not in itself assure the crystallization of an institution and the maintenance of effective exchange between its varying component parts. In the crystallization of such frameworks, a crucial part is played by those people who evince a special capacity to set up norms and articulate goals. However, the availability of such people, or their concrete orientation and activities, is not always assured or determined by the development of the varying needs among different groups in a society.

Institutionalization as a process

Instead of speaking of institutions as given, constant, self-contained entities, it might be more profitable to talk about the process of institutionalization and to look on it as a process of continuous crystallization of different types of norms, organizations, and frameworks which regulate the processes of exchange of different commodities. Such institutionalization is, of course, not random or purely accidental; but neither is it fixed or unchanging. Processes of institutionalization always take off from several fixed starting points (which are given in the nature of the major institutional spheres and their structural core characteristics) and from the concrete organizational structures in the preceding situation; thus, they create the conditions for their own change. Hence, the study of processes of institutionalization has to start with the analysis of these general potentialities, that is, the general types of resources of the major institutional and cultural spheres and the possibilities (as well as the limits) of their variability. The institutionalization of concrete forms and patterns includes the development of new types of major “institutional” commodities and the crystallization of varied norms and rates of exchange.

Desiderata and norms of exchange

The crystallization of norms of exchange has, in any institutional system, several basic aspects. The first such aspect is the definition of the basic goals of human existence and endeavor, toward which the varied human activities in society may be oriented, and of those goals which are defined as nonexchangeable. In every society there develop certain types of symbolic expression which deal with the indication of the primordial attributes of human existence, the goals of that existence, and the designation of any society or part thereof as a proper place for the undertaking of human endeavor and interchange. These symbols define the basic pre-contractual norms of society and certain situations and commodities which are not exchangeable; they also reinforce the basic norms of reciprocity and exchange within it and define the norms which regulate such exchange. In addition, they point out some possible (realistic or imaginary) forms of escape from the outcomes of such norms and rules (Caillois 1958).

These varied symbolic expressions are articulated both in fully institutionalized and formalized settings and, in a much more variegated and diffuse way (which has yet to be systematically investigated), in various myths and other “partial” institutions (Dorson 1962). The setting up and transmission of such symbols and orientations, on the normative and cognitive levels alike, constitute also a crucial part of the process of socialization and communication in any society (see, for instance, Piaget 1937). A very important and crucial element of this primary aspect of any exchange is, as has been indicated, the definition of certain goals and situations as nonexchangeable. The most important nonexchangeable commodities are the symbols and situations of basic cultural, societal, and personal identity, such as those of personal honor or of what it means to belong to any collectivity. In every society these constitute what may be called the basic, primordial core of personal relations and orientations to the broader social order; they are usually perceived both as existing prior to any concrete exchange and as being by nature nonexchangeable (Shils 1961).

The second major aspect of institutional exchange is the setting up of initial bargaining positions for different individuals or groups within the society. Third is the setting up and organizing of different generalized media of exchange, such as money or generalized political support. These norms and media necessarily vary in the different institutional spheres. Each of the different institutional spheres or types of commodities usually involves a typical exchange order, such as market orders in the economic sphere or the interrelationship of power, support, and bargaining in The political sphere.

Fourth is the setting up of various frameworks, organizations, and norms which serve as channels of exchange and which aim at assuring the relatively smooth functioning of the processes of exchange and at the upholding of the norms of exchange by those participating in it. Legal institutions, systems of communication, economic or political markets, and administrative organizations and frameworks serve as the best examples of such mechanisms. A final major aspect of institutional change is the triple process of legitimation: of the basic norms of exchange, of the media and channels of exchange, and of the concrete rates of exchange.

Levels of exchange

The process of continuous institutionalization of norms and settings of exchange takes place, in every society, on several different planes or levels. One is the level of exchange between structurally equivalent units (whether equal or unequal, reciprocal or hierarchical) bound together by bonds of “mechanical” solidarity or of the exchange that takes place in those institutional spheres (such as kinship) where exchange between the basic units is mostly of identical commodities. On this level, too, belong those cases (such as marriage arrangements) which encompass universal categories of people the gratification of whose needs is closely interlinked with the very existence of the society (Levi-Strauss 1958). On a second level is the type of exchange which is effected between individuals and groups in different structural positions yet bound by ties of “organic solidarity"; such interdependence grows out of the complex division of labor (Durkheim 1893; Parsons 1951).

Cutting across these two types, a third type of exchange is effected between the holders of differential positions in terms of norm setting and articulation of goals. Thus, exchange occurs between the various institutional entrepreneurs who attempt to articulate societal goals, set up new norms and new organizational frameworks, and mobilize the resources necessary for their continuous functioning and those individuals, strata, and groups that are ready to provide such resources and are willing to pay something for all these entrepreneurial activities.

Finally, change is effected on the level of the setting up of the basic, often diffuse, primordial symbols of human existence, and the establishment of reciprocity and precontractual norms (Gouldneh 1959).

Each of these different levels of exchange tends to depend primarily (although probably not entirely) on distinct types of exchange and regulative mechanisms. Thus, the first type of exchange (between structurally equivalent units) seems to be characterized mainly by direct, barterlike exchanges between various individuals and groups; the relative lack of distinction between different institutional orders; the location of most of these regulative mechanisms in the structure of concrete groups; and the overlapping of membership between the major groups (Eisenstadt 1961). The second level of exchange (between those in different structural positions) depends more on various impersonal exchange mechanisms, like economic or “political” markets. The last two levels of institutional exchange are more dependent on the maintenance of special communicative and hierarchical situations, and on a close relation between the different orders of exchange and the basic, primordial symbols of human existence and social order.

These varied mechanisms are perhaps most closely interwoven in so-called primitive societies, and it is no accident that many anthropological studies have not distinguished between them and have tended to assume that the first types of such mechanisms, together, perhaps, with the last, are the most prevalent mechanisms of social control. But it is doubtful whether this is the case, even in these societies. In more differentiated societies the complexity of the different levels and mechanisms of exchange is even more varied and should, of course, constitute an important focus of comparative research [seeSocial Institutions, article onComparative Study].

Variability of institutional solutions

The setting up of viable orders of exchange poses some of the basic problems and “challenges” of institutionalization: innovation and crystallization of norms, articulation of goals, and mobilization of resources. But it cannot be taken for granted that even if the various potential needs for such crystallization of norm setting and goal articulation exist within a society, crystallization will indeed take place and people will be found who are able or willing to invest in the setting up of such norms and organizational frameworks. If such positions do not become crystallized or filled, there may easily develop a disintegration of any given social system or the institutionalization of a system at a very low level of efficiency. However, assuming the existence of some minimal availability of such positions and people, there exist in any specific situation several different (usually competing) possible elite groups, with different orientations and institutional solutions. The analysis of such variability constitutes the major key to the analysis of the crystallization of any concrete institutional setting.

