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Instructor's Manual for Unit VIII, Social Institutions

by Caroline H. Persell, New York University, September 2008, With earlier input from Robert Greene, Jay Howard, David Karen, and Stephen Steele

An introduction and overview can be obtained from the unit page and the ASA Task Force Curriculum. There is a Lesson Plan for “The Cultural Dig,” an introductory exercise adapted by Bob Greene from What is History? by Carl Gruziewski, that introduces students to institutions in a very concrete way. Other Bob Greene activities he used in a high school sociology course explore the nature of institutions.

From these exercises students will hopefully come to see that social institutions represent institutionalized clusters of statuses and roles that deal with important social concerns. The family is expected to deal with sexual regulation, reproduction, child rearing, some economic activities, and increasingly emotional needs. Economy and work address the production and distribution of goods and services. Politics focuses on the use and legitimation of power and authority in society. Education develops individual talents, transmits knowledge, skills, and social mores to a new generation, and plays an increasingly important part in channeling people into their occupations. Religion may promote social unity among communities of believers and help individuals to find meaning beyond themselves, but may also be a source of social change within societies, or a source of conflict between faith groups. Science develops new knowledge and technology and media disseminates cultural, political, social, and economic values, beliefs, and ideas.


While every society has some form of marriage and family, the patterns vary and are changing, as can be seen in data on single-parent families in 10 countries of the world. Within the U.S., there have been significant changes in family structure even in the past 10 years, as students can explore in CensusScope. Using the change location box on the left side of the CensusScope page, students can analyze the structure of families and households by major metropolitan regions to see how they vary.  Students might compare where they live with a region they expect would be quite different from it.  The numbers and percentages appear below the maps to facilitate comparisons.

The situation of families and children in the United States and around the world are explored in an interactive tour and set of exercises created by Robert E. Wood.

The virtual tours to which we provide links on this website were 
developed by Robert E. Wood, Professor Emeritus of Sociology,
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice Rutgers University, Camden College of Arts and Sciences.  He used them when teaching his own students.  By agreement with Professor Wood, Wadsworth/Cengage has made his tours on their website freely available to all students and teachers.  For more information,
see his website and the discussion of the Virtual tours at the Rutgers Camden departmental website.

  Bob Greene offers a series of exercises he has used when teaching about the family in a high school sociology course.  These include a reference to Tracy Ore’s simulation, Life Happens.


For data on education in the United States see the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), particularly their  Projections of Education Statistics to 2017 that provides projections for key education statistics including enrollment, graduates, teachers, and expenditures in elementary and secondary schools, and enrollment and earned degrees and conferred expenditures of degree-granting institutions.  The Quick Tables button on their home page allows viewers to create tables of data on a variety of topics including early education, elementary/secondary, postsecondary, and international education.

The Pell Institute website lists many education research, policy and advocacy groups, professional and membership organizations, government agencies, and philanthropic organizations dealing with education.

The Public Agenda website has a series of links to data and issue papers on education. One issue in education has been segregation by race and socioeconomic status.  Gary Orfield and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA produce current data and research on this issue.

If students are able to visit (or at least simulate) a public school board meeting in their community, several sociologists have developed an Instructor’s Guide and set of study questions to give students before doing their observation. 

E.H. Epstein suggests a series of debate topics for students studying education.

Bob Greene provides a number of activities for exploring education.  One of them involves having students explore data on the relationship between education and income

Robert E. Wood’s Education and the Internet: Challenges and Potentialities is an interactive website inviting students to explore data on education.

Anne Boyle Cross has an interesting data-based exercise exploring violence in schools.


A terrific resource for data on Religion is the Association of Religion Data Archives. They have resources for educators (as well as for congregations, researchers, and the press).  There is a student exercise exploring religious denominations in the United States.

The Virtual Tour of Religion by Robert E. Wood is worth exploring.
It provides data on religions around the world.

Bob Greene provides exercises for students to explore the institution of religion


NationMaster is a massive central data source from such sources as the CIA World Factbook, UN, and OECD.  It also offers ways to graphically compare nations. If you type politics into the search box you can obtain data on political attitudes in many countries, as well as information on the political systems of many nations.

The American National Election Studies (ANES) produces high quality data on voting, public opinion, and political participation in the United States over the past 50 years or more.
For over a quarter of a century, Public Agenda has been providing research that bridges the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues ranging from education to foreign policy to immigration to religion and civility in American life. Nonpartisan and nonprofit, Public Agenda was founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975. Public Agenda's two-fold mission is to help: 1) American leaders better understand the public's point of view.  2) Citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.

Robert E. Wood provides an interactive exploration of politics and society on the web.

For election years, the PBS Vote2008 site contains a wealth of information, data, maps, a “For Teachers” button, games and more. 

The Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent regulatory agency, discloses campaign finance information, enforces the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and oversees the public funding of Presidential elections.

The Center for Responsive Politics compiles information on elections and campaign financing and the effect of money on elections and public policy. The Center is nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit.

Roll Call is a subscription newspaper about Capitol Hill  The website provides headlines and brief introductions to the stories they carry.

Politics1 is a “Guide to U.S. Politics & Elections since 1997”

David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections maps election data.

Democracy in Action offers “a framework for understanding the 2008 presidential campaign”.  They provide information on the candidates, media, parties, interest groups, and the electorate.

David Karen offers some discussion topics on power, politics, and government and suggests some films.


Changes in Economic Sectors of the economy from 1820 to 2006 can be seen graphically. 

The U.S. Department of Labor contains the most comprehensive data on employment in the U.S.

There is an IM for teaching the concept of unemployment from David Karen. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls) also releases many reports relevant to the study of work and employment. 

Robert E. Wood has a Virtual Tour of the Economy and Work: the Internet and Globalization.

Bob Leighninger prepared an instructor’s guide for helping students understand worker alienation

Edgar W. Mills prepared an instructor’s guide and occupational attitude survey for helping students understand occupational prestige rankings.


For historical background on the institution of the media, see Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media, available on google books

There is an extensive research project that students could do described in the Media Violence Project.

The Columbia Journalism Review website (left side of the page) enables a viewer to select a media company and see all the properties owned by it.

MemeTracker “builds maps of the daily news cycle by analyzing around 900,000 news stories and blog posts per day from 1 million online sources, ranging from mass media to personal blogs. We track the quotes and phrases that appear most frequently over time across this entire spectrum. This makes it possible to see how different stories compete for news and blog coverage each day, and how certain stories persist while others fade quickly.” From their analyses, they are also able to tell whether a story started in a newspaper article or a blog.


U.S. Government has a website on science and technology.

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science has a number of interesting sites contain text and conceptual maps that explore issues such as The Nature of Science and the Scientific World View, Technology and Science, and Science & Policy.

Robert E. Wood has an interactive website on “Science and Technology: Internet Explorations of New Social Problems”.


Robert E. Wood has an interactive web exploration called Health and Health Care: Information and Debate on the Internet.

The Census 2009 Statistical Abstract has data on a number of different health care expenditures. They also have data on a number of different health topics such as food consumption and nutrition, health care resources, and health conditions and diseases.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has fast fact sheets for a number of health conditions, including Sexually Transmitted Diseases, specific data for each state, and health statistics for individual ethnic populations like Asian or Pacific Islander Population and Black or African American Population.

The Film And the Band Played On explores the outbreak of HIV/AIDS and the efforts to understand and contain it.

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