Talcott Parsons – Pattern Variables


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