Home > cultural commentary > The new master institution?

The new master institution?

In sociology, there’s a concept called the ‘master institution’. This traditionally refers to churches, schools, employment, and perhaps one or two others; organisations in which there is some hierarchy, a moral code, and a set of enforced social norms. They are key institutions that people used to engage with on a regular basis, be a part of, and learn patterns of behaviour that were held to be acceptable to others in society.

Yes, there are arguments about how this concept should be deployed, and yes, there are also arguments about the ways such institutions fitted into power structures to ensure the hegemony of the ruling class and so forth. But it’s also been observed that secularisation of society, the advent of long-term unemployment and other social changes have meant that many people no longer engage with these ‘master institutions’ and don’t receive the kinds of socialisation they provided, across a range of areas – dealing with confrontation, sexual behaviour, parenting skills and many others besides.

It’s the parenting skills bit that interests me momentarily.

Yesterday, for reasons I’ll explain in another post, I was out of the house all day. And I did something I almost never do – grab a meal at McDonalds.

In the short time I was there, I saw two families with children. I can’t talk – I was there in an old T-shirt and five-o’clock shadow looking disreputable – but in the way we English have of pigeonholing people I’d say these were families with histories of long-term unemployment and chav culture; in short, people who’ve never really been engaged with any of our master institutions. They shouted at each other – every conversation sounded like an argument – and at their kids, who were toddlers – ‘C’mere ya little shit!’ when they wandered off, as kids of that age do. Even a babe in arms got shouted at, and then shouted at again for having the temerity to start crying because it was being shouted at.

And the staff were great with them. In between clearing trays and mopping the floor, they fetched kids back to parents who wouldn’t move to get their kids, preferring to shout instead. There were conversations between the families and the staff that, from the snatches I overheard, were advice on parenting. Even the security guy, or floor manager, or whoever he was spent time talking to them about the inappropriateness of shouting at kids who’ve been made to cry because they’ve been shouted at. And it was all done with smiles and politeness and non-confrontation.

And it made me think: in terms of social change, the new ‘master institutions’ aren’t church and school – they’re places like fast food restaurants. If you need to learn appropriate social behaviour, moral values and parenting, you’ll learn these while having a burger and fries.

How strange. But in a way, how obvious – because these days, their ‘attendance’ and ‘congregation’ will be far higher than any school or church…

  1. August 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    wow – how disturbing. Not the family’s behaviour, but the fact that you are so right about frequenting fast food restaurants to learn these social adaptations.
    Me and mine do not venture near enough to restaurants – the last we did in July for a bday of all the cousin’s (6 kids) for my son’s 7 bday, we were actually approached by a couple who thanked us for having our children behave so nicely in a restaurant. Since when did this because something to be thanked for?
    anw, yes, sitting in public places can lead to the birth of some pretty interesting characters is our writing. Yet, I don’t it much. i get too irritated and impatient.

  2. August 8, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    It occurred to me after I posted that there have always been situations and occasions where informal social control is an issue, and people are socialised into ways of behaving. In sociological literature, queues are often held up as an example of this, as well as shops, doctors’ surgeries, cemeteries and war memorials. In the latter two cases, think of the way the public reacts when graves or memorials are desecrated, graffitied etc.). And there are many other examples.

    What struck me was how, in the absence of the old ‘master institutions’, places like fast food restaurants have to take on this kind of role. Many of the old ‘institutions’ are now seen in some parts of society as ‘the enemy’ – and with some justification. Some, such as labour unions, are no longer relevant after decades of being undercut by business and high levels of unemployment. SO there are segments of society for whom a fast food restaurant is the nearest they get to any kind of ‘institution of social control’ – apart from the police, I guess.

    And the restaurants end up informally teaching people how to behave nicely for essentially commercial reasons. It’s part and parcel of being a successful business, because they want the minority of ‘uncouth’ customers not to upset the majority. They want the place to look peaceful and orderly. So if has to be done, they do it.

    Sure, it doesn’t happen everywhere. I was told a story last week about someone’s experience in a corner shop where a youth tried to steal something, and the shopkeeper chased him. The youth smashed a bottle of soda on the floor (slippery when wet) to give himself a few extra seconds to escape, but the rest of the shopkeeper’s family were on the streets in seconds, armed with knives, looking for the youth.

    And there are plenty of stories about over-enthusiastic security guards in malls treating people who have heart attacks, epileptic fits, etc. as ‘troublemakers’ and trying to eject them.

    So I’m not proposing my comment as a new type of invariant ‘social rule’. Just an observation about how trends in society have led to particular incidents like the ones I witnessed. And twice in the space of half an hour? How many times do the staff do this each day?

  1. August 8, 2010 at 2:46 pm
  2. August 9, 2010 at 12:13 am

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