On Social Institutions

The very definition of a  "social institution"

There aren't many opportunities in life, let alone the work of a sociologist, to observe the formation of a new social institution. But that is what Seoul has been witness to since around 2007, since a clearly defined culture focused around so-called "street fashion" began to form, most notably and visibly in places where like-minded individuals regularly came together around social oases of fashion, where sartorially-minded Seoulites came to be seen, and a growing few number of "street fashion" photographers came to hunt for visual pret-a-por-prey. Over the intervening years, this growing part of the fashion field  has developed as a social institution with a clearly defined social network (both in its real-world and virtual manifestions), markers of distinction and hierarchy within the group, rules of specific interacti0n and general comportment, and even (especially) a regular meeting place at a clearly-defined site to both engage in social and sartorial interaction.  This site is dedicated to the participant-documentation of this new social institution in South Korean society through hardcore and extensive, intense and in-depth, ground-level, ethnographic participant-observation. 

Rethinking colloquial definitions

The most general understanding of an "institution" is as a place, a building, or some structure in which people gather to accomplish a task. A school as an institution of learning, a bank as a financial institution, or a prison where one is institutionalized. However, the broader colloquial meaning also contains the meaning we are pursuing here, that of a more general entity that is the result of people interacting to carry out a social function, with a clear set of social roles, rules, and even a culture of doing things. In this sense, a school, the banking system, or the prison system is a social institution in any society in a broader sense than that of a specific building. In this way, K-pop fan culture, the American mafia, or prostitution in just about any society are examples of clear social institutions with their own rules, memberships,reason to exist, and social goals. It doesn't require a building, there is a clear institutional common goal and set of rules for membership, and we all have heard that the penalty for disloyalty in the mafia is to "sleep with the fishes." Seoul street fashion, especially in its concrete manifestion at DDP twice a year as Seoul Fashion Week, is clearly a real institution that simply lacks a building. 



The Dongdaemun Design Complex (DDP), Seoul, Korea

KEY CHaracteristics

a relatively finite and defined community of members, group norms, markers of status within the group, virtual 


The social institution of street fashion in Seoul is relatively clearly defined and lends itself to documenation and ethnographic study. 

The "social institution"

“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.

--  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy