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Social Institutions




A government is an institution entrusted with making and enforcing the rules of a society as well as with regulating relations with other societies. In order to be considered a government, a ruling body must be recognized as such by the people it purports to govern. A person or group that considers itself the leading body of a society has no power if the members of the society do not recognize the person or group as such.

Types of Governments

Most of the world’s governments fall into one of four categories: monarchy, democracy, authoritarianism, or totalitarianism.


Monarchy is a political system in which a representative from one family controls the government and power is passed on through that family from generation to generation. Most of the world’s monarchies are constitutional monarchies, in which the reigning member of the royal family is the symbolic head of state but elected officials actually do the governing. Many European countries have constitutional monarchies.

Example: Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. Until recently it was an absolute monarchy, meaning that the king had complete control of the country. The Saud royal family introduced a constitution in 1992.


Democracy is a political system in which citizens periodically choose officials to run their government.

Example: El Salvador has a democratic form of government. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, El Salvador was beset by revolution and war, and from 1931 to 1979 it was ruled by military dictators. From 1980 to 1992, the country was torn apart by civil war. The country currently has a stable government and elected president.


Authoritarianism is a political system that does not allow citizens to participate in government.

Example: Zimbabwe is controlled by an authoritarian leader whose human rights violations and disastrous economic policies have brought on international condemnation. However, not all authoritarian governments are outcasts. China has an authoritarian government, but it is a member of the World Trade Organization and a major player in international politics.


Totalitarianism is a political system under which the government maintains tight control over nearly all aspects of citizens’ lives.

Example: Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1976 to 1978 was totalitarian. Under the banner of socialism, Pol Pot attempted a radical reformation of Cambodia. He forced the evacuation of the country’s cities and relocated citizens to communal farms in the countryside, where they were to be “reeducated” to become part of an idealized communist agrarian society. Pol Pot’s secret police tortured and murdered over a million “dissenters,” especially those he viewed as urban intellectuals.

U.S. Politics

In the early years of America’s nationhood, individualism and individual rights were valued above all else. Citizens of the United States wanted as little governmental interference in their lives as possible and believed that people should be free to make of their lives whatever they could. Today, most people in the United States recognize the need for government control of such things as schools, roads, and national defense, but citizens disagree about where to draw the line when it comes to the size and scope of government’s involvement.

The Welfare State

A welfare state is a type of government in which the state provides for and promotes the social and economic well-being of its citizens. The government provides some sort of social insurance, or benefits, for families or individuals in dire need. The welfare state also includes provisions for government funding of education, health services, and housing.

Since the Great Depression and the New Deal, the United States has greatly increased the welfare programs it offers to its citizens. The amount the United States spends on welfare, however, is still much smaller than the amount spent by other Western nations. In 1996, Congress ended the federal public assistance that guaranteed some income to all poor Americans.

Party Politics

The United States has a two-party political system, in which the Democratic Party and the Republic Party are the dominant political forces.

  • The Democratic Party believes that the government should play an active role in promoting the general welfare of the country and takes a liberal stand on social issues.
  • The Republican Party believes that the government should take a limited role in providing social services and takes a conservative stand on social issues.

Governments in Conflict

Conflicts in governments generally take three forms:

  1. Revolution: A violent overthrow of the government by its citizens. Often, a group of charismatic philosophers and intellectuals sparks the movement.
  2. War: Armed conflict between nations or societies. Societies have always waged war over rights to land and resources or because of conflicting moral, political, or religious objectives. In the twentieth century, the nature of war changed dramatically with the development of nuclear weapons. Massive stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction has made the threat of global annihilation a strong deterrent to war among industrialized nations.
  3. Terrorism: A politically motivated violent attack on civilians by an individual or group. Since few nations have the military strength to attack the United States directly, terrorism by extremist groups within and outside the country has become an increasingly potent threat.

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