Notes on Structural Functionalism and Parsons

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Sociology 250

November 2, 1999

Functionalism and Parsons


A. Classical and Contemporary Sociology

Beginning with Parsons and the functionalist approach to sociology we leave the classical sociologists – Marx, Weber, and Durkheim – and examine more recent sociological approaches. In Europe, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim developed the major theoretical approaches to an analysis of the social world. While they were not as comprehensive in their analysis of the social world as is contemporary sociology, these classical writers defined the discipline of sociology and developed models and methods which contemporary sociologists must consider. Contemporary sociologists have taken several lines of development. Some develop and update the ideas of classical sociology, while others combine ideas from several classical sociologists. Still others reject many of the classical approaches, but even here the ideas of classical sociology serve as a point of debate and departure.

Parsons and the functionalist approach to sociology occupy an intermediate position between classical and contemporary sociology. Some new sociological approaches were developed in North America before Parsons. But Parsons and the functional approach to sociology became so dominant that by the late 1950s, sociology and functionalism became more or less identical (Wallace and Wolf, p. 17). This meant that sociology studied the roles of institutions and social behaviour in society, the way these are related to other social features, and developed explanations of society in social terms (Wallace and Wolf, p. 17).

Beginning around the time that functionalism became dominant, there were many new developments in sociology. Microsociological approaches such as symbolic interactionism and the study of individual and small group interaction began, perhaps because these had not been emphasized by earlier sociologists. Conflict approaches also developed, partly in reaction to the consensus view of functionalists, and partly because functionalism was not able to explain the new social movements and developments in North America and the rest of the world.

By the late 1980s, functionalism and Parsons were more or less discredited and abandoned, replaced with a variety of sociological models that attempted to develop a variety of non-functionalist approaches to the study of sociology. More recently, some sociologists have attempted to revive functionalism, the most notable of these being Jeffrey Alexander (Wallace and Wolf, pp. 58-61). At the same time, some of the alternative approaches that were developed have functionalist aspects to them. As a result, functionalist theory and the sociology of Talcott Parsons must be studied in order to understand the development of sociological thought. In addition, some of the ideas of Parsons have proved to be useful to the study of the contemporary social world.


B. Functionalism – Introduction

1. Overview. Many aspects of the functionalist approach to sociology are similar to those of other sociological approaches, but with a particular emphasis on function, interdependence, consensus, equilibrium, and evolutionary change. Some of these aspects are:


a. Macro. The focus is macro-sociological, with institutions and structures existing in the society as a whole. This is the origin of the structure part of the structural functional approach.


b. Function. The different parts of each society contribute positively to the operation or functioning of the system as a whole. This is the functional part of the structural functional approach.


c. Interdependence and Equilibrium. Functionalism attempts to explain the relationship of different parts of the system to each other, and to the whole. These parts are usually work together in an orderly manner, without great conflict. The different parts are usually in equilibrium, or moving toward equilibrium, with consensus rather than conflict governing the inter-relationships of the various parts.


d. Evolutionary Change. While equilibrium, consensus, and static rather than dynamic analysis is most common, there is some discussion of change. Change tends to be orderly and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary or with dramatic structural breaks. Conflicts or external factors stimulate adjustment of the parts to move toward a new equilibrium. As change occurs, the various parts of societies become more differentiated, with these parts adapting to new needs and problems. Societies become more complex, with new institutions and subsystems developing that perform the new functions required to make the society operate smoothly. Note the similiarity to Durkheim’s view of how the division of labour develops.


2. Function. Each society has certain needs in that there are a number of activities that must be carried out for social life to survive and develop. Goods and services must be produced and distributed in order for people to survive, there must be some administration of justice, a political system must exist, and some family structure must operate so as to provide a means to reproduce the population and maintain social life on a daily basis. In the structural functional model, individuals carry out each of these tasks in various institutions and roles that are consistent with the structures and norms of the society.

One example of functionalism is inequality. Functionalists generally argue that a certain degree of inequality is functional for the society as a whole, and the society could not operate without a certain degree of inequality. Rewards in the form of income, status, prestige, or power must be provided in order to induce people to carry out the work required of them and get them to prepare for and perform in roles required by society. Recall that Durkheim argued that social inequalities should represent natural inequalities, and if this occurs, the division of labour performs well. Some types of Marxism also have a strong strain of functionalism to them – for example, a Marxist may claim that the function of the working class is to produce surplus value, or the state functions in the interests of the bourgeoisie.

