Parsons: Grand Theory

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Talcott Parsons’ Grand Theory is based in the perspective which is commonly referred to as “structural functionalism.” Parsons himself, however, preferred the term “functional analysis” after it was suggested by his student, Robert Merton(Coser 1975). For the most part, “structural functionalism” is the preferred label. Its focus is on the functional requirements, or needs, of a social system that must be met for the system to survive and the corresponding structures that meet those needs. The social systems we are referring to tend to perform the tasks that are necessary for their survival. Sociological analysis comes into play as a search for the social structures that perform those tasks or meet the needs of the social system(Wallace and Wolf 1999). A basic definition of functionalism would be the study of the social and cultural phenomena in terms of the functions they perform. The society conceived in functionalism is a system of interrelated parts that are interdependent of one another. If a change in one part takes place, then their is a change in the system and reorganization occurs in an effort to once again achieve equilibrium(Wallace and Wolf 1999). It is this strive toward equilibrium that Parsons is most concerned with in his Grand Theory. While Parsons’ contributions are great, there were many who paved the way before him. Intellectuals such as Auguste Comte, Herber Spencer, Vilfredo Pareto, and Emile Durkheim laid much of the ground work. Comte, Spencer, and Pareto contributed the concept of the interdependence of parts of the social system, while Durkheim emphasized integration or solidarity. Both ideas Parsons incorporated into his paradigm. It was Comte who introduced the concept of equilibrium to functionalism, which he borrowed from biology’s treatment of homeostasis. Spencer’s differentiation, as in the mutual dependence of unlike parts of the system brought about inevitably by an increase in a society’s size, is thought of today as an important aspect of a social system’s interrelatedness and integration. By integration we mean the incorporation of individuals into the social order, which is essential to the maintenance of social equilibrium. It was Durkheim, the most important forerunner of modern functionalism, who championed integration and conceptionalized the function of the division of labor(Wallace and Wolf 1999). Parsons was greatly influenced by these two concepts. Durkheim viewed social evolution as a movement from the mechanical solidarity of tribal societies to the organic solidarity characteristic of industrial societies. At the heart of both societies is the collective conscience, which he defined as “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society.” Primitive societies with mechanical solidarity had a strong collective conscience but little individualism. As the division of labor increased, so did individualism. This, in turn, led to a corresponding decrease in the collective conscience and a shift to organic solidarity. With this foundation of great ideas, and his own experience in the biological studies, Parsons was ready to form his own functionalism perspective. His contributions include: his system of action, his action schema, the pattern variables, and the system problems. For Parsons, the system was the center of his thinking from a very early age(Wallace and Ruth 1999). His general theory of action includes four systems: the cultural system, the social system, the personality system, and the behavioral organism system. Each system in turn has a basic unit of analysis, or variable by which it is measured. For the cultural system it is “meaning” or “symbolic systems” like national values, religious beliefs, or languages. In Parsons view, cultural traditions are made up of shared symbolic systems, with the focus on shared values. An important concept for the cultural system in socialization, or the process where societal values are internalized by a society’s members. For Parsons, socialization is an important force in maintaining social control and holding a society together(Wallace and Wolf 1999). The next level in Parsons’s scheme is the social system. The social system’s basic unit is “role interaction”, which refers to how individual actors interact in relation to their roles in society. Parsons defined the social system as two of more individuals, or collectivities, interacting in a situation which has at least a physical of environmental aspect, whose actors are motivated toward personal gratification, and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and influenced by the cultural system. The basic unit of the personality system is the individual actor, or human. The main focus at this level is on the individual’s “motivation toward gratification,” which Parsons emphasizes in his definition of the social system. More specifically, the focus is on the needs, motives, and attitudes involved in this “motivation.” This assumption, that people are self-interested or profit maximizers, is also found in both conflict theory and exchange theory(Wallace and Wolf 1999). For the behavioral organism, the fourth system, the basic unit is the human being in its biological sense. By this Parson is referring to the physical aspect of the human person, including the physical and organic environment in which the human lives. Parsons is particularly interested in the organism’s central nervous system and motor activity. His view of socialization is what makes the before mentioned systems interrelated. We, according to Parsons, are merely behavioral organisms at birth. It is when a person comes into with society and its members does that person internalize the values of the prevailing cultural system. In other words, the person learns role expectations, as mentioned in the social system, and so become full participants in that society. The socialization disseminates from the first system to the last. Values first come from the cultural system. Then the corresponding normative, or role expectations, are learned in the social system. The individuals identity comes from the personality system and the necessary biological equipment comes from the behavioral system. Parsons does not consider these four systems to be mutually exclusive. Instead they exhibit the interdependence that functionalism consistently stresses. It is the context of the four systems that Parsons attempts to describe actual behavior in his theory of action. He begins with an actor, which could be either a single person or a collectivity. Parsons sees the actor as being motivated, as in “motivated toward gratification,” to spend energy and resources to reach a desirable goal or end. This goal or end is defined in the actor by the cultural system through socialization. The action takes place in situation defined by the social system and includes means(facilities, tools, or resources) and conditions(obstacles that arise in the pursuit of the goal). Being that means are scarce in society and conditions are unforeseeable, the situation could be so restricting the goal may be unattainable. These elements are regulated by the normative standards of