Talcott Parsons (1902-82): Social system, Pattern variables | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru

Talcott Parsons (1902-82): Social system, Pattern variables

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Paper-1 ,Unit-4 : Talcott Parsons (1902-82): Social system, Pattern variables

Talcott Parsons (1902-82): Social system, Pattern variables

  1. Talcott Parsons was born in Colorado. His father at the time was a professor in English at Colorado College and vice-president of the college. Parsons studied biology, sociology, and philosophy as an undergraduate at Amherst College, receiving his Bachelor’s degree in 1924. He then studied at the London School of Economics and later earned his Ph.D. in economics and sociology from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
  2. Parsons taught at Amherst College for one year during 1927. After that, he became an instructor at Harvard University in the Department of Economics. At the time, no sociology department existed at Harvard. In 1931, Harvard’s first sociology department was created and Parsons became one of the new department’s two instructors. He later became a full professor. In 1946, Parsons was instrumental in forming the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, which was an interdisciplinary department of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Parsons served as the chairman of that new department. He retired from Harvard in 1973, however he continued writing and teaching at Universities across the United States.
  3. He was the best-known sociologist in the United States, and indeed one of the best-known in the world. He produced a general theoretical system for the analysis of society that came to be called structural functionalism.
  4. The impact of ‘the classics’ on Anglo-American sociology was, in the first instance, very much the achievement of Talcott Parsons (1902–79), whose graduate studies in the UK and Europe in the 1920s had familiarised him with the work of, among others, the trio of Marx, Weber and Durkheim . In the 1930s Parsons set out to construct a major work of theoretical synthesis, drawing especially upon the work of Weber and Durkheim. The result of his efforts, The Structure of Social Action, appeared in 1937. The work consisted in large part in the presentation of four thinkers, two of whom—Alfred Marshall, the economist, and Vilfredo Pareto, the economist/sociologist—have not enjoyed such continuing significance for sociology. This book provided the world of English-speaking sociology with its first significant and systematic presentation of the ideas of Weber and Durkheim.
  5. Parsons acknowledged Marx to be a great thinker, but argued that he remained firmly within the prevailing nineteenth-century way of thinking in the social sciences, while Weber and Durkheim had, by contrast, contributed to breaking it down.
  6. One of the main targets of Parsons’s criticism was utilitarianism, which, involves the idea that people’s actions follow fundamentally practical objectives, and that the human mind is essentially a mechanism for calculating the most effective way to get the most rewarding results. This picture captures the very essence of economics, where ‘the economic human’ is an individual with a clear set of wants and the economic capacity to fulfil some of them; he or she then sets out to figure out a way to get the most rewarding assortment of goods in terms of the resources available. In constructing its theories upon the assumption of such a rational, maximizing individual, economics is building upon the model that was very widespread in pre-twentieth-century social thought.
  7. This model, as previously noted, found its most explicit and, in some ways, most crucial expression back in the seventeenth century, in Thomas Hobbes’s. Leviathan (1994). Very briefly, Hobbes’s argument was that human beings are selfish creatures living in a world of scarce satisfactions. Each individual has wants and seeks to satisfy as many of them as possible. In working out the most efficient way of getting what they want, individuals realise that they are in competition with one another, that one person can only gain at another’s expense. Thus individuals are by nature truly selfish and see others only as obstacles or possible resources in their own pursuit of maximum satisfaction. The most logical way to achieve one’s ends, then, is either to eliminate the competition—remove others by killing them—or to turn them towards the serviceof one’s own ends, by forcing or deceiving them into compliance with one’s will.
  8. However, if every individual is conceived as a rational being, i.e. someone who operates logically, then each person will reach the same inevitable conclusion, making social life into a state of perpetual struggle. Hobbes called it a ‘war of all against all’, colourfully characterising it in a justly famous passage as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Of course, for most of us human life is not that bad, as Hobbes himself explained: valuing their own lives above all else, these rational individuals can perceive the slippery slope to mutual misery and destruction, down which they would slide if they did not accept some restrictions on their freedom of competition. These restrictions are in the form of society, as represented by the sovereign ruler to whom individuals effectively cede their autonomy.
  9. Parson also refuted positivist and idealist: The positivists believe that social actors have complete knowledge of their social situation. This leaves no room for error on the part of actors or even for variation among actors. The idealists position that social action is that realization of the social spirit and the ideas such, as of a nation or a people, and consequently pay scant attention to real everyday impediments on the ground that obstruct the free realization of ideas. Similarly, in the idealist treatment of social system, Democracy is seen simply as the fulfillment of the spirit of national. Idealism places too much emphasis on values and ideas and not enough on social practice. Weber too, in a way, belonged to this tradition for he argued that capitalism was aided in its early stages by the Protestant ethic. But it must be admitted that Weber elaborated at length certain values such as those of ‘rational asceticism’ or inner worldly asceticism’ but neglected the role of needs of search for utilities.
  10. The positivists go to the other extreme and insist that true human action is born out of full information of the situation. There is thus a finality and inflexibility in their scheme for there is only one way to act; the correct way. Consequently there is no room for values, error and variations social action.
  11. Parsons was interested in Durkheim, weber, pareto and Marshall because they were all, in their different ways, concerned to think their way out of the framework of utilitarian assumptions.
  12. The key move, which they all made, was to reject the utilitarian assumption that people’s ends are random. In a scheme like Hobbes’s, it does not matter what kinds of things people want, only that they have plenty of wants, more than can collectively be satisfied by the finite resources of the world, and it is this simple fact which makes them competitors. In such reasoning, the way people come by their wants, or the nature of these wants, is essentially irrelevant; viewed as a theoretical system, the ends might as well be random.
  13. Durkheim, weber and the others had perceived, however, that people’s ends are not random; they are socially acquired and, in consequence, are related to one another in systematic ways. For example, Durkheim examines the notion of anomic suicide in terms of the way people’s wants are patterned; they are shaped by ocial arrangements which accord with the hierarchy of stratification and embody normative requirements which prescribe proper and acceptable wants.
  14. On this basis, Parsons thought that a start could be made on developing a general scientific scheme for understanding human life. Between his first major work and his next there was a fourteenyear break though Parsons did publish many essays in that time. Then, in 1951, he published two books, one self-authored, The Social System, the other a collaborative work, Toward a General Theory of Action. In a way, Parsons had retreated from the ambitions he had held in 1937, but the plan laid out in these two books was none the less grandiose. Toward a General Theory drew its contributors from across several disciplines; necessarily so, for Parsons sought to lay out a ground plan for a large range of the social sciences—or ‘sciences of action’, as he called them. Thus psychology, sociology, economics, political science and other disciplines were all to be unified within a single theoretical framework, which was basically devised by Parsons. The Social System was the sociological element in the project, showing how this general scheme, this general theory of action, would be developed in sociology. Parsons drew from the work of his four theorists a picture of social life involving motivated compliance.
  15. Motivated compliance: Social life does work, rather than disintegrating into Hobbes’s war of all against all. It works not only because people go about their activities in ways that are socially prescribed, but also because they believe these ways to be right and therefore they actually want to follow them.

