Sociology 319

January 18, 2006


Talcott Parsons


3. Pattern Variables


Note:  See diagram 1 of the January 16 handout.


One way that Parsons organized his analysis of social action and activities within social systems is through pattern variables.  Remember that social action is voluntary, oriented, and subject to guidance or influence of social norms.  These pattern variables provide a way of categorizing the types of choices and forms of orientation for individual social actors, both in contemporary society and historically.  The variables include “categorization of modes of orientation in personality systems, the value patterns of culture, and the normative requirements in social systems” (Turner, p. 58)   Adams and Sydie state that these are means of guiding “individuals toward one or other of a set of dichotomous choices” (p. 15).   


Pattern variables also provide a means of describing and classifying institutions, social relationships, and different societies, and the values and norms of these.  All of the norms, values, roles, institutions, subsystems and even the society as a whole can be classified and examined on the basis of these pattern variables.  For Parsons, these were necessary to make the theory of action more explicit and “to develop clearer specifications of what different contingencies and expectations actors were likely to face” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 30). 


The pattern variables are constructed as polar opposites that give the range of  possible decisions and modes of orientation for a social actor.  They are ideal types of social action that, for Parsons, provided a conceptual scheme for analyzing action within systems.  In practice, individual choice is unlikely to be so starkly divided between the polar opposites and the social action of an individual may be a combination of the two, between the opposites.  That is, there may be a continuity of possible forms of action bridging the extremes, so that much social action occurs between the poles. 


Two further points to note about the January 16, 2006 handout.




The pattern variables are as follows:


a. Affectivity and Affective Neutrality.   This set of concepts refers to the amount of emotion or affect that is appropriate or expected in an given form of interaction.  Particular individuals and diffuse obligations (see c and d) are associated with affectivity, whereas contacts with many individuals (universalistic) in a bureaucracy may be devoid of emotion and characterized by affective neutrality.  Affective neutrality may refer to self discipline and the deferment of gratification (eg. Weber’s spirit of capitalism).  In contrast, affectivity may be associated with expressing emotions.  Adams and Sydie also refer to affective neutrality being associated with ego control (p. 15).


b. Collectivity or Self.   This pair emphasizes the extent of collective or shared interest as opposed to self interest that is associated with social action.  Each social action is carried out in a social context and in various types of collectivities.  Where individuals pursue a collective form of action, then the interests of the collectivity may take precedence over that of the individual, for example, in Durkheim’s traditional society, mechanical solidarity, or even in contemporary family activities.  Various forms of action such as altruism, charity, self-sacrifice (in wartime) also fit this variable.  In modern societies, individual success and instrumental activity often become dominant in social action, especially in economic action.  Models of the latter assume there is egoism or self-interest in individual economic action, and this forms the basis on which much social and economic analysis is constructed.


c. Particularism and Universalism.  This pair refers to the range of people that an individual must consider when involved in social action.  The issue here is whether to react “on the basis of a general norm or on the basis of someone’s particular relationship to you” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 34).  A particular relation is a relationship of a social actor with a specific individual.  Parent-child or friendship relationships tend to be of this sort, where the relationship is very particular.  In contrast, a bureaucracy is characterized by universal forms of relationships, where everyone is to be treated impartially and according to the same procedures or rules.  In such parts of modern society, the ideal is that there is to be no particularism or favoritism is to be extended to anyone, even to a close friend or family member. 


NOTE: The following are reversed in the table in Adams and Sydie, p. 15.  The correct order is the following.


d. Diffuseness and Specificity.  In contrast to the range of people involved in variable c, diffuseness and specificity deal with the range of obligations involved.  These refer to the nature of social contacts and how extensive or how narrow are the obligations in any interaction.  For example, in a bureaucracy, social relationships are very specific, where we meet with or contact someone for some very particular reason associated with their status and position, e.g. visiting a physician.  In contrast, traditional society, friendships, and parent-child relationships are examples of more diffuse forms of contact – involving few people but having a broad or diffuse  range of obligations.  We rely on friends for a broad range of types of support, including conversation, support, accommodation, and intimate relationships.  While there may be limits on such contacts, the diffuse relationships associated with traditional society or friendship have the potential of dealing with almost any set of interests and problems. 


