Unit III: Institutions, Culture, and Structures

Introduction: Institutions, Cultures, and Structures

Thus far, we have been concerned with feminist theories and perspectives that seek to understand how difference is constructed through structures of power, how inequalities are produced and reproduced through socially constructed binaries, and how the categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality intersect. At this juncture, we can ask: where do these processes occur? How do they not only get produced, but how are they re-produced through daily activities in institutions? In the following section, we identify, historicize, and analyze several of the key institutions that structure our lives, including the family, media, medicine, law and the prison system. We use the struggle to end violence against women as a case to show how multiple institutions intersect and overlap in ways that both limit and enable action. First, we provide a theoretical overview of institutions, culture, and structures.

To answer these questions we need to look at the institutions within which we spend a large part of our lives interacting with others. An institution is a “social order or pattern that has attained a certain state or property…and [owes] [its] survival to relatively self-activating social processes” (Jepperson 1991: 145). In other words, institutions are enduring, historical facets of social life that shape our behavior. Examples of institutions include the family, marriage, media, medicine, law, education, the state, and work. These institutions can be said to structure thought and behavior, in that they prescribe rules for interaction and inclusion/exclusion and norms for behavior, parcel out resources between groups, and often times rely on formal regulations (including laws, policies, and contracts). In almost every facet of our day-to-day experience we operate within institutions—often within multiple institutions at once—without noticing their influence on our lives. As a result, we can conceive of institutions—primarily the family, schools, religious institutions, media, and peer groups—as primary agents of socialization (Kimmel 2007). These are primary agents of socialization in that we are born into them, shaped by their expectations, norms, and rules, and as we grow older we often operate in the same institutions and teach these expectations, norms, and rules to younger generations.

Photo of a gavel and law books.
“Law Image” by Succo is in the Public Domain, CC0

Institutions are primary sites for the reproduction of gendered, classed, racialized, ableized, and sexualized inequalities. Everyone does not have access to the same institutions—the same schools, the same hospitals, marriage, etc.,—because often times these institutions differentiate between and differentially reward people based on categories of gender, class, race, ability, and sexuality. For example, think of the city or town you grew up in. There may have been different schools located in different areas of the city, in neighborhoods  that differed in the class and race composition of the people living in those neighborhoods. Perhaps there was a school located in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood and another school located in a neighborhood of predominantly working-class people of color. Perhaps there were also private schools that required high tuition rates. Due to the fact that schools in most states are funded based on the tax base of the school district they are in, schools located in different neighborhoods will have different amounts of resources—books, computers, the ability to pay teachers and staff, etc. Those students who live in the middle-class school district will benefit from a well-funded public school, while students who live in the working-class school district will be disadvantaged from the lower amount of funding of their school district. Meanwhile, students who attend the prestigious private school will most likely already be economically privileged and will further benefit from a well-funded school that surrounds  them with students with similar class backgrounds and expectations. These students will most likely benefit from a curriculum of college preparatory classes, while students in public schools are less likely to be enrolled in college prep classes—limiting their ability to get into college. Therefore, the same race and class inequalities that limited access to the middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood school will give those privileged students greater chances to enter college and maintain their privileged status. In this way, race and class privileges (and disadvantages) get reproduced through institutions.

Photo of a tall brick school building.
“Ontonagon School in Ontonagon, Michigan.” by Bobak Ha’Eri is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Institutions shape, and are shaped by, culture. Culture is a system of symbols, values, practices, and interests of a group of people.[1] Culture is shot through with ideology, which can be understood to be the ideas, attitudes, and values of the dominant culture. It is important to note that “dominant culture” does not describe the most numerous group within society. “Dominant culture” typically describes a relatively small social group that has a disproportionate amount of power. An example of a dominant culture would be the numerically small white minority in South Africa during apartheid. More recently, the Occupy Movement  has critiqued the ways in which the “1%” exerts a disproportionate amount of control and  power as the dominant culture in the United States.

Photo of a young man holding a protest sign, which reads: "America: 99% Poor, 1% Rich. Look it up!"
“Day 3 Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone 5” by David Shankbone is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mainstream institutions often privilege and reward the dominant culture. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) argues that institutions value certain types of culture and reward people who have those types of culture. As we discussed in the previous chapter, different social classes have different types of cultural capital—assets that are not necessarily economic, but promote social mobility. For example, students who attend public schools in middle-class districts or private schools often have access to more language courses, arts courses, and extracurricular activities—skills, knowledge, and experiences that colleges value greatly in their admission decisions. Schools in less economically privileged districts often have fewer of these options.

In this way, culture is not an even playing field, and not everyone has equal access to defining what types of symbols, meanings, values, and practices are valued by institutions. Those groups of people with greater access to mainstream institutions—those who have been born into wealth, white, men, able-bodied, heterosexual—have a greater ability to define what types of culture will be valued by institutions, and often have access to the cultural capital that mainstream institutions value.

The interaction between culture and institutions creates social structures. Social structures are composed of 1) socially constructed ideas, principles, and categories and 2) institutions that distribute material resources to stratified groups based on socially constructed ideas, principles, and categories. Additionally, 3) they shape—or structure—experience, identity, and practice. Social structures are relational, in that they function to stratify groups based on the categories that underlie those groups—allocating both symbolic and material benefits and resources unequally among those groups. “Symbolic resources” are the nonmaterial rewards that accrue to privileged groups. An example would be the way in which employers often assume that employees who are fathers are more responsible, mature, and hardworking, and deserve more pay as opposed to their childless peers or to working mothers (Hodges and Budig 2010). In this example, the sex/gender/sexuality system is a structure through which employers—as gatekeepers of advancement through institutions of work—privilege heterosexual fatherhood. The effect of this is the reproduction of the symbolic privileging of heterosexual masculinity, and the unequal allocation of material resources (salary and wage raises, advancement opportunities) to married men with children. Unmarried men without children do not receive the same symbolic and material rewards nor do married women with children. In this sense, structures limit access to opportunities: educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and opportunities to move up in social class standing.

While there may be a tendency to think of “structures” as unchangeable and monolithic entities, our definition of structure does not make such an assumption. In our definition, social structures are made possible by their reliance on socially constructed categories—that is, categories that change through time and place. Furthermore, while social structures can be said to structure experience and identity, people are not passive observers or dupes—as the history of labor struggles, struggles for self-determination in former colonies, the civil rights movement, and feminist movements have shown, people fight back against the institutions and dominant cultural ideas and categories that have been used to oppress them. Even though socially constructed categories have typically been used to stratify groups of people, those same groups of people may base an activist struggle out of that identity, transforming the very meanings of that identity in the process. For instance, the phrases “Black power” and “gay power” were created by Black and gay liberationists in the late 1960s to claim and re-frame identities  that had been disparaged by the dominant culture and various mainstream institutions. This history of resistance within the crux of overarching structures of power shows that people have agency to make choices and take action. In other words, while structures limit opportunities and reproduce inequalities, groups of people who have been systemically denied access to mainstream institutions can and have exerted their will to change those institutions. Therefore, structure and agency should not be viewed as two diametrically opposed forces, but as two constantly interacting forces that shape each other.

Photo of marchers holding signs demanding equal rights.
“Civil rights march on Washington, D.C” by Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress is in the Public Domain, CC0

  1. In this definition we are combining Kirk and Okazawa-Rey’s (2004) definition of culture with Sewell’s (1992) definition of culture.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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