Talcott Parsons Social System Theory

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons’ theory of social action has a special significance and importance in sociology. The theory of social action in the cardinal principle of Parsons sociological thought the ideas of Parsons are quite close to behaviourism. Therefore, in order to appreciate Parsons’ theory, it is important to distinguish it from behaviourism.

Social System Theory and Talcott Parsons

Before starting, it is better to distinguish between the theory of social action and behaviourism.

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In psychology, the theory of Behaviorism was propounded by Waston According to him, all behaviour, whether animal or human, was fundamental to a stimulus-response pattern. For example, there is an explosion, and a man is afraid. The fear of man is a response to the stimulus of an explosion. According to Watson, social actions are responses to various social stimuli. Behaviourism reduces all actions to a stimulus-response pattern. The view of Parsons is different. According to Parsons while animal behaviour can be explained in terms of stimulus and response, human behaviour can not be explained in this manner. According to Parsons, many factors other than stimulus and response play their part in human behaviour. In different psychological situations, different responses in two persons. Thus, Parsons’ theory of social action is quite different from that of behaviourism.


What is Behaviorism?

Despite the tremendous sociological gains made by the various branches of social behaviourism, many prominent sociologists seem to feel that it is no final answer. The ranks of social behaviourism have been decimated by persons who made significant contributions to it.

The three main branches of social behaviourism – pluralistic behaviourism, symbolic interactionism, and social-action theory – presented quite independent solutions to the same set of problems. Their points of strength are quite different. Theoretically, the weakest and methodologically the strongest branch of social behaviourism is the pluralistic behavioural branch. Its members strongly promoted and helped to develop modern sociological statistics.


The second major branch of social behaviourism – symbolic interactionism – was strong (theoretically) precisely where pluralistic behaviourism was weak. But unfortunately, it was weak (methodologically), whereas pluralistic behaviourism was strong. There is no doubt that its conceptualisation of sociological subject matter as consisting of ‘’attitudes,’’ ‘’roles.’’ ‘’languages as a social mechanism,’’ ‘’the looking-glass self,’’ ‘’the generalised other,’’ ‘’reference groups,’’ ‘’life organisation,’’ and so on, was a tremendous improvement in subtlety and precision over the conceptions of pluralistic behaviourism. To be sure, its methods showed some development – from the mere proposal of a systematic autobiography of Cooly to the attempt to set down standards for the case and life histories of Thomas and Znaniecki.


The third branch of social behaviourism, social-action theory, has suffered from a number of difficulties. The partial failure to visualize the full range of the school has not promoted its detachment from the powerful personality of Max Weber. 

What is Functionalism?

There are a number of possible meanings of ‘’function’’ that could be employed for serious sociological theory construction. Among the more important of these are:

a) function in a mathematical sense,

b) function as useful activity,

c) function as appropriate activity, and

d) function as system-determined and system-sustaining activity.


1) A function in mathematics is a variable whose values are determined by those of one or more other variables. If (x) and (y) are two variables, and if each value of (x) corresponds to one and only one value of (y), (y) may be said to be a single-valued function of x: y = f (x). In this expression, (x) is the independent and (y) the dependent variable. If more than one value if (y) corresponds to a value of (x), the variable (y) is a many-valued function of (x). historically, the theory of functions goes back to the publication of Descartes’ work on analytical geometry (1673). The evolution of the theory of functions is central to the development of mathematics,

2) The term ‘’function’’ has often been used to mean ‘’useful activity’’; in fact, it is sometimes used even for ‘’activity.’’ This usage is reflected in popular speech. Public and institutional ceremonies and activities are said to be ‘’functions.’’

3) The third usage treats function as ‘’appropriate activity,’’ a concept by no means identical to ‘’useful activity.’’ An activity can be quite useful either in fulfilling a need or in implementing a purpose without being ‘’appropriate.’’ A distorted craving for recognition may, in the opinion of the psychiatrist, drive the individual to megalomania. There is no doubt about the relationship between need and activity in the psychiatrist's mind. When he describes this as a ‘’functional disorder,’’ he judges its appropriateness concerning otherwise ‘’normal’’ operations of the system of behaviour.

