An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual lives and intention by enforcing rules that govern cooperative behavior. While institutions are obviously comprised of individuals and create rules through these individuals' agentic actions, institutions act as forces of socialization, meaning that they teach individuals to conform to their norms.
Institutions can be either formal or informal. Formal institutions are those that are created with the intention of governing human behavior. Examples include the United States Congress, an institution that is designed to create the laws of the United States. However, formal institutions do not have to have the force of the law at their disposal. Another example is the Roman Catholic Church. While violating the tenets of the Catholic Church is not in violation of law, the Church expects its members to adhere to its religious codes. Informal institutions are those that are not designed to regulate conduct, but often end up doing so as members seek to conform to communal standards. Institutions can also be abstract, such as the institution of marriage. This means that marriage has become a social expectation, with informal rules for how married people are expected to behave.
The United States Congress, housed in the Capitol Building, is one example of a formal institution.
While institutions tend to appear to people in society as part of the natural, unchanging landscape of their lives, sociological studies of institutions reveal institutions a social constructs, meaning that they are created by individuals and particular historical and cultural moment. Sociology traditionally analyzes social institutions in terms of interlocking social roles and expectations. Social institutions are created by and defined by their own creation of social roles for their members. The social function of the institution is the fulfillment of the assigned roles.
Institutionalization refers to the process of embedding something, such as a concept, a social role, a value, or a logic within an organization, social system, or society as a whole. The process of institutionalization elucidates how values, norms, and institutions are so closely intertwined.