Sociology 319

January 20, 2006


Next week       CST, Chapter 4, “Critical Theory”

                        Reading from Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry”

                        Reading from Marcuse, “The New Forms of Control”

                        Reading from Habermas, “What is Discourse Ethics?”


Talcott Parsons


5.  Action Systems and Social Systems


System.  Parsons developed an analysis where he attempted to address issues across the social sciences, in psychology, economics, and politics, in addition to sociology.  For Parsons, there are many systems or  action systems where “the parts are connected” (Adams and Sydie, p. 14).  A system is something that has a boundary, so that there is an inside and an outside to the system, with the system existing in some environment.   Examples of systems of social action are the social, cultural, and personality systems (Wallace and Wolf, p. 28).   The parts of systems are interdependent, each having connections and influences on other parts.  For Parsons, any such system has tendencies toward order or equilibrium and maintenance of both the system’s boundaries and the relations of parts to the whole.  These systems could constitute society as a whole, structures or institutions within society (e.g. economy, legal system, religious institutions), or smaller subsystems (family or individual).  These are action systems in the sense that they involve social action, and each system has particular needs or conditions that are necessary for the survival and continued maintenance and proper operation of the system.  Systems also have goals that are created and developed from the  needs and desires of members of the system.


A physical analogy to an action system is a heating or cooling system for a building.  The building has boundaries, an outside and an inside, and the boundaries are generally fixed or maintained over time.  There are interdependent parts to the system which function together to maintain a certain level of temperature in the building.  Thermostats and furnaces or air conditioners are used to heat or cool the building, and these are self-regulating, maintaining a particular temperature.  The system tends toward order and equilibrium in that there are adjustments of the part to changes in the external environment and to changes within the building.


Note: in the following notes, references are to the handout “Action Systems and Social System.”   Also compare this reading with the schematic diagram of “Action Systems of Parsons” (diagram 2 of January 16 handout).


Action system.  Parsons argues (p. 1, bottom) that there are a number of systems that are part of a general system of human action – social, cultural, personability systems and behavioral organism – with the latter three being part of the environment of the social system.  His primary focus is on the social system, since this is the subject of sociology, concerned with social interaction and relationships among individuals.     For social reality as whole, Parsons argues that there is (i) the physical reality or physical environment where we all live and (ii) the action systems of social action and interaction, separate from the physical environment (p. 2, bottom).   The relationships among the systems are multiple and complex, with “zones of interpenetration” and “processes of interchange” among them (p. 3).  While the exact structure and relationship of the systems to each other can be confusing, in broad outlines and with the help of the schematic diagram, the general patterns should become relatively clear. 


The way that Parsons distinguishes the systems is on the basis of the function of each, using the AGIL schema.  The four systems, the functional distinction among them, and their relationship with each other is as follows (p. 2). 


·        Personality system.  A personality system, concerning human motivation and orientation, underlies the social system.  Individual personality comes from a combination of biological drives and culture, first through socialization as a child and youth, and then through social approval and disapproval of others.  Also note that in the reading on the family (“Sex Roles,” p. 1), Parsons suggests that one role of the family is developing this personality in children and youth.  Individuals might be motivated by culture and social factors, looking for approval in social relationships and attempting to avoid disapproval.  The function of the personality system is goal achievement, with individuals motivated by “optimization of gratification or satisfaction” (p. 2, middle).


·        Behavorial organism.  Drives may come from the behavioral or biological organism, “the primary human facilities” (p. 2, middle) or capabilities.  The function is adaptation to the environment, both the physical environment and other individuals.  Its “organization ... [is] affected by the processes of conditioning and learning that occur in the individual's life.”  Ritzer (p. 249) notes that Parsons would be opposed to a strictly biological interpretation of human behaviour, arguing instead that biological drives were socially mediated.



Because it is composed of symbols, the cultural system can move easily between systems, and strongly affects other systems.  Note that it is a separate system, and one that cannot is external and not reducable to the social system.  It affects the social system, creating norms and values that guide social behaviour, and the personality system through socialization and learning.  Given the power of the cultural system to influence and control other systems,  “Parsons came to view himself as a cultural determinist” (Ritzer, p. 247). 


