DU SOL BA 3rd Year History of Social Thought Notes Chapter 15 Talcott Parsons
Examine Parsons’ theory of social action.
The theory of social action is an excellent contribution of Talcott Parsons. He writes, “The society may be defined as the total complex of relationships in so far as they grow out of actions in terms of -leans and relationship, intrinsic and symbolic.” Society is considered as an element in the whole human life and it is affected by various internal as well as external factors such as by environments, heredity and culture on the one hand and religious, metaphysical and political systems on the other. Every social relationship is part of society thus it is a society. He characterised sum total of all human relationship. Here we find the influence of Pareto, Max Weber and many other social thinkers on Persons social thought.
What is Social Action ? Parsons began with book ‘Structure of Social Action’ where he tried to analyse the nature and implications of social action and further explained his ideas in “The Social System” (1951) Parsons has defined social action as, “It is a process in the actor-situation system which has motivational significance to the individual actor or in the case of collectivity, its component individuals”. Thus all social actions proceed from mechanism. Social actions are concerned ‘with organism actor’s relations with other persons and social institutions’. It is a dynamic element.
Elements and Systems of Social Action. Parsons mentions four elements:
- Actor, who is the medium of action and through him all actions are executed.
- The End or the Object with which that action is performed. It is believed that each action must have some end to achieve.
- Situation, each action is performed under certain situations.
- The last element is selection of Alternative Means.
Systems has also been called as aspects of social action.
About social system Parsons writes, “A Social System consists in a plurity of individual actors interaction with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors are motivated in terms of tendency to be 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”. All the three systems act as three units are complementary rather than contradictory to each other.
1. The Social System. According to Talcott Parsons all social systems irrespective of their size and area of functioning are involved so in the solution of following four fundamental function problems :
(a) Pattern .maintenance
(b) Goal attainment
To his functional theory, Parsons added the concepts of role, collectivity, value and norms as the needed one for social system. “Societies exist on total collectivities if they have a common institutionalised value system, a set of legal norms that are ultimately ben-ding and if They can hope successfully with their external relations. However, complex societies must also specialize behaviour into sub-systems and values into norms”.
Parsons mentions three distinct central points of sociological analysis. These are :
- The structure of complex systems.
- The dynamics of social equilibrium.
- The problem of structural change.
2. The Cultural System. In the beginning of his analysis, Parsons treated culture is a system of ‘eternal objects’. But later on depicted as a system of action. According to Rossides, “His master category for analysing culture, is meaning, and his major frame of reference distinguishes between cultural form concerned with the meaning of objects oriented to’ and the meanings of orientation by actors. The first pair of cultural dimension, cognitive and athectic, is engaged in solving the functional problems of adaptation and goal attainment, and the second pair, evaluative and cultivate grounding of meanings is involved in solving the functional problems of integration and pattern maintenance”.
Parsons describes these four cultural dimensions on level of generality or abstractions and these are interrelated. Though earlier view of Parsons was that, “that cognitive and the athletic dimensions of culture came under the general control of the evaluative dimension, he now identifies a fourth dimension, nithnacy of the grounds of mean-ings. The highest level of generality with in the ‘nithnacy’ dimension, religio-philosophical conceptions of nltimate reality, because they are all somehow modes of differeutiatioa firms a common matrix”.
Talcott Parsons assigns importance to the evaluation and the need for industrialisation of values; to him ‘general analysis of cultural systems provides foundation for the view that principle of cmnnuia- tive development is inherent m the nature of culture system® as a whole and not only of their empirically cognitive components and subsystems”.
3. The Personality System. On the basis of his ‘psychological’ theory Parsons, postulates personality system, in which he maintains organism and personality as two distinct system. According to Parson organism is facility which includes the following :
- Motivational energy.
- Perceptual or cognitive capacity.
- The mechanism integrating the facilities.
- Performance or response capacity.
Following are the four outputs of personality :
- Motive for instrumental performance.
- Directional output.
- Exceptional component.
- Organic security.
Critically discuss Parson’s Theory of Social Control.
Parson’s Theory of social control follows his theory of social action. Parson starts by interpreting the human nature and says that every human being is a social animal and that be preserves his interests than the interests of any other persons. In other words his best interests lie in himself. If no control is exercised in achieving his personal interests, he is so selfish that he may disturb the whole social system. Social controls make it possible to check individual so that he does not become too selfish and does not disturb social order.
