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Chapter 11: Economies, Politics and Government

11.1 Social Institutions Overview

In January of 2020, stories began to appear in the news about a new sickness. A type of coronavirus, COVID-19 had a high infection rate, and with no natural immunity, innumerable people became ill. Within two years, over 50 million cases had been reported in the United States, and over 800,000 had died. Responses in the United States to what became a world-wide pandemic varied, and each response had a ripple effect on the social institutions in society.

— The Health Care Institution: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first cases of coronavirus in the U.S. in January 2020. In an effort to halt the spread of this new disease deemed to be a pandemic, people were encouraged to limit contact with others, and to wear masks and maintain 6 feet of distance when in public. This had an impact on the economy.

— The Economic Institution: Businesses faced unprecedented challenges. Non-essential workers were encouraged or required to work from home. Non-essential businesses either restricted their hours or closed due to COVID, a lack of business, to keep employees safe, or (less) due to supply issues (Practical Law Real Estate, 2021; Bartik, 2020). The consequences of these efforts on many businesses were devastating even as COVID-19 burned through the population. Small businesses, particularly in service industries, and their employees felt the brunt – troubling since most businesses qualify as small businesses and they employ 47% of the nation’s private workforce. A survey conducted in 2020 found the average business had cash on hand to last only two weeks; ¾ had cash on hand to last two months (Bartik, 2020). By January 2021, 34% of these businesses had closed compared to January 2020 (Ghosh, 2021). This caused a reaction from the government.

— The Political Institution: Governmental responses to the potential effect of the pandemic on the economy varied. At the Federal level, the CARES Act was passed, which included the Payment Protection Plan, a Small Business Association loan to pay employee wages and benefits for up to 8 weeks. Later it was amended to allow a second draw and even allow loan forgiveness. Concerns over the administration of the program caused some small business owners to reject it; others said it would likely influence decisions about the viability of their business long term (Bartik, 2020). At the State level, while the Governors of all 50 states declared a state of emergency at the start of the pandemic, subsequent policy and business-related decisions varied, particularly with reopening plans. This had a confusing effect on the education system.

— The Education Institution: Colleges were the first to send their students home in March 2020, but in short order K-12 schools across the country also pivoted to online classes. School systems had to institute policies for issues they had never experienced, expected teachers to modify their teaching methods for an entirely new setting, and provide the hardware in some cases in order to simply keep students from falling too far behind. While students in wealthier districts were able to navigate this, albeit with a great deal of effort, poorer school districts struggled to reach students. By the end of the 2020 – 2021 school year, thousands of students were reported missing, as they had never enrolled or attended class. This burden was particularly hard on families.

— The Family Institution: Some families whose members had once gone to work and school found themselves together all of the time. Parents of school age children had to master online learning along with their children. Working parents found themselves experiencing role conflict as they juggled work and family responsibilities, concerned they were failing on both fronts, all the while trying to protect their loved ones from a deadly disease. Due to businesses closing and stay-at-home orders, many found themselves with smaller paychecks or unemployed. This in turn caused another response from the government.

— The Political Institution: The Federal Government began to mail out relief payments to every family in America, offered unemployment benefits and increased the Child Tax Credit. This affected the economy in an unexpected way.

— The Economic Institution: The unemployment benefits from the Government caused some people to eschew the jobs that needed filling, resulting in shorter business hours and even some businesses closing. It also made people much more particular about the jobs they had and more willing to seek employment in places that paid better, offered more flexible schedules, and better benefits like signing bonuses. Businesses just wanted to return to normal, as did everyone. This put pressure on scientists.

— The Science and Technology Institution: One of the earliest actions of the Trump Administration was to fund Operation Warp Speed, the White House push to create a vaccine for the coronavirus. While the development of vaccines typically takes decades, scientists had already been working for a decade on a new vaccine to be used on particular forms of respiratory viruses, and COVID-19 fit the criteria. Thus, clinical trials were underway by summer 2020, with the first vaccines receiving emergency approval by the FDA to begin vaccinating people in December 2020. However, the very speed of this development caused a great amount of skepticism in the media.

— The Media Institution: The coronavirus had the misfortune of erupting at a time when the media had morphed into a form of info-tainment, and when people lost the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion. Some of the media underplayed the seriousness of the virus, spurned representatives from the CDC, and discouraged the protocols known to have a dampening effect on the spread of the virus. People flocked to social media, where few boundaries exist and there is no method to fact-check what is found online; rumors about the origins of the virus abounded. Some whispered that the virus was a hoax while others offered untested treatments for it. In the end, a large subset of people began to say they would not get the vaccine when it was available.

We can make two observations about social institutions with the story of COVID-19 in the U.S. First, that each social institution encapsulates a particular need in society, and second, that each social institution affects and is impacted by other social institutions. The last three chapters of the text will discuss five key social institutions, but before we examine the first one, a review of social institutions is needed.

In Chapter 1, social structure was explained as the building blocks or social patterns through which a society is organized. Society consists of all of these building blocks, from the smallest, statuses, to the largest, social institutions.

image showing the social structure in 4 nested circles labeled statuses, social groups, social institutions and society

Parts of the social structure typically nest inside one another. The social structure is interconnected, each part influencing the other, and each shaping the experience of individuals.

are the organized patterns of behavior by which society meets its basic needs – which sounds a bit awkward and distant. The term is broad because it encompasses the vast array of all that is necessary for society to function. Our lives are shaped by social institutions every day. If you think about it, all societies have to ensure certain tasks are accomplished. The way this is achieved is through social institutions.

