Unit Six. Social institutions: the family, the religion icon

Unit Six. Social institutions: the family, the religion

НазваниеUnit Six. Social institutions: the family, the religion
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Looking Ahead

This unit starts considering sociological analysis of the major social institutions. First, it focuses on the family and its importance as a cultural universal. Particular attention is given to the functions of the family. Then the unit presents religion and the world's major religious faiths. The basic functions of religion are explored and different sociological approaches to studying religion are introduced. Finally, the unit analyzes the process of secularization in modern industrial society on the one hand, and the increasing influence of religion within contemporary human life on the other hand.

Learning Objectives

After studying this unit you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Are all families necessarily composed of a husband, a wife, and their children?

  2. How do societies vary in the way that power within the family is distributed?

  1. What functions does the family perform for society?

  1. What are the basic forms of religious organization? Which of them prevails in modern industrial society and why?

  2. What sociological approaches to the functions of religion are known? Why did Karl Marx view religion as a form of social control within an oppressive society?

  1. Will religion survive despite the process of secularization?


The family as a social institution is present in all cultures. A family can be defined as a set of persons related by blood, marriage (or some agreed-upon relationship) or adoption who share the primary responsibility for reproduction and caring for members of society.

Although the organization of the family can very greatly, there are certain general principles concerning its composition, descent patterns, residence patterns, and authority patterns.

^ Composition: What Is the Family ?

In human society the family has traditionally been viewed in very narrow terms — as a married couple and their unmarried children living together. However, this is but one type of family, what sociologists refer to as a nuclear family upon which larger family groups are built. But only a certain part of households will fit this model. A family in which relatives other than parents and children — such as grandparents, aunts and uncles - live in the same home is know as an extended family. While not common, such living arrangements do exist.
The structure of the extended family offers certain advantages. Crises, such as death, divorce, and illness involve less strain for family members, since there are more individuals who can provide assistance and emotional support. In addition, the extended family constitutes a larger economic unit than the nuclear family. If the family is engaged in a common enterprise - for example, running a farm or a small business — the additional family members may represent the difference between prosperity and failure.

The considering these differing family types, we have limited ourselves to the term of marriage which is called monogamy. The term monogamy describes a form of marriage in which one woman and one man arc married only to each other. Some observers, noting a high rate of divorce in modern society, have suggested a more accurate term «serial monogamy» under which a person is allowed to have several spouses in his or her life but can have only one spouse at a time.

Some cultures allow an individual to have several husbands or wives simultaneously. This form of marriage is known as polygamy. You may be surprised to learn that most societies throughout the world, past and present, have exhibited a preference for polygamy, not monogamy. Polygamy cultures devalue the social worth of women.

Descent Patterns: To Whom Are We Related?

The state of being related to others is called kinship. The f amily and the kin group are not necessarily the same. While the family is a household unit, kin do not always live or function together. Kin groups include aunts, cousins, in-laws, and so forth.

Family Residence: Where Do We Live?

Formally, a married couple is expected to establish a separate household. However, if we take a cross-cultural view, it is relatively uncommon. In many societies, the bride and groom live either with his or her parents. The reason for it is that the new couples need the emotional support and especially the economic support of their kinfolk.

Authority Patterns: Who Rules?

Imagine that you are recently married and must begin to make decisions about the future of your new family. Immediately, an issue is raised: «Who has the power to make-the decision?, in simpler terms, who rules the family?

Societies vary in the way that power within the family is distributed. If a society expects males to dominate in all family decision making, it is termed a patriarchy. Women hold low status in such societies. By contrast, in a matriarchy, women have greater authority than men. But researchers have come to the conclusion that in modern history there is not a society which truly has this pattern of family organization. Some marital relationships may be neither male-dominated nor female-dominated. The third type of authority pattern, the egalitarian family, is one in which spouses are regarded as equals. This does not mean, however, that each decision is shared in such families. Mothers may hold authority in some spheres, fathers in others. In the view of many sociologists, the egalitarian family has begun to replace the patriarchal family as the social norm.

Functions of the Family: Do We Really Need the Family? A century ago Frederick Engcls, a colleague of Karl Marx, described the family as «the ultimate source of social inequality*. More recently other theorists have staled that the family contributes to social injustice, denies opportunities to women, and limits freedom in sexual expression and mate selection.

In order to evaluate such issues, it is helpful to examine the functions the family fulfills. There are six of them:

  1. Reproduction. For a society to maintain itself, it must replace dying members.

  2. Protection. Human infants need constant care, economic security, upbringing.

  3. Socialization. Parents and other kin monitor a child's behavior and transmit the norms, values and language of a culture to the child.

