Sociology – G.H.Mead – Self and Identity



Along with Max Weber, the American social behaviourist George Herbert Mead is credited as laying the foundations for a general approach to sociology called Interactionism. Symbolic Interactionism focuses on micro-level interaction and the way in which meanings are constructed and transmitted across the members of society. G. H. Mead argued that the individual’s self is a social self, produced in the process of interaction rather than being biologically given. Mead’s theory traces the emergence and development of the self through a series of stages in childhood and his ideas on the social-self underpins much interactionist research.


In Mead’s view, human thought, experience and conduct are essentially social. They owe their nature to the fact that human beings interact in terms of symbols, the most important of which are contained in language. A symbol does not simply stand for an object or event: it defines them in a particular way and indicates a response to them. Without symbols there would be no human interaction and no human society. Symbolic interactionism is necessary since man has no instincts to direct his behaviour. He is not genetically programmed to react automatically to particular stimuli. In order to survive he must therefore construct and live within a world of meaning. Thus, symbols provide the means whereby man can interact meaningfully with his natural; and social environment.

Social life can be only proceeded if the meanings of symbols are largely shared by members of society. If this were not the case meaningful communication would be impossible. In order for interaction to proceed each person involved must interpret the meanings and intentions of others. This is made possible by the existence of common symbols, but actually accomplished by means of a process which mead terms role taking’. The process of role taking involves the individual taking on the role of another by imaginatively placing himself in the position of the person with whom he is interacting. On the basis of this interpretation he will make his response to the action of the other.


Mead argues that through the process of role taking the individual develops a concept of ‘self’. By placing himself in the position of others he is able to look back upon himself. Mead claims that the idea of a self can only develop if the individual can get outside (experimentally) in such a way as to become an object to himself. To do this he must observe himself from the standpoint of others. Therefore the origin and development of a concept of self lies in the ability to take the role of another.

The notion of self is not inborn, it is learned during childhood. Mead sees two main stages in its development;

  1. PLAY STAGE: It involves the child playing roles which are not his own. For example, the child may play at being mother or father, a doctor or a nurse. In doing so he becomes aware that there is a difference between himself and the role that he is playing. Thus, the idea of a self is developed as the child takes the role of a make-believe other.
  2. GAME STAGE: In playing a game, the child comes to see himself from the perspective of various other participants. In order to play a game, the child must become aware of his relationship to the other players. He must place himself in their roles in order to appreciate his particular role in the game. In doing so he sees himself in terms of the collective viewpoint of the other players. In Mead’s terminology he sees himself from the perspective of the generalized other.

Generalized Others

The game stage yields one of Mead’s best known concepts, the Generalized Other. The generalized other is the attitude of the entire community. The ability to take the role of the generalized other is essential to the self: “only in so far as he takes the attitude of the organized social group to which he belongs toward the organized, co-operative social activity or set of such activities in which that group is engaged, does he develop a complete self”.

In other words, to have a self, one must be a member of a community and be directed by the attitudes common to the community. While play requires only pieces of selves, the game requires a coherent self.   Not only is taking the role of the generalized other essential to the self, it also is crucial for the development of organized group activities. A group requires that individuals direct their activities in accord with the attitudes of the generalized other. The generalized other also represents Mead’s familiar propensity to give priority to the social, because it is through the generalized other that the group influences the behaviour of individuals.


Mead also looks at the self from a pragmatic point of view. At the individual level, the self allows the individual to be a more efficient member of the larger society. Because of the self, people are more likely to do what is expected of them in a given situation. Because people often try to live up to group expectations, they are more likely to avoid the inefficiencies that come from failing to do what the group expects. Furthermore, the self allows for greater coordination in society as a whole. Because individuals can be counted on to do what is expected of them, the group can operate more effectively

The preceding, as well as the overall discussion of the self, might lead us to believe that Mead’s actors are little more than conformists and that there is little individuality, since everyone is busy conforming to the expectations of the generalized other. But Mead is clear that each self is different from all the others. Selves share a common structure, but each self receives unique biographical articulation. In addition, it is clear that there is not simply one grand generalized other but that there are many generalized others in society, because there are many groups in society. People therefore have multiple generalized others and, as a result, multiple selves. Each person’s unique set of selves makes him or her different from everyone else. Furthermore, people need not accept the community as it is; they can reform things and seek to make them better. We are able to change the community because of our capacity to think.

I & ME:

Mead identifies two aspects, or phases, of the self, which he labels the “I” and the “me”. As Mead puts it, “The self is essentially a social process going on with these two distinguishable phases”. It is important to bear in mind that the “I” and the “me” are processes within the larger process of the self; they are not “things.”

The “I” is the immediate response of an individual to others. It is the incalculable, unpredictable, and creative aspect of the self. People do not know in advance what the action of the “I” will be. We are never totally aware of the “I,” and through it we surprise ourselves with our actions. We know the “I” only after the act has been carried out. Thus, we know the “I” only in our memories. Mead lays great stress on the “I” for four reasons;

  • First, it is a key source of novelty in the social process.
  • Second, Mead believes that it is in the “I” that our most important values are located.
  • Third, the “I” constitutes something that we all seek—the realization of the self.
  • Fourth, it is the “I” that permits us to develop a “definite personality.”

