What Is an Institution?

What Is an Institution?

The term institution refers to a large-scale and established set of laws, customs, practices, and organizations that govern the political or social life of a people. Institutions make and enforce a society’s rules and norms. Examples of institutions include marriage and family, religion, schooling, military, prisons, government, law, mass media, and corporations.

From a critical theory perspective, institutions serve as primary socializing forces in society. Institutions are the systems that guide our practices in daily life. For example, consider again how schools regulate students. Schools establish the hours of attendance, decide what will be studied and how, define good and bad behavior and then reward students for good behavior and punish them for bad, determine which holidays will be celebrated and how, establish dress codes, define play, establish the norms and language with which to speak to authority, and so on. Thus there is more going on within schools than intentional instruction of subject matter.

Patriarchy: The belief in the inherent superiority of men and male norms and the organization of society based on this belief.

Institutions produce, circulate, and maintain the dominant culture’s norms, values, definitions, language, policies, and ideologies—and do so in ways that are above as well as below the surface of the cultural water. Institutions are directly connected to (and reflective of) larger dynamics (interests, power relations, fears) of a given society. The overarching ideology that has shaped all institutions is patriarchy. We might think of patriarchy as the macro-level belief system from which sexism (the


oppression of women) flows. Patriarchy is the belief in the inherent superiority of men and the creation of institutions based on that belief. Examples of patriarchal ideology worldwide are: a male god; the father as the head of the household; males as authority in all social realms such as law, government, religion and culture; women as inherently inferior to men and the property of men.

To think critically about institutions and how patriarchy (and other forms of oppression) is embedded within them requires us to move beyond our personal experiences and see the big picture; we must consider the interlocking outcomes institutions produce collectively and the impact of these outcomes in society.

An Example: Sexism Today

A key challenge in understanding current manifestations of oppression is that they are often much easier to see in the past than in the present. For example, it is easy for most people to accept that denying women the right to vote, enslaving Blacks, or forcing Indigenous children to attend residential schools are all examples of oppression. Because our attention is directed to isolated events from the past, rather than the overall picture, current patterns of oppression become harder for us to see. We are led to believe that once women got the right to vote (or enslaved people were freed, or residential schools closed), the issue of oppression was over. What is important to understand about oppression is that it can adapt and change over time, while still maintaining inequitable outcomes overall.

Let’s trace a specific example of oppression today: sexism. The following statistics demonstrate the importance of addressing overall outcomes in order to understand current manifestations of sexism.

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What Is an Institution?
What Is an Institution?

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