  4. Regulation of sexual behavior. Standards of sexual behavior are most clearly defined within the family circle.

  5. Affection and companionship. The family is obliged to serve the emotional needs of its members. We expect our relatives to understand us, to care for us, and to be there with us when we need them.

6. Providing of social status. We inherit a social position because of the
«family backgrounds and reputation of our parents. Moreover, the
family resources affect our ability to pursue certain opportunities such
as higher education and specialized lessons.


I. Reread the text and answer the following questions.

1) What is the family as far as its composition is concerned? 2) What living arrangements exist in human society? 3) How can you prove that the extended family offers certain advantages over the nuclear family? 4) What forms of marriage do you know? 5) What does the cross-cultural view about the family residence show? 6) How do societies vary in the way that power within the family is distributed? 7) Do you agree that in the egalitarian family spouses are regarded as equals? 8) Do you believe that the egalitarian family will replace the patriarchal family in our society? 9) What are the functions of the family in modern society? 10) Why do you think it is helpful to examine the functions the family fulfills?

It. Define the following key terms and memorize the definitions:

family, nuclear family, extended family, monogamy, -serial monogamy", polygamy, kinship, patriarchy, matriarchy, egalitarian family.

  1. Speak on the family, its aspects ,structure, patterns and functions in brief and illustrate your reports wit examples and situations of your own.

  1. Comment on the title of the text «The family: Universal but Varied».

  1. Speak about your family, your parents and kin viewing them from the sociological perspective and employing the sociological terms described in the text.

VI. Comment on the following and give your reasons for or against.
1) Most societies throughout the world, past and present, have

exhibited a preference for polygamy, not monogamy. 2) Researchers have come to the conclusion that in modern history there is not a society which truly has the matriarchal pattern of family organization. 3) In the egalitarian family the mother holds authority in some spheres, the father — in others. 4) «The family is the ultimate source of social inequality* (Friedrich Engcls). Does it still hold true?


We have already studied cultural universals, i.e. general practices found in every culture — such as dancing, food preparation, the family, and personal names. Religion is clearly such a cultural universal and religious institutions are evident in all societies. At present, an estimated 3.6 billion persons belong to the world's major religious faiths.

Religion is found throughout the world because it offers answers to such ultimate questions as why we exist, why we succeed or fail, and why we die. It is difficult to determine with certainty when religious behavior began, but anthropological evidence suggests that such behavior was evident at least 100 000 years ago.

^ Nowadays the world's principal religions include the following religious faiths:

1. Christianity or the Christian religion. This religion is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and is named after him. Jesus Christ was expected to save the Jews. He established Christianity and was considered by the Christians to be the son of the God. Christianity was established in the 1st century AD. and later developed into a ruling religion. Now it is one of the world's major religions.

In the course of time Christianity was divided into several branches. Roman Catholicism is a branch of the Christian religion, the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader, the Pope, rules from Rome. Protestantism is a part of the Christian Church that separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. These two religious faiths are the national religions of many countries in Europe, North and South America, and Australia. The third major branch of Christianity is Orthodox. The Orthodox Church or the Eastern (Greek) Church is contrasted with the Roman or Western Church. It came into being with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and developed into a world's major religion in the IX-XI centuries in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, Byzantium. Nowadays the Orthodox Church includes the national churches of Eastern Europe. Among the other Christian faiths is the Anglican Church or the Church of England which was established in the 16th century as a branch of the Christian Church and now it has about 30 mln followers. All in all, there are over 1.6 billion total Christians in the world.

  1. Islam. The founder of this religion is the great Arabian prophet Mohammed or Muhammad (570(?)-632 AD). The followers of Islam are called Moslems or Muslims. This religious faith is the national religion of many countries in Asia and Africa. The followers of this religion worship Allah (the Arabic word for «God»).

  2. Buddhism. This religion is founded by Buddha, the great religious teacher who lived in India about 2500 years ago. The followers of this religion are called Buddhists. This is the national religion of India and some other countries of Asia.

  1. Judaism, the religion of the Jews.

  1. Hinduism, the religious system of the Hindus (the largest social and religious subdivision of the population of India).

6. Chinese Folk Religions. Although some particular religious faiths
dominate some areas and countries of the world, nowadays even within
the same society, there is a diversity of beliefs, rituals, and experiences
that characterize its religious life, and people turn to a variety of religions
for answers to ultimate questions of existence.