The “I” gives Mead’s theoretical system some much-needed dynamism and creativity. Without it, Mead’s actors would be totally dominated by external and internal controls. With it, Mead is able to deal with the changes brought about not only by the great figures in history (like Gandhi or Einstein), but also by individuals on a day-to-day basis. It is the “I” that makes these changes possible.

Since every personality is a mix of “I” and “me,” the great historical figures are seen as having a larger proportion of “I” than most others have. But in day-to-day situations, anyone’s “I” may assert itself and lead to change in the social situation. Uniqueness is also brought into Mead’s system through the biographical articulation of each individual’s “I” and “me.” That is, the specific exigencies of each person’s life give him or her a unique mix of “I” and “me.”

The “I” reacts against the “me,” which is the “organized set of attitudes of others which one him-self assumes”. In other words, the “me” is the adoption of the generalized other. In contrast to the “I,” people are conscious of the “me”; the “me” involves conscious responsibility. As Mead says, “The ‘me’ is a conventional, habitual individual”. Conformists are dominated by the “me,” although everyone—whatever his or her degree of conformity—has, and must have, a substantial “me.” It is through the “me” that society dominates the individual. Indeed, Mead defines the idea of social control as the dominance of the expression of the “me” over the expression of the “I”.

Mead also looks at the “I” and the “me” in pragmatic terms. The “me” allows the individual to live comfortably in the social world, while the “I” makes change in society possible. Society gets enough conformity to allow it to function, and it gets a steady infusion of new developments to prevent it from stagnating. The “I” and the “me” are thus part of the whole social process and allow both individuals and society to function more effectively.


Mead’s view of human interaction sees man as both actively creating the social environment and being shaped by it. The individual initiates and directs his own action while at the same time being influenced by the attitudes and expectations of others in the form of the generalized others. The individual and society are regarded as inseparable for the individual can only become human in a social context. In this context he develops a sense of self which is a prerequisite for thought. He learns to take roles of others which is essential both for the development of self and for the cooperative action. Without communication in terms of symbols whose meanings are shared, these processes would not be possible. Man therefore lives in a world of symbols which give meaning and significance to life and provide the basis for human interaction.





It is the relationship of the individual with the group. Sociologists call any group that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves and their own behaviour a reference group. Reference groups are used in order to evaluate and determine the nature of a given individual or other group’s characteristics and sociological attributes.


The concept of reference group was first developed by Hayman. He explains the inter relationship between individual and group using the concept of reference group. He rejects Durkheim’s theory that considers that in every normal social situation, individual and group are strongly embedded to each other. As result, harmony is persistent in social life. Hayman considers that every individual compares his own group with other groups. He always intends to improve his status, striving for better social recognition. Individual’s relationship with group is always not harmonic. When a member of the group manifest behaviour not prescribed by the group, it leads to role conflict, and social isolation of the individual from that group.

Furthermore, Muzzafer Sherrif introduces the concept of reference group to explain how an actor identifies reference points within his own group. Thereby imitating their behavioural pattern to ensure that in the future he obtains social status like his point of reference. He considers that one’s own group can be the reference group for an individual.


Merton, taking inspirations from theories like above and introduces the concept of anticipatory socialization. He considers that this concept is useful to explain social mobility in the class structure, assimilation of ethnic minorities into the culture of dominant groups. Anticipatory socialization explains how it leads to role strain, role conflict in different structural situation. In forwarding his concept of reference group he rejects Parsonian theory of value consensus, integration and social continuity.

For members of a particular group, another group is a reference group if any of the following circumstances prevail:

1)      When members of the first aspire to membership in the second group, the second group serves as the reference group of the first.

2)      When members of the first group strive to be like the members of the second group in some respect, the second group serves as the reference group of the first. It is to be noted here that the first group wants to be like the second group simply because the first group cannot secure the membership of the second group.

3)      When the members of the first group derive some satisfaction from being unlike the members of the second group in some respect, and even strive to maintain the difference between themselves and the members of the second group, later group is the reference group of the first.

An individual may compare his own group with the other group to understand his relative position, status advantage or disadvantage, openness or closeness of the group therefore comparative reference group always operates as foundation to individual’s perception of relative deprivation and remedies to it. A person can have multiple reference groups and he may selectively borrow elements from them. One’s own group can also be reference group to an individual.

Merton explains reference group behaviour under the following head

  • Identification of reference group
  • Understanding of comparative advantage or disadvantage i.e. gathering information about reference group
  • Identification of reference points
  • Acceptance of the values and culture of reference group (acculturation)
  • Internalization of reference group behaviour
  • Role conflict within one’s own group
  • Resolution to role conflict within one’s own group
  • Entry into reference group
  • Resolution of conflict with reference group
  • Assimilation with reference group
  • Reference group is converged into new in-group

Merton’s study of reference groups bring forward new concepts in sociology like

  • Role conflict
  • Role strain
  • Anticipatory socialization
  • Marginal man
  • Relative deprivation; what he calls serendipity.