Interdependence of institutional spheres

The preceding analysis indicates that the institutionalization of any social system (whether economic, political, family, cultural, or stratification) means the setting up of certain values, sanctions, and organizations that regulate access to different positions and establish certain norms of exchange. Furthermore, policies are implemented through which these norms can be upheld and applied to a relatively large and complex variety of social situations. These activities are undertaken by people who are placed or attempt to become placed in structurally strategic positions, who aspire to implement certain goals, and who succeed in competition with other such people or groups. Institutional norms regulate the provision of various resources from other parts of the society to these power positions, to the new organizations, to some of the relations among the different groups in the society, and to the obligations of the occupants of these positions toward various groups in the society.

Thus, such institutionalization creates organizational and behavioral patterns directed to the upholding of certain goals. Within these organizations there develop systemic boundaries and mechanisms which attempt to regulate the flow of activities and resources. As we shall see later in greater detail, no such system is ever fully homogeneous, that is, upheld and found binding to the same degree in all areas of social life and by all groups in a society. It does, however, set up some broad limits within which its norms are operative, even if in varying degrees.

Each such system crystallized within any major sphere (economic, cultural, etc. ) is dependent on the systems functioning in other major institutional spheres and is necessarily very closely, although not deterministically, related to and dependent on such systems in other institutional spheres. In general, each institutional sphere is dependent on others for various resources for its own effective functioning, that is, for the maintenance of its specific structural forms, activities, and rates and norms of exchange (Parsons 1951; Parsons & Smelser 1956).

While the general types of such resources (or “inputs” and “outputs") are necessarily the same in all societies, the specific types of resources of any specific institutional spheres vary greatly, according to their specific characteristics and problems. Thus, for instance, although all political systems are necessarily influenced by external exigencies and pressure, the special sensitivity of the centralized bureaucratic empires to such exigencies and pressures, as well as to international economic fluctuations, has been shown to be rooted, first, in the great emphasis of their rulers on military and expansionist goals and, second, in the dependence of these rulers on various resources. The availability of the latter was, of course, dependent on such international economic situations. The dangers of excessive taxation and inflation in these political systems were also rooted in the high expense involved in the implementation of the rulers’ goals and in the great importance of various flexible resources, not only for the implementation of these goals but also for the general political position of the imperial rulers (Eisenstadt 1963b).

The autonomy of each institutional sphere in relation to others probably does vary with different institutions and in different situations. It is probable that the symbolic sphere will usually exhibit greater autonomy than the others; but all of these problems have yet to be investigated in detail.

Role performance and institutional change

Any institutional system regulates and organizes patterns of behavior of the individual members of a society or of its component groups; in turn it is, of course, greatly dependent on their activities, sentiments, and attitudes. It is not yet, however, at all clear in what exact ways various personal sentiments and activities, limited to different (even if similar) informal settings, become “exchanged” or crystallized into the more fully institutionalized commodities and norms.

Studies of social determinants of behavior and attitudes have rarely attempted to analyze how these attitudes and behavior affect the process of setting up new norms and organizations (for one of the few exceptions, see Merei 1949). However, such studies certainly do not support the assumption of the existence of a direct relation between attitudes and sentiments, on the one hand, and the undertaking of jural injunctions or the crystallization of institutional norms, on the other. It is more likely that an individual’s performance of various roles and tasks and his upholding of various norms vary greatly, according to his evaluation of their contribution to his own values and goals. Initial patterns of socialization and child rearing, while certainly not linked in a necessary way to any one concrete institutional form or organization, may predispose the members of a society to covet certain types of commodities, to define certain situations or goals as unchangeable, and to be ready to enter into exchange which is regulated by certain types of norms.

The acquisition of such capabilities includes the development of certain basic orientations to the nature of the world of human existence and the social order and to the various rules of social exchange. But this does not necessarily assure the acceptance by individuals of the specific institutional goals or of the specific institutional orders existing within the social order. On the contrary, it may well first of all inculcate attitudes of critical evaluation toward certain types of societal order. It is the individual’s evaluation of the institution’s contribution to his own goals, together with his conceptions of social order, that seems to be of crucial importance in influencing his adherence to institutional norms and his performance of institutional tasks (Thibaut & Kelley 1959). True enough, such evaluation may be of different kinds and levels and may be based on different criteria. It may range from a realistic appraisal of the very limited choices offered by coercive frameworks, such as prisons or situations of conquest (and their evaluation as the “least of evils” in a given situation) up to a fuller, more positive identification with the norms, values, or goals of any given group or leadership.

In any given situation, we usually find, among different groups, various mixtures or combinations of such types or levels of evaluation. Different situations or collectivities can thus be compared in terms of the criteria of evaluation or identification prevalent in them [seeSocial Institutions, article onComparative Study].

Whatever the combination of attitudes may be, a relative lack of identification or satisfaction, on the part of individuals, with an institutional or organizational setting does not in itself necessarily result in the immediate disorganization of the setting or in the disappearance of the appropriate norms. The process tends, rather, to operate somewhat more indirectly: it may influence the accessibility of various resources which are available to some, as contrasted to other, groups; or it may greatly influence the predisposition to enter into some types of exchange rather than others and hence also influence the chances of competing leaders and norm setters.

Socialization and role innovation

The processes through which individuals are sensitized to the symbols, norms, and goals of various groups in society and the ways in which they internalize and maintain various norms and criteria of evaluation may be of crucial importance for the interlinking of their attitudes and sentiments with the setting up and maintaining of institutional norms and frameworks. Within this context the study of several mechanisms may be of special interest. One such mechanism is the process by which institutional norms are transmitted to individuals through their manner of orienting themselves to “reference groups” (Merton 1949; Eisenstadt 1954). Another is the process of social mobility, study of which can show the relation between individual motivation and aspirations and the choice of different institutional positions and norms [seeSocial Mobility; see alsoMiller 1960; Bendix &Lipset 1953; Eisenstadt 1964b].

Also of great importance in this context is the study of the crystallization of societal roles and especially of individual participation in such crystallization. Most studies in this field have dealt with the individual’s adaptation to a given role and with his ability (or inability) to perform it. In fact, the picture found in or implied by much of the literature on this subject (see, for instance, Southall 1959) paints the individual as progressing through some basic age, sex, and other—economic, occupational, political, and religious—fundamental institutional roles. It seems, however, that such a conception is oversimplified. The individual’s progress through different roles necessarily brings him into situations which are, or at least may be, organized in different ways, from the point of view of his ability to fulfill his own goals. The performance of roles by individuals should not be viewed as a somewhat static assumption (or nonassumption) of certain attributes or as a realization of certain types of fixed expectations and norms set by society. Role performance should, rather, be conceived of as a much more differentiated process, in which the individual’s aspirations and perceptions interplay in a variety of situations, emphasizing in each of them different aspects of normatively regulated behavior. Indeed, it is this “encounter"between individuals and the supposedly “given” roles that often creates the possibility of role innovation, that is, of change in the constellation of different components of a role and of different sub-roles (see Eisenstadt et al. 1963).