One question raised in a functional approach is to determine what is functional and what is not, and for whom each of these activities and institutions are functional. If there is no method to sort functional from non-functional aspects of society, the functional model can become tautological – without any explanatory power in that any activity is regarded as functional.


3. Structures. Functionalist analysis looks on social systems as having certain needs, and society as a system of social structures (economic, legal, educational, gender structures). If the needs are being met, then it is the social structures that meet these needs. The structures are thus functional in the sense that they help society to operate. Interconnections exist within and among these structures, and individuals and groups are constrained by these structures. Wallace and Wolf note that some functionalists have abandoned the structural aspect and refer to themselves merely as functionalists (p. 17).


4. Interdependence. Since society is composed of different parts, and the proper operation of these parts is necessary to the smooth operation of society as a whole, the interdependence of the parts is an important feature of functional analysis. The roles taken on by people, and the institutions and organizations of society are all interdependent. A change in any one part affects others, requiring other parts to take account of the changes, modify its actions, and adapt to any changes necessary. While most sociological approaches recognize the interdependence of the elements of a society, the functionalist approach tends to regard these elements of society (individuals or institutions) as having particular functions to perform. For example, Parsons argues that each individual occupies a status or position within a structure. “Status and role tend to go together in what Parsons calls the ‘status-role bundle.'” (Grabb, p. 101). These are the ways in which individuals fill the structures of society. So long as roles are performed, the structures function smoothly, and it is individuals carrying out their functions and roles within these structures that make the structures work.


5. Equilibrium. Functionalists argue that societies are generally in a normal state of affairs, with the different parts functioning smoothly to contribute to the operation of the society. There may be disturbances from this normal state of affairs – from outside the society, because the different parts are not operating properly, or because of features such as population or technical change – but these disturbances trigger adjustments in the various parts of society that return the society to a state of equilibrium. An example from economics is that when there are shortages of a product, the price of the product rises, and this induces producers to produce more of the product, thus eliminating the shortage. When there is a disturbance in the social world, the various roles and organizations have means to return the society to a more normal state of affairs.


6. Consensus – Norms and Values. The functional approach tends to argue that there is consensus within the social system. Individual behaviour is governed by social norms or rules that are generally accepted and agreed upon. These are like Durkheim’s social facts or moral regulation in that they govern behaviour, and while they are coercive, they are also generally agreed upon. These norms and values are consistent with the equilibrium state of society, or normal state of affairs. There are aspects of these norms that return the society to a normal state of affairs in the case of a disturbance – for example, sanctions, punishment, social approval, and social disapproval.

Functional analysis does not emphasize conflict, does not consider conflict to be an integral part of the social world, and generally does not consider change to be dramatic but rather to be evolutionary. While the writers who take this approach often advocate reforms, these may be minimal, thus providing support for existing structures. At the same time, the structural functional approach is in the tradition of western liberalism – arguing for equality of opportunity, a liberal democracy, and social reforms that would encourage these. Politically, this approach has often been used as a means of countering radical reforms, at other times it has contributed to more modest reforms.


C. Origins and Influence

Unlike the other major theoretical approaches, the structural functional model comes from a variety of authors. Usually it is associated with Talcott Parsons, although the single most famous article is a short summary article on social stratification by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore. Robert Merton is another well known sociologist who provided some important structural functional theoretical statements. All of these were sociologists who were from the United States and spent most of their academic life there. As a result, this approach is often associated with sociology in the United States.

Wallace and Wolf trace the development of structural functionalism to Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Durkheim. The functional approach was developed from the 1930s through the 1960s in the United States. Parsons studied Weber and Durkheim, and translated some of these into English. Parsons thus became a major interpreter of these writers in America, and his interpretation may be considered to have developed the influence of these writers in a particular way. Although a liberal within the American context, Parsons used concepts and models from Weber and Durkheim to establish a sociological approach which countered the Marxian view.

This approach dominated American sociology from the 1940s through to the early 1970s. With a few exceptions, it was the only sociological approach used, and Marxian concepts and approaches were almost entirely absent from sociology textbooks. While this approach was not conservative in the sense of attempting to return to an earlier society, it also did not encourage or support any radical change. Politically, it fit the cold war liberal and pluralist political approach that became dominant in American universities during this period. Part of this was to counter any influence of communism, socialism, or Marxism.