4) The fourth major meaning of function is that of a ‘’system-determined and system-maintaining activity.’’ The critical property of this position is the view that social life is fundamentally incorporated into systems. In these systems, any item is to be judged in terms of its determination by the system and its place in maintaining the system. This is clearly a more inclusive meaning than either the second or the third. In fact, these meanings are sometimes taken up into the fourth.


Two significant schools of sociology functionalism are in the process of development at the present time. Since all the essentials of functionalism are manifest in both, it is rather inappropriate to expend the term ‘’functionalism’’ on only one. For want of better terms they will are described here as ‘’macro-functionalism’’ and ‘’micro-functionalism.’’ This distinction is made purely in terms of the size of the unit chosen as the basic type of system for the branch of the theory in question. The macro-functionalists basically presume the existence of relatively large-scale systems. The micro-functionalists of fairly small-scale systems. The first branch of functionalistic theory had its origins primarily in sociological organicism (though its exponents are often more inclined to trace their origins to anthropology); the second branch of functionalism had its origin primarily in gestalt psychology.


What is Structuralism?

At the general level, the term is used loosely in sociology to refer to any approach which regards social structure (apparent or otherwise) as having priority over social action.

Basic to the approach is the idea that we can discern underlying structures behind the often fluctuating and changing appearances of social reality. The model is Saussure’s structural linguistics and the notion that a language can be described as a basic set of rules that govern the combination of sounds to produce meanings. For Levi-Strauss and semiotics generally, these underlying structures are categories of the mind, in terms of which we organize the world around us. For Levi-Strauss, but not necessarily others, such categories can always be understood as binary oppositions (for example, un/down, hot/cold). 


Structural Marxism replaced these mental categories with positions in modes of production (such as those of labourer versus non-labourer) and substituted relationships to the means of production for the rules governing the production of meaning.

The structural models: the structural model of system analysis is not a single strain; it consists of a variety of approaches represented by Levi-Strauss, Nadel, Gerth and Mills, Parsons and Merton.

According to Mullins, The distinctive aspect of structuralism is its practitioners’ belief that all manifestations of social activity in any society constitute languages in a formal sense. Structuralism is a cognitive, concerned with social system logic. Levi-Strauss talks of systems playing themselves out through people. Structuralists see human behaviour as ordered by a small number of simple systems that can be described in terms of boundaries, self-regulation, and transformation rules. Boundaries define a set. Self-regulation implies control of a set’s activities rather than by either historical or external systems, and transformation is the property of moving from one state to another in a regular, lawful manner… Structuralists thus give logical and analytic priority to a whole over its parts, emphasising the complex web of relationships that link and unite those elements.


Subject and Situation in Social Action

The behaviour of an individual or society in a social context is called ‘’ Social action’’. Any social action has two main aspects. Firstly, there is an actor or a subject of social action, and, secondly, there is a context or situation in reference to which the actor performs a social action. Any social action presupposes the existence of both of these factors or elements. The actor performs the social action, and therefore, anyone who does the social action is called the subject or actor. However, a social action cannot take place in a social vacuum; there must be some situation or social context under which social action takes place. The actor and situation of social action are mutually linked; they are interdependent; the actor, by his behaviour, is also affected by the situation.

The significance of function in social action. According to Parsons, the main business of sociology is to describe and explain social action. The concourse of many individuals results in social action. In any social action, each individual performs a specific function. In social action, each individual performs a specific function. In the analysis of social action, it is important to know the function of every individual.


Types of Social Action

While discussing the meaning of social action, Parsons described the various types of social action. Talcott Parsons takes motivation or orientation as the basis of distinction among the types of action. According to Parsons, there are three forms of orientation:-

1) Cognitive Orientation: The nature of the orientation of social action determines its type. Therefore, the type of social action changes with the change of orientation. If a social action is dominantly rational or cognitive it is said to have a cognitive orientation part. It is dominated by rational considerations exclusively.