All societies, from foraging to post-industrial, have to meet basic needs for their people to survive and thrive. Due to the size and complexity of the society, these needs may be met through informal and loosely structured methods or through very systematic and specific methods. For example, every society must establish a way to teach its members the important values, beliefs and norms that are the backbone of the culture. For foragers, these lessons – how to make a bow, where to fish, which mushrooms are safe to eat – would be taught in the context of the day’s activities by parents and the elders of the group. As economies changed, societies changed, and education became more formalized in some ways for some people. Consider education for the ancient Greeks: The word ‘school’ comes from the ancient Greek word for leisure, because only those with time and money could pursue it via the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle. For the vast majority in this agricultural society, education remained an informal practice, though one might train as an apprentice. Education did not become the recognized formal social institution we have today until the industrial age, at which point the need for an educated wage labor force required the mass instruction of all workers. Classrooms in large cities might have hundreds of pupils learning basic reading, writing and math; rural schools would see fewer students of all ages in one classroom. For most students, formal education ended at 8th grade. The economy changed again as society post-industrialized, and is today based on service, information technology and knowledge production jobs. As such, even more formal education is required since a high school diploma is no longer sufficient. Now, more people continue their education at colleges, and the number of post-graduate degrees is as high as they have ever been. However, it is critical to understand that informal education never stopped; parents, elders, peers and the media continue to teach us important lessons about our society’s values, beliefs and norms.

This same truth applies to all social institutions, which change shape and form depending on the changing nature of the society where they exist. As well, these changes ripple through other social institutions. For example, when agricultural societies were dominant, the economy was family-based as most families made their living by farming. Industrial societies gave way to a wage-based economy that demanded family members work outside their homes for wages (and children be educated). Initially, caring for the sick fell primarily to families, since scientific understanding of most illnesses was not possible. As societies became wealthier, more people were able to pursue an education which led to scientific breakthroughs such as germ theory. Advancements in medicine caused health care to become more systematic as treatments went beyond the capability of the average household – even as families continue to tend to the health of their members.

Social institutions are both larger than groups and smaller than societies. What distinguishes them is that the people within a social institution embody particular statuses and roles which are defined by the social institution, which have tasks and rules for performance. Statuses in social institutions are interdependent, and typically are related hierarchically to one another (Miller, 2019). Recall that each person has many statuses in their status set. Some of the expectations for the status come from the social institution that created it.


Think Like a Sociologist

You already know through which social institution we bear and raise children (the family), transmit knowledge (education), heal the sick (healthcare), produce and distribute goods and services (economy) and maintain social order and enforce norms (law). Sometimes, people who are part of one social institution encroach on the territory of a different social institution.

Read this story about the vocational program offered in some Michigan prisons: Vocational Village:  Building a Foundation for the Future

When one social institution takes on the tasks of another social institution, do you think this indicates a weakness in the system or a functional adaptation? How so?


In the last three chapters of the text, we will review the five major social institutions said to be found in all societies, including the economic, political, family, education and religion systems. In this review, we’ll discuss the purpose of these social institutions as understood by each of the theoretical perspectives. Additionally, we’ll examine the traits of each institution and explore how they have transformed over time to meet the needs of changing society. As shown in Table 11.1 “The Five Key Social Institutions and their Traits,” each social institution has affiliated social groups, social status and roles. Additionally, there are cultural values and norms related to each social institution. These relationships will be further explored in Chapters 11-13.

Table 11.1 The Five Key Social Institutions and their Traits

Social Institution

Basic Needs Met



Groups or Organizations


Produce and distribute goods and services

Worker, boss

Maximize profits, consumerism

Banks, car dealerships, Business Associations


Transfer basic academic knowledge

Teacher, student

Good grades, academic honesty

Schools, PTA, classes, sports teams


Bear, raise and socialize children

Parent, child, sibling, grandparent

Respecting parents, providing for your family

Nuclear families, married couples, relatives


Allocate power, maintain social order

President, Senator, Mayor

Right to vote, loyalty to the Constitution

Congress, city councils, electoral college


Spiritual needs, provide comfort

Minister, priest, rabbi, imam, worshiper

Honoring God(s), respecting the holy texts

Denominations, youth groups, congregations, mosques

This chapter discusses what sociologists and other social scientists say about two social institutions: the economy, and politics & the government. We will examine the major economic systems employed throughout the world then look closely at capitalism today. Then we will explore the dimensions of power and authority, types of political systems, politics and political participation in the United States, and major aspects of war and terrorism. The chapter ends with some sociological suggestions on how to achieve the Constitution’s goal of “a more perfect union.”

Test Yourself


Section 11.1 References

Bartik, A. W., M. Bertrand, Z. Cullen, E. L. Glaeser, M. Luca and C. Stanton. (2020, July 28). The impact of covid-19 on small business outcomes and expectations. PNAS. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/117/30/17656

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 21). First travel-related case of 2019 novel coronavirus detected in United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p0121-novel-coronavirus-travel-case.html.

Ghosh , I. (2021, May 5). 34% of America’s small businesses are still closed due to COVID-19. Here’s why it matters. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/05/america-united-states-covid-small-businesses-economics/.

Miller, S. (2019, April 9). Social institutions. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-institutions/

Paycheck protection program. (n.d.). U.S. Small Business Administration.  Retrieved from https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/covid-19-relief-options/paycheck-protection-program.

Practical Law Real Estate (2021, July 2). COVID-19: Select State and Local Business Closures and Reopenings Tracker (US). Thomson Reuters Practical Law. Retrieved from  https://content.next.westlaw.com/w-024-7550?isplcus=true&transitionType=Default&firstPage=true&contextData=(sc.Default)

Vocational Education program teaches marketable skills to prisoners. (n.d.). Michigan Department of Corrections FYI 033006.  Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/corrections/0,4551,7-119–139913–,00.html.

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