Social System.  The social system was Parsons' main concern.  This is society as a whole, or the relationships and interactions among individual actors.  It also includes societal institutions such as family, since these are created and maintained through such interactions and relationships.  Parsons' definition of the social system is:


A social system consists in 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 (Parsons, 1951, pp. 5-6).


The basic unit of the social system of action is the unit act undertaken by an actor.  The unit act involves an active, conscious agent, who has particular goals or ends that he or she is attempting to meet, a range of possible choices, an environment exercising various constraints, and a normative orientation.  This is similar to Weber’s approach to social action, but Parsons explicitly includes a normative orientation for social action, that is, norms and values guiding such action.  These norms and values may specify appropriate goals and means of attaining them, as well as appropriate forms that action takes – for example, socially acceptable forms of action, within the laws and conventional patterns of action.   Parsons argues that actors act in a rational manner, considering objective factors (structures, choices available, responses of others), but they also have a subjective frame of reference (personal values, preferences, views).  In order to analyze such action, a sociologist has to take on the point of view of the actor whose actions are being considered.


Parsons argued that these systems of social action are structural – there is “a complex unit of some kind, with boundaries, within which the parts are connected, and within which something takes place” (Adams and Sydie, p. 14).  Since humans as actors regularly interact with others, “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” (Parsons, The Social System, p. 25). 


For Parsons, this structure involves two things – where the actor is located in the social system and the relationships of the actor to others.  Parsons refers to the former as status and the latter as role; together these constitute “the status-role bundle” (Parsons, The Social System, p. 25).  


Status.  Status is a structural position within the social system – status is attached to the position in the social structure.  While the individual occupying that position may acquire that status as a result of occupying the position, the status of the position is attached to the position itself.  Status can be hierarchical, as in positions within an organization, where some positions have more power and respect than do others.  For example, the positions of manager and president normally have more power and respect attached to them than do positions such as worker, custodian, or attendant.  But status need not be hierarchical, for example status can refer to positions such as brother or sister in a family, where these are evaluated by others as more or less equal positions.  While Parsons does not emphasize the social evaluations that people attach to status, Weber’s concept of social honour provides one way that members of society tend to look at these positions.  Additionally, sociologists often consider social class to be associated with these positions, and there is a certain prestige, recognition, or social status associated with various positions in society – these are often ranked from high to low status.  But for the most part, Parsons does not emphasize this ranking of status.


Role.  The role associated with any position or status in the social system is role is what the individual in that position is expected to perform – how the social actor performs that role.  Parsons argues that roles are organized so they constitute socially acceptable and expected patterns of behaviour and action associated with a particular position or status.  Parsons emphasizes the expected, common, and patterned aspects of role performance.  Goffman, a symbolic interactionist meant much the same by role, but emphasizes variability in role performance (role distance).  Adams and Sydie use the terms “ego and alter” (p. 14), denoting the social actor (ego) in interaction with another social actor (alter).  Each actor has an orientation to others, attempts to achieve his or her own goals in his or her own way, and it is through these actions that social interaction occurs.  Such interactions occur regularly and “become more or less stable or ‘institutionalized’” (Adams and Sydie, p. 14).  Examples of such institutions could be families or social networks among people with regular and continued friendship and contact.


Needs.  Each social system has particular needs and individuals help the system meet these needs by performing their roles.  For example, in an organization such as a business or government, each individual occupies a position (status) and carries out appropriate activities for that role.  For example, a manger manages and a custodian does the cleaning.  The performance of such actions helps maintain order in the system and ensures that the functions of the system are met.  It is individual social actors, performing to meet expectations associated with the status-role bundle, that maintain the organization or social system.


Within each social system, there tends to be an equilibrium – a normal form in which the system operates.  Parsons argues that when there are deviations from equilibrium, so that the system may not be functioning properly, forces exist that tend to return the system to equilibrium.  System equilibrium is produced in two main ways – through preparing individuals to perform their roles within the system and through social approval and disapproval. 