In the 1960s, the structural functional approach came under increasing attack and ultimately was discredited. It was unable to explain a number of features of American society, such as poverty, social change, dissent, and the continuing influence and political and economic power of the wealthy. As sociologists began to read more of Weber and Durkheim, it became clear that the structural functional interpretation missed much of the subtlety of these writers. It also became clear that Marx also had much to contribute to the analysis of social structure and social change. More recently, feminist approaches have also attacked functionalism, arguing that the structural functionalists provided a justification for male privilege and ignored the past and potential contributions of women.

Within Canadian sociology, functionalism was not as influential as in the United States. Sociology was not as well developed in Canada as in the U.S., and some of the British and European approaches were more influential here. The structural functional model also did not seem to have the same applicability here as in the U.S. partly because equality of opportunity and individualism were not as highly developed here. The different ethnic groups and their history have also been considerably different in Canada than in the United States. When Canadian sociology did develop, some of the political economic approaches were incorporated into Canadian sociology to create a somewhat different discipline than in the U.S.

As a result of challenges in the 1970s, structural functionalism fell into disfavour in the study of sociology. However, it is still an important model in a number of ways. First, outside sociology itself, many of arguments used by the structural functional approach are popular explanations. In addition, some of the structural functional arguments are used by those in power to justify inequalities and explain the value of their contribution to society. This is an consensus model, one which can be used to support the social order.

Second, it can be considered the sociological counterpart of many economic models of inequality. In particular, it fits well with the human capital model of education and the economy. It can also be considered to the counterpart of some models of liberalism in the political sphere. For example, the notion of equality of opportunity should be a basic part of this model.

Third, even though it may provide and inadequate model of explanation, it may be useful as a model for description. Much of the quantitative information concerning the structure of society has been developed by sociologists working in the functionalist perspective. While the exact connection of these quantitative studies to the structural functional approach may not be clear, much quantitative analysis makes many of the same assumptions as do functionalists. Some of these have provided very useful data for understanding society and examination of the nature of social inequality.


D. Talcott Parsons

1. Introduction

a. Social Order. Much like Durkheim, Parsons was concerned with the problem of social order, “how, if individuals were really separate entities pursuing their self-interest, there could be any order at all: How could there be anything but disorder?” (Johnson, p. 116). In practice, people do cooperate, and there is a degree of social integration. For Parsons this comes from the values of society and of social actors – the basis of social action can be termed voluntarism. “People act on the basis of their values; their actions are oriented and constrained by the values and norms of people around them; and these norms and values are the basis of social order” (Knapp, pp. 191-192

The importance of values can be seen by looking at how social actors view ends and means within the context of values.


i. Ends. Parsons noted that while individuals pursue their self-interest and their own satisfaction, that is not the sole concern of individuals. Rather, there is a strong measure of agreement among people, people do get along with each other, they cooperate with and help each other. The wants and desires of people are not randomly distributed (Cuff, p. 40), but are socially derived. The ends that people pursue are based on shared values and norms, and these are “internalized in the motivational systems of individuals” (Johnson, p. 116).


ii. Means. The manner in which particular ends are pursued is usually not the technically most efficient manner. Rather, the means that people use are socially and morally regulated, with views of right and wrong, proper and improper, and appropriate and not. In the view of the structural functionalists, “without the normative regulation of means, society would be afflicted by chaos, anomie, and apathy … social disorder” (Ritzer, p. 239). Note also that these are carried out within a system of constraints, or there are various conditions placed on individual action.


b. Function. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Parsons’ and the structural functional model is attaching function to the various social processes and social institutions that are part of society. Parsons took the idea of function from anthropology “as a way of talking about the consequences of any given pattern of patterns of social interaction for the stability and ongoingness of systems of interaction” (Johnson, p. 117). In general, Parsons tended to view these patterns as contributing to the relatively smooth functioning of society. The shared values and norms, the institution of the family, and the generally agreed upon means for accomplishing ends were viewed by Parsons as being functional for the operation of society as a system. Critics argue that this is not really social analysis but description and justification, because it makes the institutions appear to be necessary and the only ones that could exist. As a result, there appear to be strong conservative and consensus assumptions built into this approach.

While the degree of consensus can be overestimated, people make attempts to get along with each other, they do not have random sets of ends, and there is a range of appropriate means in any given society. There is a degree of social integration in society, and it comes not only from powerful groups with interests imposing their wills against the interests of the mass of the population. Wealth and power determine some aspects of societal structure, but at both the micro and macro level there are many commonly shared norms and values that contribute to social stability and social integration. As will be seen, there are different possible views of function, and functionalism is not necessarily inherently conservative.


c. Theory. The sociology of Parsons was primarily theoretical, with little empirical content. Rather, Parsons wrote several long theoretical treatises, integrating concepts and theories from the classical sociologists with his own ideas and interpretation. Unlike Marx, Weber, or Durkheim, Parsons does not lay out a methodology for the study of sociology or the social sciences. Instead, he attempted to build large theoretical framworks which dealt with concepts from all the social sciences.