Social System:

Parsons’s concept of the social system is developed in the nature of a general sociological theory which can be applied for the study of both the simple primitive societies as well as the complex modern industrial societies. Parsons has developed his theory from the level of action to the social system. His conceptual scheme is provided to analyse the structure and processes of social system.

Parsons formulates his approach to the social system through his theory of social action which is an intrinsic element of the social system. Parsons own approach to the social system is integrative in nature since he not only brought out the significance of motivational factors, such as those present in the utilitarian perspective in the formation of the system, but also that of values.

Action, according to Parson does not take place in isolation. It is not empirically discrete but occurs in constellations” which constitute system. The concept of action, according to Parson, is derived from behaviour of human beings as living organisms. As living organisms, they interact (orientate) with outside reality as well as within their own mind.

Behaviour becomes action when four conditions are present:

  • It is oriented to attainment of ends or goals or other anticipated affairs,
  • It occurs in situations,
  • It is regulated by norms and values of society, and
  • It involves in investment of ‘energy’ or motivation or effort.

For example, a lady driving an automobile to go to a temple. She is probably going to offer prayers. In this case then the offering of the prayer is her end or goal to which she is oriented. Her situation is the road on which she is driving and the car in which she is sitting. Moreover, her behaviour is regulated by social norms or values in which the offering of prayers is recognized as desirable. In addition, she is applying her intelligence in the skill of driving which is learnt from society. Finally, the very act of driving the car implies expenditure of energy, holding the wheel, regulating the accelerator and skilful negotiation through the traffic on the road. When behaviour is seen in this analytical context, it can be defined as action.

As mentioned earlier, action according to Parsons does not occur in isolation but occurs in constellations: These constellations of action constitute system. These systems of action have three modes of organization which Parsons describes as The personality system, the cultural system and the social system.

He proposed that the actual operating life of a society is made up of the following elements:

  1. The abstract patterns of behaviour (cultural system) which prescribe what individuals should properly or appropriately do in particular cases. FOR EXAMPLE, the highway code prescribes how fast drivers should drive under what conditions and how they should co-ordinate with fellow motorists;
  2. The pattern of ongoing activity, (social system)i.e. how actual people in actual situations behave in ways, which (roughly, more or less) accord with the abstract patterns. FOR EXAMPLE, in traffic on the road, drivers are busy looking out for what others are doing, and tactically adjusting their driving to accommodate and avoid one another, such action depending in various ways upon the conventions of the highway code being respected by most, if not all, drivers;
  3. The personalities, or characteristic patterns of preference, of reaction and so forth of the individuals carrying out these patterns (personality system). For example in traffic they act as drivers, and they interact with one another in terms of their characters: some drive much more quickly than others, some are more respectful of others’ rights on the road, some get angry with traffic conditions, and others remain calm.