This theory is applied to Indian society by M. N. Srinivas. His theory of Sanskritization is a form of anticipatory socialization that provides space for tribes, lower cates to experience mobility in their caste position in search of a superior caste status.

In the field of sociological research. The outcomes of research is not planned. Therefore sociological research is different from natural science research in the true sense. Therefore Merton is truly a sociologist who establishes connectivity between theory and facts and liberating sociology from the bondage of extreme empiricism and extreme form of determinism.





Robert Merton in his theoretical analysis of ‘Social Structure and Anomie’ takes inspiration from Durkheim‘s work. It provided the intellectual foundation for Merton‘s attempt to develop a macro-level explanation of rates of norm violating behaviour in American society.

In contrast to Durkheim, Merton bases his theory on sociological assumptions about human nature. Merton replaces Durkheim‘s conception of limitless needs and appetites with the assumption that human needs and desires are primarily the product of a social process: i.e., cultural socialization. For instance, people raised in a society where cultural values emphasize material goals will learn to strive for economic success.

Anomie, for Durkheim, referred to the failure of society to regulate or constrain the ends or goals of human desire. Merton, on the other hand, is more concerned with social regulation of the means people use to obtain material goals.


Merton in his theory of deviance indicates that deviants are not a cub-cultural group. Rather people manifest deviant behaviour in different spheres of social life. A mismatch between cultural prescriptive means and socially prescriptive goals give way to deviant behaviour. He finds out that deviant behaviour persists in society because it has not outlived its function therefore sociology should not be concerned about deviance as a pathological problem rather one should study the latent and manifest orientations of deviance.

Merton considers that anomie is not a product of rapid social change. Rather it is a form of behaviour manifested by the people when they are suffering from social strain. Therefore anomie theory is also known as social strain theory. The strain is the product of mismatch between culturally prescriptive means and socially prescriptive goals. When people experience social strain, they channelize there strains in different ways in order to manifest different forms of anomic behaviour. At different points of time. These forms of deviant behaviours are functional, dysfunctional and non-functional.

This chronic discrepancy between cultural promises and structural realities not only undermines social support for institutional norms but also promotes violations of those norms. Just how do people adapt to these environmental pressures? Merton‘s answer to this question is perhaps his single most important contribution to the anomie tradition.

Merton presents an analytical typology, shown in the following table, of individual adaptations to the discrepancy between culture and social structure.


1. Conformity + +
2. Innovation + –
3. Ritualism – +
4. Retreatism – –
5. Rebellion +/- +/-


Note: (+) signifies acceptance; (–) signifies rejection; and (+/-) signifies rejection of prevailing goal or means and substitution of new goal or means.

These adaptations describe the kinds of social roles people adopt in response to cultural and structural pressures.

  • Conformity, is a non-deviant adaptation where people continue to engage in legitimate occupational or educational roles despite environmental pressures toward deviant behaviour. That is, the conformist accepts and strives for the cultural goal of material success (+) by following institutionalized means (+).
  • Innovation, on the other hand, involves acceptance of the cultural goal (+) but rejection of legitimate, institutionalized means (). This type of adaptation occurs when the individual has assimilated the cultural emphasis on the goal without equally internalizing the institutional norms.
  • Ritualism, represents quite a different sort of departure from cultural standards than does innovation. The ritualist is an over conformist. Here, the pursuit of the dominant cultural goal of economic success is rejected or abandoned () and compulsive conformity to institutional norms (+) becomes an end in itself.
  • Retreatism, is the rejection of both cultural goals () and institutionalized means (). Therefore, retreatism involves complete escape from the pressures and demands of organized society. Merton applies this adaptation to the deviant role ―activities of psychotics, outcasts, chronic drunkards, and drug addicts.
  • Rebellion, is indicated by different notation than the other adaptations. The two (+/-) signs show that the rebel not only rejects the goals and means of the established society but actively attempts to substitute new goals and means in their place. This adaptation refers, then, to the role behaviour of political deviants, who attempt to modify greatly the existing structure of society. In his later work, Merton uses the term nonconformity to contrast rebellion to other forms of deviant behaviour that are atypical. The nonconforming rebel is not secretive as are other, the rebel publicly acknowledges his or her intention to change those norms and the social structure that they support in the interests of building a better, more just society.

Having identified the modes of individual adaptations, Merton defines anomie as: “a breakdown in the cultural structure, occurring particularly when there is an n acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accordance with them.” In this conception cultural values may help to produce behaviour which is at odds with mandates of the values themselves.


Merton insists that anomie is essentially a sociological concept. Anomie refers to a “property of a social system, not to the state of mind of this or that individual within the system.” For example, the condition of anomie exits when there is a general loss of faith in the efficacy of the government, when contractual cooperation is characterised more by mistrust that trust, or when there is an uneasiness gripping the community because of alarming increase in crime rate.

