Parsons - Duke University

Key concepts:
a) Voluntaristic Action: Action that balances utilitarian elements with normative
elements. It’s his response to the inadequacies of earlier approaches which
focused on only one or the other.
b) Pattern Variables
These are basic social dilemmas facing actors, which we have to negotiate in
various ways.
a. Gratification Discipline: Actors emotional Involvement
b. Private  Collective: Local or collective reference for action
c. Universalism Particularism: Action toward a particular other or a
class of others.
d. Achievement Ascription: Action oriented toward achievements or
e. Specificity diffuseness: Breadth of possible roles entailed in an action
c) Later focus on social context and the functional requisits to make this system
work. The system was defined by three elements:
And action was then put into motion by the four “functional requisites” of all social
i. Adaptation: how a social system relates to the material
environment. This is economics
ii. Goal attainment: the ability of the group to identify and pursue
common goals. Political organization(s) are here.
iii. Integration: dimensions of cohesion and solidarity in a group
iv. Latent pattern maintenance: Sphere of general goals.
Position of Social theory
- Should be systematic, rests on a theory of the whole social system, includes
elements of social action – activity from egos point of view – must be
sufficiently abstract/general to make variables direct.
- Need some prerequisites
o Need to work out the elements of the “action” scheme
o Need to figure out the functional requirements of social systems
 Relates to problem of order and action
o Need to figure out the “structuring” elements of the system
 Includes institutionalization
 Differentiation
- Main conceptual components
o Structure of the situation – Social theory
 From point of view of actor
 From point of view of system
o Culture tradition -- anthroplogy
o Institutional structure -- sociology
o Motivations – psychology
Structural Components of the Social System
Pattern-alternatives of value-orientation
“We are concerned with analyzing the structure of an actor’s relations to social
objects in order to identify the points of reference which define the strategically
significant limits of variability of this category of orientations.” (p.414)
<then he works through the pattern variables – see above>
Outline of the Social System
Think of these as elements in the “space” of ways of thinking about social systems.
Structural and functional modes of analysis
After talking about structure and function he says:
“Our present concern is with their [structure & function] analytical meaning; we
whish to state in a preliminary way a fundamental proposition about the structure of a
social system – namely, that their structure as treated within the frame of reference of
action consists in the institutionalized patterns of normative culture.” (422)
Dynamic modes of analysis
-A dimension around equilibrium: when does/is the system stable
-A dimension around how the system itself changes.
Hierarchy of relations of control
(and the list goes on).
Punch line:
‘The main guiding line of the analysis is the concept that a complex social system consist
of a network of interdependent and interpenetrating subsystems, each of which, seen at
the appropriate level of reference , si a social system in its own right, subject to all the
functional exigencies of any such system relative to its institutionalized culture and
situation…” (p.431)
Manifest & Latent Functions
What the distinction does for us:
a) Clarifies the analysis of seeming irrational social patterns
b) Directs attention to theoretically fruitful fields of inquiry
c) Represents a key discovery for sociology
d) Prevents naive moral judgments
Social Structure and Anomie
Here RM puts some teeth into the notion of Anomie. The key focus is on the ways in
which socially valued goods are acquired. This then turns os toward two key dimensions:
a) culturally defined goals … held out as legitimate objectivies for all. These lead to
b) Modes of reaching the goals – a way to define/defend the means for a given end.
Note these need not correspond:
“no society lacks norms governing conduct. But societies do differ in the degree
to which the folkways, mores and institutional controls are effectively integrated
with the goals which stand high in the hierarchy of cultural values.” (p.462)
This mismatch, particularly when the ends are strong but the means weak, leads to
a sense of anomie.
Accept Goals
Accept Means
Reject Means
Reject the entire frame: Rebellion
Reject Goals