e. Ascription and Achievement.   Ascription refers to qualities of individuals, often inborn qualities such as sex, ethnicity, race, age, family status, or characteristics of the household of origin.  In traditional society, these often governed an individual’s life course or life chances.  Achievement refers to performance of an individual and emphasizes what that individual achieves in life.  For example, we might say that someone has achieved a prestigious position even though their ascribed status was that of poverty and disadvantage.  While modern society does not always provide for opportunity to achieve or reward merit, the ideal goal is generally one that each individual should be provided an opportunity to achieve what they are capable of achieving.  Where this is not permitted, this may mean there is discrimination, inequity, or violation of rights.  For Fraser and Honneth this could be a result of misrecognition.


f. Expressive and Instrumental.    Parsons regards the first half of each pair as the expressive types of characteristics and the second half of the pattern as the instrumental types of characteristics.  Expressive aspects refer to “the integrative and tension aspects” (Morgan, p. 29).  These are people, roles, and actions concerned with taking care of the common task culture, how to integrate the group, and how to manage and resolve internal tensions and conflicts.  This may take many different forms but often is associated with the family, and more specifically with the female role in the family.  


The instrumental characteristics refer to “the goal attainment and adaptation aspects” (Morgan, p. 29).  These are the characteristics, people, roles, and actions associated with ideas, problem solving, getting the task done.  These tasks are often associated with male roles, public activities, the economy, or politics. 


The pattern variables can be used to refer to either the type of social action or the type of society.  Social action and interaction in early forms of society were more likely to be characterized by expressive characteristics.  In contrast, in modern societies, with a more complex division of labour and differentiation of statuses and roles, much of social action and interaction is characterized by instrumental characteristics.


4. Functional System Problems – AGIL (P)  (Adams and Sydie, p. 17 and diagram 3 of the January 16 handout).


According to Parsons, social systems have needs.  In order to survive and continue, each social system or subsystem has four characteristics that must be met.  These are functional needs of the system, “a complex of activities directed towards meeting a need or needs of the system.” (Ritzer, p. 240).  The first two are necessary for survival and continued operation (instrumental or production and reproduction), with the last two being a means of regulation of the social system (consummatory or completion).   The functions can also be classified by whether they refer entirely to social action within the system (internal) or whether they refer to how social action in any system deals with external conditions (external).  In the handout, the sector of society that is most closely indentified with each function is also given.  While the sectors overlap with more than one AGIL function for each sector, this is an ideal type way of sorting through some of the functions and sectors of a social system.   These functional needs can be remembered by the acronym AGIL, and these functions are a set of ideal types.


a. Adaptation (A).   Each system exists in an environment, and must be able to adapt to this environment.  In the process of adaptation, the environment is also affected and may become oriented or  adapted to the society.  This is the mobilization of resources so that the system can survive and that things can be done to meet goals of the system.  In the family or household, adaptation could include obtaining economic resources – earning an income to support the family.  For larger social systems, the economy that produces the goods and services for members of a society allows the society as a system to survive, grow, change, and develop.  The major institutions in the economic sphere, agriculture, industry, and services provided through the market are the means by which adaptation takes place.  These serve the function of allowing the system to survive and provide the goods and services required for society to operate.  In economic analysis, there are  equilibrating mechanisms within the economy that tend toward producing an orderly outcome.  The market mechanism itself can be regarded as a system that has tendencies in the direction of stable equilibria.  Some of the government institutions relating to the economy also help serve this function (infrastructure, defense).   Note also how the economy as a system modifies the natural environment.


b. Goal Attainment (G).  Each system has certain purposes associated with it.  The goals of the system must be defined, means of attempting to achieve these goals must be laid out, and then these goals must be achieved.  Within the social system, the polity (political sphere and government) is an important aspect of this, setting and altering the goals for the society as a whole, and “mobilizing actors and resources to that end” (Ritzer, p. 246).  The state bureaucracy and other organizations – business and nonprofit – all help to implement and achieve these goals.  Smaller scale institutions also have goals, for example, the University of Regina as a system has the goal of teaching, research, and community service.  Within a family or individual system, there will also be goals, although these may not be so clearly spelled out as in formal organizations.  Each organization, as a subsystem, has certain goals, and within this there will be positions with roles to play in helping the organization achieve these goals.  Within a business, there will be marketing, production, finance, etc. positions that each have specific roles within the context of attempting to make profits for the business and help the business expand.  Within the family, husband and wife, parents and children are each statuses with roles for meeting family goals.


c. Integration (I).   This is the means by which social relationships, and interrelationships among units or groups, are regulated.  One aspect of these is the rules and procedures associated with an institution, organization, or system.  “By integration Parsons means the need to coordinate, adjust, and regulate relationships among various actors or units within the system … in order to keep the system functioning” (Wallace and Wolf, pp. 39-40). 