Socialization, education and learning in the child, and continued socialization throughout life are the means by which the norms and values of society are learned by individuals.  This is what binds the individual to the social system as a whole.  If successful, this socialization process means that the norms and values become internalized by individuals, and when people pursue their own interests, they also serve the needs of the society as a whole.  In modern society there are many roles, statuses and opportunities for individuals to express their different personalities.  For Parsons, this is a positive feature of a social system, and a flexible system of this sort is more able to maintain order. 


There may be times when the system changes or when the actions of some individuals deviates from the role expected of them.  In these cases, there are social control mechanisms that either draw people back to the role expected and required of them (social approval and disapproval) or stronger mechanisms, such as the law, that stop the deviance.  Parsons comments

Without deliberate planning on anyone's part, there have developed in our type of social system, and correspondingly in others, mechanisms which, within limits, are capable of forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase which puts it beyond the control of ordinary approval-disapproval and reward-punishment sanctions (Parsons, 1951, pp. 319-320).

Thus the social systems are self-regulating, with individuals being prepared for entry to social systems through socialization and various social control mechanisms emerging to ensure the individuals continue to perform their roles. 


6. Parsons's analysis of the family


Note:  Refer to the reading “Sex Roles in the American Kinship System” and diagram 4 of the January 16 handout for this section of the notes.


In traditional societies, where families were the basis for social organization, many of the societal functions (AGIL) were carried out in the family or in kinship-based groupings.  Even in medieval times, there was little distinction between public and private, and the family and household filled the functions of production, reproduction, socialization, and consumption.  As the division of labour developed in the transition to the modern era, many of the tasks or functions formerly carried out in the family began to be performed in other institutions.  As manufacturing and business expanded, production increasingly has taken place outside the household in what is usually referred to as te economy.   In addition, some of the socialization function became detached from the family and moved to educational institutions – or the socialization and education functions became separated.  While some analysts have looked on this as indicating a decline in the family, Parsons argued that social evolution and change has led to a change in the functions of the family.  This is one part of an evolutionary process where the AGIL functions become separated from each other, so that separate structures, institutions, and statuses become responsible for carrying out each of these four functions.  Parsons views this functional differentiation positively, arguing that specialized statuses and roles mean that the functions can be better performed.  While this specialization may create problems of social integration, there will also be new values, rules, and norms that lead to new forms of integration in a more complex and more productive society.  (For Durkheim, the new form was organic solidarity).


For Parsons, the family serves two essential functions in modern society, (a) the socialization of children, and (b) the “stabilization of the adult personalities of the population of the society” (Morgan, p. 27).  These are essential tasks for any society in that if they are not performed, then society may encounter serious difficulties.  In functional terminology, these are the integrative (I) and latent (L) functions.  It is to the credit of Parsons that he drew attention to these.  Earlier, classical theorists had taken these for granted, and considered these tasks to be natural and outside the scope of sociological analysis.  (See Sydie, 1987 for an analysis of this part of the writing of the classical sociologists).


The reading “Sex Roles in the American Kinship System” begins by focusing on youth and the transition from membership in a family or kinship system to becoming independent (“emancipation”) of that family, so that the new adult can form a new family.  Parsons notes that this family form, characteristic of mid-twentieth century North America, leads to “emancipation from solidarity with all members of the family of orientation”  (p. 1, 2nd paragraph). 


He then notes that the earlier ties were to only a few persons, with statements about the working of pattern variables.  The mother-child relationship is an intensive affective relationship.  In contrast, the child’s relationship outside the family is more achievement than ascription.  The security needs of the child are met by the family, with affective relations being key. 


In the fourth paragraph, Parsons argues that the family performs an important function – socialization, security – at the same time the family prepares the child to break free from it.  He expands on adolescence and the youth culture, stages that might not have existed in earlier societies, but which have become important and lengthy aspects of reaching adulthood in our society.  This process is characterized by both an apprenticeship for adulthood and a maturation process involving difficult emotional and adjustment issues. 