2. Life and Influences

a. Life. Talcott Parsons (1902-1979, United States) was the most important figure in the structural functionalist school of sociological thought. He dominated sociology in the United States for many years, coming into disfavour in the 1960 and 1970s. In sociology today, his approach is generally treated as outmoded, although some of his ideas are now being viewed more favourably, and perhaps in a less conservative context than they were originally presented.

Parsons was born in Colorado, studied in the eastern Unitied States, and then did graduate work at the London School of Economics and then in Heidelberg, Germany. Weber’s influence was still strong in Heidelberg, and part of Parsons’ doctoral thesis concerned the views of Weber. Parsons became a professor at Harvard in 1927 and stayed there until his death in 1979. In 1937 he published his major work The Structure of Social Action. This book introduced Weber to the United States, and laid the groundwork for Parsons’ later work. In 1949 he was president of the American Sociological Association, and in 1951 published The Social System. These works remained dominant within American sociology through the 1970s.


b. Influences. The contribution of Durkheim to Parsons’ theory will be clear. Concepts such as order, solidarity, and integration, as well as some aspects of the family and sex roles are similar to what is found in Durkheim. The contribution of Weber may be less clear, but is apparent in several ways. First, Weber was concerned with (i) analysis of social structures as a whole, and (ii) social action. Parsons referred to his own theory as action theory and argued that social phenomena must be understood in terms of individual meaning, but also must be examined at the “level of collective action among groupings of actors.” (Turner, p. 47). As with many functionalists, Parsons was concerned with the same issues as Weber, “how do the subjective states of actors influence emergent patterns of social organization, and vice versa?” (Turner, p. 47). He referred to his theoretical approach as a general theory of action systems.

Parsons developed many concepts and elaborate conceptual schemes that could be considered ideal types of the Weberian type. These emphasized important features of social systems, and of the type that Parsons considered important for purposes of his analysis of social integration. They were regarded as useful in different contexts, and a means of comparing concrete situations, to see the extent to which they conform or deviate from these ideal types. (Paragraph based on Turner, pp. 47-8).


3. Action Systems

Parsons attempted to develop an analysis of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, and all social science, although much of this was never completed. For Parsons, there are many systems or action systems. A system is something that has a boundary, so that there is an inside and an outside to the environment comprising the system. Examples of systems are the social, cultural, and personality systems (Wallace and Wolf, p. 28). Systems have interdependent parts, order or equilibrium, and a tendency to maintain the boundaries and relations of the parts to the whole. These could be the society as a whole, structures or institutions within society (economy, legal system, religious institutions), or smaller subsystems (family or individual) that form part of society. These are action systems in the sense that they involve social action, and each system has certain needs or conditions that are necessary for the survival and continued operation of the system. Systems also have goals that may be created as a result of needs and desires of members of these systems.

A physical analogy to the systems of Parsons is a heating or cooling system for a building. The building has boundaries, an outside and an inside, and the boundaries are generally fixed or maintained over time. There are interdependent parts to the system which function together to maintain a certain level of temperature in the building. Thermostats and furnaces or air conditioners are used to heat or cool the building, and these are self-regulating, maintaining a certain equilibrium temperature.

Parsons was primarily interested in the social system, viewing it as the preserve of sociology, and examining social interaction and the relationships among individuals. A personality system, concerning human motivation and orientation, underlies the social system. Individuals might be motivated by culture and social factors, looking for approval in social relationships. Individual personality was considered to be a combination of biological drives and culture, with actors being relatively passive. Drives may come from the behavioral or biological organism, with its “organization … affected by the processes of conditioning and learning that occur in the individual’s life.” Ritzer (p. 249) notes that Parsons would be opposed to the sociobiological interpretation, arguing instead that biological drives were socially developed.

