Social institutions shape a person’s perspective and direct his or her interactions with the people he or she encounters. The social institutions that exist within a given society are not necessarily in agreement with one another; indeed, they often have different values and priorities. This tension between social institutions serves a functional benefit by freeing the individuals within society from the absolute control and influence of any one group. Society requires varied and separate social institutions in order to fulfill their roles and to remain vibrant.
The idea that social institutions act as divisors of loyalty can be seen in history and is praised by many classical liberal thinkers (Ashford, 2003, p.2). From Thomas Jefferson assuring church leaders that there would be a separation of church and state (Mount, 2010) to Robert Nisbet’s seminal work Quest for Community, western society has fought and thrived on the foundational concept of a separation of social institutions. The general thought is that by having social institutions with different ideals and or goals, people’s loyalties are divided enough so that no single group or ideology can take control over society (Ashford, 2003, p.7).
There are two popular sociological paradigms applicable to this theory. First, there is the functionalist view, which contends that all elements of society work together to serve society and that any element that continues to operate must serve some purpose. Second, there is the conflict theory, which asserts that systems are innately stratified and organized to help the powerful subject the disempowered and to maintain a status quo of inequality. The intermediary institutional view combines elements from both of these paradigms.
The functionalist view that everything serves a purpose is well established. Robert Nisbet was of the opinion that no social institution functions unless it has a purpose and support from its mother culture (Stone, 2000, p.16). This innate pragmatism of society leads to the second paradigm, namely that of conflict or tension. Where the intermediary view differs is that this tension is good when social institutions are in conflict thereby keeping one another in check. The social institution’s function to conflict with one another and that by having conflicting views, opinions, and agendas, no one group can assume power over the entire system. This then protects the individual and provides society with the maximum flexibility to find their own answers to their needs.
Homogeneity of Power
A natural risk is for social institutions to merge into one another and thus gather power to a minority. Examples of this include the religious monarchies wherein the state acted under the permission of the Church thereby limiting the individual’s freedom to the most basic standards, nominally being that of the right to live. It has been found however that there is one institution most likely to take too much upon itself, namely the state.
There is little room to argue that giving any portion of the population the ultimate say in what society will and will not allow results in a net benefit for the society. Of the social institutions in today’s age, few could be said to be as powerful as the state. The state defines our laws, and in many ways our social agenda (war on poverty, the NASA Space program). The examples of states that have subsumed other social institutions include Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the atrocities committed in England to protect the Monarchies privately held religious beliefs. These examples present little validation to the concept of an all-powerful state.
Robert Nisbet believed that the State naturally seeks to eliminate social institutions’ influence over people in order to enter into direct connections with the people (Stone, 2000, p.23). This removal of the intermediary agent is often done in the name of liberating the individual, however this removal of the social institutions’ role in societal life actually endangers the individual’s freedom and enables the ruling classes to attempt to dictate and restructure society as they see fit. This sort of top down leadership goes against the basic concept of society as it attempts to remove the individuals from the society’s self-determination.
In addition, the power of the state is normally acquired and expanded during times of war, where the individual is called to present greater patriotism to the country as whole (Stone, 2000, p.26). This war emphasis works to transforms the state into a more hierarchical, regimented, and dictatorial organization. This then results in the leader(s) of the State leading the people in a crusade against an enemy state, against poverty, or against abstract concepts such as terrorism or Global Warming. These causes are then used by the state to warrant further encroachments on the individual’s civil liberties and freedom without distinct goals that set explicit limits on state encroachment.
The state is not innately evil or malignant, it is however in the most centralized position to assume as much control over other social institutions, and the individual, and therefore is the most able and ready to assume too much control of society. This assumption of responsibilities is not in the interest of the state or the people as the state is by its very nature a practical and cold institution. When the state attempts to become an empathetic institution, it loses its purpose and enables good intentions to run amok.
Not only is an all-powerful state damaging to freedom, it alienates people from one another. Peter Berger and Richard Neahaus posit that social institutions act as mediating structures between the state and the individual. These mediating structures generate and maintain the values of society that give the individual and the state their purpose. To disempower or subvert these mediating structures is to remove the individual’s source of meaning and significance. “The individual becomes the object rather than the subject of the value-propagating processes of society” (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977, p.6).
This alienation from self-identifying values can be further compounded by arbitrarily decided solutions from an impersonal force, such as the state. Berger and Neuhaus in their book To Empower People point out the class discrimination that is evident in the education system of the United States. School culture is traditionally reflects the values of upper middle class, with most teachers and other staff of school staff coming from upper middle class backgrounds (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977, p.20-21). The culture and social norms of public schools are innately focused on expected white middle class behavior. This environment forces disadvantages on other social classes and cultures. Worse still, the outlook of the school system typically disparages the lifestyles of other classes, including the lifestyles of many of the more destitute students’ families. Thereby teaching the children to hold their families, and by extension themselves, in contempt (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977, p.22).
Not only does this alienation damage the individual’s self-image and motivation, it can have a dire impact on social interaction, leading even to suicide.