the social system and an actor who is motivated to pursue a goal must fulfill those normative expectations. It is because of this standard for goal attainment it could be said that norms are central to Parsons’ theory of action and the cultural system that legitimates them is primary(Wallace and Wolf 1999). The theory of action describes the relationship between a motivated actor, a goal, and the conditions that are defined by the cultural system but says little about the different contingencies and expectations actors are likely to face in the situation. In an attempt to show the actor’s situation in not entirely unstructured and uncertain he formulated the pattern variables. This segment of Parsons’s work is based on Ferdinand Toennie’s gemeinschaft-gesellschaft typology. Toennies focuses on contrasting primitive communities, characterized by close personal bonds or kinship relations, with modern industrial societies, which are characterized by more impersonal or business-type relationships. As mentioned earlier, Durkheim analyzed the types of solidarity in primitive and modern societies. Like both before him, Parsons considers the difference between primitive and modern societies to be fundamental. He labels relationships in traditional societies expressive, and relationships in modern society instrumental. Each pattern variable, to Parsons, represents a problem or delimma that must be solved by the actor before the action can take place(Wallace and Wolf 1999). The first choice an actor must make is between ascription(expressive) and achievement(instrumental). The problem is whether the actor chooses to orient themselves toward others on the basis of ascribed qualities, like sex, age, race, or ethnicity, or on the basis of what they can do or have done, as in performance. To Parsons, the choice is not an arbitrary one because at the core of this decision are normative expectations. The second pattern variable is diffuseness(expressive) or specificity(instrumental). The issue at hand here is the range of demands in the relationship. If the number and types of demands or responsibilities are wide-ranging then it is a diffuse relationship, much like a close friendship. If the scope of the relationship is narrow or very limited then it is specific, much like the relationship between a patient and a doctor. Parson argues that in modern societies with a high division of labor, the choice generally involves specifically defined behavior. In traditional societies, more of the relationships are diffuse. The third pattern variable is affectivity(expressive) or affective neutrality(instrumental). The issue here is simply whether the actor can expect emotional gratification in the relationship. Parson used the school system as an example of this choice. When a child first enters school they have already become accustomed to their affective relationship with their parents. The child soon realizes, through socialization, that the relationship with the teacher is affectively neutral. In this way the school institution teaches the child to tread a predominantly instrument path which is the type of worker needed in a modern society. The fourth pattern variable is particularism(expressive) or universalism(instrumental). The choice here is between reacting on the basis of some generality or reacting on the basis of some particular relationship to a person or one’s membership in a group. Discrimination is a good example of choices being made on the basis of particularistic criteria rather than universalistic criteria expounded by modern societies(Wallace and Wolf 1999). The final variable is collectivity(expressive) or self(instrumental). This is the choice between gratifying private interests or whether to fulfill some collective obligation or duty. Those in the business world are preoccupied with self-interest when striving for profit. On the other hand, a civil servant is expected to carry out their duties in the best interest of the public. Once Parsons had the pattern variable defined he then set out to further define those variables and reduce the lack of certainty in his theory of action about what goals actors would pursue. The AGIL model was his attempt to incorporate his theory propositions about the nature of goals. With the collaboration of Robert F. Bales, Parsons conducted experiments on leadership in small groups. They found in a typical meeting it began with a request for and the providing of information that would solve the problem of a common orientation to the task. The group would then try to solve the problem of evaluation and make decisions about the task at hand. An attempt at consensus through social control was next. If the cycle was successful then it would end with activity expressing solidarity and tension reduction, which such things like humor, to repair any damage done to social integration and to bring the group back to the equilibrium that existed before hand. Parsons decided that Bale’s categories for analyzing small group interaction and the activities all small groups engage in could be expanded beyond small groups to include all systems of action, if reconceptualized. This led Parsons to the four-function paradigm in which he identifies the major problems action oriented systems must solve if the are to maintain equilibrium, develop, and survive. Parsons argues that all action systems face four major problems, or have four needs: adaption, goal attainment, integration, and latent pattern maintenance-tension management. Parsons usually pictures society or the system in question as a large square that he divides into four equal parts and label with the letters AGIL. By A, adaption, Parsons is referring to the need of a system to secure sufficient resources form the environment and distribute them throughout. This is commonly accomplished through social institutions which are interrelated systems of social norms and roles that satisfy those needs. If a social system is to survive it needs certain structures or institutions to perform the function of adaption to the environment. Our economic institution meets this need. The G stands for goal attainment. It is the system’s need to mobilize its resources and energies to establish priorities among and attain system goals. In democratic societies this system problem would be the concern of political institutions. By I Parsons is referring to Integration. This is the need to coordinate, adjust, and regulate relationships among various actors or collectivities within the system thereby preventing mutual interference and keeping the system functioning. Integration has been the priority of functionalists, since Durkheim, and because of this, it is the central variable of the paradigm. Legal institutions meet the need for social control(Wallace and Wolf 1999). The last system need is the L, or latent pattern maintenance-tension management. This need has two parts. The first is to make certain actors are sufficiently motivated to play their parts of the system or maintain the current values. The second is to provide mechanisms for internal tension management. In America institutions like the family, religion, the media, and

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