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The word institution conjures many different images: a stark building surrounded by a high metal fence; a town hall; a church; the building that houses the college president’s office. To sociologists, however, an institution isn’t a building; an institution is what goes on inside the building. An institution is a set of norms surrounding the carrying out of a function necessary for the survival of a society.

People in every society must fulfill certain functions in order to survive. They must set up processes for rearing and educating children. They must develop a system for maintaining order and managing relations with other societies. They must agree on methods for producing and exchanging goods and services. Societies differ in how they carry out these functions, but they all must somehow accomplish the same tasks in order to survive as a social unit. Institutions may seem abstract, but they are part of a world that is very real.