Above the social system is the cultural system, the system of patterned and ordered symbols. While it is created by humans, this is the “social stock of knowledge, symbols, and ideas” (Ritzer, p. 247). This includes language and other forms of communication, systems of morality, and all of the shared knowledge of people. Parsons refers to this as the cultural tradition, and argues that elementary communication is not possible without “some degree of conformity to the ‘conventions’ of the symbolic system.” (The Social System, p. 11). Symbols are interpreted by individuals and individual actors in different situations so that they may react somewhat differently to them. For social interaction to occur, it is important that there be a stability in the symbol system, “a stability which must extend between individuals and over time, [and] could probably not be maintained unless it functioned in a communication process in the interaction of a plurality of actors.” (p. 11).

Because it is composed of symbols, the cultural system can move easily between systems, and strongly affects other systems. Note that it is a separate system, and one that cannot be reduced to aspects of the social system. It affects the social system, creating norms and values that guide social behaviour, and the personality system through socialization and learning. Given the power of the cultural system to influence and control other systems, “Parsons came to view himself as a cultural determinist” (Ritzer, p. 247).


Social System. The social system was Parsons’ main concern. This is society as a whole, or the various institutions such as the family within society. Parsons’ definition of the social system is:



A social system consists in 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 the “optimization of 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 (The Social System, pp. 5-6).



The basic unit of the system for Parsons was the status-role bundle or complex. These are structural elements, and are not characteristics of the individual or of interaction. Rather they are like the positions within the stratification model. A status is a structural position within the social system, and a role is what the individual who has that status does. For example, brother or sister could refer to a status, and there are certain roles that are generally associated with these statuses. Note that these statuses need not be hierarchical as in the stratification model.

Within this social system, Parsons considered the needs of the system as important, and individuals fulfilled certain system functions by taking on various roles as means of carrying out the function of their statuses. Individuals are discussed by Parsons as carrying out actions that maintain order in the system. Socialization, education and learning in the child, and continued socialization throughout life are the means by which the norms and values of society are learned by individuals. This is what binds the individual to the social system as a whole. If successful, this socialization process means that the norms and values become internalized by individuals, and when people pursue their own interests, they also serve the needs of the society as a whole.

In modern society there are many roles, statuses and opportunities for individuals to express their different personalities. For Parsons, this is a positive feature of a social system, and a flexible system of this sort is more able to maintain order. However, if people become too deviant, there are social control mechanisms that either stop the deviance (ultimately at the legal level). In most cases though, there are stronger mechanisms that the social system has to maintain order. This is the socialization process, and the continued operation of the socialization process through one’s whole life. Parsons comments



Without deliberate planning on anyone’s part, there have developed in our type of social system, and correspondingly in others, mechanisms which, within limits, are capable of forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase which puts it beyond the control of ordinary approval-disapproval and reward-punishment sanctions (The Social System, pp. 319-320).



Note the self-regulating nature of this social control mechanism that evolves.


4. Theory of Action

Parsons begins with an actor – an individual or or collectivity (Wallace and Wolf, p. 28). “Parsons sees the actor as motivated to spend energy in reaching a desirable goal or end, as defined by the cultural system” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 29). He notes that action


is a process in the actor-situation system which has motivational significance to the individual actor, or, in the case of a collectivity, its component individuals. This means that the orientation of the corresponding action processes has a bearing on the attainment of gratifications or the avoidance of deprivations of the relevant actor, whatever concretely in the light of the relevant personality structures these may be (The Social System, p. 4).


That is, the actor operates in a situation with means and conditions, but within a certain normative framework. The norms have been internalized by the actor so that the actor is “motivated to act appropriately” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 30).

It may be that Parsons regards social action as having less meaning and more regularized patterns of response than does Weber:



It is a fundamental property of action thus defined that it does not consist only of ad hoc “responses” to particular situational “stimuli” but that the actor develops a system of “expectations” relative to the various objects of the situation. These may be structured only relative to his own need-dispositions and the probabilities of gratification or deprivations contingent on the various alternatives of action which he may undertake. But in the case of interaction with social objects a further dimension is added. Part of ego’s expectation, in many cases the most crucial part, consists in the probable reaction of alter to ego’s possible action, a reaction which comes to be anticipated in advance and thus to affect ego’s own choices. (The Social System, p. 5).




5. Pattern Variables

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” (Turner, p. 58) 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. For Parsons, these were necessary to make the theory of action more explicit and “to develop clearer specifications of what different contingencies and expectations actors were likely to face” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 30). The patterned variables are set up as polar opposites that give the range of possible decisions and modes of orientation. Any actual role or decision may be a combination of the two, between the opposites. For Parsons though, these provided an ideal type conceptual scheme that allowed analysis of various systems of parts of systems. The five pattern variables are as follows.


a. 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.


b. 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.


c. 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.


d. 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” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 34). 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.


e. 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.