Thus, the appeal of Merton‘s theory and a major reason for its far-reaching impact upon the field of deviance lies in his ability to derive explanations of a diverse assortment of deviant phenomena from a relatively simple analytical framework. This is precisely what a general theory of deviance must do.







Latent functions: Functional consequences that are not intended or recognized by the members of a social system in which they occur.

Manifest functions: The functions of a type of social activity that are known to and intended by the individuals involved in the activity.


Until the 1960s, functionalist thought was probably the leading theoretical tradition in sociology, particularly in the United States. Talcott Parsons (1902- 79) and Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), who each drew extensively on Durkheim, were two of its most prominent adherents. Merton’s version of functionalism has been particularly influential.

Robert Merton, pursued a version of Parsons’s functionalism, but did so in a much more critical way. Merton saw that while many sociological studies focused on either the macro-level of society as a whole or the micro-level of social interactions, this polarization had failed to ‘fill in the gaps’ between macro- and micro-levels. To rectify this, Merton argued for middle range theories in particular areas or on specific subjects. Merton criticized some of the more extreme and indefensible aspects of structural functionalism. But equally important, his new conceptual insights helped give structural functionalism a continuing usefulness.

Although both Merton and Parsons are associated with structural functionalism, there are important differences between them.

  • While Parsons advocated the creation of grand, overarching theories, Merton favoured more limited, middle range theories.
  • Merton was more favourable toward Marxian theories than Parsons was.



Merton criticized what he saw as the three basic postulates of functional analysis as it was developed by anthropologists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.

The first is the postulate of the functional unity of society. This postulate holds that all standardized social and cultural beliefs and practices are functional for society as a whole as well as for individuals in society. This view implies that the various parts of a social system must show a high level of integration. However, Merton maintained that although it may be true of small, primitive societies, this generalization cannot be extended to larger, more complex societies. Merton argues that functional unity is a matter of degree. Its extent must be determined by investigation rather than simply beginning with the assumption that it exists.

The second postulate is the universal functionalism. That is, it is argued that all standardized social and cultural forms and structures have positive functions. Merton argued that this contradicts what we find in the real world. It is clear that not every structure, custom, idea, belief, and so forth, has positive functions. He suggests that functionalist analysis should proceed from assumption that any part of society may be functional, dysfunctional or non-functional. For example, poverty may be seen as dysfunctional for the poor but functional for the non-poor and for society as a whole.

The third is the postulate of indispensability. The argument here is that all standardized aspects of society not only have positive functions but also represent indispensable parts of the working whole. This postulate leads to the idea that all structures and functions are functionally necessary for society. Functionalists have often seen religion in this light. For example, Davis and Moore claim that religion plays a unique and indispensable part in the society. Merton questions this assumption of indispensability and argues that the same functional prerequisites may be met by a range of alternative institutions. For example a political ideology like communism can provide a functional alternative to religion.

Merton’s position was that all these functional postulates rely on no empirical assertions based on abstract, theoretical systems. At a minimum, it is the responsibility of the sociologist to examine each empirically. Merton’s belief that empirical tests, not theoretical assertions, are crucial to functional analysis led him to develop his “paradigm” of functional analysis as a guide to the integration of theory and research.


Functions, according to Merton, are defined as “those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system”.


However, there is a clear ideological bias when one focuses only on adaptation or adjustment, for they are always positive consequences. It is important to note that one social fact can have negative consequences for another social fact. To rectify this serious omission in early structural functionalism, Merton developed the idea of a dysfunction.  Just as structures or institutions could contribute to the maintenance of other parts of the social system, they also could have negative consequences for them.


Merton also posited the idea of non-functions, which he defined as consequences that are simply irrelevant to the system under consideration. Included here might be social forms that are “survivals” from earlier historical times. Although they may have had positive or negative consequences in the past, they have no significant effect on contemporary society.

Merton added the idea that there must be levels of functional analysis.  Functionalists had generally restricted themselves to analysis of the society as a whole, but Merton made it clear that analysis also could be done on an organization, institution, or group.


Merton also introduced the concepts of manifest and latent functions. These two terms have also been important additions to functional analysis. In simple terms, manifest functions are those that are intended, whereas latent functions are unintended. The manifest function of slavery, for example, was to increase the economic productivity of the South America, but it had the latent function of providing a vast underclass that served to increase the social status of southern whites, both rich and poor.

This idea is related to another of Merton’s concepts— unanticipated consequences.  Actions have both intended and unintended consequences. Although everyone is aware of the intended consequences, sociological analysis is required to uncover the unintended consequences; indeed, to some this is the very essence of sociology.

Peter Berger has called this “debunking”, or looking beyond stated intentions to real effects.   Merton made it clear that unanticipated consequences and latent functions are not the same. A latent function is one type of unanticipated consequence, one that is functional for the designated system. But there are two other types of unanticipated consequences: “those that are dysfunctional for a designated system, and these comprise the latent dysfunctions”, and “those which are irrelevant to the system which they affect neither functionally nor dysfunctionally“.


