Practice Question – Examine the relevance of Parsonian Social System in the present  society. (10 Marks)  (UPSC 2013)

Approach – Introduction, Write about Social System theory given by Parson, Apply it to the present society, Give examples, Conclusion.



Talcott Parsons was heavily influenced by Durkheim and Max Weber, synthesising much of their work into his action theory, which he based on the system-theoretical concept and the methodological principle of voluntary action. He held that “the social system is made up of the actions of individuals.” His starting point, accordingly, is the interaction between two individuals faced with a variety of choices about how they might act, choices that are influenced and constrained by a number of physical and social factors.
Parsons determined that each individual has expectations of the other’s action and reaction to his own behaviour, and that these expectations would (if successful) be “derived” from the accepted norms and values of the society they inhabit. As Parsons himself emphasised, however, in a general context there would never exist any perfect “fit” between behaviours and norms, so such a relation is never complete or “perfect.” Social norms were always problematic for Parsons, who never claimed (as has often been alleged) that social norms were generally accepted and agreed upon, should this prevent some kind of universal law. Whether social norms were accepted or not was for Parsons simply a historical question.



Parsons emphasised that both the utilitarian and idealist approaches to the study of social systems and social reality were one-sided. The utilitarian approach treated social systems as products of rational impulses of human beings (individuals) to integrate their needs and urges as orderly systems. These systems are based on compatibility of interests through contractual mutuality. An example of contractual mutuality is the system of polity (government and state) which represents organised system of power. The market system, which is based on contractual relationships of economic interests, is yet another such example of an orderly system. But the orderly systems as analysed by utilitarian social scientists, according
to Parsons, neglect the role of values. Similarly, in the idealist treatment of social system, democracy is seen simply as the fulfilment of the spirit of a nation. Idealism places too much emphasis on values and ideas and not enough on social practice.

According to Talcott Parsons both the idealist and the utilitarian notions of the social system assume certain characteristics in human impulses in an apriori manner. By apriori we mean that which is already given or assumed. One such characteristic is rationality in the regulation of needs in the utilitarian approach to the social system, and commitment to ultimate values and ideals in the idealist approach. The positivists go to the other extreme and insist that true human action is born out of full information of the situation. There is thus a finality and inflexibility in their scheme for there is only one way to act: the correct way. Consequently there is no room for values, error and variations in social action.



Social actions are guided by the following three systems which may also be called as three aspects of the systems of social action Personality system: This aspect of the system of social
action is responsible for the needs for fulfilment of which the man makes effort and performs certain actions. But once man makes efforts he has to meet certain conditions. These situations have definite meaning and they are distinguished by various symbols and symptoms. Various elements of the situation come to have several meanings for ego as signs or symbols which become relevant to the organization of his expectation system.

Cultural system: Once the process of the social action develops the symbols and the signs acquire general meaning. They also develop as a result of systematised system and ultimately
when different actors under a particular cultural system perform various social interactions, special situation develops.
Social System: A social system consists in a plurality of individual actor’s interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect actors are motivated in terms of tendency to the optimization of gratification and whose relations to the situation including each other is defined and motivated in terms of system of culturally structured and shaped symbols.

In Parson’s view each of the three main type of social action systems-culture, personality and social systems has a distinctive coordinative role in the action process and therefore has some degree of causal autonomy. Thus personalities organize the total set of learned needs, demands and action choices of individual actors, no two of whom are alike.
Every social system is confronted with 4 functional problems. These problems are those of pattern maintenance, integration, goal attainment and adaptation. Pattern maintenance refers to the need to maintain and reinforce the basic values of the social system and to resolve tensions that emerge from continuous commitment to these values. Integration refers to the allocation of rights and obligations, rewards and facilities to ensure the harmony of relations between members of the social system. Goal attainment involves the necessity of mobilizing actors and resources in organized ways for the attainment of specific goals. Adaptation refers to the need for the production or acquisition of generalized facilities or resources that can be employed in the attainment of various specific goals. 

Social systems tend to differentiate these problems so as to increase the functional capabilities of the system. Such differentiation whether through the temporal specialization of a structurally undifferentiated unit or through the emergence of two or more structurally distinct units from one undifferentiated unit is held to constitute a major verification of the fourfold functionalist schema. It also provides the framework within which are examined the plural interchanges that occur between structurally differentiated units to provide them with the inputs they require in the performance of their functions and to enable them to dispose of the outputs they produce.

P – Adaptation: Social systems must cope with their external boundary conditions, such as their resource base, physical environment, territory and so on. Economic activity serves to solve  problems of adaptation.
A – Goal Attainment: The goals of societies and social institutions have to be defined, resolving goal conflicts, prioritizing some over others, determining resource allocations and directing social energies. Political activity organizes and directs the goal attainment of modern social systems.
E – Integration: All of the adaptive efforts of social institutions within a society need to be integrated into a cohesive system. The institutions need to be regulated so that a harmonious society can emerge from their interaction. Legal systems solve this problem, seeking overarching principles for aligning social activities.
I – Latency: The encultured patterns of behaviour required by the social system must be maintained. Peoples’ motivation must be established and renewed, and the tensions they experience as they negotiate the social order must be managed. Furthermore, the cultural patterns that accomplish this renewal must themselves be maintained and renewed. Fiduciary systems such as families, schools and churches solve these problems of pattern/tension management



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”. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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” .  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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
  6. 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” .  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.  



Parsons developed his own ‘action approach’ theory, which is integrative in nature. In this theory he has included the motivational orientation as well as the value
orientations. Parsons has described role as the most vital element of social systems. In performance of roles individuals are confronted with dilemmas which in turn emanates from choices offered by society within a range of orientations, both motivational and value. The dichotomy in the nature of orientations described by Parsons in his pattern variables determines the course of action followed by individuals in society. 

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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