Sociology 319

January 16, 2006


Parsons and Twentieth Century Functionalism


The reading for this section is Adams and Sydie, Chapter 2 and the two excepts from Parsons, “Action Systems and Social Systems” and “Sex Roles in the American Kinship System.”


Two corrections to the text:  In Table 2.1 of CST, p. 15, the two entries in the last row should be reversed.  That is, diffuseness is associated with Traditional Society and Secificity is associated with Modern Society.  See about half-way down the page or the handout of schematic diagrams.


Robert K. Merton, the second author examind in Chapter 2 of CST, passed away since the book was written.  His dates are 1910-2003.  It was his son, Robert C. Merton, who was a co-recipient of the Nobel prize in Economics in 1997.


Talcott Parsons


1. Introduction


Much like Durkheim, “Parsons’s primary concern throughout his life was the problem of order in society” (Adams and Sydie, p. 13), that is “how, if individuals were really separate entities pursuing their self-interest, there could be any order at all: How could there be anything but disorder?” (Johnson, p. 116).  In practice, people do cooperate, and there is a degree of social integration.  For Parsons this comes from the values of society and of social actors – the basis of social action can be termed voluntarism.  “People act on the basis of their values; their actions are oriented and constrained by the values and norms of people around them; and these norms and values are the basis of social order” (Knapp, pp. 191-192)


Life and Influences


a. Life.  Talcott Parsons (1902-1979, United States) was the most important figure in the structural functionalist school of sociological thought.  He dominated sociology in the United States for many years around the middle of the twentieth century, coming into disfavour in the 1960 and 1970s.  In sociology today, his theory and approach is somewhat outmoded, although some of his ideas are now being viewed more favourably, and perhaps in a less conservative context than they were originally presented.


Parsons was born in Colorado, studied in the eastern United States, and then did graduate work at the London School of Economics and then in Heidelberg, Germany.  Weber's influence was still strong in Heidelberg, and part of Parsons' doctoral thesis concerned the views of Weber.  Parsons became a professor at Harvard University in 1927 and worked there until his death in 1979.  In 1937 he published his major work The Structure of Social Action.  This book introduced Weber to the United States, and laid the groundwork for Parsons' later work.  In 1949 he was president of the American Sociological Association, and in 1951 published The Social System.  These works remained dominant within American sociology through the 1970s. 


b. Influences.  The contribution of Durkheim to Parsons' theory will be clear.  Concepts such as order, solidarity, and integration, as well as some aspects of the family and sex roles are similar to what is found in Durkheim.  The contribution of Weber may be less clear, but is apparent in several ways.  First, Weber was concerned with analysis of (i) social structures as a whole, and (ii) social action.  Parsons referred to his own theory as action theory and argued that social phenomena must be understood in terms of individual meaning, but also must be examined at the “level of collective action among groupings of actors.”  (Turner, p. 47).  As with many functionalists, Parsons was concerned with the same issues as concerned Weber, “how do the subjective states of actors influence emergent patterns of social organization, and vice versa?” (Turner, p. 47).  He referred to his theoretical approach as a general theory of action systems. 


Parsons developed many concepts and elaborate conceptual schemes that could be considered ideal types of the Weberian type.  These emphasized important features of social systems, and of the type that Parsons considered important for purposes of his analysis of social integration.  They were regarded as useful in different contexts, and a means of comparing concrete situations, to see the extent to which they conform or deviate from these ideal types.  (Paragraph based on Turner, pp. 47-8).


3. Action Systems


Context.  Parsons built an analysis of social action using parts of the action approach of Max Weber.  For Weber, social action involves considered an action by an individual where (i) the action has meaning for that individual, (ii) it takes account of others, and (iii) is oriented in that the social actor is attempting to meet a goal or end.   For Weber, “social action” does not include impulsive or reflexive actions, since these do not involve conscious consideration of the consequences of the action.  Such reflexive or impulsive action may be important in the study of psychology or other disciplines.  But in the study of sociology, social action means those individual or group actions that are conscious, considered, and take account of the possible responses of others, that is, they are actions set within the context of social interaction.  Weber classifies social action into four types – instrumentally-rational, value-rational, affective and traditional (Adams and Sydie, 2001, p. 177).  While Parsons was certainly aware of this classification, he develops a different approach to studying social action, while building on the general approach of Weber.


Summary.  For Parsons, social action has the following characteristics (Adams and Sydie, 2002, p. 13).


  1. Social action is voluntary or voluntaristic – while it is constrainted by a restricted set of choices available in the situation or context, the social actor acts in a voluntary manner and has choices concerning the particular action he or she will take.


  1. Social action is subjective, with the social actor having an internal orientation.  Similar to Weber, social actions are meaningful for the actor and  consider others, but at the same time the actor has his or her own preferences and goals.  Voluntaristic action by the social actor is oriented by his or her preferences and attempts to meet individual goals.


  1. Social action is governed by social norms and the values of the culture and social order within which the action takes place.


This approach to social action may be more inclusive of the social world than that of Weber in that Parsons sets social action within the context of culture and social order and relates it to that context – how action creates the context and how context governs action.  Parsons attempted to provide a fuller explanation of social action than provided by earlier theories, in that he considered the actor to have goals, choose between alternatives, and to act within the context of norms and values.  At the same time, social action is within a social system and the social action itself helps to define, create, and maintain the social system.  Parsons thus referred to these as the patterns of action systems. 


Parsons’s action systems model.  A more detailed analysis of the theory of action of Parsons is as follows.   The theory begins with the  unit act and progresses to a model of social action and interaction of many actors.  Together these social actions and interactions create and constitute the institutions and structures of society, or the social system as a whole.   The following notes are drawn from a selection from Parsons “The Unit Act of Action Systems” and “Theories of Action and Praxis” by Ira J. Cohen (2000).


Cohen argues that for Parsons “actors determine the significance of their actions for themselves” (Cohen, p. 79).  Such action is rational, oriented toward an end, and is an act by an agent or actor who has choices.  Parsons argues that a sociologist should conduct an analysis “from the point of view of the actor whose action is being analyzed and considered” (Unit Act); while subjective, this is scientific in that it concerns a study of “the minds of persons.”  This aspect of his approach is very similar to that of Weber, who emphasizes the need for sociologists to exercise a sympathetic understanding, verstehen, of social actors.  At the same time, Parsons argues that such action is oriented to, or with a framework of, norms and values – a “normative orientation” for action (Unit Act).  Reminiscent of the approach of Durkheim, the actor or agent of Parsons works within a framework of values.   “Society supplies ultimate values to social actors” and “provides actors with a normative set of rules for concrete behavior” (Cohen, p. 82).  Cohen notes that past actions are associated with “extended chains of action” connecting particular acts to ultimate ends, and to the “moral integration of action” and providing a way where the “problem of order” can be addressed sociologically (Cohen, p. 79).


a. Unit Act


Parsons argues that each form of scientific analysis begins with some unit – the molecule, the metre, etc.  For sociology, or the scientific study of social action, the basic unit in a social system is the unit act.  This has several characteristics that are essential to its definition (Unit Act). 


i. An actor or agent.  This is a human individual with a mind and body and who is capable of exercising some form of action.   Note that Parsons includes both mind and body, broadening social investigation beyond only the mind, while at the same time not making action determined by nature or the body.


ii. An end.  Each act must have some purpose or end – “a future state of affairs through which the process of action is oriented.”  By identifying an end, this structures the process in actual time and results in some particular state of affairs.  This also appears to mean conscious action, in that Parsons implies that the actor is aiming at a particular end.  The action is oriented toward some future state of affairs, thus implying a consciosness of this.


iii. Situation.  The act is initiated by the actor within a certain situation, on the initiative or motivation on the part of the actor.  There are two aspects to the situation:


·        Conditions of action, over which the actor has little or no control.  These refer to the natural environment or the social structures within which the action takes place.  These are similar to the constraints within which the actor makes choices in economic or rational choice models – limited income, geographic location, time, capabilities. 