However, the great majorities of these drivers abide broadly by the rules of the road (Motivated Compliance) and do so not merely from prudence, for safety’s sake, or from nicely calculated considerations as to just how much adherence to the rules would maximise their self-interest, but because they think it is the right thing to do. They regard these rules as binding on themselves and on others. They can become indignant with other drivers just because those drivers show disregard for the rules of the road, even though the infraction of these rules may cause them no danger, nor harm them in any way.

Motivated compliance’ means no more than the drivers being motivated to abide by the rules of the highway code, but this illustration of the idea draws attention to the way actual situations in society are made up of three ‘action systems’, as Parsons called them:

  • Cultural System—the pattern of ideas, principles, etc. which abstractly specifies how people should behave;
  • Social system—the ordered patterns of activity and relationship among individuals as they go about their affairs in conjunction, even collaboration, with one another;
  • Personality System—the psychic make-up of individuals which affects how they behave in actual situations, how they go about doing things and how they react to other people. Parsons argues that any society has to provide somehow for the integration of these three elements.

Integrating culture, social system and personalities

Somehow, things will have to work out so that:

  • Culture will prescribe what people should do in ways which will prove practically effective, relative to what people want to do.
  • The pattern of activities and relationships in which people engage will prove capable of allowing the prescriptions of the culture to be effectively followed out (a good deal of the time).
  • The personality structures of the parties to social life will have that which will enable them to associate with others, to participate in conjoint, collective ventures, and to accept and comply with the demands that the culture lays on them.

Cultures, social systems and personalities have to interact in integrated ways if there is to be any social order. Cultures have to be organised in ways such that their prescriptions will be viable in practical affairs (if cultures demand impractical things of their members, then those members will soon either abandon the culture or die out). The different prescriptions for the actions of an individual have to fit together with those that other individuals abide by, otherwise they would always be acting at cross purposes, nothing requiring their joint participation would ever get done, and no social system would have even temporary stability. Imagine if drivers had different cultural instructions as to which directions they were to drive in on the roads.

Social activities themselves have to be organised in ways that will offer sufficient involvement of the personality types who will participate in them; if people are utterly frustrated and completely alienated by the demands of participation in some activity, e.g. a pathological fear of competition, they are going to be very resistant to being involved in society, e.g. competitive sports. Parsons insists that these are the minimal condition for social order. A society can, of course, tolerate the fact that there will be some, relatively few, people who follow different prescriptions, or have personalities incongruous with (say) the generally competitive character of American culture, but it can only operate if the ‘lack of fit’ in such cases is confined to the relatively few.

Without sufficient integration between the culture, the social system and the individual personality, social relationships cannot be organised and carried on. Of course, ‘sufficient’ is far from being a precise notion. In view of the hostile response which Parsons’s work eventually met, we should draw attention here to the fact that he does not see the integration of culture, social system and personality as either automatic or complete—far from it. In dealing with something as complex as the order of a society, its pattern of institutions and relationships, its culture built up over its history, and the varied personalities of its numerous members, we should recognise that integration is highly problematic.

In any ongoing society which is not collapsing into internecine strife, it must be the case that there is a level of integration, since things are getting done, people are acting broadly in line with their cultural prescriptions, and many individuals are engaged in and committed to activities. The perceptible stability of society indicates that its members (or the great majority of them, for most of the time) are not alienated, in the sense of ‘turned off’. However, there may not be thoroughgoing integration, since some aspects of the culture may conflict with the way the social system is organized, and the way both are organized may impose deprivations on participants’ personalities.

In any real society, many people may not be so disenchanted with their jobs that they would rather give them up, so opposed to authority that they would rather fight their supervisor than do what he or she says, or so contemptuous of the law that they would happily violate it. Nevertheless, those same people may be unhappy in their work, reluctant to comply with their supervisor, and so uncommitted to a law-abiding existence that they may not pass up every temptation to transgress. Parsons recognizes just such possibilities. They are partly what we mean by the integration of culture, social system and personality being problematic, i.e. the working out of the interconnections between them is neither automatic nor guaranteed. Although any real society must have exceeded the ‘minimal’ requirements of integration—as testified to by the sheer fact of its existence—none the less it is an empirical question as to how far beyond this minimum the integration extends.

It is also a logical consequence of Parsons’ systems analysis that there will be tendencies for the system to counterbalance tendencies towards disintegration, to contain dissidence, to keep dissidents isolated from one another, thereby preventing them from building up collectively organised opposition to the dominant culture, and redirecting their deviations into ways that do not damage overall integration. The system ‘handles and channels’ social disturbances, although there is no theoretical guarantee that disturbances will never overwhelm the system. In talking about the achievement and surpassing of this ‘minimal’ level, Parsons is not discussing the ways the members of the society, through conscious, deliberative processes, ‘work out’ solutions to the problem of integration between these three aspects of social reality. Such matters do not exercise the members. The terms in which these issues are formulated are analytical and sociological; Parsons is talking from a ‘system standpoint’ about the way things work themselves out; how the social order through the interaction and mutual effects of the culture, social system and personality becomes at least minimally integrated. If societies did not satisfy these minimal requirements then they would not be there for us to study; the fact that there is a society to study means that it has somehow met the minimal requirements of social integration. How far it is integrated depends on how much more than the minimum has been effected. It is important to note that the three elements Parsons identifies are ‘integrated’ in the minimal sense that any actual, concrete social situation is made up of all three of them. These three elements are all mixed up in actual situations. In fact, says Parsons, they interpenetrate one another. People in social relations do not just stand in purely personal relationships, but relate to one another on the basis of social positions (the status, or status roles) they occupy.