2) Cathartic or Emotional Orientation: Some social actions are predominantly emotional. Their orientation is said to be cathartic or emotional. In an emotional social action, the inspiration for the action comes from within the man. In an emotional social action, it is emotion and not a reason that plays the dominant role. For example, under the influence of the emotion of love, a man is prepared to give up all his possessions or else make some other great sacrifices; in these actions, rational considerations do not count.

3) Evaluative Orientation: The system of values plays a vital role in society. The different values inspire men to act in various ways. The actions guided by values are said to have evaluative orientation.


Talcott Parsons's Social System theory

Parsons takes ‘action’ as the building block of the system. He prefers the term ‘action’ to ‘behaviour’ because he is ‘interested not in the physical events of behaviour for their own sake but in their patterning, their meaningful, patterned products (physical, cultural, and other), ranging from implements to works of art, and the mechanisms and processes that control such patterning. An action consists of the structures and processes by which human beings form meaningful intentions and, more or less successfully, implement them in concrete situations. The social system is one of the primary subsystems of human action systems; the other three are the cultural, personality and biological systems. Because of the interpenetrations, each of the other three action systems constitutes a part of the environment of a social system.

All sociological theories of Talcott Parsons are somehow based upon his conception of social action. The overt form of social action is expressed as a role or function. The role or function presents itself in various ways. When the role is performed by an individual, then it comes under the category of personality system. On the other hand when the role is performed in the context of some cultural background, then it comes under the category of Cultural System. And if a role is being performed in a certain social context or background, then it is covered by the category of Social System.


Personality System

The personality system is concerned with the social actions of an individual. The social actions of an individual can be looked upon from two points of view. The first point of view is self regarding, that is he views his actions according to the nature of his own self. The second point of view is the evaluation of the individual's actions from the viewpoint of others.

According to Talcott Parsons, each society expects a certain standard of behaviour from its members. Those individuals who conform to these standards in their behaviour are said to have well-organized personalities and those who fail to live up to the standards of behaviour expected of them by society are disorganized. For example, in most societies, individuals are expected to be honest and truthful and, therefore, those persons who are dishonest or lie habitually are considered to have disorganized personalities.


Cultural System

When the individual system rises to the level of culture, it is known as a cultural system. The individual and society gather cultural facts. The culture is represented by certain signs or symptoms. When any action is done with reference to these cultural signs and symptoms, Parsons includes it in the category of the cultural system.

Social System

A society is made up of individuals. A number of different types of individuals live in society. They may have a common culture or may belong to different sets of cultures. According to Parsons, if all individuals in society belong to the same culture, they form a social system. Besides the commonness of culture, it is necessary for a social system that the social actions of various members of a society should be well-coordinated and should not so conflict as to destroy the social harmony. In an advanced society, certain institutions do the work of systematization of these social actions.


Functions of AGIL Model 

Parsons outlines four fundamental functions which every functioning social system must perform:

1) The function of adaptation – is to produce and allocate fluidly disposable resources.

2) The function of goal-attainment – is to maximize the capacity of the society to attain collective goals.

3) The function of integration – is to bring together motivational and cultural or symbolic elements in a certain kind of ordered system.

4) The function of pattern maintenance and tension-management – is to maintain adequate motivation to conform with cultural values, reward conformity and check disruptive behaviour.


The AGIL framework of Parsons’ theory of social system is summarized as follows:

Every social system is confronted with four functional problems. These problems are those of pattern maintenance, integration, goal attainment, and adaptation. 

Pattern maintenance refers to the need to maintain and reinforce the basic values of the social system and to resolve tensions that emerge from continuing commitment to these values. 

Integration refers to the allocation of rights and obligations, rewards and facilities, it ensures the harmony of relations between members of the social system. 