·        Means of action, over which the actor does have some control.  These refer to aspects of the situation that the actor can influence, control, or possibly change.  These are items such as particular courses of action or selections that the actor can make.  These are similar to the opportunities open to an individual actor in economic or rational choice models, although they refer more to the options, or choices of action, that the actor has, rather than to ultimate opportunities.


As an example, an actor who is a worker in a particular workplace (the situation).  Given the extent of flexibility the worker has in the workplace, the worker as actor may have no control over hours of work or structure of the business, but may be able to have means of action about how the work is conducted.  In a service industry, there may be some discretion concerning how customers, subordinates, and superiors are dealt with.  Managerial workers undoubtedly have much greater means of action than do their subordinates, although both face constraints in the form of conditions of action.


iv. Normative orientation.  Parsons says that means of action are not selected at random and there are only some possible means of pursuing the ends that are acceptable.  Neither are the means entirely constrained by “conditions of action” – that is, they are not dictated by nature, environment, or other constraining factors.   Rather, the orientation toward the ends is guided by norms that exist within a social system.  The actor has some understanding of what these social norms are and the actor is guided by these norms.  Parsons termed this a normative orientation to social action.  He notes that these are of no specific type, just as Weber noted that authority could be based on any characteristic – it was not the nature of the content that is important to the norm but the existence of a norm.  For example, the normative orientations of Parsons could include the different values in different societies associated with proper forms of marriage and childrearing – these can differ dramatically across societies, with a range of choices in any society (greater options in some societies than in others), but there is not a complete or random set of acceptable choices either.


The unit act for Parsons, then, is one where there is an active, conscious agent, with particular ends, a range of choices, an environment exercising various constraints, and a normative orientation.  Action is rational, but it is not only determined by objective factors.  Rather, the frame of reference is subjective, and a sociologist should attempt to adopt the point of view of the actor whose actions are being considered in order to properly understand and analyze the social action.


Parsons argues that the following implications come from this approach.


·        Time.  The result or end of the action has yet to occur, otherwise the action would not take place.  As a result the actor is considering something with a future reference so that there is attainment, realization, or achievement – note that this is one of the instrumental pattern variables.


·        Error.  While an actor may aim at some end, given alternative choices it may be that the selection process results in the wrong selection, or at least another actor faced with the same situation might select an objectively better course of action.  This means there is possibility of error.  Note that these may not be so much errors as different selection results that different actors might produce. 


·        Subjective.  For an observer who is not the actor, this means that analysis of the unit act must involve consideration of how the actor understands it.  This may be difficult, but is necessary for sociological analysis.   This appears to be a caution against imposing external criteria for deciding what is a correct or incorrect decision – for example, arguing that actors’ decisions are irrational or not in their own best interests.   If Parsons is correct in this approach, the attribution of false consciousness to certain actions appears incorrect.


·        Mind and body.  While Parsons recognizes the existence of biological influences, it is the social frame of reference that needs consideration.  That is, the biological or physical aspect of bodies of those who take action may not be all that meaningful in terms of conditions or means of action.  It is the self developed by an individual that guides the action.  On the other hand, where they are relevant, Parsons would seem to open the possibility of including these in an analysis.


b. Acts and Ultimate Ends


The unit act is only the beginning of social action, and there are a number of issues that emerge from analysis rational form of action associated with the unit act.   Some of these are as follows.  Cohen asks the question of how action is ultimately oriented toward particular ends.  Much of human social action appears to be narrowly focused on specific tasks with no apparent connection to ultimate ends, but seemingly concerned only with the task in question.  Are these meaningful actions?