Hence two individuals in a workplace stand not just as ‘Joe’ and ‘Jim’ but as, say, a worker and his supervisor. Their respective positions are not just a matter of what they are doing, but of rights and entitlements, e.g. Jim may be entitled to give Joe orders, and Joe required to do as Jim tells him. In other words, a work relationship, like any other, is a matter of rights and responsibilities, i.e. it includes cultural elements, and these cultural elements go to make up the social system. In its turn, the social system becomes part of the personality of its participants; the position that one holds, the job one occupies, is not merely a matter of external requirements, but is, obviously, bound into and constitutive of the way one thinks of oneself. The kind of position one occupies is contributory to one’s self-esteem. Further, in so far as one identifies with one’s job, then of course one comes to regard the things one is entitled to do and to be responsible for not simply as things to be done because they are formally required, but as things one would want to do even if not required to do them. In this way, the cultural requirements and responsibilities of a job become part of one’s personality.

In Parsons’s terms, the social system is made up of cultural elements and of personalities. The social system and the culture interpenetrate because the latter is institutionalised in the former. In one sense, a social system is a pattern of institutionalised culture, i.e. a set of rules and requirements which have become accepted as defining how people should act and relate to one another, just as the highway code is ubiquitously accepted as saying how drivers should handle their vehicles and communicate with and respect the drivers of other vehicles. The connection between the social system and the personality is through internalisation.


This concept refers to the ways the members of society come to make the requirements of their various positions an integral part of their personality by ‘taking over’ these requirements and building them into their own convictions about how and what they should do. For Example, when we see other persons breaking a rule of the road we may become indignant because we feel that we personally have been affronted by what was done. Since a social system is itself significantly institutionalised culture, when people internalise the social system, i.e. identify with their position in it, they also internalise culture because their position in the social system is made up of institutionalised culture.

Basic Unit of Organisation of a Social System

The social system has a mode of organization of action which is called Role. It is the basic conceptual unit of the social system and it incorporates the individual actor’s total system of action. It is also a point of intersection between the system of action of an individual actor and the social system. The primary element of role, according to Parsons is role-expectation. It implies reciprocity between the actor and his/her alter (the other persons), and is governed by a range of motivational and value orientations.

The organisation of unit acts into social systems involves the motives and values which link it to the personality systems in the first case and to the cultural system in the second.

Orientation of action can be divided into two components: the motivational orientation and the value orientation.

  • Motivational orientation refers to a situation in which action takes place taking into account needs,
    external appearances and plans.
  • Value orientation is based on considerations of standard of values, aesthetics, morality and of
  1. The range of motivational orientations is three These are the cognitive, the cathetic and the evaluative orientations.
    • The cognitive orientation makes actors see their environment or subject in relation to their need dispositions as a mental object. They, i.e. the actors, attempt to understand objectively the subject matter of observation.
    • The cognitive orientation involves emotional attitude of actors towards their object, and
    • The evaluative orientation leads the actors to organize their effort in realization of their object with optimum efficiency.
      • Take for example the bahaviour of a housewife going to the market to purchase vegetables. The cognitive orientation enables her to judge the quality of vegetables in relation, to her need and need in relation to its prices; the cathetic orientation would determine her likeness for a particular vegetable and Evaluative orientation would make it possible for her to make a choice of a vegetable which gives her maximum satisfaction.

2. The range of value orientations also comprises three parts. These are the cognitive, the appreciative and the moral.

  • The cognitive orientation is one which relates to the issue to validity of judgments.
  • The appreciative orientationis that which makes it possible for actors to judge their
    emotional response to object, its appropriateness or consistency.
  • The moral orientation is one which refers to value commitment of an actor towards his or her

The example of a housewife buying vegetables reveals only the motivational orientation of the housewife. But in value orientation it is the value system and the cultural pattern of the society which is involved. The individual actors act in the context of this cultural-pattern. For example, the role and status of a son in his family is guided by certain values & norms of the society. As a son in a patriarchal family, he was a different status than as a son in a matriarchal family. His bahaviour will be guided by the values & norms of the society.

Thus, the motivational orientation involves only the motives or psychological aspects of the individual while the value orientation involves the cultural system. Both, the psychological and the cultural aspects of individual behaviour are, however, interlinked and interdependent.