Goal attainment involves the necessity of mobilizing actors and resources in organized ways for the production or acquisition of generalized facilities or resources that can be employed in the attainment of various specific goals. 

Social systems tend to differentiate between these problems so as to increase the functional capabilities of the system. Such differentiation – whether through the temporal specialization of a structurally un-differentiated unit or through the emergence of two or more structurally distinct units from one in a differentiated unit – is held to constitute a major verification of the fourfold functionalist schema. It also provides the framework within which are examined the plural interchanges that occur between structurally differentiated units to provide them with the inputs they require in the performance of their functions and to enable them to dispose of the outputs they produce.


Systems and Subsystems

Parsons’ general theory of system recognizes four different aspects of reality – social, cultural, personality and behavioural organism. Corresponding to these four realms of reality, there are four sub-systems of action: the social, the cultural, the personality and the biological systems which are analytically separable and mutually irreducible. The social system is analytically abstractable from the total interaction process; the other three systems are the environments of the social system but all four are at the same time sub-systems of action.

The Social System

According to Parsons:- A social system consists of a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the ‘’optimization of gratification’’ and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols.

What are the units of social systems? In the most elementary sense, the unit is the act. But for most purposes of the more macroscopic analysis of social systems, Parsons prefers a higher-order unit than the act which he calls the status role. Since a social system is a system of processes of interaction between actors, it is the structure of the relations between the actors as involved in the interactive process which is essentially the structure of the social system. The system is a network of such relationships. 


Hence Parsons regards the participation of an actor in a patterned interactive relationship as the most significant unit of the social system.

The structural components of social systems are delineated in terms of two analytical constructs:

a) The normative order which involves norms and values. Norms are primarily social whereas values serve as the primary connecting link between the social and cultural systems.

b) Collectively organized population which involves collectivity, the category of intra-social structure and the roe, the category of boundary structure.

A social system may be analyzed on four levels of generality so far as its units are concerned: 

1) Individuals in roles are organized to form what we call 

2) Collectivities. Both roles and collectivities, however, are subject to ordering and control by 

3) Norms which are differentiated according to the functions of these units and to their situation, and by 

4) Values which define the desirable kind of system of relations.


The Cultural system

Parsons defines the cultural system as the aspect of action organized by the specific characteristics of symbols and the exigencies of forming stable systems of them. It is structured in terms of patterning of meaning which, when stable, implies in turn generalized complexes of constitutive symbolisms that give the action system its primary sense of direction, and which must be treated as independent of any particular system of social interaction. Thus, although there are many ramifications in such areas as language and communication, the prototypical cultural systems are those of beliefs and ideas. The possibilities of their preservation over time, and of their diffusion from one personality and/or social system into another, are perhaps the most important hallmarks of the independent structure of cultural systems.

Cultural institutions consist of cognitive beliefs, systems of expressive symbols and private moral obligations. The main function of the cultural system is the legitimation of the society’s normative order. Cultural value patterns provide the most direct link between the social and cultural systems in legitimizing the normative order of society. They define what is appropriate and what is not, not necessarily in a moral sense but in accordance with the institutionalized order.


The Personality System

Parsons views personality as the aspect of the living individual, as an ‘actor’, which must be understood in terms of the cultural and social content of the learned patterning that make up his behavioural system. Personality is autonomous as a distinct sub-system of action. It forms a distinct system articulated with social systems through their political sub-systems, not simply in the sense of government but of any collective ordering. This is to say that the primary goal output of social systems is to the personalities of their members. Parsons also claims that the personality system is the primary meeting ground of the cultural system, the behavioural organism and, secondarily, the physical world.

The main function of the personality system involves learning, developing, and maintaining through the life cycle an adequate level of motivation so that individuals will participate in socially valued and controlled activities.


The Biological System

According to Parsons, all relations between the social system and the physical environment are mediated through the behavioural organism. The perceptual processes of the organism are the source of information about the physical environment, which gains cultural organization from its conceptual and theoretical components. The organism is also the source of the instinctual components of the motivation of an individual’s personality. 

