Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Talcott Parsons ( 1902-1979) developed his social theory of action systems throughout his career. In "Action Systems and Social Systems," his summary of that theory as he worked it between 1961 and 1971, two of the most distinctive features of Parsons's social theory are illustrated. First, he understands the social system to be a distinct entity, different from but interdependent with three other action systems: culture, personality, and the behavioral organism. Second, Parsons makes explicit reference to Durkheim in his view that social systems are sui generis things in which values serve to maintain the patterned integrity of the system. Some have argued that these theoretical convictions were traceable to the Golden Age culture, in which it was widely believed America was the exemplification of society itself because of the power of its values.

"Sex Roles in the American Kinship System" ( 1943) is an illustration of Parsons's theory applied to an empirical topic. Here, Parsons demonstrates his remarkable ability to press deeper and deeper into the logic of his theoretical systems. In the 1940s and 1950s, when this essay was most widely studied, his ideas were not particularly remarkable; the family as he discussed it was taken for granted by social scientists. By the 1970s, however, feminist scholars began to use Parsons's theory as a point of protest against systematic, social scientific sexism. Today, of course, anyone can understand why feminists would object to being defined as dependent, neurotic, and compulsive, perhaps especially when these views are stated in so cool a scientific language.


Action Systems and Social Systems

Talcott Parsons ( 1961-1971)

We consider social systems to be constituents of the more general system of action, the other primary constituents being cultural systems, personality systems, and behavioral organisms; all four are abstractly defined relative to the concrete behavior of social interaction. We treat the three subsystems of actions other than the social system as constituents of its environment. This usage is somewhat unfamiliar, especially for the case of the personalities of individuals. It is justified fully elsewhere, but to understand what follows it is essential to keep in mind that neither social nor personality systems are here conceived as concrete entities.

The distinctions among the four subsystems of action are functional. We draw them in terms of the four primary functions which we impute to all systems of action, namely pattern-maintenance, integration, goal-attainment, and adaptation.

An action system's primary integrative problem is the coordination of its constituent units, in the first instance human individuals, though for certain purposes collectivities may be treated as actors. Hence, we attribute primacy of integrative function to the social system.

We attribute primacy of pattern-maintenance--and of creative pattern change-- to the cultural system. Whereas social systems are organized with primary reference to the articulation of social relationships, cultural systems are organized around the

____________________
Excerpt from The System of Modern Societies (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 4-8. Copyright 1971. Reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall. Though this selection appeared in 1971, it represents Parsons's theory as it evolved in the post-World War II period.

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