  • Institutionalization of Roles in a Social System: In a social system roles are institutionalized. Institutionalization means that expectations from a specific role, its values and motivational orientations are integrated within the culture of a society. Society sets common standards for role expectations from its members, and when an actor imbibes these standards common to society in the orientations and performance of his/her roles, the roles are said to have been institutionalized.

To explain the choices of action available to individuals in the social systems as a collectivity, Parsons has developed the concepts of pattern variables.

Pattern Variables:

Role being the most vital element of the social system, its performance generates forces of strain or tension. The extent of strain depends on the way roleexpectations are institutionalized in society and also on the degree to which the values of roleexpectations are internalized by social actors. In relation to motivational orientation and value orientation, in the performance of roles, each actor faces dilemmas. These dilemmas emanate from strains in an individual’s choice of or preference within a range of orientations both related to needs and to values. If these dilemmas were dichotomous in character, the actor must choose between the options, before she or he can act with respect to the situation. For example, in a situation which requires an actor to choose between universalistic values or particularistic values, the actor can choose only one of them.

There are five pattern variables of role-definition that Parsons discusses, although he says that there are many more possibilities.

  • Affectivity versus affective neutrality
  • Self-orientation versus collectivity orientation
  • Universalism versus Particularism
  • Ascription versus Achievement
  • Specificity versus diffuseness.
  1. Affectivity versus affective neutrality: The dilemma here is in deciding whether one expresses their orientation in terms of immediate gratification (affectivity) or whether they renounce immediate gratification in favor of moral interests (affective-neutrality). parsons says, ”no actor can subsist without gratifications, while at the same time no action system can be organized or integrated without the renunciation of some gratifications which are available in the given situation”
  2. Self-orientation versus collectivity orientation: The main issue is that of moral standard in the procedure of evaluation. The moral standard arises from the fact that actor has. to make a choice between his or her own gratification and its determent for the good of a larger number of people, a collectivity. Some form of altruism and self-sacrifice is involved. The dilemma of this pattern variable has always been present in human life from primitive mode of economy and society to modern civilization. The notion of socialist society offers us a good example where a whole social system and patterns of its institutions are based on the dominant choice in favour of collectivity orientation. But as Parsons has rightly pointed out, institutionalization of such values is always fragile.
  3. Universalism versus particularism: Defines the role situation where the actor’s dilemma is between the cognitive versus the cathetic (or emotional standards) evaluation. Examples of roles adhering to universalistic standards of human behaviour are role performance which goes strictly- be legal norms and legal sanctions. If one abides by the rule of law irrespective of personal, kinship or friendship considerations’ then that would be an example of the universalistic mode of role performance. If one violates legal norms only because the person involved is a kin or a friend, then particularistic considerations would be said to be operating. Parsons says that in societies where the role of the bureaucracy of the formal organisations and modern institutions has become widespread there the dilemmas of universalisms and Particularism have become a matter of choice in everyday life.
  4. Ascription versus achievemenDilemma in the ascription versus achievement pattern variable is based on whether or not the actor defines the objects of his or her role either in terms of quality or performance. In India a very good example of this pattern variable is the role performance governed by the caste system. Ascription is based on assigning certain quality to a person either by birth, or age, or sex or kinship or race. Achievement is based on personal acquisition of skills and levels of performance in society.
  5. Specificity versus diffusenessThe specificity versus diffuseness pattern variable concerns the scope of the object of role performance. Scope, in this case, is to be understood in terms of the nature of social interaction. Some social interaction, such as between doctors and patients, or between buyers and sellers of goods in the market, has a very specific scope. The nature of these interactions is defined in terms of very precise context of interaction. Some role relationships are very general and encompassing in nature. Such roles involve several aspects of the object of interaction. Some examples of such role relationship are friendship, conjugal relationship between husband and wife, relationship between kin of various degrees. The scope of interaction is flexible, open and encompassing in nature.
  1. The pattern variables, not only define the nature of role interaction and role expectations in social system but provide, in addition the overall direction in which most members of a social system choose their roles. It also gives us in idea about the nature of the social system. For Example, take the family as a social system: the role expectations within the family amongst its members can be said to be affective, largely collectivity oriented, particularistic, ascriptive and diffuse.
  2. On the contrary,we can take the example of our membership in a medical association or bar association, or student association: here role expectations and standards of role performance would largely be oriented towards pattern variables of affective neutrality, self-orientation (due to competition), universalism, achievement and specificity. But these are extreme examples. In real life the dilemma of choices in terms of pattern variables are much more precarious and full of strain than we find in the examples we have mentioned.
  3. The dilemma of role performance where evaluation involved in relation to a situation. How much a situation should be evaluated in emotional terms of with a degree of emotional neutrality? This poses a difficult choice in most roles that we are expected to perform in society. Take for example the mother-child relationship. It has high degree of affective orientation, but discipline is also required. So on many occasions a mother would have to exercise affective-neutral role in relation to her child’s socialization. But mother-child relationship is essentially dominated by affectivity. In comparison, doctorpatient relationship brings out the aspect of affective neutrality that characterizes a doctor’s role. Affective-neutrality is essential for proper medical care, especially where surgical treatments are involved. But according to Parsons in all role performance situations the dilemma of choice and its degree of expression or commitment remains.
  4. Talcott Parsons’ concept of pattern variables bridges the gap between social action and social system . Social system may be characterised by the combination of solutions offered to these dilemmas. These pattern variables structure any system of interaction.

