Sociology 250

November 15-22, 2002


Functionalism and Parsons


A. Functionalism and sociology


Parsons and the functionalist approach to sociology occupy an intermediate position between classical and contemporary sociology.  Some new sociological approaches were developed in North America before Parsons.  But Parsons and the functional approach to sociology became so dominant that by the late 1950s, sociology and functionalism became more or less identical (Adams and Sydie, p. 345).  This meant that sociology studied the roles of institutions and social behaviour in society, the way these are related to other social features, and developed explanations of society in social terms (Wallace and Wolf, p. 17). 


Beginning around the time that functionalism became dominant, there were many new developments in sociology.  Microsociological approaches such as symbolic interactionism and the study of individual and small group interaction began, perhaps because these had not been emphasized by earlier sociologists.  Conflict approaches also developed, partly in reaction to the consensus view of functionalists, and partly because functionalism was not able to explain the new social movements and developments in North America and the rest of the world.


By the late 1980s, functionalism and Parsons were more or less discredited and abandoned, replaced with a variety of sociological models that attempted to develop a variety of non-functionalist approaches to the study of sociology.  More recently, some sociologists have attempted to revive functionalism, the most notable of these being Jeffrey Alexander (Wallace and Wolf, pp. 58-61).  At the same time, some of the alternative approaches that were developed have functionalist aspects to them.  As a result, functionalist theory and the sociology of Talcott Parsons must be studied in order to understand the development of sociological thought.  In addition, some of the ideas of Parsons have proved to be useful to the study of the contemporary social world.


B. Introduction to functionalism


1. Overview.  Many aspects of the functionalist approach to sociology are similar to those of other sociological approaches, but with a particular emphasis on function, interdependence, consensus, equilibrium, and evolutionary change.  Some of these aspects are:


a. Macro.  The focus is macro-sociological, with institutions and structures existing in the society as a whole.  This is the origin of the structure part of the structural functional approach.  Functionalist analysis looks on social systems as having certain needs, and society as a system of social structures (economic, legal, educational, gender structures).  If the needs are being met, then it is the social structures that meet these needs.  The structures are thus functional in the sense that they help society to operate.  Interconnections exist within and among these structures, and individuals and groups are constrained by these structures. 


b. Function.  The different parts of each society contribute positively to the operation or functioning of the system as a whole.  This is the functional part of the structural functional approach.  Each society has certain needs in that there are a number of activities that must be carried out for social life to survive and develop.  Goods and services must be produced and distributed in order for people to survive, there must be some administration of justice, a political system must exist, and some family structure must operate so as to provide a means to reproduce the population and maintain social life on a daily basis.   In the structural functional model, individuals carry out each of these tasks in various institutions and roles that are consistent with the structures and norms of the society.


c. Interdependence and equilibrium.  Functionalism attempts to explain the relationship of different parts of the system to each other, and to the whole.  These parts are usually work together in an orderly manner, without great conflict – Adams and Sydie note that this approach has examined “the issues of order and integration in society” (p. 343).  The different parts are usually in equilibrium, or moving toward equilibrium, with consensus rather than conflict governing the inter-relationships of the various parts. 


d. Evolutionary change.  While equilibrium, consensus, and static rather than dynamic analysis is most common, there is some discussion of change.  Change tends to be orderly and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary or with dramatic structural breaks.  Conflicts or external factors stimulate adjustment of the parts to move toward a new equilibrium.  As change occurs, the various parts of societies become more differentiated, with these parts adapting to new needs and problems.  Societies become more complex, with new institutions and subsystems developing that perform the new functions required to make the society operate smoothly.  Note the similiarity to Durkheim’s view of how the division of labour develops. 


C. Origins and influence


The structural functional model comes from a variety of authors, but is most associated with Talcott Parsons.  Robert Merton is another well known sociologist who provided some important structural functional theoretical statements.  All of these were sociologists who were from the United States and spent most of their academic life there.   As a result, this approach is often associated with sociology in the United States.


The functional approach was developed from the 1930s through the 1960s in the United States.  Parsons studied Weber and Durkheim, and translated some of these into English.  Parsons thus became a major interpreter of these writers in America, and his interpretation may be considered to have developed the influence of these writers in a particular way.  Although a liberal within the American context, Parsons used concepts and models from Weber and Durkheim to establish a sociological approach which countered the Marxian view. 