The remainder of the reading is devoted mostly to the division in sex roles between the husband/father and wife/mother.   For these, the following notes draw on the analyses of Morgan and Johnson.   The structure of the modern nuclear family could be illustrated as follows (from Morgan, p. 29).  Note that there are two dimensions to family structure, neither of which can be reduced to the other.





                                    Adult Male                               Adult Female

                                      (Father)                                     (Mother)      


Instrumental                                                                                               Expressive



                                    Male Child                               Female Child   

                                       (Son)                                       (Daughter)                 





Source: D. H. J. Morgan, Social Theory and the Family, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975, p. 29.


The socialization process is on the vertical axis, and this generational axis is the main form in which Parsons views power as being exercised in the family.  The father is the head of the family in that he represents the family unit, and power is exercised by the parents over the children.  This is for the children's own good.  Recall that power for Weber was often legitimate, and much power within the family is accepted by subordinates as legitimate.  Johnson notes that Parsons did not “depict the father as dominating his wife and children but only as having power by virtue of being their representative” (Johnson, p. 124).  As such, Parsons may have ignored the power that husbands have over wives, especially when the different activities of husbands and wives and the income differerences are considered.  In the reading, Parsons argues that the kinship relations are maintained by both sexes, implying a rough equality between male and female (top of p. 2).


In the reading, Parsons argues that there is great segregation in sex-roles in North American family forms, “even more striking than in other societies” (p. 2, near top).  This is characterized by the emphasis on style, dress, and personal appearance for women; for men it is the occupational role that brings in the income necessary to support the family unit.  While the family unit is a common unit, it is this segregation of activities and roles that forms the basis for a successful family structure.  This is portrayed on the horizontal axis of the schematic diagram, where the instrumental role is performed by the husband.  In order to survive, the family needs the income from the husband's occupation; at the same time, the family depends on the expressive and integrative activities of the wife/mother in the “internal affairs of the household” (p. 2, middle).  This could involve attempts to respond to the psychological needs of the husband and children, providing nurturing and warmth, and taking care of the family and household needs.  This results in an asymmetry of male-female roles.  Even where the wife has a job, the income from this is usually secondary to that of the husband and it is the internal household tasks that constitute the wife’s primarily role.


Parsons argued that this segregation of tasks is functional (i) for the whole family unit, and also (ii) “functional for marital solidarity because it prevented potentially divisive competition between husband and wife.”   (quote from Johnson, p. 125, but see p. 3, about 1/3 of the way down).  It was also functional for (iii) society as a whole by providing a link of the private family to the society (through the husband).  Johnson notes how this has been criticized by many, but feels that Parsons was correct to make power and instrumental/expressive functions as independent dimensions.  Power could go with either instrumental or expressive, although in different forms. (paragraph based on Johnson, p. 125).


Parsons saw socialization within the family as having two different aspects: (i) it is the way in which the individual internalizes the culture of a society or group, and (ii) it is the process whereby the individual learns and prepares to take on an autonomous role.  Parsons is concerned with the whole social system, and the functioning of that system, at the same time that he is concerned with the family and the socialization process.  Adults must be prepared to assume adult roles within society if the society is to continue functioning, and the socialization process achieves this.  The family is also an autonomous and isolated unit, and the socialization process prepares each child to form a new isolated family unit of his or her own.  Morgan notes that this combines the views of Freud (development of personality) and Durkheim (internalization of culture).  Each ignored the contribution of the other, and Parsons attempts to combine these.  Socialization thus is not just a cultural process of internalization of societal values (cultural system) but is also one of developing a personality (personality system).  The result of the socialization process is that the personality becomes a mirror image of the experienced social system. (Morgan, p. 30).


While the family is isolated and autonomous, it is also linked to the wider system through the father's instrumental role (p. 3, 1st complete paragraph).  The role of the husband and father is to have a status in the occupational structure (i.e. a job), and he would be subject to social disapproval if he did not have a job.  The social status of the family as a whole is based on the occupation and income of the husband.  This adaptive, instrumental role serves the dual function of linking the family to the outside world and maintaining the family as a viable entity (adaptation function).  There are strains for the husband within this role though, because (i) work itself may be unsatisfying, (ii) there is little chance for real social relationships outside the family, and (iii) the family and the outside activities may have conflicting demands. 