It is these mechanisms which greatly influence the nature of individual behavior and choices within the respective institutional settings and the extent to which these choices conform to the existing institutional norm or tend to change it. In a way, any given institutional structure can be seen as a statistical outcome of such choices of individuals (Murdock 1949). However, these choices are not random. They occur within the given institutional settings, and are activated by people whose structural and organizational positions greatly influence the range and motive of their choices (Firth 1951; Fortes 1962). The outcomes of their activities and choices greatly influence the extent of stability, innovation, or change in any institutional system.

Social change in institutional systems

The possibility of innovation and change is not something external or accidental to any institutional system. It is given in the very nature of the process of institutionalization and in the workings of institutional systems (Eisenstadt 1964a). Whatever the success of the attempt of institutional entrepreneurs to establish and legitimize common norms in terms of common values and symbols, these norms are probably never fully accepted by the entire society. Most groups tend to exhibit some autonomy in terms of their attitudes toward these norms and in terms of their willingness or ability to provide the resources demanded by the given institutionalized system. For very long periods of time a great majority of the members of a given society or parts thereof may be identified to some degree with the values and norms of the given system and be willing to provide it with the resources it needs; however, other tendencies also develop.

Some groups may be greatly opposed to the very premises of the institutionalization of a given system, may share its values only to a very small extent, and may accept these norms only as the least among evils and as binding on them only in a very limited sense. Others may share these values and accept the norms to a greater degree but may look on themselves as the more truthful repositories of these same values. They may oppose the concrete levels at which the norms are institutionalized by the elite in power and may attempt to interpret them in different ways; that is, they may attempt to establish different bargaining positions and different norms of exchange. Others may develop new interpretations of existing values and strive for a change in the very bases of the institutional order. Hence, any institutional system is never fully “homogeneous,” in the sense of being fully accepted or accepted to the same degree by all those participating in it, and these different orientations all may become focuses of conflict and of potential institutional change.

Sources of conflict

Even more important, from the point of view of our analysis, is that whatever the initial attitudes of any given group to the basic premises of the institutional system, these may change greatly after the initial institutionalization of the system. Any institutionalization necessarily entails efforts to maintain, through continuous attempts to mobilize resources from different groups and individuals, the boundaries of the system and to maintain the legitimacy of its values, symbols, and norms. But continuous implementation of these policies may affect the positions of various groups in the society and give rise to continuous shifts both in the balance of power among them and in their orientations to the existing institutional system.

Moreover, the institutionalization of any system usually creates new collectivities and organizations. These organizations develop needs, interests, and orientations of their own, which may impinge on various other groups and institutional spheres, thus changing their attitudes toward the premises of the system. Similarly, changes in the balance of forces within the system also facilitate the development and maturation of certain inherent tendencies in the structure and orientation of key groups and elites. For example, some religious groups tend to develop and establish wider, more universalistic orientations and membership units, which may then develop beyond the basic premises of the given institutional system.

These processes may be intensified by the systematic relations between any given institutional framework or sphere and other frameworks within the society. Whatever the degree of integration of the total society, some such relations between different institutional spheres—as, for example, The political and the economic or The political and the kinship systems—are inherent in any ongoing society (Parsons & Smelser 1956). However, the basic or predominant orientations and norms regulating the flow of exchange in each of these institutions tend to differ to some extent. Hence, the occupants of the major positions within these different institutional spheres may attempt to maintain their autonomy and may tend to make contradictory demands on different groups to provide them with the necessary resources. Each may look for support from different groups in the society, thus exacerbating potential conflicts between the various groups, changing their relative strengths, and possibly undermining the premises of any institutional system.

These contradictions, conflicts, and shifts in the balance of power may lead to the depletion of the resources needed to maintain any given system or give rise to the crystallization of new focuses of resources and orientations, which may in turn create a new institutional system. These conflicts are also closely bound up with the relations between any given institutional system and its “external” environment. Each institutional system is especially sensitive, in terms of dependence on resources and maintenance of its own limits, to certain aspects of its relations to its environment.

Thus, the very nature of the setting up of institutional systems creates the possibility that “antisystems” (both different institutional systems, such as religious and political, and different types of the same system) may vary, and while they may often remain latent for very long periods of time, they may also constitute important focuses of change, under propitious conditions. Some of these antisystems can be viewed as temporary “reversals,” by various lower groups, of the dominant values of the given system and as attempts to uphold, at least on certain occasions, a different value scheme. Others may have wider and more-continuous organizational tendencies. Both can, under certain conditions, serve as starting points for processes of institutional change.

The existence of such contradictions or conflicts among the different institutional spheres and among different groups does not, of course, preclude the possibility that the system will maintain its boundaries more or less continuously through a hierarchy of norms and achieve accommodation or partial insulation of different subsystems and that a definite order and stable relations among the system’s parts will persist. But the possibility of conflict and potential change is always present, rooted in the very process of crystallization and maintenance of institutional systems, and the direction and occurrence of change depend heavily on the nature of this process.

Just as the predilection for change is necessarily built into any institutional system, so the direction and scope of change are not random. Rather, they depend on the nature of the system generating the change; on its values, norms, and organizations; on the various internal forces operating within it; and on the external forces to which it is especially sensitive because of its systemic properties. These various forces naturally differ in different institutional spheres and in different societies, but the very sensitivity of these forces and the tendency to change are inherent in all of them.

Shmuel N. Eisenstadt


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The comparative approach, or “method,” in sociology in a sense covers all sociology, for any sociological research necessarily “compares” some variables with others. But beyond this very general (and therefore rather meaningless) connotation the term “comparative” designates a rather special focus of sociological inquiry: the investigation of the distribution of social phenomena in different societies, or types of societies, or the comparison of such “total” societies or of major institutional spheres in terms of their development, persistence, or changeability.

The classic studies

The comparative study of social institutions has been, together with the study of processes of change, among the most important focuses of classical sociological and anthropological thought and theory, although the relative emphasis on each of these aspects varied among the “founding fathers.” The principal eighteenth-century figures—Montesquieu, Adam Ferguson, and the Scottish philosophers—were more interested in comparative studies than in the analysis of social change. In the nineteenth century Marx and, to some extent perhaps, Tocqueville were much more interested in analysis of processes of change in Western societies, although they (especially Marx) never entirely neglected the comparative aspect. The great figures of evolutionary thought, such as Comte, Spencer, and Hob-house, tried to present a synthesis of these two aspects by showing, through a comparative analysis of customs and institutions, what seemed to them to be the universal trend of development of human society. This synthesis was not accepted, and its rejection also brought about the disavowal of the evolutionary perspective.