In his work Suicide, Emile Durkheim lamented the weakening of group ties and the individuation of society. Durkheim hypothesized that the individual’s loss of social integration with social institutions like the church and family led to apathy and suicide (Thompson, 1982, p.109-111). This social alienation is not innately the fault of the state, indeed in the case of Durkheim’s work the responsibility rested with the ideology of the Catholicism and Protestantism. However his theory points out the need for intimate and responsive social groups and institutions rather than impersonal and arbitrary ones.
This shows the importance of the social institutions being able to act independently in order to meet the individual needs of society. If one social group, the state, attempts to structure society through a top down organization, society’s institutions will cease to function and fail to meet the needs of the people.
Historically, states that take over the other social institutions become top heavy and self-serving. An example of such an imbalance is the formation of the Church of England. When King Henry VIII chose to divorce his first wife and remarry in order to solidify his lineage, IE his political power, the Catholic Church’s Pope denied this request of divorce because there were no spiritual grounds for doing so. At this point in history, the State is encountering opposition to social injustice from the Church. However, King Henry did not accept no for an answer and instead chose to expel the Catholic Church from England, confiscated the Catholic properties in England, and declared a new church, the Church of England.
This act was not done for the benefit of the people; instead it was an attempt to strengthen the state’s power. This act was also not without consequences, as is seen in the following three reigns of power that would wreak violent oppression over the two opposing social beliefs. Sadly, more recent history does not show a decrease in states aggregating other social institutions. Instead, an active agenda to appropriate the people’s minds and loyalty is seen with violent and consequences.
The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s leadership banned and prosecuted the Russian Orthodox Church to remove a rival system of power. He then later reinstated the Church under Soviet purview so that he could better control the State for his war efforts (Hupka, 2000). Further, the Soviet Union placed particular focus on removing faiths stemming from foreign regions such as Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam (Library of Congress, 2010). These foreign institutions were not attacked because they were hostile to the state; they were attacked for one purpose, to eliminate competition to Stalin’s rule.
These strategic attacks by states do not stop with religion, specific strikes and takeovers can also be seen against other sources of alternative thought, such as education. As an example, when Mao Tse-Tung sought to enact a cultural revolution, one of his actions was to disperse and remove educated professionals from the cities (Elegant, 1971, p.221-222). In so doing, he removed their influence from the cultural springs of society, the cities, enabling his regime to shape culture and society as he saw fit. More distressing is the potentiality of the state to subvert education for its own devices.
Adolf Hitler used state education to subvert familial ties and indoctrinate children into the Nazi state and society. “When an opponent declares, ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already…. What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community.” (Public Quotes, 20 ) This is a frightening concept to contend with. That the state, or indeed any social institution, can supplant another social institution and assume direct control over a populous, even to the point of molding the way the people think, is a huge concern. This should not only be a concern for sociologists, but everyone, including the state.
Society is drawn and bound to social institutions and social institutions naturally spring up from any human interaction. Therefore, removing social institutions is neither possible nor desirable. What the intermediary structures view instead offers if that a functional status quo can be achieved by establishing social institutions differing views that will compete with one another without any one group gaining sole supremacy.
Examples of successfully balanced societies are societies that took care to separate civil, legal, and social freedoms and responsibilities enabling individuals to be the primary actuators of social life. Examples of this philosophy can be seen in the Americas before even the founding of the United States. For example Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island was a devout Protestant Baptist and yet advocated a separation of Christian morals and legal laws (Library of Congress, 2013). He argued that the morality of the Christian faith should be self-imposed and not enforced by law and therefore be set apart from secular laws.
This notion that legality should not directly equate to morality is a prime foundational difference between Western civilization and other cultures because it sets out to enable tolerance of other views. With tolerance, competition and differentiation is possible, and from competition people are able to attempt different solutions to issues and the culture thereby becomes
The renaissance, while not fully free, allowed individuals to further express themselves and interact with one another because there were divisions of power and authority. As Tierney notes, “two structures of government, ecclesiastical and secular, intricately interlinked but dedicated ultimately to different ends, often in conflict with one another, each constantly limiting each other’s power.” (1973, p.133) Artists, poets, and philosophers could look to foreign cultures, drawing and adapting techniques, mythos and styles to interject into their own innovative disciplines (Wright, 2007).
United States separation of state and church, that churches be free to practice their faith and espouse ethical and moral direction and leaving legal enforcement to a non-religious legal system.
What we see through an historical analysis of the roles of social institutions is a natural tendency of the governing institution, the state, to assume too much power and to alienate its people from one another. Robert Nisbet believed that state power could only come at the cost of social institutions’ freedoms, and therefore the individual’s freedom to associate. Contrary to conflict theory and functionalist theory, conflict is not necessarily a malignant factor of society. Rather, conflicting social goals and agendas can be the foundation to a fertile land of personal liberty, personal fulfillment, and civil cooperation.
What is needed is a limited government to manage those inanimate tasks that government is designed to do, such as the building of the infrastructure of the country and acting as a rallying point for the smaller governing institutions. A country based on stronger authority at its base, with tapering authority as the group expands, results in greater power, rights and personal liberty for the individual.
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