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also called interaction dimension or social dimension

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

The social, interaction, or institutional dimension of community is composed of the ways people act, interact between each other, react, respond, and expect each other to act and interact

It includes institutions such as marriage or friendship, roles such as mother or police officer, status or class, and other patterns of human behaviour. See Community.

Whenever a pattern is identified, and recognized by those in it, it can be called a social institution.

Following Weber, we say it must have meaning to those in it.

At the micro level, the institutional dimension is composed of recognizable patterns of interaction within small groups.

Interaction means action or behaviour in which we engage while being conscious of other people.

Social stratification, and thus social class is an institution or set of social institutions. See Inequality.

Kinship arrangements are institutional, and belong to this dimension.

We can speculate that the origin of the family, unique among primates to humans, goes way back to the origin of culture, and to the incest taboo.

We must be careful, however, to note that the family, as we know it, is not universal to all cultures, although its kinship elements, marriage, the regulation of sex, birth, and the tracing of descent, are.

Bureaucracies, and other formal organisations, or non kin organisations, are institutions.

Weber identified five elements which contributed to the strength of bureaucracies.

A century later Bartle identified sixteen elements that could be used to measure strength of, not only bureaucracies but, all formal organizations, families and communities.

As with other dimensions, we can gain a better insight into the social organisation of our current society by looking at some of the ways it was built up over the millennia.

Social change tends to be cumulative, and many elements of today’s social organisation includes residuals from much earlier phases of our development.

Looked at over the broad range of human history, the two major types of institutions can be called kinship and non kin organisations.

In the earliest, and even today in the simplest gathering and hunting, communities, almost all social organisation is based on kinship.

We see this as the arrangements we make involving (1) birth, and its extension, descent, (2) marriage and related regulations and control of sex, and its extensions, affines, and (3) pseudo kin arrangements, such as adoption.

We say “kinship” instead of the “family” because the family is not universal, derives from the Latin word for domestic slaves, and there are many ways to construct social organisation out of affinity, descent and adoption.

As societies become more complex, up to a threshold, kinship can become increasingly complex to satisfy increasing needs.

The invention of agriculture was the most revolutionary change that our society experienced.

It produced an agricultural surplus which allowed some members of society to do other things than obtain their food.

This gave rise to the earliest division of labour that led to cities and then states.

The simplest division of labour was that of aristocracy (headed by a monarch), serfs (food producers), traders and artisans, scribes (record keepers) and enforcers (military and police).

This was the origin of the first non kin social institutions.

Recruitment to the recorders and enforcers was through other than birth, and it was soon observed that it was best based on merit (skills and motivation).

Durkheim, one of the “Fathers of Sociology” asked about the “glue” which holds communities and societies together.

He suggested that simple, homogeneous societies (as with our gathering and hunting ancestors) were held together by “sameness.”

The similarity of language, values, social organisation, all contributed to a feeling of unity.

He called this “mechanical solidarity.”

In contrast, for modern complex societies as we have today, it is differences which contribute to holding people together.

Division of labour, so long as it contributed to the functioning of the whole, resulted in inter dependency.

This he called “organic solidarity" after the word “organ” as the specialized cells of a living animal, whose organs each contributed to the whole animal. See Durkheim.

Tönnies introduced the words gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society) from the German language.

In strict translation, they mean only community and society, but now in sociology, in any language, they are used almost like adjectives, referring to the degree of warm, fuzzy, face to face groups where everyone knows each other (gemeinschaft) versus cold, formal, structured groups, where people have different roles, and know each other by their roles, rather than as whole persons (gesellschaft). See Characteristics of Communities.

In the discussion of the Political Dimension, political parties and parliament were seen themselves not to belong to that dimension.

They belong here in the Institutional Dimension, because they are institutions. Of course, all institutions have a dimension of power in them.

In the discussion of the World View Dimension, religions were not seen to belong to that dimension.

They, too, belong in this Institutional Dimension because they are institutions. All institutions also have a world view dimension to them.


The Institutional Dimension of Society

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Last update: 2012.02.27

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