Insofar as comparative studies of this period—especially those concerned with institutions—went beyond general evolutionary orientations, they were mostly based on what may be called the “correlational” method, best exemplified in the work of Hob-house, Wheeler, and Ginsberg (1915). In this work, various types of institutions—kinship arrangements, ecological patterns, modes of subsistence, and types of political organization—were correlated with one another; the great wealth of material thus brought together has only very recently been taken up again in comparative studies. Such comparative studies subjected many of the more naive evolutionary assumptions to a critical analysis, while at the same time they confirmed the existence of a general trend of development in the direction of growing societal complexity.

Some important comparative indications, which also contain an implicit evolutionary perspective, can be found in Durkheim’s work, especially in his discussions of the rules of sociological method and of the construction of morphological types of societies, in his typology of the division of labor (Durkheim 1893; 1895; see also Bellah 1959), and in his disciple Marcel Mauss (1906; [1904-1938] 1960). But on the whole the French school did not develop these comparative indications beyond the studies of Davy and Moret on the development of “organic” political and juridical institutions (Davy 1922; Moret & Davy 1923).

It was perhaps in some of the works of French historians influenced by the sociological approach, such as Marc Bloch and others grouped around the Annales sociologiques, that these comparative indications were to some degree developed (Bloch 1939-1940). Similarly, in Germany it was largely the “institutional” economists, historians, and historians of law who upheld the comparative approach in the social sciences (for a general survey, see Sorokin 1928).

Max Weber’s comparative analyses Among the great “postevolutionist” founding fathers of sociology, only Max Weber expressly addressed himself to a new, more complex, and sophisticated analysis of comparative structures and processes of change. Instead of postulating a general and universal trend of development for all societies and using comparative analysis to illustrate this general trend, he used it in order to illuminate a certain particular trend that predominated in one society or group of societies; by analyzing such a trend, he could then throw some light on similar or opposite trends that developed in other societies or under different conditions. For example, Weber used his famous analysis of the economic orientations of the great world religions as a background for the analysis of the specific religious constellations in Europe; according to him, the rise of the “Protestant ethic” was an important causal factor in the development of capitalism (1904-1905). Weber’s work abounds in such comparative analyses, including, for example, his studies of types of charismatic authority, routinization of charisma, and the trend to bureaucratization in modern societies. His comparative studies were also based on the elucidation of basic categories of types of social action, thus indicating the importance of combining basic conceptual analysis with the comparative analysis of institutions (Weber 1920–1921; 1922).

Revival of comparative studies

As a result of developments that took place in the social sciences in general and in sociology and anthropology in particular from the second to the fourth decade of this century, the interest in the broad comparative field and in change-oriented studies became rather peripheral. However, the methodological and theoretical developments constituted a very important background and stimulus for the renewal of interest in comparative studies and greatly added to the conceptual and methodological tools with which such analysis could be attempted. Thus, interest in the systematic study of comparative institutions and the conditions of their development and change has regained some of its centrality in the social sciences in the last two decades.

The first important impetus to this new interest in systematic comparative analysis of institutions developed in social anthropology. In England a major landmark was the publication of African Political Systems (Fortes & Evans-Pritchahd 1940), which was followed by African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde 1950). In these works the comparative analysis consisted in the intensive analysis of several case studies in the light of some guiding hypotheses. In the United States the major turning points were the publication of Murdock’s Social Structure (1949) and the upsurge of cross-cultural research, which was closely related to the “culture and personality” school of anthropology (see Whiting 1954; Spiro 1961). Here the more general and more fully formalized hypotheses were usually tested, through statistical methods, over a wide sample of societies.

At the same time, a growing interest in this field developed within sociology proper. The emergence of a broader institutional approach in political science and history and the development of area studies have also contributed greatly to the renewal of interest in comparative studies.

Areas of comparative research

The major areas of sociology that are usually designated as belonging to the sphere of comparative research are the following:

(1) Studies of similarities and differences in patterns of socially significant behavior (such as voting patterns or crime and delinquency) in different social settings or societies.

(2) Studies of the development of different personality types or of motivational and attitudinal patterns in different societal and cultural settings. The most important are the various studies of “culture and personality” and “national character.”

(3) Studies of different types of organizations, for instance, bureaucratic organizations such as labor unions or political organizations in various societies (Stinchcombe 1959; Udy 1959).

(4) Studies of major types of institutions indifferent societies. Such studies of comparative institutions could be subdivided into analyses of: universal institutional norms and settings (for example, studies of marriage, family, or kinship systems); types of cultural systems (such as religious beliefs); universal groupings within specific types of societies (for instance, age groups); social trends and processes of institutional development(such as urbanization or democratization); partial institutions such as specific customs (for example, rites of passage or folk tales). These partial institutions are, of course, very closely related to cultural systems.

(5) Analysis of “total societies.” Usually such societies are compared according to the major types of predominant institutions or cultural orientations within them.

Whatever the specific focus of each of these areas of research, some emphasis on the institutional or organizational aspects of social life can be found in all of them. This aspect may be the independent variable (as in “culture and personality” studies or in comparative studies of behavior in different settings), the dependent variable (as in many studies focusing on the “emergence of institutions"), or both the dependent and the independent variable (as in many of the broader organizational and especially institutional studies ).

Nature of the comparative approach

The preceding enumeration of the major fields of comparative studies indicates that the term “comparative approach” does not, as has sometimes been claimed, properly designate a specific method in social research, but rather a special focus on cross-societal, institutional, or macrosocietal aspects of societies and social analysis (Shils 1948; 1961). In principle, therefore, the methodological problems involved in these studies are not distinct from those of any other type of sociological (or behavioral) investigation. The choice of the topics for comparative study may, however, necessitate the recourse to some specific types of data, such as historical and ethnographic or special psychological data, which in turn may pose some specific methodological problems.

Just as the comparative approach does not constitute a specific method, neither does it refer to a specific “theory” or special analytical tools. The state of comparative studies at any stage of sociological research tends to reflect the given level of theoretical or analytical insights and sophistication. However, the very nature of comparative studies, especially their macrosocietal perspective, may bring out some of the hidden assumptions of many of the more “provincial” studies, pointing out some of the weaknesses of their basic analytical assumptions and hence also necessitating their revision (Bendix 1963).

The construction of typologies

The central meeting point between analytical theory and methodology in comparative studies (especially studies dealing with organizational, institutional, or cultural-pattern variables) is the selection of “problems” for comparison and the consequent attempt to construct “types” of societies, institutions, organizations, or patterns of cultural orientations or artifacts. Although the selection ofproblems and the construction of types may sometimes seem to be opposed to one anotherthe first being more flexible and concrete, and the second more rigid and abstractin fact they are very closely interconnected.

