Functionalism - Department of Sociology

Talcott Parsons
• Born in 1902 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
• Youngest of five children.
• He came from religious family that valued
• His father was a congregational minister and
professor at Colorado College.
• His mother was a progressivist and a suffragist.
• His father was dismissed from Colorado College, he
moved family to New York City.
• Parson spent his last two years of high school at the
Horace Mann School for Boys.
• Talcott was accepted into Amherst College.
• Began his career as a biologist and later became
interested in economics and sociology.
• Talcott graduated from Amherst in 1924 and a year
later entered the London School of Economic.
• He studied with Bronislaw Malinowski, L.T. Hobhouse,
and Morris Ginsberg.
• Received scholarship from the University of
Heidelberg, Where he first learned of the works of Max
• He was greatly influenced by Weber.
• He was teaching at Amherst and later on appointed as a
nonfaculty instructor of economics at Harvard
• Also he worked in the department of sociology.
• After leaving the sociology department in 1945,
Gordon Allport, Henry Murray, and Clyde Kluckhohn,
joined Parsons in to establish the Department of Social
• Department would become famous and Talcott worked
as chair of the department for first ten years, remained
active in the department until its dissolution in 1972.
• A year later he retired as Emeritus Proffesor.
• Parsons Work
• The Structure of Social Action (1937)
• The Social System and Toward a General Theory
of Action (1951)
• Essay in Sociological Theory (1949, 1954)
• Working Papers in the Theory of Acton (1953)
• Structure and Process in Modern Society (1960)
Functionalism Background
• In 1950s and 1960 Functionalism reigned as the
dominant theoretical perspective in sociology.
• Is often referred to as structural functionalism
because of its dual focus on the structural forces
that shape human behavior and the attention
given to system needs.
Functionalism Background
• Two leading structural functionalist were Talcott
Parsons (grand theory) and Robert Merton
(middle range theory).
• The most significant intellectual forerunners of
functionalism were Auguste Comte, Herbert
Spencer, Emile Durkheim, And Max Weber.
Intellectual Influences
• American who studied in the United States and Europe
– Americans concerned with specific/limited studies
– Europeans focused on macroanalysis
• Converted to social sciences at Amherst
• Few references to American sociologists
– Merton, Homans, Sorokin, Veblen
• Mead and Cooley (American)
– Insight about problems for intimate interaction
– Criticizes their failed development of solid program of
detailed research
Intellectual Influences
• London School of Economics
– Hobhouse
• Evolution of Morality
– Ginsberg
• Economic institutions of preliterate societies
– Malinowski
• Structural-functional analysis in anthropology
• Parsons’ integration of all social sciences into one of human action
• Strong European influence
– Two particular influences
• Max Weber
• Emile Durkheim
Intellectual Influences
Max Weber
• Greatest influence on Parsons
• Dissertation, “Concept of Capitalism”, based primarily
on Weber’s work
• Marx’s Reductionist Approach
– Tied strictly to economics
– Overly simplistic and unrealistic
• Favored Weber’s unwillingness to simplify complexity
of the social system
– First major link of value systems and social structures
Intellectual Influences
• Ideas” behind interpretation of “representations”
– Form ultimate realities that are not themselves such realities
– Behavior influenced by social system
• Parsons concluded that social system is made from the
interaction of humans
– Affected by social environment
• Wanted to describe logical types of social relations
applicable to all groups (small and large)
– System created based on social action
– The Structure of Social Action (1937)
Intellectual Influences
Emile Durkheim
• Parsons valued broad comparative studies
– Study of suicide rates
– Study of aboriginal Australian society
• Suicide Rates Study
– “intermediate between the broad comparative method and
what might be called the ‘meticulous’ ideal of operational
– Revealed suicide rates based on religions that held up crossculturally
– Parsons criticized the attempt at statistical method
– Parsons appreciated variety of significant combinations of
Intellectual Influences
Emile Durkheim
• Aboriginal Australian Study
– The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915)
– Documented “pan-religionism” of primitive societies
• “Primitive societies are permeated with religious sentiments and activities ruled by
the prominence of religio-magical belief systems and the prevalence of ritual
activities” (Delaney, 238)
– Sociocultural system linked to kinship system
– Parsons saw validity in a structural, functioning system linked
through kinship and working toward the greater good for the
whole of society
• Functionalism
Intellectual Influences
of Functionalism
• Max Weber and Emile Durkheim
• Auguste Comte
– Social statics and social dynamics
• Society is changing, but change is subject to social laws
• Evolutionary process
• Herbert Spencer
– Requisite Functionalism
• Organic (individual) and Superorganic (society) must fulfill universal
requisites to adapt to their environment
– Differentiation
• Increase in both Organic and social aggregates directly related to
increase in complexity of their structure
Philosophy- Talcott Parsons
• Realism v. Idealism
– Idealist - An act is always a process in time, and that the
concept “end” always implies a future reference to a state or
situation that does not exist yet
• Realism v. Nominalism
– Realism – The relations between actors are essentially the
structure of the social system
• Idealism v. Materialism
– Materialist – Interrelated parts contribute to the functioning
of the whole system
Concepts and Contributions
• Attempted to generate a “grand theory” of
society that explained all social behavior,
everywhere, throughout history and the end
result was Structure Functionalism
• Views society as having interrelated parts that
contribute to the functioning of the whole
• Macrosociological theory: focuses on large-scale
social patterns and social systems
• Functionalism has two basic assumptions:
1- Interdependent parts: this is society’s
institutions (religion, education, politics, etc.)
that are all linked together. A change in one
institution leads to a change in other parts. In
order to function properly the system will seek
equilibrium, or stability.
• 2- General Consensus on Values: members of
society must have a general agreement on issues
of right and wrong, basic values, and morality
issues in order to function properly.