The pattern variables provide a means of looking at various forms that norms and social actions can take, and what their orientation is. These can describe the nature of societal norms, or the basic values that guide, and form the basis for decisions in, the personality system. The range of possible types of motivation and action is considerably broader in Parson’s scheme than in much of the classical sociological writers, at least the utilitarians, Durkheim and Marx. Weber viewed motivation and meaning as key, but did not provide a guide concerning how to apply these in general. Perhaps these pattern variables can be thought of as a way that people do relate to situations they face, the type of orientation they have, and how they are likely to interpret meaning in each social action.


f. 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” (Morgan, p. 29). 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.

The instrumental characteristics refer to “the goal attainment and adaptation aspects” (Morgan, p. 29). These are the characteristics, people, roles, and actions associated with ideas, problem solving, getting the task done. These tasks are often associated with male roles, public activities, the economy, or politics.

These can also be used to refer to the type of society. Social action and interaction in early forms of society were more likely to be characterized by expressive characteristics. In contrast, in modern societies, with a more complex division of labour and differentiation of statuses and roles, much of social action and interaction is characterized by instrumental characteristics. (See the handout on traditional and modern).


References


Coser, Rose Laub, The Family: Its Structure and Functions, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1964. HQ728 C6

Cuff, E. C., W. W. Sharrock and D. W. Francis, Perspectives in Sociology, third edition London, Routledge, 1992. HM66 P36 1984

Davis, Kingsley and Wilbert E. Moore, “Some Principles of Stratification,” in R. Bendix and S. M. Lipset, Class, Status and Power, second edition, New York, Free Press, 1966, pp. 47-53. HT 605 B4 1966

Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990. HT609 G72

Johnson, Miriam M., “Functionalism and Feminism: Is Estrangement Necessary?” in Paul England, editor, Theory on Gender / Feminism on Theory, New York, Aldine de Gruyter, 1993, pp. 115-130. HQ 1190 T48 1993

Knapp, Peter, One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory, New York, Harper-Collins, 1994.

Morgan, D. H. J. Social Theory and the Family, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975. HQ728 M574

Parsons, Talcott, The Social System, New York, Free Press, 1951. HM51 P35

Parsons, Talcott, Sociological Theory and Modern Society, New York, Free Press, 1967. HM51P37

Parsons, Talcott and Robert F. Bales, Family, Socialization and Interaction Process, Glencoe, Illinois, Free Press, 1955. HQ734 P3

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938.

Turner, Jonathan H., The Structure of Sociological Theory, fifth edition, Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth, 1991. HM24 T84




Quotes from Talcott Parsons

1. Action. “Action” is a process in the actor-situation system which has motivational significance to the individual actor, or, in the case of a collectivity, its component individuals. This means that the orientation of the corresponding action processes has a bearing on the attainment of gratificaitons or the avoidance of deprivations of the relevant actor, whatever concretely in the light of the relevant personality structures these may be (p. 4).


2. Expectations. It is a fundamental property of action thus defined that it does not consist only of ad hoc “responses” to particular situational “stimuli” but that the actor develops a system of “expectations” relative to the various objects of the situation. These may be structured only relative to his own need-dispositions and the probabilities of gratification or deprivations contingent on the various alternatives of action which he may undertake. But in the case of interaction with social objects a further dimension is added. Part of ego’s expectation, in many cases the most crucial part, consists in the probable reaction of alter to ego’s possible action, a reaction which comes to be anticipated in advance and thus to affect ego’s own choices (p. 5).


3. Stability. Some degree of conformity to the ‘conventions’ of the symbolic system … a stability which must extend between individuals and over time, [and] could probably not be maintained unless it functioned in a communication process in the interaction of a plurality of actors (p. 11).


4. Social System. A social system consists in 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 the “optimization of 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 (pp. 5-6).


5. Self-Regulation. Without deliberate planning on anyone’s part, there have developed in our type of social system, and correspondingly in others, mechanisms which, within limits, are capable of forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase which puts it beyond the control of ordinary approval-disapproval and reward-punishment sanctions (The Social System, pp. 319-320).


6. Latent Function. All institutionalization involves common moral as well as other values. Collectivity obligations are, therefor, an aspect of every institutionalized role. But in certain contexts of orientation-choice, these obligations may be latent (p. 99).


Quotes from Talcott Parsons, The Social System, New York, Free Press, 1951. HM51 P35



Last edited on November 2, 1999.

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