The designation of any problem for comparative analysisbe it the conditions under which modern capitalism, “the feudal system,” or specific types of behavior developeither necessitates the construction of some “types” of the relevant institutional, organizational, or behavioral spheres, or at least always implies such a typology. This connection between problem setting and type construction can best be seen in Weber’s work but also can be easily traced in the other works referred to above.

The construction of types of course implies more general analytical orientations, although very often these may be hidden behind the very process of setting up typologies. Each type is constructed according to some variables that are assumed, explicitly or implicitly, to be the most important or significant from the point of view of the given analytical problem.

Important variables

A great variety of types and typologies have been constructed in the history of social thought; they very often change according to the concrete interests of any given research. Yet some very general indications of the variables that seem to be of crucial importance in societal analysis can be discerned in the literature.

One is the construction of types of institutions according to the levels of complexity of any given institutional setting. In more recent analytic terms, this approach can be reformulated according to the extent of differentiation and specialization of different institutional spheres. Thus, for instance, a comparative analysis of political institutions may start with the classification of different types of political systems according to the extent of development of a distinct political-institutional sphere; the extent of development of a specific political group or ruling class; and the degree of complexity of The political process and the scope of political activity in the society. By the complexity and scope of political activity we mean, first, the areas of social life and the variety of social groups that are affected by the activities of the central political organs and are dependent on those activities for the maintenance of their own solidarity and organization; and second, the extent of participation of these groups in political activities. Similar attempts at classification can, of course, be attempted with regard to all other institutional spheres (Eisenstadt 1963).

The second basic approach to comparative typology takes off from the different types of major value orientations around which the different institutions tend to become focused or integrated. The third major focus of typology construction is related to the major regulative mechanisms and frameworks through which institutional and organizational settings are integrated and through which they function and change.

These last two criteria or starting points for the construction of types tend to become fused, to various degrees, in many works. Thus, most of the “traditional” anthropological studies dealing with kinship attempt to specify the focal points of the jural and normative specifications of different kinship and descent organizations, whether they are matrilineal or patrilineal or organized in unilineal or bilineal descent groups. Similarly, Levi-Strauss’ and Leach’s approach to comparative structural analysis implies that different societies (whose concrete analysis has till now been mostly limited to primitive and caste societies) can be analyzed in terms of the combination of the various integrative or regulative principles that are inherent, according to their view, in the nature of the major institutional system, be it kinship, language, or political or economic sphere (Levi-Strauss 1955; 1958; Leach 1961).

Weber’s numerous comparative analyses have placed great emphasis on both the types of integrative orientations and the mechanisms that tend to develop in various institutional spheres during different stages of their development. Thus his analyses in the field of the sociology of religion have emphasized the major types of value orientations that may develop at any given stage of religious differentiation and that may serve as starting points for the organization of new religious orientations and organizations; his analysis of the major forms of legitimation has emphasized a similar aspect in The political field. In analyzing the economic and political spheres, Weber stressed more the various types of integrative mechanisms and organizations: bureaucracy, party organization, and various types of market systems, all of which may develop at any stage of economic or political development (Weber 1904-1905; 1920-1921; 1922).

However, in most comparative studies there has been a greater emphasis on various integrative orientations and organizations than on a comparative analysis of different mechanisms of exchange and regulation. In more recent times, perhaps the most important example of the type of comparative approach that combines all three starting points can be found in Parsons’ seminal paper (1953) on the types of systems of stratification in modern societies. There he attempted to analyze the systems of stratification of various (especially modern) societies in terms of their respective value orientations and in terms of the institutional derivations of such orientations.

Methodological problems

The construction of types for purposes of comparative analysis poses several methodological problems. First is the problem of selecting the units of comparison in terms of which the variables can be meaningfully applied ( “total societies,” institutions, groups, or cultural tracts) and the question of the range of time over which such units can be viewed as homogeneous. Second is the problem of construction of indices through which the variables can be compared: indices of cultural orientations, societal complexity, or organizational structure. Third is the problem of comparability, both of the units of comparison and of the indices—that is, the extent to which these abstractions are still useful when they are taken out of their concrete cultural settings.

A fourth basic problem common to most comparative studies, especially to those focusing on institutional or organizational variables, is the problem of sampling. The relatively small sample of units (societies) available for comparison raises the question of the extent to which it is feasible to construct special intensive comparisons of a quasi-experimental nature. Such analyses are usually conducted after the event.

These varied methodological problems tend to differ according to the nature of the materials necessary for any comparative analysis. Thus, in research that necessitates the use of historical or ethnographic data the problem of small samples and that of the abstraction of general variables out of their specific cultural context are of special importance. Research that deals with different organizational settings or different patterns of behavior has to cope with the problems of indices and their comparability (Whiting 1954; Inkeles 1961). But whatever such different emphases, the most general and basic methodological problems here do not differ from those of other types of sociological, anthropological, or behavioral research.

Theoretical and analytical problems

The construction of types or problems for comparative analysis engenders not only methodological but also theoretical and analytical problems. Types are constructed, as indicated above, out of variables and covariations of variables, even if of ten only implicitly. Each such construction implies some assumptions about the relative importance of such different variables for the understanding of the working of a given society, institution, or organization or for the explanation of a given pattern of organization or behavior.

Such analytical problems tend to become even more important in attempts to “explain” varied types of institutions, organizations, or patterns of behavior in terms of some broader conditions. In most comparative analysis such explanation aims (with different degrees of articulation and explication) to elucidate the conditions under which such varied societal types emerge and continue to exist and function, the extent of their variability within different cultural contexts, and the conditions under which they change. By “conditions” is usually meant either some other (institutional or organizational) types or some more general social and/or psychological laws or forces (Eisenstadt 1965).

Thus, for instance, the major approaches to construction of types, as outlined above, are closely connected with some major analytical aspects of the processes of institutionalization. The criterion of differentiation or specialization indicates the extent and nature of the development of the “basic” characteristics of different institutional and cultural spheres, that is, the extent to which their respective positions become differentiated from one another and their resources released from mutual ascriptive bonds. The greater such differentiations, the more complex will be the various regulative and integrative problems and the greater the readiness of different groups or categories of people within the society to invest some of their resources in different types of exchange, that is, exchange among different types of major institutional resources or exchange of organizational and norm-setting leadership.