This approach dominated American sociology from the 1940s through to the early 1970s. With a few exceptions, it was the only sociological approach used, and Marxian concepts and approaches were almost entirely absent from sociology textbooks.  While this approach was not conservative in the sense of attempting to return to an earlier society, it also did not encourage or support any radical change.  Politically, it fit the cold war liberal and pluralist political approach that became dominant in American universities during this period.  Part of this was to counter any influence of communism, socialism, or Marxism. 


In the 1960s, the structural functional approach came under increasing attack and ultimately was discredited.  It was unable to explain a number of features of American society, such as poverty, social change, dissent, and the continuing influence and political and economic power of the wealthy.  As sociologists began to read more of Weber and Durkheim, it became clear that the structural functional interpretation missed much of the subtlety of these writers.  It also became clear that Marx also had much to contribute to the analysis of social structure and social change.  More recently, feminist approaches have also attacked functionalism, arguing that the structural functionalists provided a justification for male privilege and ignored the past and potential contributions of women. 


Within Canadian sociology, functionalism was not as influential as in the United States.  Sociology was not as well developed in Canada as in the U.S., and some of the British and European approaches were more influential here.  The structural functional model also did not seem to have the same applicability here as in the U.S. partly because equality of opportunity and individualism were not as highly developed here.  The different ethnic groups and their history have also been considerably different in Canada than in the United States.  When Canadian sociology did develop, some of the political economic approaches were incorporated into Canadian sociology to create a somewhat different discipline than in the U.S.


As a result of challenges in the 1970s, structural functionalism fell into disfavour in the study of sociology.  However, it is still an important model in a number of ways.  First, outside sociology itself, many of arguments used by the structural functional approach are popular explanations.  In addition, some of the structural functional arguments are used by those in power to justify inequalities and explain the value of their contribution to society.  This is an consensus model, one which can be used to support the social order.


Second, it can be considered the sociological counterpart of many economic models of inequality.  In particular, it fits well with the human capital model of education and the economy.  It can also be considered to the counterpart of some models of liberalism in the political sphere.  For example, the notion of equality of opportunity should be a basic part of this model.


Third, even though it may provide and inadequate model of explanation, it may be useful as a model for description.  Much of the quantitative information concerning the structure of society has been developed by sociologists working in the functionalist perspective.  While the exact connection of these quantitative studies to the structural functional approach may not be clear, much quantitative analysis makes many of the same assumptions as do functionalists.   Some of these have provided very useful data for understanding society and examination of the nature of social inequality.


D. 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. 349), 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)


2. 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, coming into disfavour in the 1960 and 1970s.  In sociology today, his approach is generally treated as 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 Unitied 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 in 1927 and stayed 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 (i) analysis of 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 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


Parsons developed an analysis of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, and all social science, although much of this was never completed.  For Parsons, there are many systems or  action systems where “the parts are connected” (Adams and Sydie, p. 350).  A system is something that has a boundary, so that there is an inside and an outside to the environment comprising the system.  Examples of systems are the social, cultural, and personality systems (Wallace and Wolf, p. 28).  Systems have interdependent parts, order or equilibrium, and a tendency to maintain the boundaries and relations of the parts to the whole.  These could be the society as a whole, structures or institutions within society (economy, legal system, religious institutions), or smaller subsystems (family or individual) that form part of society.  These are action systems in the sense that they involve social action, and each system has certain needs or conditions that are necessary for the survival and continued operation of the system.  Systems also have goals that may be created as a result of needs and desires of members of these systems.


A physical analogy to the systems of Parsons 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 certain equilibrium temperature. 


Parsons was primarily interested in the social system, viewing it as the preserve of sociology, and examining social interaction and the relationships among individuals.  A personality system, concerning human motivation and orientation, underlies the social system.  Individuals might be motivated by culture and social factors, looking for approval in social relationships.  Individual personality was considered to be a combination of biological drives and culture, with actors being relatively passive.  Drives may come from the behavioral or biological organism, with its “organization ... 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 the sociobiological interpretation, arguing instead that biological drives were socially developed.


