Key Theories of Parsons Talcott

p0102American sociologist who, as the principal exponent of what is known as structural functionalism, exerted a major influence over social theory in the middle part of the twentieth century. Parsons Talcott‘s (1902-1979), work continues to have an impact in German sociology, specifically in debates over systems theory (Habermas 1987;Luhmann 1982).

At the core of Parsons’s work one may situate the ‘problem of order’. Social life is ordered. Meaningful interaction between social agents (what Parsons terms ‘social action’) has every appearance of stability, and the social institutions upon which agents rely typically behave in a predictable way. Shops and schools open and close at predictable times. Money keeps its value. The meanings of words do not change. Yet there is little that is self-evident about this order, for, as the seventeenth-century philosopher Hobbes had already suggested, the natural condition of humanity appears to be that of war, where selfish individualism is allowed to assert itself unconstrained. Less dramatically but more pertinently, nineteenth-century social scientists explored the tension that occurs in social life between that which is rational or predictable, and its non-rational ground (such as the religious values that for Weber underpin the rise of modern capitalism, or the traditional morality that for Durkheim makes the modern economic contract workable) (Parsons 1937).

Parsons wants to establish the conditions that make order possible, or in other words, to establish how the actions of individuals come to be co-ordinated into stable overarching structures. To do so he develops a complex theoretical model of social action, that abstracts from the contingencies of mundane life. The theory of social action can be seen to begin from a model of just two agents, A and B. If A and B are to interact, then A must base her action upon expectations as to what B will do, and vice versa. There is here what Parsons calls a ‘double contingency’, that suggests that, prima facie, stable social interaction is impossible, for an action presupposes knowledge of the way in which others will act in the as-yet unknown future. Here would be Hobbes’s clash of mutually uncomprehending warriors. In responding to this problem, Parsons recognises that social agents are rarely if ever completely unknown to each other. One possibility is that A does not respond to B as a unique individual, but rather as to one who occupies a role (e.g. teacher, police officer, administrator, parent). Social roles come complete with precise normative expectations about how the occupant of the role will behave. Social order is established in part through the internalisation of roles, and the norms and values that serve to define them, by the agent, and the institutionalisation of these values throughout society (Parsons 1951).

Parsons develops this model by drawing upon a form of systems theory developed in cybernetics, but also from the functionalist social psychology of R. F. Bales (see Parsons and Bales 1955). A system may be understood, broadly, as a stable and organised structure that exists within an environment. It is argued that any system, if it is to maintain itself in a stable equilibrium, must satisfy four prerequisites. These are adaptation (i.e. the system must adapt itself to its environment); goal attainment (i.e. setting and pursuing the specific objectives of the system); integration (i.e. keeping the system together as a whole); and pattern-maintenance (i.e. motivating the elements within the system to perform the tasks demanded of them). Any stable system of social action must therefore fulfil these four functions. It will do so through four distinct subsystems: the behavioural system (of the individual’s physical interaction with the environment); the personality system; the social system; and the cultural system. Hence the set of roles — along with their associated norms and values – that may be found in a society are not to be understood as a contingent aggregation. The cultural system must generate values that control the norms and roles of the social system, and that are in turn internalised to control the motivation of the personality system (and so guide physical adaptation).

In Parsonian systems theory any given subsystem will itself be open to analysis in terms of its own subsystems (and conversely, any system may itself be a subsystem of some larger system). Hence, the social system, a subsystem of the general action system, may be analysed in terms of its own subsystems. The analysis of the relationship between society and the economy that Parsons developed with Smelser, treats the economy as its adaptive subsystem (Parsons and Smelser 1956). Parsons further proposes that the polity, constituted from public and private policy-making bodies, performs goal attainment; the community (the free association of agents, for example as citizens) performs integrative functions; while culture (including, for example, religious institutions, but also the professions) generates and maintains the value identity of the society as a whole. A final component of this analysis involves the ‘media of interchange’ that allow subsystems to communicate with each other within the system. The medium of the economy is money (facilitating exchange and measuring value). Power (coercing agents) is the medium of the polity, while influence allows the community to persuade agents. Culture requires value-commitments (which might be broadly understood as the agents’ faith in the fundamental values that define their collective identity).

A frequent criticism of functionalist sociologies is their neglect of social change. Indeed, the above arguments have focused on the equilibrium and stability of social life. Parsons’s dauntingly complex model of the social system does facilitate an account of social change (1977b). Appealing to a model of evolution, albeit one that recognises that social change does not inevitably move in a single direction, he suggests that societies evolve by becoming more highly differentiated (so that functional prerequisites are more precisely defined, and are fulfilled by increasingly specialised institutions or subsystems). A classic example of this is to be found in the history of the family in European society. Initially, the family was responsible for the biological rearing of children, for education, and for much economic activity. Today economic activities, as well as most educational and even some biological responsibilities, have been transferred to other, more specialised institutions.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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