Evaluating the comparative approach

It is with regard to basic analytic assumptions involved in the choice of problems and the construction of types that some of the central problems of comparative research have arisen. The basic problem in comparative studies is not whether it is possible to construct such types according to any relevant criteria but whether it is at all worthwhile to do so. The major test of such worthwhileness is not only the extent to which such types with common characteristics can be discerned among various societies; this may be, to no small extent, a matter of definition. The more important test is, first, whether such common features actually delineate characteristics that are important for the understanding of the working of these “types” as specialinstitutional or cultural systems with their own boundary-maintenance and systematic problems which differ from those of other systems. A second important question is the degree to which it is possible to specify both the societal conditions under which different types of institutional system develop and become crystallized and the conditions of their change and transformation.

The various recent works dealing with the different aspects and focuses of comparative analysis seem to indicate that such analysis can provide some, even if as yet partial or tentative, explanations of the internal characteristics of these phenomena and the conditions of their development and continuity. However, the major analytical problem here is not only the degree to which such various explanations of discrete societal phenomena can be attempted but also the extent to which they can be subsumed under some more general laws or principles.

Some skepticism has recently been voiced about the extent to which such comparison may be of any value beyond the range of societies that are culturally and geographically very similar (Evans-Pritchard 1951; 1963). Another recently voiced criticism is that most of the hitherto analyzed studies may give us only “empirical generalizations” and not general laws that would predict relations between such general concepts as “reciprocity,” “solidarity,” and the like (Needham 1962).

In a way this question can be asked not only of comparative analysis but also of the general analytical approach to the social sciences. It is no pure chance that those, like Evans-Pritchard, who are skeptical about the uses of comparative method are also doubtful about the feasibility of such general analytical laws (Evans-Pritchard 1951; 1963). To be sure, one can distinguish between the two problems and question only the utility of the strategy of comparative research; but on the whole, the two seem to be closely related.

General analytical principles

Although some of the criticisms of comparative analysis certainly contain important kernels of truth, it seems that some convergence of the different levels of comparative analysis can be found, in terms of certain general analytical principles or laws. This convergence is as yet very uneven at different levels and in various areas of such analysis, and several important and crucial links are still missing (Eisenstadt 1965). The most important attempts to explain institutional, organizational, and cultural variability have usually been made in terms of societal and individual needs and the interrelations between them.

It has been pointed out that analyses undertaken in terms of such assumptions have several weaknesses. The attempt to explain any given institutional, cultural, or organizational form by refrence to the “needs” of individuals and of society necessitates the clear distinction between the needs of individuals and those of society. But most of the existing analyses do not always specify the ways through which various specific needs of different groups are articulated within a society; the ways through which presumed societal needs are articulated in concrete activities (whether special types of activities or aspects of all activities of individuals in a special structural position ); and especially the ways and mechanisms through which the two types of needs become linked. Moreover, most analyses tend to assume that such needs must be fulfilled, and they fail to investigate the degrees to which they are indeed satisfied. These are the weaknesses that can be most clearly discerned in different levels or types of comparative analysis (Eisenstadt 1965).

Institutional systems

In order to be able to evaluate both the stronger and the weaker points of comparative analyses, it might be worthwhile to analyze some of the explanations of the conditions of covariability of different institutional, organizational, and cultural patterns, starting with the broad institutional fields. Here the major problems are, first, the extent of independent variation of different institutional spheres when coalescing in the same society and, second, problems of the direction of institutional and societal change.

Independent variation

On a concrete level, the major question is whether, for instance, any special type of economic institution always goes together with a particular type of political-religious institution, and vice versa, or whether there exists a great or perhaps limitless variability in the possibility of such correlations. Although no attempt at a full-scale comparison of such variability, even for any single broad type of society, has been attempted since the work of Hobhouse, Wheeler, and Ginsberg, the available evidence indicates that there is no clear determination between different institutional and symbolic systems, but only a certain mutual limitation.

Thus, for instance, a relatively great variety of political systems can coexist with a certain type of kinship or economic organization. The unilineal descent groups can exist, it seems, together with a centralized primitive kingdom or with patrimonial and conquest societies. Similarly, an economic system characterized by the prevalence of “barter,” or nonmonetary markets, can be found in centralized primitive monarchies and in certain patrimonial, as well as feudal, political systems.

On the other hand, this variety is not limitless. Thus it is very difficult to conceive of the coexistence of a unilineal descent group with a modern industrial setting or with a universalistic, centralized, bureaucratic political system. It is also, difficult to envisage the coexistence of, let us say, a patrimonial political system with a high level of economic market order.

How then can these variabilities and limitations be explained, and what are their implications for institutional analysis? The variability of each institutional system can be to some extent explained by its specific orientation as manifested in the activities of the occupants of its most important positions, in its specific structural “core” problems and exigencies. The mutual limitation of variability in the interrelationship between the different institutional spheres that can exist in any society is explainable by the fact that each institutional sphere is dependent on others for various resources for its own effective functioning, that is, for the maintenance of its specific structural forms, activities, and norms of exchange.

While the general types of such resources (or “inputs” and “outputs” ) are necessarily the same in all societies, the specific types of resources of any specific institutional spheres vary greatly according to their specific characteristics and problems. Similarly, such resources can be provided by varied types of arrangements in other institutional spheres, but not by all such types. The extent of the relative autonomy of each institutional sphere in relation to the others probably varies between different institutions and between different situations. It is probable that the symbolic usually exhibits a larger extent of autonomy than others. But all these problems have yet to be investigated in greater detail.

Processes of institutionalization

The most general difficulty in comparative analysis seems to be in the transition from explanation of general conditions of institutional covariability to that of more specific, concrete institutional constellations, which occur within the multiplicity of such possibilities feasible within the range given by the limits of such covariability [see EVOLUTION, article on SOCIAL EVOLUTION].

Here there arises the problem of the constellation of different types of conditions that facilitate, within a given range of possibilities, the development of any specific institutional, organizational, cultural, or behavioral type. For instance, if we take Weber’s classical analysis of the development of bureaucratic administration (1922), it can be seen that he distinguishes between several different types of conditions.

Some of these conditions—such as the development of social differentiation—indicate the ways in which certain types of needs develop and become structured among certain groups and strata within the society. The specification of these conditions postulates that, under certain societal conditions, needs may develop that cannot be satisfied through the existing (usually traditional) groups, organizations, and institutions and that, by inference, various groups or strata are willing and able to pay something for the satisfaction of these needs. Other conditions, such as the existence of mobile labor or of certain legal norms, specify types of resources and frameworks without which it would be impossible to maintain the types of organization that may help in the satisfaction of such varied needs. Finally, another type of condition can also be discerned, namely, the extent to which there exist “entrepreneurs” who are able and willing to invest some of their own resources (such as capital, time, and initiative in the establishment and maintenance of organizations) for the satisfaction of varied needs and wants of other people.