As further clarification of functional theory, Merton pointed out that a structure may be dysfunctional for the system as a whole yet may continue to exist. One might make a good case that discrimination against blacks, females, and other minority groups is dysfunctional for society, yet it continues to exist because it is functional for a part of the social system; for example, discrimination against females is generally functional for males. However, these forms of discrimination are not without some dysfunctions, even for the group for which they are functional. Males do suffer from their discrimination against females. One could argue that these forms of discrimination adversely affect those who discriminate by keeping vast numbers of people underproductive and by increasing the likelihood of social conflict.

Merton contended that not all structures are indispensable to the workings of the social system. Some parts of our social system can be eliminated. This helps functional theory overcome another of its conservative biases. By recognizing that some structures are expendable, functionalism opens the way for meaningful social change. Our society, for example, could continue to exist (and even be improved) by the elimination of discrimination against various minority groups.

Thus, Merton’s clarifications are of great utility to sociologists who wish to perform structural-functional analyses.





DEFINITION: Pattern variable is a framework through which Parsons tries to understand how the actor negotiates with the action situation and manifest a particular kind of behaviour.


Parsons speaks about pattern variable in his book ‘the structure of social action’.  Man is a bundle of impulses but is bound by compulsions i.e. he wants to do something but culture and norms bind him to do something else. Parsons talks about the interconnectivity between

  • Actor
  • Social structure
  • Cultural structure

Pattern variables talks about the successful negotiation between the above three. Parsons had sought to identify the choices between alternatives that an actor confronts in a given situation and the relative premises assigned to such choices


Prior to Parsons, the study of modernity had been the centrality to sociological inquiry. In his study of modernity. Parsons is influenced by the work of Ferdinand Tonnies (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft), Durkheim and Weber.

Parsons as defender of modernity indicated that modernity is not just the production of culture, social structure or social action, rather the negation between the personality, social and cultural system and its outcomes sufficiently explain the possibility of modernity in a given society. He develops the theory of pattern variables to explain modernity, recognizing the fact that modernity

  • Is a product of actor understanding the demands of action situation
  • Negotiating with other actors, confirming to the normative and value system differently
  • Realizing the dilemma in an action situation
  • Making attempts to neutralize this dilemma
  • The outcomes of all these discourses manifest the possibility, degree, form and content of modernity in a given society.

Hence, pattern variable is a mega theoretical framework where parsons defines, how in an action situation

  • An actor identifies the counter actors
  • The degree of emotional relationship appropriate in an action situation
  • Range of obligation of actor towards counter actors
  • Form of attachment between the actor and counter actor
  • Benefits/results coming out of interaction


Parsons develops two sets of pattern variables

  • It is a product of expressive orientation demanding the gratification of needs.
  • Emphasizing on aesthetic and emotive criteria.
  • It is the essence of traditional society
  • Demands objective, rational, goal oriented actions driven by instrumental mode of orientation.
  • It is a reflection of a modern society.


To explain this further, he develops 5 different pairs of Pattern Variables. Through this he explains the mode of orientation of actor, demands of action situation, dilemma in action situation, how it is resolved and what the outcomes of it.

Therefore his pattern variable theory is designed to explain microscopic, mesoscopic and macroscopic situation to explain the negotiation between social actor and the influence of cultural and social system on his behaviour in different social situations and its outcomes.


This pattern is affective when an organized action system emphasizes gratification i.e. when an actor tries to avoid pain and to maximize pleasure. This relates to the degree of emotion appropriate to social relationship in a given situation. The pattern is affectively neutral when it imposes discipline, and renouncement or deferment of some gratification in favour of others interests.


This classification was first used by Ralph Linton. He says ascription is the most important value in traditional society as it gives rises to persistence without the element of change. Achievement is a modern trait. Parsons says through assumption and achievement we talk of identity of the actor.

Ascription– who the actor is

Achievement– what the actor is capable of doing


The former refers to standards determined by an actor’s particular relations with a particular object, the later refers to value standards that are highly generalized. It talks about the benefits of action and interaction in meant for a particular community or all the members of a society.


Range of obligation appropriate in a relationship i.e. what should our range of obligation be towards the counter actors. This is the dilemma of defining the relation borne by object to actor as indefinitely wide in scope, infinitely broad in involvement, morally obliging and significant in pluralistic situations (diffuseness) and; or specifically limited in scope and involvement (specificity).


This dichotomy depends on social norms or shared expectations which define as legitimate the pursuit of the actor’s private interests or obligate him to act in the interests of the group.

Self-orientation– Utilitarianism and Egoism

Collective orientation– Altruism


Based on the above discussion we may say that every action situation has the following steps



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.


Sociology / Max Weber – Bureaucracy



Weber saw bureaucracy as an organization with a hierarchy of paid, full time officials who formed a chain of command. A bureaucracy is concerned with the business of administration, with controlling, managing and coordinating a complex series of tasks.


To appreciate the nature of modern society, Weber maintained that an understanding of the process of bureaucratization is essential. Marxists see fundamental differences between capitalist and socialist industrial societies. To Weber their differences are minimal compared to essential similarity of bureaucratic organization. This is the defining characteristics of modern industrial society.

