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Socio-Cultural Institutions

All observable behavior in human society is either promoted or prohibited by socio-cultural institutions. What is an institution? A socio-cultural institution is a cultural pattern, practice, or relationship that is organized and reinforced by the local community. They are the stage or real world context in which all of life is learned and lived out. An example of a socio-cultural institution is “hockey night” in Canada (HNIC). The evening events are far more than simply sports and entertainment. They are part of national identity. They shape social organization, differentiating fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs from those of the Vancouver Canucks. It significantly impacts business economics. The revenue footprint of the six Canadian NHL franchises alone was approximately $750 million in 2010.

Do you know what night of the week is HNIC?

Socio-cultural institutions create and define status and role for individuals and communities. Status is “a position in society that provides identity.” Role is “the behavioral expectations related to a specific status.” A shaman in an animistic society is respected as an intermediary between people and the spirit world, divining the causes of maladies and appeasing personal spirit beings through traditional rituals. A sheriff in a county region of the USA is expected to enforce the written laws of the land.

Cultural anthropologists have identified eight categories of socio-cultural institutions represented in the figure below:

How is each defined?

  • Material culture is the sphere in which observable behavior occurs with all its objects.
  • Art and play include symbols and rituals plus markers of status and identity
  • Social organization involves the make-up and arrangement of society. Society is said to be “a culturally similar group of people living in a specific geographic territory.” Its make-up and arrangement include authority, hierarchy, flow of power, control of resources, enculturation processes, status, role, responsibilities, and relationships.
  • Kinship defines the family structure (there are five global patterns) and is the most important institution throughout most global societies. Through kinship, identity is marked, authority is structured, and alliances are formed. It determines transfer of trust, flow of communication, and control of resources. In some societies, it is the pattern for spirit-world phenomenology.
  • Economic organization determines systems of exchange.
  • Means of production define labor instruments.
  • Political organization outlines government and patron/client relationships. It supplies the “rule of law,” the means by which society establishes safety, security, and predictability.
  • Religious systems dictate how people explain and relate to the supernatural world.

Beneath socio-cultural institutions are values and core worldview assumptions about reality. They are hidden from view, but are the powerful forces that drive institutions and outward behavior. GPC can help you understand these complexities in order to create understanding and increase productivity across cultures.


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