4.4 Talcott Parsons

Sociological Thinkers: Talcott Parsons - Social system, pattern variables.

Table of contents

Functionalist even though he talks about voluntarism in his ideas. Never conducted any empirical study. Led to the emergence of neo-evolutionist trend. Structure vs agency - choice within a closed range.

Parsons developed three guiding principles out of his study of prevailing European tradition in sociology:

  1. Sociological theory should be voluntaristic theory of action. (Inspired from German idealist tradition; Weber)
  2. It should be general theory. (Positivist tradition; Durkheim)
  3. Should be in keeping with the principle of emergence (Gestalt). Social reality can be viewed as a system (Social fact). (Inspired from the utilitarian tradition which was reductionist; Parsons learnt from it)

Social Action

He says that the basic unit of social life is social action. Social action is defined as a meaningful response to external stimuli. Any action involves an actor (an agency which assigns the meaning) and an external situation (involving physical objects, social objects and cultural objects). The situation has two elements, conditions and means.

How does culture shape meaning?

When any action is performed, there are bio-psychic drives in the body. They are socially shaped into need dispositions, which give rise to motives and value orientations. Ex. sex is a bio-psychic drive, relationships are need dispositions, flirting a motive, and flirting with the right girl a value orientation.

Every motive has 3 components:

  1. Cognitive element. Distinction between what is right and wrong.
  2. Cathartic element. Emotions, ex. love/hate, and desire for particular things.
  3. Evaluative element. Optimising gratification.These are shaped culturally in terms of cognitive, appreciative and moral standards.

Pattern Variables

Parsons says that culture is dualistically patterned and thus, meanings derived from culture are dualistically patterned too, which is demonstrated at 5 levels:

  1. Affectivity v. Affective Neutrality
  2. Particular v. Universal
  3. Quality v. Efficiency
  4. Diffuseness v. Specificity (I like you for you vs I like you cause you present well)
  5. Collective Orientation v. Self-Orientation

Here the first two pattern variables relate to the modality of the object and the last two relate to the modality of the actor. Overall the pattern allocations are like Gameinschaft (left) and Gesellschaft (right). Parsons says that society is moving from gameinschaft values to gesellschaft values over time.

These pattern variables thus become culturally limiting range of choices for the actor. The actor only has freedom to the extent of choosing from culturally defined options.

NOTE: Parsons is only concerned with human behaviour only so far as it is culturally shared. Not interested in outliers. Same as Durkheim.

General Theory of Social Action

According to Parsons, the characteristics of a system (social reality) are:

  1. A system is a unified whole. Made up of interconnected and interdependent parts.
  2. A system is structured. Parts connected in definite and predictable patterns.
  3. A system has needs. They may be universal (across all systems) or special (system specific).
  4. A system has a goal orientation. (It does not exist in vacuum)
  5. A system is self-equilibrating. Borrowed from the biological idea of homeostasis.

How is equilibrium maintained?

When needs are fulfilled by parts, this results in stability (equilibrium according to Parsons). Parsons never talked about equilibrium at the level of single social action, he was only concerned with building a general theory and not typifying its individual manifestations.

Parsons said that actors in social positions occupy roles, which can be generalised at macro levels. He said there are 4 functional prerequisites of social action (and by extension, of the social system):

  1. Adaptation. Every system needs to be in harmony with its environment.
  2. Goal Attainment. System has to channelize its parts to achieve goals.
  3. Integration. Coordination between parts is necessary for system to function.
  4. Latency. Pattern maintenance and tension management.

1/2 are external needs and 3/4 are internal needs. Thus he developed the AGIL Schema.

Organismic system
Goal Attainment
Personality system
Cultural system
Social system

He takes a single social action as a system which has AGIL needs and identifies sub-systems:

  • Organismic system is the biological component which adapts to individual social situations while choosing from culturally limited option (pattern variables).
  • Goals are identified by personality.
  • Integration needs are fulfilled by society.
  • Cultural system supplies values that allow for pattern maintenance.

He calls this the Functional Paradigm of System of Social Action.
As Social System is the subject matter of sociology; the Organismic, Personality and Cultural systems comprise the environment of social system, thus, biology, psychology, and anthropology are the environment of sociology. All are interdependent and comprise the ecology of sociology.

Social System

Parsons defined a social system as: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 optimize 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 held that a single social action doesn't exist in isolation. Each action is a response to some previous action. Thus, social reality is an interconnected chain of social actions. These patterned interactions constitute a social system. Further he said that each social system has universal and specific needs and maintains equilibrium with its environment.

Like this Parsons lays down the functional paradigm of social system.

Economic System
Goal Attainment
Political System
Fiduciary System
Societal Community

The above are the parts of a social system and their corresponding functions.

  • Economic System - adaptation to environment.
  • Political System - attaining common goals.
  • Societal Community - integration of the social system.
  • Fiduciary System - internalisation of values/pattern maintenance. (ex. family, schools, etc.)