Systems theory:

In Parsons’s usage the idea of system is important. It is an abstract general term used to capture anything from a two-person conversation to the international system of nation states and underpins Parsons’s whole analysis.


A system has persistent identity in an environment; it is distinct from its environment, but must transact with it so it is an open system. For example, a mouse as a living creature is an open system; the mouse is not the same as its environment, but it must take in necessities (air, food) from the environment and must release waste products into it. The overriding task of the system to maintain its own identity in the face of that environment involves two main aspects:

  1. The regulation of transactions with the environment;
  2. The maintenance of effectively operating relations inside the system itself.

On the basis of these very simple assumptions, Parsons attempted to provide a completely general analysis of the way social systems operate. After the books of 1951 Parsons saw a new way to develop his analysis, largely (or so he claimed) as a result of an association with Robert F. Bales, a social psychologist who had been trying to develop a general model to describe the behaviour of task-oriented small groups. Bales saw such groups as going through four phases:

  1. They gather together the things they need to do a task;
  2. Then they organise themselves into carrying out the task; and, in doing so,
  3. They manage their own internal relations, e.g. stifling quarrels and keeping people interested; and when they have successfully completed their task
  4. They relax for a while into task-unrelated activities before gathering themselves for the next task

Parsons adapted these four phases into the four-phase model of system exchanges.The elaboration of this model and its application to various situations was the abiding focus of his subsequent work.

Talcott Parsons was The single greatest contributor, and practitioner, of structural functionalism. The heart of Parsons’s theory is built on the four functional imperatives, also known as the AGIL system. According to him all system such as the family, the economy or the polity has a boundary which they maintain in order to subsist. This self-maintenance of systems is possible because human actors as social beings are socialized in society and their motivational and value orientations accordingly are patterned. In order to maintain itself, social systems have to perform some indispensable adjustment between is internal organization and outer environment.

Social systems, Parsons argues, also have a self-adjustive and self-maintaining quality. These adjustment processes which maintain the social system internally and through its boundary conditions are called functions. Functions are processes of system’s self-maintenance.

There are certain functions without which a social system cannot subsist: these are called ‘functional prerequisites’ by Talcott parsons.

  • Adaptation
  • Goal attainment
  • Integration, and
  • Latency

The scope of functioning of these functional prerequisites is further defined in terms of whether they deal with processes external or internal to the system. They are also defined in terms of the nature of interaction as such, whether it is Consummatory or whether it is instrumental. Consummatory is where the emphasis is on achieving some desired end and instrumental is where the emphasis is on the acquisition and incorporation of means to achieve ends.

  1. Adaptation: Adaptation as a functional prerequisite implies generation and acquisition of resources from outside the system, its external environment and to effect its distribution in the system. External environment in this case means land, water, etc. As an example we can mention the economic system, which involves resource utilization, production and distribution in the society. Adaptation is oriented to factors external to the system and it has an instrumental character.
  2. Goal-Attainment: Involves; firstly, the determination of goals, secondly, the motivating of members of the system of attain these goals, and thirdly, the mobilizing of the members and of their energies for the achievement of these goals. Its processes are Consummatory in character although it does involve external interaction. The organization of the power and authority structure in a social system is an example of an institution where goal attainment is the primary thrust. The political processes are its examples. It needs to be goal attainment is related to the ideological and organisation set up of the social system.
  3. Integration: Functional prerequisite which helps to maintain coherence, solidarity and coordination in the system. In the social system this function is mainly performed by culture and values. Integration ensures continuity, coordination and solidarity within the system; it also helps in safeguarding the system from breakdown or disruption. This functional prerequisite is internal to the system and has a Consummatory character.
  4. Latency: Functional prerequisite of the social system which stores organizes and maintains the motivational energy of elements in the social system. Its main functional are pattern maintenance and tension management within the system. This function is performed by the socialisation process of the members of the social system. Its main functions are pattern maintenance and tension management within the system. Parsons’s view the function of tension management must take place internally in all institutions.