Organization and control are exhibited by one ordering of levels of the four systems. The psychological system organizes and controls the organism (in its behavioural aspects); the social system organizes and controls the psychological system and the cultural system performs similarly with respect to the social system. By an opposite ordering of a set of conditions basic to the cultural systems, psychological systems are a set of conditions on which the social systems depend, and the organism provides the conditions underlying the psychological system. 


There are characteristic interchanges among the four systems. The motivational energy part of which is fed back to the organism in the form of control that increases the performance potential of the organism between the psychological and cultural systems a mutually underprovided with legitimation by cultural components by which its functioning is made subject to normative patterns. Culture is provided with a motivational commitment by the psychological system which transcends an understanding of the norm to become a total internalization of it so that the norm becomes a part of an internal regulatory mechanism which is part of the personality system itself.

Subsystems of Social Action

Social system

Cultural system

Personality system

Biological system

integrative subsystem

pattern maintenance and tension management subsystem

goal-attainment subsystem

adaptive subsystem


Cultural value




Pattern Variables of System Theory

In delineating the structure of action Parsons initially followed the lead from tennies; gemeinschaft a Gesellschaft. However, soon he became convinced that a given structure might clearly exhibit attributes suggestive of both the polar types. The professional status-role of the physician is a case in point. In terms of the application of the general principles of medical science, the physician’s relation to his patient is Gesellschaft – but by virtue of the canon the ‘’welfare of the patient’’ should come ahead of the self-interest of the doctor, this was clearly one of gemeinschaft. Therefore, Parsons sought to identify the choices between alternatives that an actor confronts in a given situation and the relative primacies assigned to such choices. Thus he proposed the five dichotomies of pattern variables listed below:

Affectivity vs. Affective Neutrality

The pattern is effective when an organized action system emphasizes gratification, that is when an actor tries to avoid pain and maximize pleasure; the pattern is affectively neutral when it imposes discipline, and renouncement or deferment of some gratifications in favour of other interests, for example, soldiers are expected to ignore immediate gratification and be affectively neutral in their line of duty even if that involves risking their lives. Similarly, unbridled expression of emotions and impulse gratifications are negatively evaluated by cultural patterns.


Self-orientation vs. Collectivity-orientation

This dichotomy demands social norms or shared expectations which define as legitimate the pursuit of the actor’s private interests or obligate him to act in the interests of the group. Salesmen and shopkeepers are expected to glorify their products and give sales talk in accordance with self-orientation but the doctor is expected to tell the patient what is best for him, even if he can make extra money from an expensive operation. This dichotomy has nothing to do with selfish or altruistic motives which are individual character traits but with shared expectations commonly held by a collectivity.

Particularism vs. Universalism

The former refers to standards determined by an actor’s particular relations with a particular object, the latter to value standards that are highly generalized. A teacher is supposed to give grades to all students impartially, that is, in accordance with the same abstract, general, universal principles, but if he favours his son or a friend who happens be in the same class, he is behaving particularistic ally, for he is treating people differently on the basis of their particular relationship to him. To give another example: a woman on the trial jury has to be universalistic, otherwise, she will be dishonest; but as a wife, she has to be particularistic, otherwise she will be unfaithful.


Quality vs. Performance

This is the dilemma of according primary treatment to an object on the basis of what it is in itself, an inborn quality, or what it does, and the quality of its performances, the former involves defining people on the basis of certain attributes such as age, sex, colour, nationality, etc; the latter defines people in the basis of their abilities. Compulsory retirement, racial discrimination and the notion of caste superiority are based on considerations of quality. Recruitment of personnel in a modern bureaucracy based on technical qualifications and the standard tests involves consideration of performance.

