Sociological Theorists: Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons has suffered from his success. He was the chief exponent of the US-style structural-functionalism that has come closest yet to constituting a Kuhnian dominant paradigm for sociology. His The Social System was the text through the 1950s and ‘60s. The rejection of his work since has in my view been overdone: to fly high is to risk falling fast. Who reads Parsons now?

As with most theorists, Parsons’ work evolved, his early work merely sowing the seeds for later displays. We are all of us entitled to learn and amend or revise our stances. From the outset Parsons opposed positivist social science, primarily because it failed to recognize the purposeful nature of human action. He sought an approach that acknowledged that people are both ‘goal-oriented’ and ‘constrained’. The notion of social system became central to his thought and provides the focus for this blog. A social system denotes a durable organization of interaction between ‘actors’ and ‘contexts’; and its reach extends from mundane or everyday micro-systems to macro-level systems like the nation-state and global society.

Social systems are structured, Parsons maintained in 1951 in The Social System, by ‘value patterns’ without which actors’ behaviour would be directionless. Value patterns, in turn, are structured by ‘pattern variables’. Pattern variables refer to universal dichotomies that represent the basic choices underlying social interaction. There are four of these dichotomies:

universalism versus particularism: actors relate to others on the basis of general criteria or criteria unique or specific to the individual concerned;

performance versus quality: actors relate to others on the basis of criteria of performance or ‘achievement’ or criteria of some form of endowment of ‘ascription’;

specificity versus diffuseness: actors relate to others for a specific, restricted purpose or in a general or holistic manner;

affective neutrality versus affectivity: actors relate to each other in a detached or instrumental fashion or with the engagement of affect and emotion.

Parsons argued that modern society or ‘modernity’ has seen a general shift in favour of universalism, performance, specificity and affective neutrality.

Social systems are also characterized by needs of ‘functional prerequisities’. If the notion of pattern variables addresses the voluntaristric dimension in Parsons’ work, that of functional prerequisities refers to the extent to which people’s relations to others are embedded in or constrained by social subsystems.

Social systems can only exist, Persons contends, if four functional prerequisities are satisfied:

adaptation (A): that is, to the external or natural environment;

goal-attainment (G): or the mobilization of resources to meet relevant ends;

integration (I): or the achievement of regulation and coordination for coherence and stability;

latency or ‘pattern maintenance’(L): or the provision of means to sustain the motivational energy of actors.

This is Parsons’ AGIL– scheme. Social systems that develop institutions capable of performing all four AGIL functions enjoy an evolutionary advantage over their rivals.

This is nowhere near the end of Parsons’ ‘Germanic’ predisposition for schema or typologies! He argues that in modernity the macro-level social system of the nation-state can be divided into four subsystems as follows:

the economic subsystem is concerned with adaptation;

the political subsystem is concerned with goal-attainment;

the social community subsystem is concerned with integration;

the cultural subsystem is concerned with latency or pattern maintenance.

Furthermore, the AGIL-scheme and the patterns variables are interrelated. To take an example, subsystems like the economy, where adaptation is the functional prerequisite, are characterized by universalism, performance, specificity and affective neutrality. On the other hand, subsystems like social community, where integration is the functional prererquisite, are characterized by particularism, quality, diffuseness and affectivity.

And there is more. Returning to the issue of the evolution to modernity, and sticking with the macro-level subsystem of the nation-state, Parsons introduces another family of concepts: differentiation, adaptive upgrading, inclusion and value generalization. In his Social Theory in the Twentieth Century, Baert shows how it all binds together in Parsons’ theory:

‘First, with time, a process of ‘differentiation’ occurs in that different functions are fulfilled by subsystems within the social system … Second, with differentiation goes the notion of ‘adaptive upgrading’. This means that each differentiated subsystem has more adaptive capacity compared to the non-differentiated system out of which it emerged. Third, modern societies tend to rely upon a new system of integration. Process differentiation implies a more urgent need for special skills. This can only be accommodated by moving from a status based on ‘ascription’ to a status based on ‘achievement’. This implies the ‘inclusion’ of previously excluded groups. Fourth, a differentiated society needs to deploy a value system that incorporates and regulates the different subsystems. This is made possible through ‘value generalization’: the values are pitched at a higher level in order to direct activities and functions in various subsystems.’

The thrust of Parsonian structural-functionalism can be illustrated in a number of different sociological fields. In this précis of a blog I will visit the sociology of the professions, health and of sport.

Parsons’ structural-functionalism and his concept of pattern variables actually grew out of his study of professions. Professions are not only, even primarily, ‘self-interested economic actors’ he maintained: rather, they are regulated by a normative code of conduct towards clients. There is a stability to doctor-patient relations that is simply inexplicable in terms of the market. In fact the role of the postwar US physician epitomized modernity’s trend towards universalism, performance, specificity and affective neutrality. And this was functional for the physician-patient relationship, the more so since both physician and patient were committed to terminating rather than building and consolidating their relationship.

Alongside his analysis of the physician’s role Parsons wrote of what he called the ‘sick role mechanism’. The problem of health, he argued, ‘is intimately involved with the functional prerequisities of the social system’. Health, in other words, is not just functional for the individual but for the social system too. Too low a level of population health, too high a level of illness, is dysfunctional because illness undermines the effective performance of social roles. Illness, which Parsons actually felt had a psychic dimension, is therefore a form of ‘social deviance’ that needs to be managed. The sick role, entry to which is overseen by physicians, affords rights (not to be blamed and to be temporarily relieved of normal responsibilities) but also carries obligations (to be motivated to get well and to seek expert help). Thus physicians ‘police’ the citizenry in general, and the workforce in particular, to ensure they continue to satisfy system requirements.

Now a no less annotated example from the field of sport. A structural-functional analysis of football has used the AGIL scheme to suggest that football can be viewed as a social system. The rules of football fit in with Parsons’ functional prerequisities plausibly enough: training rules and regimes serve an adaptive function; the technical rules of football promote goal-attainment; rules of refereeing assist integration; and rules of competition and eligibility meet the requirement of latency or pattern maintenance. More generally, Parsonian structural-functionalism helped sociologists to consider sport (1) as a social institution reflective of the wider society, and (2) in terms of its relations with other institutions. Modern sport, it has been suggested, has five basic functions: (a) a socio-economic, contributing to the maintenance of psychosocial stability; (b) socialization, aiding the transmission of cultural beliefs and norms; (c) integrative, facilitating the harmonious integration of disparate individuals and groups; (d) political, serving ideological needs; and (e) social mobility, acting as a promise and source of upward social mobility.

What does this all amount to in a sentence? Ok, I know that far too much has been left out! My suggestion would be that while Parsons’ functionalist agenda (via Spencer and Durkheim) remains more than suspect, his contention that social systems have their own ‘logics’ and operate ‘behind people’s backs’ and ‘beneath-the-surface’ is important. While it has often been said that individuals are sacrificed to systems in Parsons’ structural-functionalism, there has been an ideologically expedient tendency in today’s neo-liberal ‘individualistic’ world to neglect social structure and the systemic properties of society. We are done to as well as doing! Check out Talcott Parsons.


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