Stability and social equilibrium is maintained through some mechanisms, which the society evolves and which suit best to his conditions. These controls and mechanism most go together. Social stability can be possible only when selfish interests are fully checked. Parsons writes, “The most fundamental mechanisms of social control are to be found in the normal process of interactions in an institutional integrated social system”.
Elements of Social Control
1. Institutions. Institutions are the soul of social control mechanism: as they help in integration and without that there will be no coherence. Activities of various individuals are corelated through institutions. These also help in restricting conflicts at social level.
2. Forms of Order. Social equilibrium and stability is maintained through following two orders: (i) Time Schedule and (ii) Institutional Priorities. According to the former order for completing an activity some schedule is fixed. Thus, if there are different activities these are to be enacted at different times and to be completed according to different time schedules. ‘In this way no activity or group interfere with the other and social stability and equilibrium is maintained. But in every society there are certain actions which are given priority over other actions.” This facilitates in checking conflicts. Parsons writes that if there is priority scale then “in cbosing one obligation above the ‘other the individual can in general be backed by the sentiments of common value system”.
3. Institutionalised System of Priorities. Fixation of priorities may depend upon the urgency of needs but it is always desirable that priorities should be institutionalised, otherwise the individuals may get involved into conflicting demands and might not be in a position to show systematised or ordered conduct. Since institutionalised priorities determine the behaviour of a person therefore these are helpful in maintaining social control. Parsons believed that the process of social control is a continuous one and mechanisms are used only when under certain pressures normal system either completely breaks down or tends to break down. He has also said that mecha-‘ nisms of social control have their own limitations. Each mechanism is responsive to certain system and does not break down under certain situations and to some extent.
When excessive pressure is exerted, the mechanism may break down.
4. Fundamental Mechanism. As the individual is being interacted by various means and also by various groups, persons and situations it is not possible to exercise full social control merely with the help of time schedule and institutionalised priorities. This paves way for other mechanisms such as rituals, secondary institutions, isolation etc. It is true that rituals can break down under social pressure, but as long as these functions perform very useful social control. In addition to rituals, there are secondary institutions which help in maintaining social control and through these individual is motivated to conform to social standards and values accepted by the society. Parsons holds that insulation and isolation are two more means of social control. Parsons has interpreted insulation mechanism “as haying the function of preventing potential conflicting elements in the culture and social structure from coming into the kind of conflict which would be likely to lead to open conflict”.
Thus mechanism helps in checking powerful conflicting forces from coming into open conflict with each other. Isolation mechanism tries to keep the cultural pattern separate from other aspects of social structure and helps in preserving cultural patterns on the one hand and maintains harmonious social structure on the other. Thus both institution and insulation play great roles.
According to Parsons, rewards, punishment are also the fundamental mechanisms for those who help maintaining social order or in violating well established social systems and controls. Parsons classifies other unplanned mechanism (that help in social control) as under :
(a) those Which tend to nip in the bud tendencies to the deve-lopment of compulsively deviant motivation before they reach the vicious circle stages ;
(b) those which insolate the bearer of such motivation from influence on others and
(c) secondary defences which are able to varying degrees, to the worse ambitious process.
Parsons in his theory of social control aptly opines that without controls there will be social disharmony and disorder, and that in maintaining social control institutions play a very big and important role. His idea of allotment of priorities and their institutionalisation is a remarkable piece of social idea.
Examine important structural aspects of social systems as developed by Parsons.
Parsons in his social system evolved the theory of social systems wherein he pointed out five elements of social system, namely individual actors, interaction of actors, motivation of the inter-actions ; situations and’ environments connected with interactions and cultural relations. These elements are closely connected and interrelated with each other.
Talcott Parsons pointed out that social systems have both negative and positive aspects. Social systems develop as a result of situations and interaction between various individuals. When actors are motivated to do certain things with the result that a particular system develops, is known as positive aspect of social system. Whereas activities which people wish to avoid, which usually are as a result of some sort of interaction is known as negative aspect. It is conceived by Parsons that no society is complete enough to meet each and every requirement of the people. Therefore every society is expected to meet basic needs of its members. No social problem arises so long as these basic needs are fulfilled otherwise negative aspects of social system are used.
