Sociology – Talcott Parsons – Social System


DEFINITION: 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 situation, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols


The term system implies an orderly arrangement, an interrelationship of understand the functioning of a system. Society may be viewed as a system of interrelated mutually dependent parts which cooperate to preserve a recognizable whole and to satisfy some purpose or goal.

Weberian theory of action= studies consequence of meaningful social action

Parsonian theory of action= studies structures of social action


ALFRED MARSHAL: – the idea that the rational choice of individual is influenced by multiple subjective attributes like enterprise, commitment, capacity for self-introspection. Therefore a rational actor uses multiple subjective orientation befitting the demands of the situation for the gratification of his goals

PARETO: – Social actors manifest logical and non-logical actions, driven by distinctive residues, they borrow from socio-cultural environment where they are located. Action is largely driven by subjective orientation coming out of the norms and value systems to which they are exposed.

DURKHIEM: – Parsons shares Durkheim’s view that man acts in response to moral commitments and obeying social rules because he believes them to be right. He believes that only a commitment to common values provides a basis for order in society.

Parsons synthesised the above ideas and developed his VOULANTARISTIC THEORY OF ACTION. He considers that structure of a social action is a theoretical model that takes into consideration how

  • Subjective orientations
  • Normative constraints
  • Constraints coming from action situations

Are constantly negotiated by rational actors, facilitating him to use appropriate means for the gratification of his goals.




In a social system each of the individual has function to perform in terms of the status he occupies in the system. Thus a social system presupposes a social structure consisting of different parts which are interrelated in such a way as to perform its function. Thus, according to Parsons, every social system has four functional imperatives;

  1. ADAPTAION: A system must cope with external situational exigencies. It must adapt to its environment and adapt the environment to its needs
  2. GOAL ATTAINMENT: A system must define and achieve its primary goals.
  3. INTEGRATION: A system must regulate the interrelationship of its component parts. It must also manage the relationship among the other three functional imperatives (A, G, L).
  4. LATENCY (pattern maintenance): A system must furnish, maintain, and anew both the motivation of individuals and the cultural patterns that create and sustain the motivation.

Talcott 1


Parsons used the status-role complex as the basic unit of analysing the social system. Status refers to a structural position within the social system, and role is what the actor does in such a position, seen in the context of its functional significance for the larger system. The actor is viewed not in terms of thoughts and actions but instead (at least in terms of position in the social system) as nothing more than a bundle of statuses and roles.

In his analysis of the social system, Parsons was interested primarily in its structural components. In his analysis of the social system he delineated a number of the functional prerequisites of a social system.

  • First, social systems must be structured so that they operate compatibly with other systems.
  • Second, to survive, the social system must have the requisite support from other systems.
  • Third, the system must meet a significant proportion of the needs of its actors.
  • Fourth, the system must elicit adequate participation from its members.
  • Fifth, it must have at least a minimum of control over potentially disruptive behaviour.
  • Sixth, if conflict becomes sufficiently disruptive, it must be controlled.
  • Finally, a social system requires a language in order to survive.

However, Parsons did not completely ignore the issue of the relationship between actors and social structures in his discussion of the social system. In fact, he called the integration of value patterns and need-dispositions “the fundamental dynamic theorem of sociology”.


Parsons was interested in the ways in which the norms and values of a system are transferred to the actors within the system. In a successful socialization process these norms and values are internalized; that is, they become part of the actors’ “consciences.” As a result, in pursuing their own interests, the actors are in fact serving the interests of the system as a whole. As Parsons put it, “The combination of value-orientation patterns which is acquired [by the actor in socialization] must in a very important degree be a function of the fundamental role structure and dominant values of the social system”.

Socialization is conceptualized as a conservative process in which need-dispositions bind children to the social system. There is little or no room for creativity; the need for gratification ties children to the system as it exists. Parsons sees socialization as a lifelong experience.

In general, Parsons assumed that actors usually are passive recipients in the socialization process. Despite the conformity induced by lifelong socialization, there is a wide range of individual variation in the system.

However, as far as Parsons was concerned, social control is strictly a second line of defence. A system runs best when social control is used only sparingly. For another thing, the system must be able to tolerate some variation, some deviance. A flexible social system is stronger than a brittle one that accepts no deviation. Finally, the social system should provide a wide range of role opportunities that allow different personalities to express themselves without threatening the integrity of the system.

Socialization and social control are the main mechanisms that allow the social system to maintain its equilibrium. Modest amounts of individuality and deviance are accommodated, but more extreme forms must be met by re-equilibrating mechanisms. Thus, social order is built into the structure of Parsons’s social system.


Thus, the concept of social system directs our attention to the arrangement and interaction of parts. It points out that the effectiveness of organised activity depends on the interaction and inter-relationship of the parts. A social system reveals balance between its parts which facilitates its operation. Occasionally it may reveal imbalance, but it tends towards equilibrium.