Weber’s view of bureaucracy must be seen in the context of his general theory of social action. He argued that all human action is directed by meanings. Thus, in order to understand and explain action, the meanings and motives which lie behind it must be appreciated. As discussed earlier, (in Weber’s theory of social action) Weber identified various types of actions which are distinguished by the meanings on which they are based. These include;

  • Affective/emotional action
  • Traditional action
  • Rational action

Weber believed that rational action had become the dominant mode of action in modern industrial society. He saw it expressed in wide varieties of areas, like the state, education, science etc. he referred to the increasing dominance of rational action as the process of rationalization. Bureaucratization is the prime example of this process.

  • A bureaucratic organization has a clearly defined goal.
  • It involves precise calculation of the means to attain this goal and systematically eliminates those factors which stand in the way of the achievement of its objectives.
  • Bureaucracy is therefore rational action in an institutional form.
  • Bureaucracy is also a system of control.
  • It is a hierarchical organization.
  • It derives its legitimacy from the rational-legal authority.

Like other forms of authority, rational-legal authority produces a particular kind of organizational structure. This is bureaucracy which weber defines as, ‘A hierarchical organization designed rationally to coordinate the work of many individuals in the pursuit of large-scale administrative tasks and organizational goals’.


Weber constructed an ideal type of the rational-legal bureaucratic organization. He argued that bureaucracies in modern industrial societies are steadily moving towards this ‘pure’ type. The ideal type bureaucracy contains the following element;

  1. It consists of a continuous organization of official functions (offices) bound by rules.
  2. Each office has a specified sphere of competence. The office carries with it a set of obligations to perform various functions, the authority to carry out these functions, and the means of compulsion required to do the job.
  3. The offices are organized into a hierarchical system.
  4. The offices may carry with them technical qualifications that require that the participants obtain suitable training.
  5. The staff that fills these offices does not own the means of production associated with them; staff members are provided with the use of those things that they need to do the job.
  6. The incumbent is not allowed to appropriate the position; it always remains part of the organization.
  7. Administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in writing.

The ideal type bureaucracy is only approximated in reality. The development of bureaucracy is due to its ‘technical superiority’ compared to organizations based on charismatic and traditional authority. In Weber’s words ‘the decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization’.


Although Weber appreciated the technical advantages of bureaucratic organization, he was also aware of its disadvantages.

  1. He saw the strict control of officials restricted too such specialized tasks as a limitation of human freedom.
  2. The uniform and rational procedures of bureaucratic practice largely prevent spontaneity, creativity, and individual initiative.
  3. The impersonality of official conduct tends to produce ‘specialists without sprit’.
  4. Weber foresaw the possibility of men trapped in their specialized routines with little awareness of the relationship between their jobs and the organization as a whole.
  5. Weber saw the danger of bureaucrats becoming preoccupied with dependent on the security provided by their highly structured niche in the bureaucratic machine.
  6. He saw two main dangers if control of state administration was left in the hands of bureaucrats themselves
  • Firstly, particularly in times of crisis, bureaucratic leadership would be ineffective. Bureaucrats are trained to follow orders and conduct routine operations rather than to make policy decisions and take initiatives in response to crises.
  • Secondly, in capitalist society, top bureaucrats may be swayed by the pressure of capitalist interests and tailor their administrative practices to fit the demands of the capital.

Weber believed that these dangers could only be avoided by strong parliamentary control of the state bureaucracy.

Thus, we can say that Weber view of bureaucracy is ambivalent. He recognized its technical superiority over all other forms of organization. He believed that it was essential for the effective operation of large-scale industrial society while he saw it as a threat to responsible government, he believed that this threat could be countered by strong political control.




Sociology/Max Weber – Authority (2)


Whereas rational-legal authority stems from the legitimacy of a rational-legal system, traditional authority is based on a claim by the leaders, and a belief on the part of the followers, that there is virtue in the sanctity of age-old rules and powers.

The leader in such a system is not a superior but a personal master. The administrative staff, if any, consists not of officials but mainly of personal retainers. In Weber’s words, “Personal loyalty, not the official’s impersonal duty, determines the relations of the administrative staff to the master”.

Although the bureaucratic staff owes its allegiance and obedience to enacted rules and to the leader, who acts in their name, the staff of the traditional leader obeys because the leader carries the weight of tradition—he or she has been chosen for that position in the traditional manner.

Weber was interested in the staff of the traditional leader and how it measured up to the ideal-typical bureaucratic staff.

  • The traditional staff lacks offices with clearly defined spheres of competence.
  • It also does not have a rational ordering of relations of superiority and inferiority.
  • It lacks a clear hierarchy.
  • There is no regular system of appointment and promotion on the basis of free contracts.
  • Technical training is not a regular requirement for obtaining a position or an appointment.
  • Appointments do not carry with them fixed salaries paid in money.

Weber also used his ideal-type methodology to analyse historically the different forms of traditional authority.

  1. GERONTOCRACY: involves rule by elders,
  2. PRIMARY PATRIARCHALISM: involves leaders who inherit their positions.

Both of these forms have a supreme chief but lack an administrative staff.