There appear to be two means by which Parsons connects the unit act to the ultimate ends.  Cohen argues that Parsons attempted to solve this problem by considering a “chain of analytically connected acts” with “morally valued ends” guiding ends and choices (Cohen, p. 80).   A second line of argument is that there is a variety of ultimate ends with a variety of ways of meeting these.   


i. Chains of Rational Action.  Cohen argues that many acts that appear to have no meaning attached to them, have meaning for the actor in that he or she understands how these are connected to some ultimate end or purpose.  That is, the actor has some  ultimate end, such as a good life or pursuit of some cultural values, even though this may be only vaguely defined.  Or there may be more specific ends, such as taking a vacation, and this requires earning some extra money to afford it.  In each case, Parsons notes that there are chains of action or series of acts that may be required to obtain these ultimate ends.  There is likely to be a great variety of possible actions that allow the actor to pursue these ends, and within each a variety of ways that each of the actions can be carried out.   Each act may appear to have little connection to the ultimate end, but through these chains of action, individual acts are meaningful to the actor, in that the actor has some idea of how they are ultimately oriented to some overall end.  Cohen thus notes that “values mobilize initiative toward ultimate ends and infuse even alienated action with existential meaning” (p. 81).


ii. Multidimensional.  Parsons emphasizes different types of orientation, and his social system includes many aspects of society, not just the narrowly social.  Cohen notes that there are different types of social action, and different forms of orientation, none of which can necessarily be reduced to the other.  This is reminiscent of Weber’s multidimensional approach, with different dimensions of social action such as the cultural, the religious, the economic, each with an independent basis.  Among the forms of instrumental orientation are the economic, the technological, and the political.  Each of these is instrumental in that it has a particular form and aim.  Parsons contrasts the instrumental and the expressive in other parts of his work (pattern variables), but this multidimensionality produces a flexibility for social action, in that there are different ends and different basic means of achieving those ends.  


Given the chains of rational action and the multidimensional possible ends, together these produce a variety of forms of social action, along with a means of motivating actors, allowing for selection of ends, and allowing for seemingly contradictory forms of social action.


c. Order


With diverse forms of social action and with many individual social actors, each selecting different means of action and having different ends, how is it possible that there can be social order in society?   Parsons argues that, for the most part, society tends to be integrated and in equilibrium, with consensus and strong forces creating social order.  Recall that the systems of Parsons have strong equilibrating forces built into them.  There appear to be two main questions here:




Cohen notes that Parsons draws heavily on Durkheim in explaining social order, pointing to the power, strength, and constraining aspects of social and cultural norms.  These norms govern ultimate ends and also the rules of social action.  There is widespread consensus about both of these, although in contemporary society there is greater disagreement on ultimate ends than there was in traditional societies.  Even in modern society though, there is considerable consensus concerning the means of action (e.g. law, Charter, equality, inclusion).


For Parsons, there are various mechanisms that create this social order. 






d. Conclusion


Parsons developed a sophisticated theoretical model of social action that provides a reasonable explanation for social action on the basis of subjective consciousness, mental acts, and rationality of an embodied social actor.  While this model focuses on instrumental forms of action, it is not a purely or narrowly utilitarian explanation of social action.  Through the definition of the unit act, considering the viewpoint of the actor, through chains of action, and through some of the systems and structures that form part of the analysis of Parsons, the theory is sociological and reasonably comprehensive.  That is, Parsons begins with the unit act and builds an overall model of the systems and structures of society, at the same time keeping in mind the actor and his or her motivation and interests.  In addition, Parsons integrates ideas from the action theory of Weber with Durkheim’s organic solidarity, although ignoring Marxian approaches


One of the great difficulties with the model of Parsons is that it is complex, difficult to understand, and closed to alternative approaches and modifications.  In addition, there are some shortcomings to his approach.





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Last edited January 20, 2006