“Culture and personality” studies

A similar range of problems can be discerned in other types of comparative research. For example, the major assumptions underlying the “culture and personality” studies of varied institutions are that they provide solutions to specific constellations of needs, drives, or conflicts among needs, for the members of a society. These needs or drives are construed as either subconscious or relatively conscious. The exigencies of fulfillment of these needs and the possible conflicts—both among needs and between them and various basic sociocultural norms in the society—constitute the basic starting points of most “culture and personality” studies. These conflicts are mostly seen as developing from the encounter between some “basic” psychological needs of individuals and the institutional setting of the society, especially as it is mediated through the process of socialization (Whiting 1954; Spiro 1961).

Here several problems arise. One is the lack of full explication of the alternative solutions to the problems or needs that are generated through a given process of socialization and of the conditions under which any single solution tends to develop. (Similarly, a given pattern of socialization or child rearing is very often assumed in these studies to be the “natural” outcome of certain environmental factors; and the possibility of different responses to such factors is not explored. ) Second, there is inadequate recognition of the possibility of nonsolution of certain of these problems. Here—even more than in the case of “basic” institutions—the necessity of the gratification or “solution” of some such need becomes even more problematic and instead of being taken for granted has to be viewed as a problem of research. Third, we also encounter the problem of the identification and availability of certain societal positions, the occupants of which help to crystallize the various solutions to such needs or drives.

Problems in studies of folklore

A similar range of problems can be discerned in some of the recent studies of folklore, which have developed distinct analytical orientations. Many of these studies start from the assumption of the existence of some universal cultural framework, data, or “store” of human culture, which can be found in all or most cultures. These data, images, or symbols are (at least implicitly) often assumed to correspond to some universal human or social needs, to some universal, basic, and almost unconscious categories of human thought, or to the basic data and problems of human existence, such as problems of life and death, good luck or misfortune. These data constitute the main starting points for the crystallization of different concrete folk tales, myths, and legends (Dorson 1963; Levi-Strauss 1960; 1963; Caillois 1951; 1958).

But as compared to the case of basic institutional frameworks, in which the limits of their structural variability are to some extent set by the “functional” needs of organization and by the interrelatedness of such different institutional fields, the case of cultural artifacts is more complicated. The general “store” of human culture and of perception of the vicissitudes of human existence is both less explicit and more variegated; and the potentialities for change and for crystallization of different concrete forms are much greater. Similarly, there exists a much greater variety of levels of crystallization, of normative sanctioning, and of diffusion of various cultural items among different groups in the society. There exists a great and constant fluidity in the crystallization of different types of images, symbols, and tales and in their adoption by various groups in the society (Dorson 1963; Opie & Opie 1959; Opie 1963).

Here, perhaps even more than in some of the partial institutions studied by the “culture and personality” school, the identification of the social positions in which the occupants take the initiative in crystallizing and articulating these varied types of cultural symbols and creations becomes very complicated. Similarly, the nature of the exchange that tends to develop in such situations is not immediately visible. Nevertheless, the explication of the ways and mechanisms through which different solutions are taken up by different groups of people and become sanctioned in different degrees should not be taken for granted but should, rather, constitute a problem for research.

It will be noted that rather similar problems appear in these different areas of comparative analysis. The very fact that these various difficulties stem to no small degree from a common approach indicates that there is a large body of research that can be called “comparative” and that it is capable of providing analytical tools of great importance. Within the limits set by methodological considerations, it can indeed contribute the framework of a common approach (even if not as yet a full-fledged theory) to the understanding of the variability of major types of societal phenomena.

Shmuel N. Eisenstadt

[See alsoAnthropology; Evolution; Social Structure; Sociology, article onThe development of Sociological thought; TYPOLOGIES; and the biog-raphies ofDurkheim; Hobhouse; Radcliffe-brown; Weber, max].


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Caillois, Roger 1951 Quatre essais de sociologie contemporaine. Paris: Perrin.→Contains four essays: “La representation de la mort” “L’usage des richesses” ; “Le pouvoir charismatique” ; “Le vertige de la guerre.

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Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. 1963 The political Systems of Empires. New York: Free Press.

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Evans-PritcharD, E. E. (1951) 1956 Social Anthropology. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, III. : Free Press.

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Hobhouse, Leonard T. ; Wheeler, Gerald C. ; and Ginsberg, Morris (1915) 1930 The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation. London School of Economics and Political Science, Monographs on Sociology No. 3. London: Chapman.

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Social Institutions

views updated May 23 2018


Social institutions are the significant social structures and practices that organize societies in regular, patterned ways. Social norms and sanctions guide and maintain these institutions. Individuals' demographic decisions and behaviors are channeled by social institutions, which create constrained opportunities and choices. Social institutions help to define demographically relevant statuses, such as student, spouse, parent, and worker. Normative prescriptions associated with institutions further delineate the appropriate age for adopting one of these statuses, and the appropriate sequencing of associated "roles." Changes in social institutions may give rise to alternative life pathways for individuals, as with changes in marital roles in the United States when the labor market presented new work opportunities for married women.

The term "institution" is widely used within the discipline of sociology, but is not uniformly defined. Precise understandings vary with theoretical orientation. For example, functionalists are more inclined to conceive of institutions as structures that perform particular functions or roles in society. By contrast, social interactionists emphasize the fluid set of practices and behaviors which define institutions. Recent theoretical work on the life course points to the key role of institutions in connecting individual life histories to community influences and the forces of social history. This is a view of institutions as structures that channel behaviors. But social institutions also provide the way in which social historical changes are made real through their connection to individual persons. In economics the market system of capitalist states is a key institution, with effects on nearly every aspect of family life. Shifts from socialist to more market-oriented economies, as occurred in China and Vietnam at the end of the twentieth century, have had pervasive effects on demographic behavior.

Beyond structures and practices, more general terms have been used to define social institutions, including "ideas" about how to accomplish societal goals and "focuses" of social organization. Despite diversity in precise definition, most social scientists agree that universality is a characteristic of significant social institutions. Social institutions are recognized for their place in organizing social life within and across societies. As such, they are significant in any given society, and provide a useful prism for organizing comparative analyses of population across societies.

Population events influence and are influenced by social institutions. These relationships are dynamic and subject to feedback. They are central to any understanding of the determinants and consequences of population change. The social institutions that are most widely recognized as relevant to population change include family and kinship systems, religious institutions, the education system, the health system, political organization, and the economy. These institutions are the social structures through which changes in fertility outcomes, infant and adult mortality, immigration and emigration, and the age structure of the population come about. Conversely, population processes are key to the shape and form of social institutions, creating a constant interplay between the two. The complexities of this interrelationship may be illustrated by drawing attention to three important features:

  1. The multiple dimensions of interdependence of social institutions and population;
  2. The multilevel and across-level aspects of the interdependence within and between social institutions and population processes; and
  3. The embeddedness of the relationships between social institutions and population processes in social, economic, historical, and political contexts.

