Social Institutions and Culture

Penn State faculty and students in the Social Institutions and Culture area are actively conducting research on education, social movements, NGOs, politics, prisons, corporations, crime, and religion. Utilizing a wide range of social theories and a diverse array of research methods, their research addresses questions ranging from small-scale interactions to global change. Faculty in this area investigate how institutions and culture promote social action, social control, meaning, innovation and inequality. Both students and faculty benefit from collaboration and contact with related departments across the university. Faculty members hold joint appointments in education, international affairs, demography, criminology and religious studies, and students participate in seminars, study groups and programs that overlap departments. The result is that students benefit from a diverse faculty within the department and an abundance of scholarly support from related departments.

The department is also home for Penn State's interdisciplinary Social Thought Program and the international and heavily used Association of Religion Data Archives. Collaborative projects for the study of social institutions and culture are also developed within Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the Population Research Institute.  

Faculty Research 

How has recent social theory of institutions and culture transformed sociological inquiry? 

  • How can organizational theories help us understand recent innovation, growth and decline in religious organizations? (Finke)

How do social networks and small-scale interaction patterns promote division, introduce opportunity, and create larger patterns of social change?

  • How does social organization emerge from symbolic interaction?  (Ulmer)
  • How do social networks reinforce political and cultural polarization, and when might they alleviate these divisions? (DellaPosta)
  • What are the origins and contours of inmate social organization and how do social network data, theory, and methods help us understand these? (Kreager)

How are new forms of culture and social organization changing social life?

  • How do online networks and transnational linkages change social interaction? (Adler)
  • How are corporate actors shaping social policies? (Hardy)
  • Does social influence make collective behavior more or less predictable? (DellaPosta)
  • How do changes in the relationship between religion and state influence social conflict and the protection of human rights within countries? (Finke) 

How do values and beliefs shape and how are they shaped by social institutions?

  • How are the dynamics of ‘trust’ associated with political ideology?  (Hardy)
  • How do personal beliefs, institutional involvement and national context combine to shape individual attitudes on morality? (Finke)
  • How does the incarceration experience influence expectations about community reintegration and the desistance process? (Kreager)
  • How do religious contexts affect formal and informal social control? (Ulmer)

How are institutions and organizations changing? 

  • How do organizations balance the need to access diverse resources with competing needs for closure, control, and solidarity? (DellaPosta)
  • Has the loss of life course markers increased inequality or simply expanded variation in opportunities to build financial security for later life? (Hardy)
  • How do organizational and institutional innovations emerge and diffuse despite high risks and uncertain rewards? (DellaPosta)
  • How has the education revolution shaped contemporary society?  (Baker)
  • How has mass incarceration affected correctional settings and incarceration? (Kreager)
  • How is conformity or deviance from institutional rules shaped by local organizational culture? (Ulmer)

How is the study of social institutions and culture being transformed by new research methods and data sources?

  • How does social network analysis provide an innovative method for understanding inmate culture? (Kreager)
  • How do we model when and under which conditions behavioral deviations build into cascades that reshape institutional frameworks from the bottom up? (DellaPosta)
  • How can we use computational experiments to better understand the self-reinforcing dynamics of homophily? (DellaPosta)
  • What is the scientific accuracy of methods examining discrimination? (Gaddis)