Place of Institutions. The best way to exercise control is to check the establishing tendencies and thereby enabling maintenance of equilibrium for this it is essential that certain institutional priorities should be fixed—an institution being understood as a well established norm of behaviour. The institutions can be Rational, Regulative, Cultural and Rational Regulative. Rational institutions come to stay when because of certain situations and inter-actions certain relations emerge, which give birth to certain institutions.
It is for the Regulative Institutions to regulate the guide the actions of individuals. Otherwise, there is every possibility that social structure might come under heavy strains and interests of weaker sections of society might be ignored. Cultural institutions are responsible for our cultural pattern and help promoting as well as expediting our cultutal behaviour, thereby maintaining our values and behaviour. Whereas Relational-Regulative institutions perform the functions of establishing relationship and regulating behaviours. All these have great roles to play in the social system.
Structural Components of Social System. Parsons names kinship, stratification, power system, religion and value integration as the structural components of social system. Parsons acknowledged the role of kinship in a social system as it makes the task of socialisation easy, keeps sex relationship under control and introduces many taboos. Kinship also helps in regulating some of our social behaviours and puts certain institutions like marriage, family system etc. on sound footing, helps us in knowing the inter-relationships of individuals and also the status.
Stratification facilitates one to get the idea as to what is the place of each individual in the social heirarchv, which in turn helps in knowing the job of each and every individual in the society. Stratification also helps us in knowing who is performing what quality of job and to what extent the job needs rewards and incentives.
The power system (excluding physical power) enables the society to check and control the behaviour of both the individuals as well as groups, check social disorganisation, which otherwise would create many social problems. In social system, it is religion which helps preserving social values and norms and upholds such moral values which keep the people closer and together. In addition to this religion and values even govern internal attitudes and make the whole system dynamic. This discussion leads to the conclusion that Parsons has studied the social system, concisely and his suggestions of mechanisms for social control are valuable contributions to social thought.
Write a note on contribution of Parsons to the history of social thought.
Talcott Parsons is one of the leading exponents of the concept of social system. Despite the fact that this concept had been * widely used in the past by leading sociologists, the way it has been handled and interpreted by Parsons is unrivalled. The application of this concept to a vide range of human interaction has led to many sociologists to develop vast literature. This process in consequence has provided a wide convass for the use of the terms, in terms of integrative and adaptive features of social system as a functional first hand requirement.
It has been said that, perhaps one of the most complex theories of social change is presented by Talcott Parsons. Parsons emphasises social structure and ideology in a theory of “adaptive upgrading.” He contends that societies have an ‘adaptive capacity’ to develop within themselves, or borrow from other societies, ideas and materials which better serve their populations. The ‘enhancement of adaptive capacity’ is most important to the process of social change because it depends upon an ever widening base for the social structure. Therefore, advancement of society from a mere band or tribe to that of a city, state, nation, or empire is dependent upon comu- lative effects of adaptive capocity.’
There is the obvious implication in Parsons theory that ‘social evolution differs from physical evolution in that cultural diffusion is possible. Some societies have made considerable advances along one socialised line or another but have left no apparent heiis.’ When these organisational capacities are combined with scientific technology, the modern phase of human development is reached. However, Abrahamon feels that the ideas of Parsons reveal ‘superficial’ air of originality. “In dealing with ‘society’ inspite of many conceptual innovations which gave his discussion a superficial air of originality Parsons is following an identical line of thought which began with Comte and ended with Durkheim”.
Despite these criticisms, Parsons has made valuable contribution in the field of knowledge about religion, social change and social control, social system and many other related means of study.
Parson’s book, ‘The Structure of Social Action (1937)’ is accepted as the ‘watershed in the development of American sociology in general and sociological theory in particular. It was a landmark in that it set a new course of functional analysis”.
According to Lewis, “This book widened the virtues of American sociologists, making them receiptive to the rich heritage of the European sociological tradition”.
Talcott Parsons, another book Social System emphasised the “importance of institutionalised values and norms and differentiated social roles corresponding to different status position. Talcott Parsons’ views had strong impact on the American sociology”.
