institutions/social institutions. Those enduring regulatory and organizing structures of any society, which constrain and control individuals and individuality. We tend to think of institutions, in an everyday sense, as buildings, often places to be avoided, such as prisons, courts, factories, schools or hospitals. While they are embodied in this bricks-and-mortar sense, the term more precisely refers to the underlying principles and values according to which many social and cultural practices are organized and coordinated. Accordingly, while we may enter into and leave institutions, as we employ the term in everyday discourse, in fact they more or less permanently both surround and enter into us, as a (or the) condition of our social existence. What we refer to as 'our home', for example, is an institution in itself. It represents the meeting-point for other institutions of privacy, property, wealth, knowledge, kinship and gender relations, and so on, all of which give rise to the rules, codes and relations of 'our' domestic lives.
Even for this to be written and read, we have to draw on what Berger and Berger (1976) have called 'the social institution above all others'- language. This is because language is the fundamental means by which the flux of experience and sensation is translated into a social reality, classified, ordered, given or denied meaning and significance. The ability to use language, and other means of communication, is so central precisely because it makes possible the organization and mobilization of experience. The social and material environment is organized into nameable 'things', imbued with meanings. Language serves as the basis for social relations, the institution whereby social reality is constantly and collectively (re)negotiated, (re)produced and challenged. It is however important to recognize the essential interconnectedness and fusion of institutions. No one institution ever operates in isolation from others, as if in a vacuum. It may be useful to think of all social institutions in terms of the varying degrees to which they represent historical and continuing social responses to conflicts at the levels of: (1) Economy, concerned with the production and distribution of material goods and wealth. (2) Po1itics, concerned with the exercise of power and pro-cesses of social reguation. (3) Culture, concerned with the production, exchange and reproduction of meanings.
Seeing institutions in this way involves recognizing that they combine certain important identifying features, which generally appear to be external to the individual. The 'language' and the 'law', for example, both seem to exist 'outside' of the actions and demands of individuals (see, for example, langue and parole). Second, this 'outsideness' is partly defined by its constraining or coercive power and authority over individuals. In Goffman's (1968) terms, 'every institution has encompassing tendencies'. Some, such as prisons and mental hospitals, as he suggests, can be regarded as total institutions in terms of the high degree of power and direct regulation they exert over their 'inmates'. For others, their apparent externality and control is guaranteed by their apparent timelessness; by the fact that often, like the buildings, they were there before us, and may survive us as apparently 'natural', 'normal' even 'unchanging' features of social life.
Given their social and cultural centrality, it is not surprising that the study of institutions has served as a broad focus for theoretical and empirical problems and debate. Their characteristics and functions are defined differently by contesting theoretical perspectives. A triangle of recurrent problems has fuelled this contest.
First, the problem of determination: to what extent and by what means do insututions control, constitute and hence determine all individual action and communicationare we all, always, institutional 'agents' or inmates'?
Second, the central issue of whose control?: to what extent do institutions represent the particular values, interests and legitimized power of dominant groups or classes in society, as opposed to reflecting an overall social consensus?
Third, the wider historical issue of the role of institutions in social and cultural change, especially the potential tensions and contradictions between their reproductive (conservative) tendencies and their transformative (innovative) capacities.
In short, social institutions, in both their material and discursive forms should perhaps form the prime focus for the study of culture and communication. They are the major social sources of codes, rules, and relations. [from: O'Sullivan, 1994]