Above the social system is the cultural system, the system of patterned and ordered symbols.  While it is created by humans, this is the “social stock of knowledge, symbols, and ideas” (Ritzer, p. 247).  This includes language and other forms of communication, systems of morality, and all of the shared knowledge of people.  Parsons refers to this as the cultural tradition, and argues that elementary communication is not possible without “some degree of conformity to the 'conventions' of the symbolic system.” (Parsons, 1951, p. 11).   Symbols are interpreted by individuals and individual actors in different situations so that they may react somewhat differently to them.  For social interaction to occur, it is important that there be a stability in the symbol system, “a stability which must extend between individuals and over time, [and] could probably not be maintained unless it functioned in a communication process in the interaction of a plurality of actors.” (Parsons, 1951, p. 11).


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 be reduced to aspects of 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 various institutions such as the family within society.  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 system for Parsons was the status-role bundle or complex.  These are structural elements, and are not characteristics of the individual or of interaction.  Rather they are like the positions within the stratification model.  A status is a structural position within the social system, and a role is what the individual who has that status does.  For example, brother or sister could refer to a status, and there are certain roles that are generally associated with these statuses.  Note that these statuses need not be hierarchical as in the stratification model. 


Within this social system, Parsons considered the needs of the system as important, and individuals fulfilled certain system functions by taking on various roles as means of carrying out the function of their statuses.  Individuals are discussed by Parsons as carrying out actions that maintain order in the system.  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.  However, if people become too deviant, there are social control mechanisms that either stop the deviance (ultimately at the legal level).  In most cases though, there are stronger mechanisms that the social system has to maintain order.  This is the socialization process, and the continued operation of the socialization process through one's whole life. 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).

Note the self-regulating nature of this social control mechanism that evolves. 


4. Pattern Variables


Parsons constructed a set of variables that can be used to analyze the various systems.  These are the “categorization of modes of orientation in personality systems, the value patterns of culture, and the normative requirements in social systems” (Turner, p. 58)     These became a way of describing and classifying different societies, and the values and norms of that society.  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 patterned 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 patterned variables are set up as polar opposites that give the range of  possible decisions and modes of orientation.  Any actual role or decision may be a combination of the two, between the opposites.  For Parsons though, these provided an ideal type conceptual scheme that allowed analysis of various systems of parts of systems.  The five pattern variables are as follows.


The pattern variables provide a means of looking at various forms that norms and social actions can take, and what their orientation is.  These can describe the nature of societal norms, or the basic values that guide, and form the basis for decisions in, the personality system.  The range of possible types of motivation and action is considerably broader in Parson's scheme than in much of the classical sociological writers, at least the utilitarians, Durkheim and Marx.  Weber viewed motivation and meaning as key, but did not provide a guide concerning how to apply these in general.  Perhaps these pattern variables can be thought of as a way that people do relate to situations they face, the type of orientation they have, and how they are likely to interpret meaning in each social action. 


a. Affectivity and Affective Neutrality.   Neutrality refer to the amount of emotion or affect that is appropriate or expected in an given form of interaction.  Again, particularism and diffuseness might often be associated with affectivity, whereas contacts with other individuals 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.  In contrast, affectivity can mean the expression of gratification of emotions.


b. Collectivity or Self.  These emphasize the extent of self interest as opposed to collective or shared interest associated with any action.  Each of our social actions are made within a social context, with others, 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.  Various forms of action such as altruism, charity, self-sacrifice (in wartime) can be included here.  In contrast, much economics and utilitarianism assumes egoism or the self seeking individual as the primary basis on which social analysis is to be built. 


c. Particularism and Universalism.  These refer to the range of people that are to be considered, whereas diffuseness and specificity deal with the range of obligations involved.  The issue here is whether to react “on the basis of a general norm or reacting on the basis of someone’s particular relationship to you” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 34).  A particular relation is one that is with a specific individual.  Parent-child or friendship relationships tend to be of this sort, where the relationship is likely to be very particular, but at the same time very diffuse.  In contrast, a bureaucracy is characterized by universal forms of relationships, where everyone is to be treated impartially and much the same.  No particularism or favoritism is to be extended to anyone, even to a close friend or family member. 


d. Diffuseness and Specificity.  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.  Friendships and parent-child relationships are examples of more diffuse forms of contact.  We rely on friends for a broad range of types of support, conversation, activities, and so on.  While there may be limits on such contacts, these have the potential of dealing with almost any set of interests and problems. 


e. Ascription and Achievement.   Ascription refers to qualities of individuals, and often inborn qualities such as sex, ethnicity, race, age, family status, or characteristics of the household of origin.  Achievement refers to performance, and emphasizes individual achievement.  For example, we might say that someone has achieved a prestigious position even though their ascribed status was that of poverty and disadvantage.