Of course, within a complex system not all parties will be involved to the same extent in all phases, and different parts of the system will specialise predominantly in one or other of these activities on behalf of the rest of the system. We can structurally dismember a system in terms of the priorities that the different parts give to the functional phases of the system as a whole. It is important to note that for Parsons it is systems all the way down, i.e. the question of ‘what is the system?’ is relative, depending upon the purposes of analysis. For example the family can be treated as a part, i.e. a subsystem, of the society’s social system; or it can be treated as the system itself, so that the relation of husband and wife, of father to daughters, of mother to daughters, and so on, are seen as sub-systems of the family system. Thus Parsons’s categories apply to systems and their sub-systems and their sub-subsystems. Of course, any sub-system will not engage purely in one of the four functions, for each subsystem will have to satisfy its own functional requirements. For examplewithin the four phases of society the family can be allocated to the latency phase, for people at home with their families are often taking time out from other social commitments, relaxing, engaging in leisure pursuits and building up their capacity to face another day at the office or whatever. However, if we decide to analyse the family as a system in its own right, then its activities will also have to go through the AGIL cycle, and we might find that within the family some members specialise in one or other of these functionsFor example, in the traditional nuclear family the wife/mother specialised rather more in integrative activities than other members; she was held responsible for smoothing relations between the others, providing comfort and support for those in distress or under pressure.

In the AGIL model the issue of internal relations within the system came to dominate the latter phase of Parsons’s work. He sought to understand the interchanges between the functionally differentiated phases. For example, the adaptive phase (A) involves the accumulation of the means for transforming the environment for the system, but if these means are to be put to use in goal attainment (G), then they have to be handed over to those engaged in these goal-attaining activities. There has to be some incentive, some return, if those involved in the A phase are to make resources—or facilities, as Parsons often talks of them—available to the G phase. If people keep on handing over things without any reward or return, they are likely to feel resentful and, eventually, will become fully alienated. For any system to work there have to be some (at least minimally) balanced exchanges between the various phases. For an overly simple example the government fulfils the goal-attainment function for the society, seeking to direct the society as a whole towards its objectives (such as economic growth or national glory, or some combination of both). The economy is the adaptive component of the society, i.e. producing resources out of the society’s natural and social environment. Obviously, the running of government consumes resources, both to support its existence as an organised structure and to pursue its policies, so the adaptive system must hand over some of its product to government. Equally clearly, the government has to deliver something to the economy, and we can see that some of its policies sustain, enhance and gratify those who work in business.

Parsons’s scheme is intended to be used in subtler, delicate ways, but it should be possible to see how it can be elaborated. One way is with reference to the patterns of interface and exchange between the different phases (for EXAMPLE, the I and L phases also need facilities). Another is the way that these exchange patterns are nested inside each other, as we uncover by investigating the hierarchy of sub-systems, their interrelations with the system in which they are included, and their own internal exchanges.

Since the AGIL model applies to a two-person situation as well as to the level of the total society, and to everything in between, the elaboration of these patterns is necessarily complex and sophisticated.

Complementing this are four action systems, each of which serve a functional imperative: the behavioral organism performs the adaptive function; the personality system performs goal attainment; the social system performs the integrative function; and the cultural system performs pattern maintenance. Parsons saw these action systems acting at different levels of analysis, starting with the behavioral organism and building to the cultural system. He saw these levels hierarchically, with each of the lower levels providing the impetus for the higher levels, with the higher levels controlling the lower levels.

Parsons was concerned primarily with the creation of social order, and he investigated it using his theory based on a number of assumptions, primarily that systems are interdependent; they tend towards equilibrium; they may be either static or involved in change; that allocation and integration are particularly important to systems in any particular point of equilibrium; and that systems are self maintaining. These assumptions led him to focus primarily on order but to overlook, for the most part, the issue of change.

Pattern variables illustrate in a precise manner the principal types of clustering of social structures. Parsons mentions four such types.

  • The universalistic-achievement pattern
  • The universalistic-ascription pattern
  • The particularistic-achievement pattern
  • The particularistic-ascription pattern
  1. The Universalistic-Achievement Pattern: It is a type of structure of social system in which those value-orientations are dominant which encourage achievement based on legal rational methods among members of society. It exemplifies modern industrial societies where the governing values are those of equality, democracy, freedom of enterprise, rational management and openness in social interaction. Divisions of society based on caste, ethnicity or other particularistic values do not go well with this social system. EXAMPLE.. the American society.
  2. The Universalistic-Ascription Pattern: Type of configuration of roles which makes a kind of social system in which values of legal rationality are encouraged in performance of roles but the distribution of authority is not on the basis of equality or democracy. Modern principles of science and technology are employed in work and occupation in industry and communication but the distribution of these takes place on ascriptive principles, such as membership to particular principles, such as membership to a particular ideological association, or party, or cult. Parsons believes that Nazi Germany is an example of one such society.
  3. The Particularistic-Achievement Pattern: This society was dominated by values of familism’. By ‘familism’ we mean the notion of continuity with ancestors (ancestor worship), strong ties of kinship, but where the female subordination in the society. But at the same time, the society also emphasized achievement and a “code of propriety” in the conduct of roles which was equivalent to legal rationality (universalistic principle). This type of social structure, according to Parsons, is best seen in the classical Chinese society. All these features were contained in Confucianism which was the official ethic in classical China. The dominance of universalism along with the ascription principle can be seen in the recruitment of government servants in China who mostly belong to Communist Party of China.
  4. The Particularistic-Ascription Pattern: Types of social structure in which the roles are organized in terms of values which are associated with kinship, birth and other ascriptive features. In social structures of this kind, achievement through individual effort is not encouraged. Work, in this type “is considered as necessary evil just as morality is a necessary condition of minimum stability” says Talcott Parsons. Overwhelming emphasis, in this kind of society, is placed on expressive or artistic orientations. Society is traditionalistic as there is no incentive to disturb tradition and a strong vested interest exist in favour of stability. Spanish Americans” in the USA exemplify this type of social structure.