• Functionalism explains social change as a result
of such variables as population growth and
increased technology.
• Rapid change within the system is not
something the functionalist approach is geared
to handle.
• Society’s institutions then try to restore
themselves to a state of equilibrium.
Social Action Theory
• Social Action Theory begins with a biologicalsociological conceptualization of the basic unit
of study as the “unit act”.
• An “act” involves the following:
– An agent or actor
– Must have an end or goal
– Must be in a situation which differs from state of
affairs the action is oriented
– There exists alternative meanings to the end
Social Action Theory
• An act is always a process in time.
• “End” implies a future reference or state that
does not exist yet.
• Actions consist of structures and processes by
which humans form meaningful intentions and
implement them.
• Social action is preformed by an actor either as
an individual or a group
Social Action Theory
• Parsons theory had four steps:
Actors are motivated to action (education)
Actor must find the means to attain goal ($)
Actor must deal with hindering conditions (crisis)
Actor must work within the social system (rules)
Social System
• Parson’s described a system as a “complex unit
of some kind with boundaries, within which
parts are connected, and within which
something takes place.
• The social system is an arrangement between
parts and elements that exist over time, even
while some elements change.
Social System
• Parson’s general assumptions:
– Systems are made of order and the interdependence of parts
– The system, and all the sub-systems, strive for equilibrium
– Systems are generally static, or move in a deliberate manner
– A disruption in the normal flow of one subsystem can cause a
disturbance throughout the whole system.
– Systems have boundaries, which may involve actual physical
space, or time and distance.
• Differences between biological systems and
social systems:
– Growth: biologically an individual grows to a certain
point and stops. A social system may be static for
some time and then grow, or it may simply continue
to grow
– Spatial: Biological systems are bounded. Social
systems boundaries are not as fixed or limited.
– Time: A biological unit has limits, mortality. Social
units can survive for centuries.
– Parts/subparts: Biological systems are often
specialized and dependent on the whole for its
survival. Within social systems parts are easily
replaceable and the systems moves on.
• The roles of the actor allowed Parsons to create
three distinct units within the social system
– The act is a unit in the social system as it interacts
with its author and other actors
– Status roles are units of the social system.
– The actor himself is a unit. It is the actor that holds a
status and performs a role
Systems Levels
• Social systems must be structured in a way as
not to impede the action
• Parsons organized four distinct system levels:
Social Systems: interaction between actors
Personality Systems: optimization of gratification
Cultural Systems: value and meaning to actor
Behavioral Systems: physical aspect
Pattern Variables
• Categorize expectations and the structure of
• Allows for comparison between relationships
• Three primary thoughts when developing these
– General enough to permit comparison
– Should show relevance to action
– Categorizations of decisions
Pattern Variables
• Affectivity-Affectivity Neutrality
– Expectation of emotional component
• Diffuseness- Specificity
– Range of demands expected in a relationship
• Universalism- Particularism
– Fair Treatment or priority status?
Pattern Variables
• Achievement- Ascription
– Interactions based in who they are or inborn quality
• Collectivity- Self Orientation
– Motivation: actions directed at a person or
• Parsons’ hypothesis that process in any social
system is subject to four independent functional
imperatives or problems which must be met
adequately if equilibrium or existence of the
system is to be maitained
• Adaptation:
– Secure & distribute sufficient resources or adapt to
• Goal Attainment:
– Must establish clear goals. This is primary to political
• Integration:
– Regulation and coordination of actors and systems
• Latency:
– Tension maintenance and pattern maintenance
– Sufficient motivation for actors
– Social institutions are key (family, peers, education)
The Social Structure of Systems
• The social system is a differentiated system in
terms of roles and the distribution process.
• Parsons classifications of internal differentiation
of social systems:
Relational Institutions
Regulative Institutions
Cultural Institutions
Relational and Regulative Institutions
Structure of Systems
• Principle Types of Social Structure:
Universalistic- Achievement Patterns
Universalistic- Ascription Patterns
Participation- Achievement Patterns
Particularistic- Ascriptive Patterns
Social Structure of Systems
• Structural Components
– Kinship systems
– Instrumental Achievement Structures and
– Territoriality, Force, and the Integration of the
Power System
– Religion and Value-integration
• Parsons defines the term as a broad type of
collectivity which has assumed a particular
important place in modern society
• Goal attainment is the defining characteristic of
and organization
• Types of Organizations:
– Oriented toward economic production
• Business and production
– Oriented toward political goals
• Refers to government and banking
– Integrative organizations
• Legal system and courts, goal to ease conflicts
– Pattern-maintenance organizations
• Informing of basic moral beliefs
Evolutionary Theory
• Parsons model of evolutionary theory:
– Differentiation
• Many sub-systems
• Change in one affects many others
• New parts develop to take on those roles
– Integration
• Inclusion
• Growing complexity demands larger supplies of people
• Mobilization and coordination are critical
– Value Generalization
• Adaptation of value system
Race, Class and Gender
• Race:
– Parsons suggested that the survival of the system was
dependent on a new level of institutionalization of values of
• Class:
– Parsons saw class inequality as failure of a social system to
properly integrate all members. Class struggle creates
• Gender:
– Traced differences in gender roles to the family
– Predicted that the greater number of women seeking careers
outside the family would alter the structure of the family
• Although Functionalism has come under attack
it still remains in the “Big Three.”
• Society and social systems are comprised of
interdependent parts, a major failure or
breakdown in one part can cause harm to the
entire system.
– Ex: Enron caused major effects throughout the
financial industry. Thus the social system had to
react to Enron to find equilibrium.
• 9-11 is another example
• An example of Parsons Evolution Theory is the
technological advancement of the cell phone.
They change the aspects of everyday life and
society has to adapt