The term, “social institution” is somewhat unclear both in ordinary language and in the philosophical literature (see below). However, contemporary sociology is somewhat more consistent in its use of the term.

Typically, contemporary sociologists use the term to refer to complex social forms that reproduce themselves such as governments, the family, human languages, universities, hospitals, business corporations, and legal systems. A typical definition is that proferred by Jonathan Turner (Turner 1997: 6): “a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.” Again, Anthony Giddens says (Giddens 1984: 24): “Institutions by definition are the more enduring features of social life.” He (Giddens 1984: 31) goes on to list as institutional orders, modes of discourse, political institutions, economic institutions and legal institutions. The contemporary philosopher of social science, Rom Harre follows the theoretical sociologists in offering this kind of definition (Harre 1979: 98): “An institution was defined as an interlocking double-structure of persons-as-role-holders or office-bearers and the like, and of social practices involving both expressive and practical aims and outcomes.” He gives as examples (Harre 1979: 97) schools, shops, post offices, police forces, asylums and the British monarchy.

For much of this century the term Victorian, which literally describes things and events (roughly) in the reign of Queen Victoria, conveyed connotations of "prudish," "repressed," and "old fashioned." Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture.

In science and technology, the Victorians invented the modern idea of invention -- the notion that one can create solutions to problems, that man can create new means of bettering himself and his environment.

In religion, the Victorians experienced a great age of doubt, the first that called into question institutional Christianity on such a large scale. In literature and the other arts, the Victorians attempted to combine Romantic emphases upon self, emotion, and imagination with Neoclassical ones upon the public role of art and a corollary responsibility of the artist.

In ideology, politics, and society, the Victorians created astonishing innovation and change: democracy, feminism, unionization of workers, socialism, Marxism, and other modern movements took form. In fact, this age of Darwin, Marx, and Freud appears to be not only the first that experienced modern problems but also the first that attempted modern solutions. Victorian, in other words, can be taken to mean parent of the modern -- and like most powerful parents, it provoked a powerful reaction against itself.

The Victorian age was not one, not single, simple, or unified, only in part because Victoria's reign lasted so long that it comprised several periods. Above all, it was an age of paradox and power. The Catholicism of the Oxford Movement, the Evangelical movement, the spread of the Broad Church, and the rise of Utilitarianism, socialism, Darwinism, and scientific Agnosticism, were all in their own ways characteristically Victorian; as were the prophetic writings of Carlyle and Ruskin, the criticism of Arnold, and the empirical prose of Darwin and Huxley; as were the fantasy of George MacDonald and the realism of George Eliot and George Bernard Shaw.

More than anything else what makes Victorians Victorian is their sense of social responsibility. The poet Matthew Arnold refused to reprint his poem "Empedocles on Etna," in which the Greek philosopher throws himself into the volcano, because it set a bad example; and he criticized an Anglican bishop who pointed out mathematical inconsistencies in the Bible not on the grounds that he was wrong, but that for a bishop to point these things out to the general public was irresponsible.

The Victorian Age was characterised by rapid change and developments in nearly every sphere - from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in population growth and location. Over time, this rapid transformation deeply affected the country's mood: an age that began with a confidence and optimism leading to economic boom and prosperity eventually gave way to uncertainty and doubt regarding Britain's place in the world.


Victorian England was a deeply religious country. A great number of people were habitual church-goers, at least once and probably twice, every Sunday. The Bible was frequently and widely read by people of every class; so too were religious stories and allegories. Yet towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the hold of organized religion upon the English people began to slacken for several reasons.


Education in nineteenth-century England was not equal - not between the sexes, and not between the classes. Gentlemen would be educated at home by a governess or tutor until they were old enough to attend Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse, or a small handful of lesser schools. The curriculum was heavily weighted towards the classics - the languages and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome. After that, they would attend Oxford or Cambridge. Here they might also study mathematics, law, philosophy, and modern history. Oxford tended to produce more Members of Parliament and government officials, while Cambridge leaned more towards the sciences and produced more acclaimed scholars. However, it was not compulsory, either legally or socially, for a gentleman to attend school at all. He could, just as easily, be taught entirely at home. However, public school and University were the great staging grounds for public life, where you made your friends and developed the connections that would aid you later in life. Beau Brummel met the Prince of Wales at Eton and that friendship helped him conquer all of London Society despite his lack of family background.

A lady's education was taken, almost entirely, at home. There were boarding schools, but no University, and the studies were very different. She learned French, drawing, dancing, music, and the use of globes. If the school, or the governess, was interested in teaching any practical skills, she learned plain sewing as well as embroidery, and accounts.

Science and Progress

Industrial Revolution: the developments that transformed Great Britain, between 1750 and 1830, from a largely rural population making a living almost entirely from agriculture to a town-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture.

As many thousands of women throughout rural Britain saw their spinning wheels become redundant and their jobs disappear into the factories, they moved to the cities. The towns offered a better chance of work and higher wages than the countryside, where many families were trapped in dire poverty and seasonal employment. On the other hand, the countryside was healthier.

The Industrial Revolution gathered steam, and accelerated the migration of the population from country to city. The result of this movement was the development of horrifying slums and cramped row housing in the overcrowded cities.

Social Class

Working class - men and women who performed physical labor, paid daily or weekly wages
Middle class - men performed mental or "clean" work, paid monthly or annually
Upper class - did not work, income came from inherited land and investments


Pounds (£) —— Shillings (s.) —— Pence (d.)

Typical Incomes (annual)
Aristocrats £30,000
Merchants, bankers £10,000
Middle-class (doctors, lawyers, clerks) £300-800
Lower middle-class (head teachers, journalists, shopkeepers, etc.) £150-300
Skilled workers (carpenters, typesetters,etc.) £75-100
Sailors and domestic staff £40-75
Laborers, soldiers £25


Cholera - caused by human waste in the drinking water.
Symptoms: nausea, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, overwhelming thirst, cramps.
Death often followed within 24 hours of the first symptom.

Consumption - a tuberculosis of the lungs
Symptoms - weakness, fatigue, wasting away, blood in the lungs
(killed hundreds of thousands of English in the nineteenth century).

Typhus - spread by body lice and dirty conditions
Symptoms: delirium, headaches, rash, high fever.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Victorian England: An Introduction [University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh]

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