Historical Impacts on Social Institutions

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the impact historical events and patterns have on social institutions. We will identify examples of this, as well as highlight key developments in this process.

The Relationship Between Historical Events and Society

Hopefully you're prepared for some heavy-duty thinking. Some lessons are more or less the stating of facts. A lesson about the life of George Washington, for example, would involve basically stating facts surrounding his life. This lesson, however, will require some abstract and critical thinking on your part. Let's get to it!

We know there is a strong connection between historical events and the development of society. After all, historical events take place within the context of societies. Historical events profoundly impact social institutions. Social institutions are defined as groups of people who come together for a common purpose. For example, schools and churches are social institutions. Various clubs, social movements, and even sub-cultures can also be considered social institutions. The term itself is incredibly broad, and can be applied to almost any group of people organized for a common purpose. Sometimes social institutions actually come into existence as a result of historical events; other times they are impacted by historical events.

While we're on this topic, it is worth mentioning historical causation. Historical causation is the way one historical event leads to, or causes, another. It's basically the cause and effect pattern throughout history. This is important to remember as we consider the impact of historical events on social institutions. Now let's look at some examples of historical events impacting society.

The Protestant Reformation

For most of the Middle Ages (500 to 1500 approximately), the Catholic Church held tremendous political and social power. Common people were generally not able to read the Bible for themselves because it was printed in Latin, the language of the elite and educated. The masses were heavily taxed and had to submit to Church authority. Any act in defiance of the Catholic Church was dealt with harshly, which might mean being declared outside of God's salvation (excommunicated), executed, or any number of other punishments.

Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation.

This began to change with the Protestant Reformation, which was basically an anti-Catholic European revolution sparked in 1517 by a monk named Martin Luther. Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic Church to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This small event would have a profound impact on the course of European, and even world, history.

The Protestant Reformation significantly weakened the power of the Catholic Church. It helped make education more accessible among the common people. It also impacted society in other ways by helping to promote new ideologies, such as individualism, capitalism, and democracy. Bottom line: the Protestant Reformation brought monumental changes to European social institutions.

The Rise of Nazi Germany

Let's look at another example. Nazi Germany, as we know it, was the government of Germany led by Adolf Hitler between 1933 and 1945. It was more than just a government, however: it was a way of life, a social revolution and a movement that impacted every area of society. Clubs called 'Hitler Youth' were organized to indoctrinate young minds into Nazism. There were Nazi automobile clubs. Even Christian churches were infiltrated by Nazism. The National Reich Church was formed as a hybrid of Nazism and Christian doctrine.

Hitler and his Nazi Party were able to ascend to power partly because of the conditions in Germany following its loss in World War I.

So how did this all come about? Well, it's complex and there is much debate among historians, but Germany's loss in World War I in 1918 definitely created political and social conditions that allowed the Nazis to come to power. So it's fair to say Germany's loss in World War I was a historical event that had a major impact on Germany's social institutions.

The Automobile and the 'Roaring Twenties'

Let's look at one more example. We should also remember that generally there is not one single factor or cause that results in changes to social institutions. More often than not, a host of factors work together to impact society, as this next example will show. In the United States, the automobile became popular during the 1920s, thanks to Henry Ford's Model T. Ford didn't invent the automobile, but he devised a way to produce it cheaply, which made it available for the common person.

Two young men stand on a 1923 Ford Model T.

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