Parsons’ works were subjected to multiple criticisms, In the man, his critics complained of a built in bias toward conformity, an absence of concern with social conflict, an inability to preceive the central place of material interests in human affairs, a persistent Panglossian optimism, and a disproportionate concern with integration and concensus at the example of concern with radical change and instability. Although these persistent critical onslaughts were important, they were not wholly responsible for the eclipse of Parsonian thought in the last ten years or so. Rather, that eclipse was due more to a general shift in concern away from macrosociological and structural features of Parsonian theory in particular and of structural-functional analysis in general.
Talcott Parsons two major pioneering contributions, are everlasting. These are :
- Action Frame of Reference and its components.
- The Unified Functional Approach to Society, Culture and Personality.
1. Action Frame of Reference and its components. According to Talcott Parsons, action frame of reference, ‘‘postulates that no relation between an actor and a situation is determined because an actor is always confronted by choice between alternatives”. Social science, postulates- three basic elements of action :
- An actor, (may be an. individual or collectively)
- A social situation or an object and
- Cultural objects (especially of normative order).
Parsons mentions three categories of responses to situation and problems, after analysing the relationship among the above three components of action. These are—cognitive, asthectic and evaluative.
According to Talcott Parsons, following are the three major systems of action :
- Society and
These three systems are separate yet related aspects of reality.
The Pattern Variables and the Social System Types. The concept of pattern variables was derived by Parsons, from the action frame of reference. This derivation is an attempt to supply a logically exhaustive list of action diseases on the highest possible level of abstraction.
There are five basic pattern variables according to Parsons :
- Affectively-Affective mentality (The Gratification-Discipline Dilemma).
- Self-orientation-collectivity Orientation (The Private Vs. collective interest Dilemma).
- Universalism-Particularism (The Choice between types of value orientation standard).
- Ascription-Achievement (The choice between ‘Modalities of social object’).
- Specificity-Diffuseness (The definition of scope of interest in the subject).
The first concerns the problem of whether or not evaluation is to take place in a given situation. The second concen the primacy of moral standards in an evaluative procedure. The third concerns the relative primacy of cognitive and asthectic standai us. The fourth concerns the seeing of objects on quality “or performance complexes. The fifth concerns the scope of significance of the objects”.
Using two of the pattern variables, universalism-particularism and ascription-achievement, Parsons derived a set of four social . system types :
- Universalistic-Achievement (Modern Western Industrial societies).
- Universalistic-Ascription (Imperial and Nazi Germany and to some extent Soviet Russia).
- Particularistic-Ascriptive (Primitive kin-locality Societies Spanish-American Societies).
From an overall perspective, the pattern variables synthesis enabled Parsons to deal conceptually with behaviour from the smallest units to total social structures. However, it still left him with a plurality of theoretical types, and true to his commitment to systematic theory, he reformulated the pattern variables in an attempt to achieve a more general, unitar statement about human behaviour. The key to this organisation came when he realised that the three systems of action could be reformulated in terms of the logic of
“This conceptual scheme, on the structure of social Action shows an instructive detail, was derived from the synthesis, among other things, of the Durkheimian emphasis on structural determi- , nants and collective consciousness, the Weberian stress on the determining functioning of sets of ideas and values and the Paretian notion of moving social equalism resulting from the inter play of actors possessed in varying degrees of a set of fundamental ‘residues’ or ‘prepotent drives’.
2. The Unified Functional Approach to Society, Culture and Personality. The concept of action occupies a significant place in the geological theory of Parsons. ‘Action was dealt with by Parsons in his book “The Structure of Social Action”. Lewis defines function as those observed consequences that make for adaptation or adjustment of given structures : dysfunctions are those observed consequences that lesson adaptation or adjustment. Functional analysis, moreover focusses attention on the casual crop through consequences which of given courses of action act back on the item under observation, the briflgng about, as the case may be, its persistence or modification.
Parsons emphasised the significant role of norms and values and as differentiated social role in relation to differentiated status positions. The central values and norms of the system are upheld when properly socialized are motivated to live upto die role requirements and when they are impelled to uphold and defend these institutionalized requirements in their interaction with other factors. The primacy of values and norms in Parsons system makes it appropriate to all this system normative functionalism.