Diffuseness vs. Specificity

This is the dilemma of defining the relation borne by the object to the actor as indefinitely wide in scope, infinitely brood in involvement, morally obligating, and significant in pluralistic situations (diffuseness); or specifically limited in scope and involvement (specificity). The relationship between the employer and the employees in a modern factory is specific since no obligation is assumed to exist beyond what is specified in the contract. However, certain systems of land tenure such as the semi-feudal and zamindari types are supposed to involve the tenants in an infinite variety of obligations to their masters. Similarly, patterns of friendship and husband-wife relationships are supposed to involve a limitless number of obligations.


Criticism of Talcott Parsons Theory

Parsons’ formulation of the pattern variables to categorise expectations and the structure of relations of actors in situations however suffers from serious shortcomings. If it is assumed, in the Parsonian framework, those individual actors are socialized and thus are motivated to meet the demands of societal expectations, then we can expect actors to make appropriate choices about the pattern variables, and we can predict their behaviour on the basis of information about values and normative expectations. However, there are situations in which the choice is not simply a matter of one or the other. Thus the pattern variables scheme is not as neat as it appears at first glance, either as a way of clarifying and describing role relationships or as a way of predicting people’s appropriate choices.

The first objection to parsons’ concept of pattern variables is that few of these pairs of alternatives are true dilemmas for any social actor since they are provided to actors by the norms of society, and are not freely chosen.

The second criticism of the pattern variables scheme is that even if particle norms are solved by the actor they are not necessarily solved in one way or other according to the alternatives presented by Parsons. Further, a particular solution may be part of one sort or part of another. In our society, for example, there is equality before the law. But the judge in passing a sentence may be influenced even quite consciously, by the character of the offender, which may not appeal to him.

The third criticism is that Parsons does not explain that his pairs of dilemmas exhaust the possibilities of orientation in social interaction.


Summary of the theory

Thus one may easily note the following points about Parsons’ sociological efforts. 

First, he is opposed to the view that sociology should proceed on the basis of empirical generalizations. His conception of sociology is also a rejection of philosophies and theories based on claims as to the fundamental uniqueness of historical epochs. Parsons’ theory is primarily concerned with the constants and universals of social life. 

Second, parsons attempt to hold an integrated and systematic scheme that exposes the dynamic relations between the most significant variables in the study of human society. 

Third, his attempt has been to construct a theory of sociology rather like the supply-and-demand sort of economic theory a set of concepts which are at one and the same time logically consistent, and suitable for classifying the data which sociologists might collect. It is a set of categories rather than a set of propositions.

Parsons’ sociological works, however, have produced many criticisms of which the following two are important and relevant. The first objection to Parsons’ theory is that it too strongly emphasizes consensus and value commitment at the expense of conflict, coercion and domination. Parsons seems to imply that a social system exists only in so far as there is consensus about role expectations – that is, only in so far as people understand what is expected of them and in so far as their understanding of their roles is the same. 

This has led to criticism of Parsons some European sociologists such as Dahrendrof and Lockwood, while not denying the usefulness of the consensus model, have urged for using the alternative conflict model. In the explanation of any actual social behaviour. In the United States also, sociologists such as Gross and his colleagues, while fully acknowledge their debt to Parsons in the development of role life roles. Instead of consensus being a postulate, they insist it must be treated as an empirical variable. Goffman goes further and suggests that it is simply untrue that people are socialized exactly the opposite happens and people’s personalities develop in opposition to, or against, the roles assigned to them. According to John Rex, the stability of modern industrial societies owes more to the ad hoc character of class conflict, than it does to any deep commitment to ultimate values. Social consensus, as there is in modern societies, exists within social classes which have collective goals and a common culture. The fundamental characteristic of the social system is that of structural conflict.

Parsons’ sociological outlook is, therefore, generally held basically conservative; for this theory is fundamentally static rather than dynamic. Hence Parsonian ideas are not applicable to the problems of social change. But, according to professor Robertson, Parsons has made important contributions to the study of various processes of change. Particularly in his model of structural differentiation, this has been used for the analysis of changes in small groups as well as at the level of society. 



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