In modern societies religious behavior is organized in four basic forms: the ecclesia, the denomination, the sect, and the cult.

An ecclesia is a religious organization that claims to include most of or all the members of a society and is recognized as the national or official religion. Examples of an ecclesia include the Lutheran church in Sweden, the Catholic church in Spain, Islam in Iran. In a society with an ecclesia the political and religious institutions often act in harmony and mutually reinforce each other, though within the modern world, the ecclesia tends to be: declining in power.

A denomination is a large, organized religion that is not officially linked with the state or government. Though considered respectable within a society, it lacks the official recognition and power held by an ecclesia. No nation of the world has more denominations than the United States because many settlers in «the new worlds brought with them the native religions of their homelands. Thus, there is a diversity of Christian religions in the United States and some non-Christian faiths as well.

A sect is a relatively small religious group that has broken away from some other religious organization to renew what it views as the original vision of the faith. Sects are fundamentally at odds with society, they are often short-lived and do not seek to become established national religions.

A cult is a generally small, secretive religious group that represents either a new religion or a major innovation of an existing faith.

Sociologists have recognized the critical importance of religion in human societies. They see its appeal for the individual and due to that appeal they view religion as a social institution and evaluate its impact on human societies.

Since religion is a cultural universal, it fulfills several basic functions within human societies. In viewing religion as a social institution sociologists stress the following major functions of religion in modern society: integration, social control, and social support. Religion offers people meaning and purpose for their lives, it gives them certain ultimate values which help a society to function as an integrated social system, reinforce other social institutions and the social order as a whole. Religion can offer people social support. Most of us find it difficult to accept the stressful events of life — death of a loved one, serious illness, bankruptcy, divorce, and so forth, especially when something «senseless happens. Religion encourages us to view our personal misfortunes as relatively unimportant, as being «God's will». This perspective may be much more comforting than the terrifying feeling that any of us can die senselessly at any moment. Besides, religion offers consolation to people by giving them hope that they can achieve eternal happiness in an afterlife.

But not all social scientists look upon religion in this perspective. Karl Marx described religion as an «opiate» particularly harmful to oppressed peoples. In his view and later in the view of conflict theorists, religion often drugged the masses into submission by offering them a consolation for their harsh lives on earth: the hope of happiness in an ideal afterlife. In simpler terms, religion keeps people from seeing their lives in political terms and diverts their attention from earthly problems. From Marx's perspective, religion promotes stability within society and therefore helps to maintain social inequality. Religion reinforces the interests of those in power and the subordination of the powerless. Finally, Marxists suggest that religion lessens the possibility of collective political action that can end oppression and transform society.

In contemporary industrial societies, scientific and technological advances have increasingly affected all aspects of life, including the social institution of religion. The term secularization refers to the process through which religion's influence on social life diminishes. But despite the fact that this process is evident and other social institutions — such as the economy, politics, and education — maintain independence of religious guidance at present, it would be incorrect to conclude that religion is in decline. Religion will survive in the private spheres of individual and family life and on a personal level because people appear to be turning to religion as they lose confidence in other important institutions of social life. At present, religion continues to be an important influence on human society.


I. Reread the text and answer the following questions.

I) Why do you think that religion is a cultural universal? 2) What are the world's principal religions? 3) What are the basic forms of organized religious behavior? What is the difference between them? 4) Why do you think sociologists have recognized the critical importance of religion in human societies? 5) What are the major functions of religion, if viewed from the sociological perspective? 6) How are these functions fulfilled by religion? 7) In what perspective did Karl Marx and other conflict theorists look upon religion? 8) What diminishes the role and influence of religion within the contemporary society? 9) How can you prove that religion will survive and remain an important aspect of life in modern industrial societies?

II. Define the following key terms and memorize the definitions:
religion, ecclesia, denomination, sect, cult, secularization.

III. Speak on the following topics:

  1. 1) The world's principal religions. 2) Basic forms of religious behavior. 3) Functions of religion as a social institution. 4) Different sociological approaches to religion. Which of them do you share and why? 5) Secularization of modern society. 6) The increasing influence of religion within the contemporary Russian society

  1. Reread the texts of unit six again and discuss the problem — questions given in the learning objectives in the introduction to the unit.

  2. Comment on the following quotations thinking like sociologists.

  1. «The couple is a basic unit of society. It is the unit of reproduction, the wcllspring of the family, and most often the precinct of love, romance, and sexuality* (Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz «American Couples», 1983).

  2. «Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feelings of a heartless world.... It is the opiate of the people* (Karl Marx "Introduction to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right», 1844).


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