2 Social Terminology: Systems, Institutions, Organisations, Services and Tools

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This section on "Social Conviviality" covers social constructs from the point of view whereby they are considered to be implements or tools.

In order to establish the terminology that will be used on this site to classify social constructs considered a implements, it is necessary to review the currently accepted use of relevant terms such as “social structure,” “social system,” “social organisation” and “institution."

Social Structure

According to the Wikipedia article, the term "social structure " is rarely defined or clearly conceptualised. However, social structure has been identified as:

  • Relationships of different social groups within a society to each other
  • Stable patterns of behaviour of participants in a social system in relation to each other
  • Institutionalised norms or cognitive frameworks that shape the behaviour of actors in the social system.

In the first sense, social structure refers to the fact that any given society is made of different social groups, with different functions or sets of roles, which stand in stable relationships to one another. An example of this type of social structure is "social stratification," which refers to how a society is separated into different strata, based on social distinctions such as caste, class, religion, ethnic origin or gender, the social treatment of persons depending on their placement within the various strata.

The second sense of social structure refers to stable patterns of behaviour within any given social group, rather than to the relations between separate groups. The first and second sense thus both refer to patterns of relationship, in the one case between groups, and in the other between individuals.

The third sense of social structure refers to the underlying perceptions and norms that shape the actions of actors within a social system. Rather than looking at the relationships, this orientation looks at behavioural standards that may cut across the various individual or group relationships.

This basic split between structure as relationships and structure as institutions is rephrased by Lopez and Scott (2000) as the distinction between:

  • Relational structure: the relationships between actors are understood as patterns of causal interconnection among agents and their actions, as well as the positions that they occupy
  • Institutional structure: cultural or normative patterns define the expectations of agents hold about each other’s behaviour and organize their enduring relations with each other

The sociologist Anthony Giddens takes this analysis further by making an analytical distinction between three types of structures in social systems, those of signification, legitimation, and domination:

  • Signification produces meaning through organized webs of language (semantic codes, interpretive schemes and discursive practices)
  • Legitimation produces a moral order via naturalization in societal norms, values and standards
  • Domination produces and exercises power, originating from the control of resources

The following example illustrates how the types of structure described by Giddens work together: the signification of the concept "patriot" can contribute to legitimization of nationalistic norms and thereby coordinate domination of dissidents by a repressive state apparatus.

Social Systems

The term “social structure” thus refers to the underlying structure of social relations, including normative patterns of perception and behaviour.

The Wikipedia article on “Social Structure” states that social structures such as family, religion, law, economy and class, underlie the various social systems of a society, such as the economic, legal and political system. (Note however that the Wikipedia entry for “social system” redirects to “social structure,” as if these were the same.)

The term “social system” therefore refers to the detailed organisation of various spheres of social life, such as the:

  • economic system
  • legal system
  • political system
  • cultural system

All of these separate systems are embedded within the overall social system, which is the parent system.

Organisations and Institutions

If this distinction between “social structure” and “social system” seems somewhat fuzzy, the additional term “social organisation” adds to the uncertainty. The Wikipedia article on "Social Organisation" defines social organization or social institution as a group of social positions, connected by social relations, performing a social role. A simpler definition might be any group of people organized in a particular way to meet some specific human needs.

The article goes on to state that experts generally recognise five major types of social institution that have been evident in some way in every civilization in history: politics (government), religion, education, economics, and family. Each institutional context gives rise to specific types of organisations. We might draw up an extended list as follows:

  • Political institutions: national government including military, local government including police, legal system including courts and prisons, political party
  • Religious institutions: church, charity organisations
  • Economic institutions: small enterprise, large corporation, public company, foundation, trade union
  • Educational institutions: school, university, research institute, parent and teacher associations
  • Family institutions: nuclear family, extended family

The above list is far from exhaustive, as it omits service institutions such as hospitals and retirement homes, as well as the wide range of associations and informal organisations.

However, this list suffices to show that these spheres of institutions cover generally the same ground as the above-named “social systems”: the political and economic spheres are specifically named in both lists.

Some sociologists make a distinction between organisations and institutions, as follows:

  • Organisations are social entities that have members, resources, structures, authority, boundaries, etc.
  • Institutions are ideas about how something should be done, look or be constituted in order to be viewed as legitimate.

Thus the term “institution” may specifically be applied to customs and behavior patterns important to a society, as well as to particular formal organizations of government and public service. But such customs and behaviour patterns hearken back to the “social structures” that were mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Terminology proposed for this site

The above presentation shows that that the terminology currently used to describe social entities is fuzzy and overlapping. However, it indicates one fundamental distinction which we will retain, which is that between:

  • Overall social systems, such as the cultural system, economic system, legal system or political system
  • Specific social organisations or institutions, such as families, corporations, law courts or assemblies

Thus the term "social system" refers to an organisational form extending transversally across the entire society, while the term "social organisation" refers to a single social entity within the system. Note that either of these general organisational categories can be considered as an implement. For instance, the legal system as a whole is a social implement for maintaining justice throughout the society, while a particular court of law is a social implement for exercising justice in a particular place and at designated times.

Note that we will use social construct as a general term which englobes both of the above forms.
However, for the purpose of classifying and describing social contructs on this site, we propose to distinguish the following additional categories:

  • we will call "social institution" the specific forms of "social organisation" which have a public character, such as schools, churches, libraries, cultural centers
  • we will call "social services" the specific forms of "social organisation" which have a public service character, such as public utilities and governmental social services
  • we will call "social tools" the forms of social construct which are not "social systems" or "social organisation", including cities, buildings, housing, social software

The resulting full system of classification is set out below.

Classification of "Social Tools"

Our full system of classification of "Social Tools" is thus as follows:

1 Social systems:

  • legal system
  • economic system
  • political system
  • cultural system

1 Social institutions:

  • schools
  • hospitals
  • churches
  • libraries
  • cultural centers
  • etc

1 Social organisations:

  • companies
  • political parties
  • non-profit associations
  • etc

1 Social services:

  • public utilities
  • governmental social services
  • etc

1 Social tools:

  • cities
  • infrastructure (roads, bridges, energy, water, etc.)
  • buildings and housing
  • social software
  • etc