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. 


These can also be used to refer to 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. 


5. Functional System Problems – AGIL (P)


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, with the last two being a means of regulation of the social system.  These functional needs can be remembered by the acronym AGIL.


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 be 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 is the system which allows the system to survive, grow, and change.  The major institutions in the economic sphere, such as 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.  As economists describe the economy, there are many equilibrating mechanisms within the economy that produce order.  The market mechanism itself can be regarded as a system that has some tendencies in the direction of stable equilibria.  Some of the government institutions relating to the economy also help serve this function.   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.  “By integration Parsons means the need to coordinate, adjust, and regulate relationships among various actors or units within the system … in order to keept the system functioning” (Wallace and Wolf, pp. 39-40). 


As various social processes 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.  Means of managing these tensions, diffusing and resolving conflicts and ensuring that orderly means of carrying on activities can be ensured.  At the level of society as a whole, there are a variety of institutions that do this.  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 to enforce order.  In general though, Parsons thought that systems develop automatic means of integration, and roles and organizations to help carry this out do develop.  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.


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.  For Parsons, "All institutionalization involves common moral as well as other values.  Collectivity obligations are, therefor, 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.  In addition, 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.  For Parsons, the role of women was key here, as will be seen in the following section on the family.  Within organizations, there may be little of the latent functions as an explicit part of the organization, but people within any organization develop these themselves, or come to the organization with these functions developed. 


While Parsons had a conservative view of women and the family, at least he did recognize the importance of the latent function, and he puts in on a par with the other three functions that must be part of any system.  For Marx, social reproduction serves a similar role to that of the latent function, but Marx spent little time analyzing this, more or less taking it for granted.  Weber and Durkheim pay little attention to this function, although Durkheim appears to have recognized the problem, and may have treated it in a somewhat similar manner to that adopted by Parsons.


The AGIL functions must exist at all levels, in society as a whole, 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 these societies, 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, with different institutions developing different functions, and with different functions developing within each organizations.  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.  Some of this can be seen by examining Parsons' view of change.


6. Parsons's analysis of the family


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 served the function of producer, consumer and reproducer.  As the division of labour developed in modern times, many of the functions formerly carried out in the family began to be performed in other institutions.  The producer role generally became part of the economic structures of society and were detached from the household.  Later, 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 part of the separation of the AGIL functions 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 roles mean that functions can be better carried out.  While this specialization may create problems of 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.


In the family, the public (jobs) and private (home) have become separated, with “the invention of romantic love and the development of the division of labour inside families along sex lines aids this separation.  Economic organizations have to develop an authority system independent of kinship” (Knapp, p. 205).  For Parsons, the family serves two essential functions in modern society, (a) the socialization of children, and (b) “stabilization of the adult personalities of the population of the society” (Morgan, p. 27).  These can be considered to be essential functions of society – primarily integrative (I) and latent (L) – that create problems for society if they are not carried out.  Too often the earlier, classical theorists had taken these for granted, and considered them to be outside the scope of sociological analysis.


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 the subordinate 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.


With respect to the horizontal axis, Parsons argueed that the instrumental role should be carried out by the husband.  In order to survive, the family needed the income from the husband's occupation, while the family also depended on the wife's expressive and integrative activity.  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 was functional (a) for the whole family unit, and also (b) “functional for marital solidarity because it prevented potentially divisive competition between husband and wife.”   It was also functional for (c) 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: (a) it is the way in which the individual internalizes the culture of a society or group, and (b) 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 for their 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.  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 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 (a) work itself may be unsatisfying, (b) there is little chance for real social relationships outside the family, and (c) 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 (a) the socialization role as opposed to the emotional support for the husband role.  There is also (b) 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' 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 (usually male), 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 perform the functions described 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 other social changes, and may be functional for and promote stability in the operation of the social system.


Parsons's contributions.  Parsons brought discussions of the family into the mainstream of sociology, and developed an analysis of the social system that has 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.



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Last edited November 22, 2002

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