  1. PATRIMONIALISM: A more modern form it is traditional domination with an administration and a military force that are purely personal instruments of the master.
  2. FEUDALISM: limits the discretion of the master through the development of more routinized, even contractual, relationships between leader and subordinate.

All four of these forms may be seen as structural variations of traditional authority, and all of them differ significantly from rational-legal authority.

Weber saw structures of traditional authority, in any form, as barriers to the development of rationality. Weber argued that the structures and practices of traditional authority constitute a barrier to the rise of rational economic structures—in particular, capitalism—as well as to various other components of a rational society. Even patrimonialism—a more modern form of traditionalism—while permitting the development of certain forms of “primitive” capitalism, does not allow for the rise of the highly rational type of capitalism characteristic of the modern West.


The concept of charisma plays an important role in the work of Max Weber, but his conception of it was very different from that held by most laypeople today. Although Weber did not deny that a charismatic leader may have outstanding characteristics, his sense of charisma was more dependent on the group of disciples and the way that they define the charismatic leader.

To put Weber’s position bluntly, if the disciples define a leader as charismatic, then he or she is likely to be a charismatic leader irrespective of whether he or she actually possesses any outstanding traits.

A charismatic leader, then, can be someone who is quite ordinary. What is crucial is the process by which such a leader is set apart from ordinary people and treated as if endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least exceptional powers or qualities that are not accessible to the ordinary person.


To Weber, charisma was a revolutionary force, one of the most important revolutionary forces in the social world. Whereas traditional authority clearly is inherently conservative, the rise of a charismatic leader may well pose a threat to that system (as well as to a rational-legal system) and lead to a dramatic change in that system. What distinguishes charisma as a revolutionary force is that it leads to changes in the minds of actors; it causes a “subjective or internal reorientation.”

Weber focused on changes in the structure of authority, that is, the rise of charismatic authority. When such a new authority structure emerges, it is likely to change people’s thoughts and actions dramatically.

The other major revolutionary force in Weber’s theoretical system, and the one with which he was much more concerned, is (formal) rationality. Whereas charisma is an internal revolutionary force that changes the minds of actors, Weber saw (formal) rationality as an external revolutionary force changing the structures of society first and then ultimately the thoughts and actions of individuals.


Weber’s interest in the organization behind the charismatic leader and the staff that inhabits it led him to the question of what happens to charismatic authority when the leader dies. After all, a charismatic system is inherently fragile; it would seem to be able to survive only as long as the charismatic leader lives. But is it possible for such an organization to live after the leader dies?

The answer to this question is of the greatest consequence to the staff members of the charismatic leader, for they are likely to live on after the leader dies. Thus the challenge for the staff is to create a situation in which charisma in some adulterated form persists even after the leader’s death.

It is a difficult struggle because, for Weber, charisma is by its nature unstable; it exists in its pure form only as long as the charismatic leader lives. In order to cope with the departure of the charismatic leader, the staff (as well as the followers) may adopt a variety of strategies to create a more lasting organization.

  • The staff may search out a new charismatic leader, but even if the search is the new leader is unlikely to have the same aura as his or her predecessor.
  • A set of rules also may be developed that allows the group to identify future charismatic leaders.

But such rules rapidly become tradition, and what was charismatic leadership is on the way toward becoming traditional authority. In any case, the nature of leadership is radically changed as the purely personal character of charisma is eliminated i.e. routinization of charisma has started taking place.

  • Still another technique is to allow the charismatic leader to designate his or her successor and thereby to transfer charisma symbolically to the next in line.
  • Another strategy is having the staff designate a successor and having its choice accepted by the larger community. The staff could also create ritual tests, with the new charismatic leader being the one who successfully undergoes the tests.

However, all these efforts are doomed to failure. In the long run, charisma cannot be routinized and still be charisma; it must be transformed into either traditional or rational-legal authority.

If successful, charisma almost immediately moves in the direction of routinization. But once routinized, charisma is en-route to becoming either traditional or rational-legal authority. Once it achieves one of those states, the stage is set for the cycle to begin all over again.

However, despite a general adherence to a cyclical theory, Weber believed that a basic change has occurred in the modern world and that we are more and more likely to see charisma routinized in the direction of rational-legal authority. Furthermore, he saw rational systems of authority as stronger and as increasingly impervious to charismatic movements. The modern, rationalized world may well mean the death of charisma as a significant revolutionary force. Weber contended that rationality—not charisma—is the most irresistible and important revolutionary force in the modern world.


Sociology/Max Weber – Authority (1)



Weber’s sociological interest in the structures of authority was motivated, at least in part, by his political interests. Weber was no political radical; in fact, he was often called the “bourgeois Marx” to reflect the similarities in the intellectual interests of Marx and Weber as well as their very different political orientations.

Although Weber was almost as critical of modern capitalism as Marx was, he did not advocate revolution. He wanted to change society gradually, not overthrow it. He had little faith in the ability of the masses to create a “better” society.