As various social process functions occur, strains, tensions and conflicts may emerge.  These are a result of the way that individuals relate to each other, and as different units carry out their tasks and roles that need to be done in a system.  At the level of society as a whole, there are a variety of institutions and ways that these functions are performed.  Socialization is a major function with respect to the raising of children, and also with respect to the ongoing socialization that occurs through over the life span.  Religion, education, the media, the legal structures – police and courts – all play a role.  Ritzer refers to these as societal community.  Any institutions that help disseminate the shared culture, and reinforce “that culture through ritual celebrations of its values” (Cuff, p. 45) help in this.  Sporting events could be seen in this light – anthems, rules of the game, common allegiances, etc.   Where strains are great, there may be a need for social control, formal and informal sanctions, or discipline so that the system can enforce social order.  In general though, Parsons argued that systems develop automatic means of integration, along with roles and organizations to assist integration.  Within subsystems, there is a set of roles that do this, although these may not always be specialized.  For example, in educational institutions, teachers carry out the roles of adaptation, goal attainment, and integration as part of their activities.   Norms are also important in providing guidance, along with social approval and disapproval, which tend towards enforcement of the norms. 


d. Latency (L) or pattern maintenance (P).   This is the function of pattern maintenance and Parsons also refers to this as the cultural-motivational system (Parsons, 1967, p. 261).  These are referred to as latent because they may not always be as apparent as the A, G, or I functions.  These involve means of managing these tensions and diffusing and resolving conflicts, so that there are orderly means of carrying on activities. For Parsons, “All institutionalization involves common moral as well as other values.  Collectivity obligations are, therefore, an aspect of every institutionalized role.  But in certain contexts of orientation-choice, these obligations may be latent ... .” (Parsons, 1951,  p. 99).  Even though these exist they may not be readily apparent and thus are latent.  The test of their nature would be to determine the actors reaction in a specific situation. 


The organizations and roles that perform latent functions can be regarded as those that “furnish, maintain, and renew both the motivation of individuals and the cultural patterns that create and sustain this motivation” (Ritzer, p. 242).  Parsons refers to these as fiduciary, that is, founded on trust.  At the level of the social system, these are schools, educational institutions, and the major institution that is concerned with the latent function is kinship and family or other forms of personal relationships.  Within this, leisure, affection, love, sex, and friendship, can all play an important function.  People provide comfort, consolation and relief to each other, thus reducing tension or keeping it within manageable limits.  For Parsons, the role of women was key here, as will be seen when discussing his view about proper family structures and functioning.  Within organizations, there may be few latent functions that are an explicit part of the organization, but people within any organization tend to develop these, or come to the organization with these functions developed. 


For Parsons, the AGIL functions exist at all levels of society and in each subsystem.  These may not be consciously worked out functions, and roles and functions can be shared among organizations or individuals.  In traditional societies, most of these functions would have been centred in family and kinship structures, and in local communities.  In the traditional society, there may have been little differentiation in functions, although culture and the integration function often came to be associated with religion.  As societies have developed, these functions tend to evolve and differentiate themselves, with different institutions emerging to undertake different functions; within organizations, as they develop, there is a differentiation of functions, so that organizations become more bureaucratic, with different departments, branches, and programs developing responsibilities for separate functions – finance, human resources, marketing, service, production.  Specialized functions and roles develop, and specialized institutions to carry these out also evolve, and it is best to have specialized roles and specialized institutions to carry out the functions of a modern, complex society.  These may develop in an evolutionary fashion, without any conscious consideration, much like Durkheim's “natural” development of the division of labour.  Or, as in bureaucracies, they may be consciously worked out organizational structures. 



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Last edited January 20, 2006