  • The early approaches to the study of social systems, such as the utilitarian, the positivist and the idealist approaches. Parsons did not accept these approaches because the utilitarians stressed too much on external, motivational factors, the positivist left no room for error on the part of social actors or values and the idealist stressed to much on values. Thus, as an alternative, Parsons, developed his own action approach’ theory which is integrative in nature. In this theory he has included the motivational orientation as well as the value orientations.
  • Parsons has described role as the most vital element of social systems. In performance of roles individuals are confronted with dilemmas which in turn emanates from choices offered by the society within a range of orientations, both motivational and value. The dichotomy in the nature of orientations described by Parsons in his pattern variables determines the course of action followed by individuals in society.
  • Functional prerequisites, such as, adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency without which a socials system cannot exist. The types of structures of social system analysed by Parson based on the criteria of universalism, Particularism, ascription and achievement, Parsons has given the Example of these types of social systems from real societies.
An assessment of parsons:
  1. Parsons has powerful influences on American sociology for more than two decades and shaped a whole generation of sociologists. Some of his important students included Robert Merton, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore, Marion J. Levy, Neil Smelser, Harold Garfinkel etc.
  2. Parsons achievements lie in the fact that he made a successful break with the empiricist tradition of American sociology which was bogged down into minute. He started with the ambitious objective of synthesizing diverse element into a single conceptual structure for the whole of sociology which also serve to integrate all other social sciences. Constituent elements of his theoretical system were drawn from British utilitarian economics, French positivism and German historicism. While such an enterprise provided a corrective to over empiricism of American sociology, his theoretical model became too grand to be of any empirical value.
  3. Parsons attempted to blend action theory with functionalism by using the concepts of ‘pattern variables’ and ‘systemic analyses. However, due to these very concepts, he ended up in subordinating action theory of system. His whole analysis is based upon an over-socialized conception of man
  4. He has shown too much of a preoccupation with order and equilibrium. This has rendered his theory status-quo oriented. Social conflict and social change have not been given adequate importance in his scheme.
  5. His concept of power is also characterized by a functionalist bias and his functionalism is teleological. Too much of importance has been attached to values and norms.
  6. Parsons was much criticised, more so than any other figure in modern sociology, even his inability to write plain, concise English being held against him. Much of this criticism is superficial as well as repetitive and can be placed aside without too much difficulty. Three initial points of criticism need to be dealt with:
    • Society is portrayed as a perfect harmony, devoid of conflict.
    • This portrayal partly derives from Parsons’s neglect of the source of social conflict, namely, the unequal distribution of power.
    • By emphasising harmony and excluding conflict, Parsons’s theory cannot explain social change.
  7. All three of these criticisms have limitations. That Parsons did not consider change, conflict and power in the same way as his critics is not to say that his theory could not deal with them. In fact, in his later writings Parsons went out of his way to do so. From the start, the assumption behind Parsons’s theorising is that the functional organisation and integration of the society are problematic; the integration of such complex arrangements involved in a whole society must take place in an intricate and thorough way, with difficulties and failures. Any real society has to be less than completely integrated, and it is only to be expected that there are many discontinuities and incongruities in society between and within its different spheres and their organisation. Such discontinuities and incongruities show up as tensions, if not outright conflicts.
  8. Further, Parsons does not assume that a highly (though not perfectly) integrated society would not and could not change. After all, to assume in biology that a living organism must be meeting its functional requisites for survival does not translate into the assumption that the organism is immortal, continuing interminably to fulfil its functional requirements, or that while surviving it will remain unchanged, never ageing, or developing illnesses. An idea of a functional system attaining an internal balancing between its parts introduces an idea of equilibrium, of things developing to a stable point and then remaining unchanged, and Parsons’s model might suggest that this is what he has in mind. Though the idea of equilibrium certainly has its place, he eschews the idea that there is only one kind of equilibrium, for there is the type known as the moving equilibrium, commonly found with respect to living organisms. An organism can be in equilibrium in that its organs or parts are all healthy and functioning well, but it does not mean that the organism does not change, for, of course, the organism, while remaining healthy and surviving, grows and ages. Parsons had this kind of equilibrium in mind for society, and change is integral to this idea. Among his very last works were two short books (1966, 1971) prepared for an introductory series in which Parsons sought to give a general account of the long-term evolution of Western society, from its origins in (particularly) ancient Greek and Judaic culture (an interpretation heavily indebted to Weber).

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