4 Social institutions

Work and religion?

Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that the growth of the capitalist ‘work ethic’ arose from Protestantism, which espoused that those who work hard will have a place in heaven. This demonstrates how other social institutions, such as religion, have also significantly influenced work and the economy.

To learn more about this, you might want to watch ‘An Introduction to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic – A Macat Sociology Analysis’ (YouTube, 3:14):

Reflection exercise

Watch ‘Karl Marx on Alienation’ (YouTube, 1:57) and then write down your understanding of Marx’s concept of alienation.


Marx argued that the only way out of the drudgery of alienation caused by the capitalist system was by ‘breaking their chains’ and seizing the means of production. That is, revolting against the system. Are there other ways of overcoming the issue of alienation?

Thinking about the interdependency of social institutions

The materials in this Chapter have introduced some key social institutions: work, family, religion, and education. While we have addressed these individually, they are deeply interrelated. Changes in one social institution (for example, work) can lead to changes in other social institutions (for example, family and education) over time. Similarly, changes in broader social norms (e.g., understandings of ‘femininity’ and ‘womanhood’) are typically echoed in changes to key social institutions. In this way, as we outlined at the start of this week’s materials, social institutions can reinforce social norms, but also be repositories of changing social norms. A theoretical example of the interdependency of social institutions is the work of  Althusser, who describes two forms of institutions that maintain the dominance of ideology.

Althusser, institutions, ideology

French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argues that two kinds of institutions serve to maintain the dominance of capitalist ideology: Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses.

Following from a classical Marxist perspective, Repressive State Apparatuses are the formal institutions of a state: government administration, armed forces, police, the legal system, and the prison system. These institutions serve to maintain the system of capitalism through force. RSAs define “the State as a force of repressive execution and intervention ‘in the interests of the ruling classes’ in the class struggle conducted by the bourgeoisie and its allies against the proletariat” (Althusser 1971: 137). For example, the police enforce the laws of a particular society, often through public displays of power. In doing so, they can be said to uphold the beliefs and values of the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) who write the laws.

Althusser identifies Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) as another form of institutions that work to maintain the ruling capitalist ideology. If RSAs operate through repressive violence, ISAs are understood to function by producing and reproducing this ruling ideology. ISAs serve to maintain the dominance of the ruling bourgeoisie class by institutionalising their ideology within the private sphere. Examples of ISAs include religious establishments, education institutions, the family, media, communications, trade unions, cultural organisations, and political parties (Althusser 1971: 143).

Althusser argues that the power of a ruling class does not solely consist of their monopoly on overt repression but also implicit coercion. Together, these two kinds of institutions work to situate the individual within ideology. Althusser (1971: 162) defines ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. The individual, influenced by different structures, absorbs the values, behaviours, and ideals of the ruling class. By ‘voluntarily’ submitting to the social system, the individual acts against the values of the working class, maintaining the status quo.

Where the individual is concerned, “the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.” (Althusser 1971: 166-169) It is in this way that Althusser’s notion of ISAs facilitates the reproduction and maintenance of the dominant ideology, not in a purely ideological fashion, but in a material through the practices of the individuals themselves, resulting in their interpellation. It is through our daily participation in ISAs, such as the family or the university, “that we come to ‘live’ our relation to our conditions of existence under the symbolic and conceptual forms provided by ideology, as it ‘materialised’ in these practices.” (Benton 1984: 105) This process of interpellation ultimately promotes the continuation and reproduction of the dominant ideology, through the ISAs, by reproducing our false belief that capitalism is a natural social structure.

Reflection exercise

Reflecting on the content of this Chapter, take a pen and paper and write down your answers to the following:

  1. What type of work would you like to pursue in the future?
  2. What kinds of factors have influenced your thinking? (Do social institutions like family play a role? What about the ways that different forms of work are viewed in society? Or perhaps cultural capital?)
  3. How does your educational pathway prepare you for this work? Where might it fall short?

Resources for further learning


Other resources:


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Introduction to the Social Sciences by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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