The qualities prescribed by (A) demand Gesellschaft type relationships while the qualities prescribed by (I) demand Gameinschaft type relationships. Parsons said that all subsystems of a social system are interdependent, and interconnected to each other with input-output functions going on among all.

Conflicts (Phase I)

  • Parsons said that perfect equilibrium is never achieved at the societal level but working order can be established.
  • Besides attaining AGIL needs we need to solve some other problems of order (Hobbesian order - war of all against all).
  • A mutual steering mechanism is needed, but works only if there is value consensus.
  • All subsystems are interdependent and thus need to be in harmony for order to result.
  • Parsons moved away from voluntarism and applied structural functionalist approach to various subsystems of society.
  • Family. It performs certain irreducible functions. Primary socialisation and adult personality stabilisation.
  • Religion. Strengthens value consensus in society. Answers questions science cannot answer.
  • Stratification. Talked about importance of inequality. Those who perform better get rewarded more.


  • By the late 1950s critics said that Parsons’ stand was influenced by McCarthyism as he worked towards legitimization of capitalistic world order. Kept saying US was the most developed social system.
  • In Parsons’ theory everything contributed towards order in society. He said that explanation of order was more important than explanation of conflict. He said that deviance from order would be checked by value consensus.
  • Conflict theoriests called it a veiled status quoist ideology. No empirical basis for his pattern variables, they were created to point to order. No attempt to account for change. As equilibrium needs to be maintained and everything points to order.
  • Ralf Dahrendorf says that conflict is present in every society so management of conflict is an essential part of society and thus, Sociology. But Parsons over glorified integration hence his theory is not realistic.
  • CW Mills said that Parsons theory is teleological and tautological.
  • Jesse Bernard attacked his adult personality stabilisation as male personality stabilisation. The SF approach legitimising patriarchy.
  • Critics also said that he ignored the exploitative side of inequality when he said that it strengthened value consensus.
  • Anthony Giddens said that his conception of a system is flawed. He said that Parsons just assumed the organismic analogy, saying that the system was self-equilibrating and ascribed everything to equilibrium without testing anything.
  • Giddens further said that the word structuration should be used to denote an ongoing process (society) which is both enabling and constraining. He called Parsons’ actor a socially programmed robot.

Cybernetic Hierarchy of Control

Following intense criticism in the 50s, Parsons began working on change. He developed a cybernetic hierarchy which shows that a system high in information controls a system high in energy.

High info end.
Cultural System
Culture guides patterns of interaction in society.

Social System
Social system guides personality development.

Personality System
Personality guides the action of the body.
High energy end.
Organismic System
Concerned with the body.

He claims that there exists a correspondence between energy flow and information flow in a system.

How does change occur?

When due to external (cultural contact) or internal factors (sub-system incompatibility), stresses develop among the sub-systems, the social system tries to resolve these stresses through an adaptational upgrade via greater structural differentiation and/or value generalisation. Hence, it reaches a new stage of equilibrium.

He sought to differentiate between the social system and organismic system, he said that an organism while resolving strain reaches it's old equilibrium, a society reaches a new equilibrium. Every time the social system resolves a strain it attains a new equilibrium distinct from that of it's previous stages. This equilibrium is always dynamic in nature as social reality is complex. Hence, he said this equilibrium is a moving equilibrium.

Parsons said that as structural differentiation increases, energy flow also increases. This leads to an adaptational upgrade. This in turn creates a need for integration which is met by value generalisation, which ensures greater inclusion. These two are in sync with each other. (Inspired by ideas of Herbert Spencer)

He then introduced the concept of Evolutionary Universals, in order to develop an evolutionary model of society (inspired by Spencer, but avoiding his pitfalls). Parson defines it as: “An evolutionary universal is an organisational development sufficiently important to further evolution that rather than emerging only once, it is likely to be hit upon by various systems operating under different conditions.”

Stage of Evolution
EU for this stage.
People are bound only by kinship ties.
Primitive (Evolved)
Written Language
People are bound by domicile. Priestly classes emerge.
Intermediate (I)

This has three sub parts.
Archaic (IA)
3 Classes
Royalty, clergy, and commoners.
Historic (IB)
Separation of religion and polity
Here two further stages may develop due to belief in transcendence of god:
  1. World Rejection Ethos. Ex. in India. Social evolution stagnates.
  1. World Affirmation Ethos. Ex. Protestant work ethic.
Seed Bed (IC)
Universal Legal System
All are equal in the eyes of god and hence law.
A society does not complete the last transition till it becomes a democracy.


  • Heralded the neo-evolutionist trend with this theory.
  • Didn’t claim that all societies follow a particular path, made a branched web. Gave a general theory of social evolution and the various stages of integration and differentiation.
  • Incorporated the idea of cultural diffusion (seed bed stage of Greece).
  • Just identified the structural model of evolution. Didn’t say anything about how change occurs from one stage to the next.
  • His theory still couldn't account for revolutionary change.

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