Weber was critical of authoritarian political leaders like Bismarck. Nevertheless, for Weber the hope—if indeed he had any hope—lay with the great political leaders rather than with the masses or the bureaucrats. Along with his faith in political leaders went his unswerving nationalism. He placed the nation above all else.

Weber preferred democracy as a political form not because he believed in the masses but because it offered maximum dynamism and the best milieu to generate political leaders.

Weber began his analysis of authority structures in a way that was consistent with his assumptions about the nature of action. He defined domination as the “probability that certain specific commands (or all commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons”. Domination can have a variety of bases, legitimate as well as illegitimate, but what mainly interested Weber were the legitimate forms of domination, or what he called authority.

What concerned Weber, and what played a central role in much of his sociology, were the three bases on which authority is made legitimate to followers—rational/legal, traditional, and charismatic

Authority legitimized on rational grounds rests “on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands”. Authority legitimized on traditional grounds is based on “an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them”. Finally, authority legitimized by charisma rests on the devotion of followers to the exceptional sanctity, exemplary character, heroism, or special powers (for example, the ability to work miracles) of leaders, as well as on the normative order sanctioned by them.

All these modes of legitimizing authority clearly imply individual actors, thought processes (beliefs), and actions. But from this point, Weber, in his thinking about authority, did move quite far from an individual action base, as we will see when we discuss the authority structures erected on the basis of these types of legitimacy.


It is a system of domination driven by rules and laws. The universal laws that govern the system of legal authority are competition, strict discipline, impersonal character, defined hierarchy etc. according to weber the purest type of exercise of legal authority is Bureaucracy.



  • Value time
  • Goal orientation
  • Rule bound behaviour
  • Decision making without prejudice and emotions
  • Long working hours


  • Associated with position and not person
  • Clearly defined hierarchy
  • Unequal distribution of power
  • Authority defined by rules and laws
  • No discretionary power but bureaucratic immunity
  • Complete knowledge about “file”.


  • Fixed tenure of service
  • Fixed salary
  • Promotions on basis of efficiency
  • Diversified positions
  • No absolute authority
  • Occupational mobility.


  • Most efficient system of administration
  • Deliberated justice
  • Decisions universally applicable
  • Mistakes by bureaucracy easily rectified
  • Subjected to collective well being.

To Be Continued !

Sociology/Max Weber – Ideal Type



“An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one sided emphasized viewpoints into unified analytical construct… In its conceptual purity, this mental construct… cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality.” – (Weber, 1903)


The ideal type is one of Weber’s best known contributions to contemporary sociology. Weber believed it was the responsibility of sociologist to develop conceptual tools, which could be used later by historians and sociologists. The most important such conceptual tool was the ideal type.

According to Weber, at its most basic level, an ideal type is a concept constructed by a social scientist, on the basis of his or her interests and theoretical orientation, to capture the essential features of some social phenomenon.

The most important thing about ideal type is that they are heuristic devices; they are to be useful and helpful in doing empirical research and in understanding a specific aspect of the social world. An ideal type is essentially a “measuring rod” or a “yardstick”. As Weber puts it, “Its function is the comparison with empirical reality in order to establish its divergences or similarities, to describe them with the most unambiguously intelligible concepts, and to understand and explain them casually”. For example, social scientists would construct an ideal-typical bureaucracy on the basis of their immersion in historical data. This ideal type can then be compared to actual bureaucracies.


Ideal types are not the product of whims and fancy of a social scientist, but are logically constructed concepts.

The ideal type has to be derived inductively from the real world of social history. Thus, in order to produce ideal types, researchers had first to immerse themselves in historical reality and then derive the types from the reality.

Ideal types should be neither too general nor too specific, so as to find a middle ground between nomothetic and ideographic knowledge. Ideal types are developed from intermediate phenomena such as Calvinism, Methodism etc.

Although ideal types are to be derived from the real world, they are not to be mirror images of that world. Rather, they are to be one-sided exaggerations of the essence of what goes on in the real world.

The use of the word ideal should not be constructed to mean that the concept being described is in any sense the best of all possible worlds. As used by Weber, the term meant that the form described in the concept was rarely, if ever found in the real world.

Ideal type should make sense in themselves, and they should aid us in making sense out of the real world.


  1. HISTORICAL IDEAL TYPES: These relate to phenomena found in some particular historical epoch. For example, the modern capitalistic marketplace.
  2. GENERAL SOCIOLOGICAL IDEAL TYPES: These relate to phenomena that cut across a number of historical periods and societies. For example, bureaucracy.
  3. ACTION IDEAL TYPES: These are pure types of action based on the motivations of the actor. For example, affectual action.
  4. STRUCTURAL IDEAL TYPES: These are forms taken by the causes and consequences of social action. For example, traditional domination.

Thus, we can say that an ideal type is an analytical construct that serves the investigator as a measuring rod to ascertain similarities as well as deviations in concrete cases. It is neither a statistical average nor a hypothesis; rather it is a mental construct, an organization of intelligible relations within a historical entity, formed by exaggerating certain essential features of a given phenomenon.