By carrying out the expressive role, the wife is just as necessary for the proper functioning of the family.  She not only cares for the children and socializes them, but also provides the emotional support for her husband.  In doing this, her role is also to provide for internal maintenance of the family unit.  She is linked to the wider society as well, through family and friends, and these undoubtedly provide guidance for assisting in the socialization process.  At the same time strains do exist in her role.  There are strains associated with (i) the socialization role as opposed to the emotional support for the husband role.  There is also (ii) a clash between the ideology of equality of opportunity and the role of wife and mother.  Note also that an individual family member may perform more than one role.  For example, the roles of wife and mother are often identified as a single role, when in fact they may more properly be considered to be different roles.  As wife, the adult woman in a family unit may not have great power, perhaps not entirely due to male dominance, but due to the limited opportunities women faced to earn income.  As mother, the adult woman in this unit may have considerable power and status.  Johnson notes that “women as wives tend to relatively powerless compared to women as mothers” (p. 127).   


In spite of these strains and conflicts, Parsons feels that the nuclear family, with this strict division of roles, is well suited to modern industrial society.  The differentiation by sex is functional for the individual, the family, and the society as a whole.  For Parsons, having definiteness of status is important, both for the individuals involved, and for children who are seeking role models.  Uncertainty and confusion in sex role definition can be damaging to individual personalities and to the social system as a whole.  (Morgan, pp. 30-38).


Criticisms of Parsons's theory of the family.  Parsons's analysis of the family has been subject to much criticism.  The fixed nature of roles, the static nature of the family, the rigid division between instrumental and expressive roles, the underestimation of the extent of power in male-female relationships, and the inherently conservative and consensus nature of this approach, all have been subject to severe criticism.  Many families today might be considered dysfunctional by Parsons, because they do not have this structure, roles are less clear-cut, and may not perform all the functions mentioned by Parsons.  Some have argued that confusion concerning roles affect family and socialization negatively, thus weakening the whole society.  The family of Parsons was a well established white family in North America in the 1940s and 1950s, usually of middle class or perhaps working class origin and status.  Black, immigrant, poor or working class families, and even upper class families, are all considerably different from the ideal types described by Parsons.  It is difficult to know how Parsons would have reacted to the changes in family and household structures that have occurred in the last 20-30 years – decline in number of children, older age of marriage and childbearing, women entering the labour force, single parent families, blended families, same sex families, etc.  Judged by the AGIL criteria, pattern variables, and social differentiation, it could be argued that these latter changes in the family have become necessary as a result of changes in the environment (job markets and other social changes), and may be functional for and promote stability in the operation of the social system.  In addition, it appears that many other types of family structures perform reasonably well in certain circumstances, so that the fixed and inflexible role structures described by Parsons are only one type of functional family form.


Parsons's contributions.  Parsons brought discussions of the family into the mainstream of sociology, and developed an analysis of the social system that includes the family as an essential part, assisting in the latent and integrative functions.  This is something that none of the classical sociologists recognized as necessary.  The recognition of instrumental and expressive roles is a useful one, and if it is possible for these to be combined in the same person, with each individual carrying out different combinations of these, these concepts might be considered more acceptable.  Johnson argues that Parsons was able to separate power as a concept from the instrumental-expressive concept, and that this multidimensionality of functionalism is a useful approach.  In this sense, Parsons makes use of Weberian methodological approaches.  Perhaps some of these concepts and approaches could be combined with feminist or other theoretical approaches to produce a more complete model of the social system. 


At the same time, the identification of an existing family structure as necessarily being functional casts doubt on the appropriateness of functional analysis.  That is, if what appears to work well is regarded as performing specific functions, then there is little analytical or predictive power to this model.  In another time and setting, a new structural form exists which might also be functional. 



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Last edited January 22, 2006