Institutions and Population Change

Educational and economic institutions structure individual demographic behaviors with resultant effects on population processes. Government decisions concerning universal education, the structure of the schools (local or national control, performance standards, single or mixed sex), and the location of schools are the basis for family calculations about the costs and benefits of education for sons and daughters. The educational system–through enrollment differentials by place of residence, class, and gender, as well as by the form and content of lessons taught in schools–shapes population-relevant knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. Educational content can make schooling a strong or a weak tool for obtaining human capital. Educational systems that train children from rural areas in basic intellectual and work skills help determine whether an individual will work locally or will migrate elsewhere in search of further schooling or other employment opportunities. Schools can increase knowledge about contraceptive use, and alter couple dynamics in ways that promote or hinder adoption of contraception.

Families recognize the value of education, and see education as one way to produce "higher quality" children. This growth in the demand for education, in turn, may overwhelm educational systems, which often lack the resources, school facilities, and teachers needed to meet the new demand. In cases where the public education system is not able to satisfy the demand for accessible and high quality education, parents may enroll their children in private schools, recasting the institutional structure of education.

The rapid decline in the infant and childhood mortality rates in much of Asia and parts of Africa over the second half of the twentieth century came about largely through improved public health systems and better transportation and communication systems, fostered by the development plans of national governments. These improved survival rates had unforeseen consequences, including rapid population growth, a younger age structure, and greatly increased successive cohort sizes. Such changes are particularly problematic for social institutions that are highly age-structured.

Typically, increased demand for skilled labor during economic development is met by improvements in the education of urban populations, by migration from rural to urban places, and by immigration. The result is the urbanization of society. As cities grow in size, national and local governments increasingly are faced with the need to provide expensive urban infrastructures and to address the interests of large cohorts of young persons whose aspirations are unmet.

Improvement in earnings opportunities for women leads to their higher labor force participation rates and, depending on the form of labor, more autonomy in determining the use of resources (such as the purchase of contraceptives and medical care for young children). The rising opportunity costs of withdrawing from the labor force lead to later marriage and smaller family size, and make it increasingly likely that more mothers of young children will work. Changes in the market demand for labor (a demand that is sensitive to internal migration, immigration, fertility, and mortality) can transform the family by redefining appropriate gendered activities, including expectations of mothers and fathers concerning their appropriate roles in the family.

Population and Institutional Change

Social institutions are enduring entities but they are not static. Changes in social institutions can be shaped by demographic change. Take fertility decline: fertility declines can have pervasive effects on the family. A primary activity of that institution is the nurturance of children. As the number of children in a family decreases, the activity of caring for children changes. Family members may spend less time in the activity of caregiving because there are fewer children. Traditional tasks of motherhood often become concentrated in a shorter time-span within women's lifetimes, freeing women to pursue alternative activities. Alternatively, children's needs may be redefined in a way that does not reduce family members' time in caring for young children, but instead qualitatively changes the nature of caregiving.

Fertility change also has implications for family and other social institutions through its effects on the age structure of a population. In Asia, where fertility decline has been rapid and pension schemes are limited, concern is emerging over the increasing burden of providing care to aging elders, a responsibility expected to fall to a generation of children that grows smaller with each successive cohort. Similarly, at the aggregate level, declines in fertility through the birth of smaller cohorts are linked to cohort size. Instability in successive birth cohorts has implications for the economy, as workers retire and are not easily replaced by the generations that follow.

Population change, especially that involving delays in marriage and limitation in family size (to levels below replacement) have produced an economically less favorable (older) population age structure in many countries. States are responding to this changed population age structure. Change in the population age structure affects the structure and composition of the labor force, and the schools that train workers. As schools become increasingly willing to admit girls and young women, women's educational attainment and labor force participation grows, creating new potential for increases in labor force size and productivity. In some countries where fertility rates have been below replacement for two or more decades, immigration has been encouraged as a way to facilitate adjustments to a declining indigenous labor force size. With such immigration new groups appear in the population that may espouse different religious beliefs, family roles and practices, and gender roles, challenging existing social institutions.

The connections between social institutions and demographic change depend on context. While particular relationships–such as that between education and union formation–exist across time and place, their form and content depend on social, economic, historical, and political context. Population policies, with their demographic consequences, are inherently political. States may set population goals and implement policies and programs to promote the achievement of those goals, usually with specific related aims in view. States can encourage population growth, perhaps of selected groups, to win or maintain political power, or to enhance their military strength. Or, as was more common in recent decades, states can discourage rapid population growth, hoping thereby to promote economic development.

In 1979 China adopted a one-child policy to spur modernization and development. In the implementation of this policy, which enforces fertility reduction, numerous social institutions were enlisted. Schools taught a curriculum that emphasized the importance of smaller families and the citizen's duty to the nation to abide by the policy. A family planning system, separate from the health system, was developed to promote birth control and ensure availability of related services even in the most remote places. Local governance and relationships between individuals and local leaders were shaped by the state's promotion of this policy. Local leaders were given birth quotas and could lose their jobs for failure to meet these targets. The resulting pressures were felt in daily interaction at the village or neighborhood level, as families were rewarded for adopting the prescribed behavior or sanctioned for violating state policy. In short, social institutions were used by the state to promote desired population change. These institutions (family, health care, education, and government), in turn, were substantially altered not only by the policy's demographic results, but also by the means adopted to implement it.


The study of social institutions, their structures and processes, is a first step toward understanding population processes and the causes of population change. Anthropological demographers and social historians have been among the leaders in emphasizing this approach, seeking to delineate the "opportunity structure" or "choice set" bounding individual demographic behaviors. Quantitative analyses of population survey data can benefit from understanding the impact of institutions on personal lives, although they often fail to do so. Changes over time in individual demographic behavior need to be interpreted in terms of the broad shape of social history, as filtered by institutional structure and change, linking individual lives to historical time. Gender, religion, and ethnicity are personal factors especially central to understanding whether and how these linkages are handled by families and individuals. Thus, attention to social institutions is critical to understanding nearly all aspects of demographic behavior and population change.

See also: Action Theory in Population Research; Culture and Population; Social Mobility; Social Networks.


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Easterlin, Richard A. 1980. Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Elder, Glen H. 1974. Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greenhalgh, Susan, ed. 1995. Situating Fertility: Anthropological and Demographic Inquiry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kertzer, David I., and Dennis P. Hogan. 1989. Family, Political Economy, and Demographic Change:The Transformation of Life in Casalecchio, Italy, 1861–1921. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

McNicoll, Geoffrey. 1994. "Institutional Analysis of Fertility." In Population, Economic Development, and the Environment, ed. Kerstin Lindahl-Kiessling and Hans Landberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pampel, Fred C. 2001. Institutional Context of Population Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dennis Hogan

Susan Short

social institution

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social institution See INSTITUTION.

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