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Parsons 2006

Theoretical Ideas in Sociology: Talcott Parsons and Classificatory Reason



Introduction


Last time, classification in society

This time, classification in sociology



Functionalism


what marks Parsons off is the rigour and depth with which he developed an analytical framework for the study of society .

Focus will be on Parsons normative functionalism, but I will be recalling that this is one variant of the idea that sociological analysis involves an examination of the functions fulfilled by social phenomena and social institutions. Indeed, it has been said that all sociological analysis if functionalist in some sense.

P. was at the centre of the institutionalization of social science in the US; his father was a Christian socialist, and though he is usually described as a conservative, he was an active opponent of the the McCarthyite witch hunt in the late 40s.

Warning: P. tried to devise an all-purpose theoretical scheme which would: a) specify the relationship between society, culture and personality; and b) make possible the analysis of any society anywhere in the world. Therefore, the analytical schema P. developed is both highly abstract and incredibly involved. P’s work from the 50s and 60s is at times barely readable, the early Structure of Social Action, some of the analyses of politics from the 40s, and the collection Politics and Social Structure, are still worth the effort.

Why bother? Influence of P. unquestionable. Nobody can match P. for sustained theorising


2. SSA , Constraint, rationality, voluntarism


Structure of Social Action (1937) (thanks father for correcting its English) synthesis of Durkheim and Weber; both moving towards a solution to Hobbesian problem of order. Freedom of action as freedom of movement, problem of constraint. Hobbesian solution? Law, state, renunciation of absolute freedom to prevent civil war. Positivism and utilitarianism’s conceptions of action: means-ends schema.

Durkheim and Weber moving towards a conception of action which avoids this acc. of freedom and constraint. Unit act consists not merely of means, ends, consequences (which implies impossibility of a kingdom of ends) but of norms and values which are not imposed upon action from the outside (e.g.: we cannot say here is action, there is constraint – norms are just as much part of action as the capacity to relate means-ends. Norms and values as non-rational elements of action - Voluntarism. This is more Durkheim than Weber (e.g Durkheim - non-contractural elements of contract; Weber - private character of values).

What are institutions? Institutions are ordered patterns of action; basic building block is the unit act.

Parsons’ career - from structure of social action to system of social action


3. Function - normative and structural


a) function = effect or consequence


intended/manifest v. unintended/latent; irony of social life; or reinforcement through rebellion (bond of rejection between rebel and authority)

eufunctions v. dysfunctions

interrelatedness of social phenomena; interdependence of parts of a society; assumption that manifest function may be accompanied by a latent function (Robert Merton)

e.g. vocational education for industry (manifest); but also university as marriage bureau (latent)

doctor’s manifest function – to cure the sick, latent function – psychotherapeutic (doctor analogous to priest)

dangers:

assumption that everything in society has a function

survival of a system implies its indispensability


b) structural functionalism


stability of a system of components

survival of a system

organic analogies

whatever structure a society has it is determined by the functions fulfilled by component institutions:

function - childrearing; structure required - gendered div. of labour.

function - defence; structure - military hierarchy

societies are like bodies because they have prerequisites - shelter, food, defence, socialisation


c) normative functionalism


key claim here is that not only are there prerequisites but that those prerequisites have a hierarchy. And in this hierarchy values and norms are uppermost (above the need for shelter, survival etc.) Recalling the emphasis on institutions as patterns of action, it is values and norms which guide concrete motivations. This is to elevate something that Weber once said into the basis of an entire theory: “the actions of human beings are determined by material and ideal interests, but it is ideas which define the tracks along which the dynamic of interest moves”.

P. took this further to explore evolutionary potential of diff, societies


4. Normative Functionalism


System Integration v. Social Integration: If we are talking about society as consisting of interrelated parts, what are those parts? Sectors? (economy, polity, law, fulfilling certain imperatives) Or Groups? The first is called ‘system integration’ the second ‘social integration’ (cf. David Lockwood’s article)

40s and 50s p. worked out basic assumptions about action into a grandiose conceptual scheme for the analysis of societies as a whole

categories and taxonomies - classification, as a key Parsonian move - the world as a filing system; not as something which is supposed to be explained


I) Pattern Variables


second major element of p’s conceptual achievement

if it makes sense to say that there is no such thing as an incoherent culture, then we can say that there is a range of choices open to actors and groups in social situations which is not random, but structured by preferences which are favoured by values and norms . These preferences P. called pattern variables; they structure our orientation to objects in the social world (other people) and our sense of their meaning/significance

every situation is one of choice - how to orient ourselves

4 pattern variable choices in all situations

on the basis of these possibilities we would end up with a total of 16 types of situation, i.e. 16 combinations of choices (tree diagram)

BUT evolutionism – historical tendency towards systematic priority of right hand choice. (‘professional pattern’ – e.g. doctors, lawyers etc., fulfill function once accorded to priests)

Wherever there is a set of categories there is likely to be a hierarchy, e.g. chapter on ‘types of social structure’ in The Social System. Universalism-Particularism, and Ascription-Achievement are more important variables than the other two.

this was used in the 40s to discuss problems not to celebrate evolution of USA


II) Four Functions


A - adaptation

G - goal attainment

I - integration

L - latency


this is a list of function, not agencies or groups

each system has input and output – each output is what P calls a symbolic medium of f exchange, e.g. the economy has to produce money, the polity power, societal community influence, latency system values. ‘Money’ is not simply a physical thing – it has to be understood as having a symbolic significance as well. Money can be stored, accumulated. So can power – a successfully functioning polity will ‘store’ power independently of those who exercise it.

relationship between subsystems, output of one is input of another - implies possible reciprocity.

BUT again, in Parsons’ understanding there is a hierarchical relation between these functions

the hierarchy emerges because of an account of what is more important to a system, energy or information; washing machine analogy - thermostat v. motor; Marxists might recognise the elements but reverse the hierarchy - energy more important than info. - this is a matter of theoretical commitment

usual representation of this scheme is in the box diagram - not clear here that there is a hierarchy (as opposed to making a vertical list of functions)

if every box represents a subsystem of a larger system, we can subdivide each box in the same way. So there are more local versions of AGIL – e.g. there may be very general values like justice or fairness generated by the latency system (L) , but more specific values generated within the latency subsystem of the polity (call in GL – e.g. ‘standards in public life’, ‘ democracy’.

Where should this process of subdivision stop? It could go on forever (a Borges-like conundrum again!)

what would happen if there were five functions? Isn’t four a convenient number which allows P. to put everything into a neat diagram?



PARSONS’ PATTERN VARIABLES



PARTICULARISM/UNIVERSALISM - treat another actor EITHER as unique OR as a member of a class



ASCRIPTION/ACHIEVEMENT - treat another actor EITHER in terms of his/her inherited characteristics (e.g. as a member of the nobility whose criterion of membership is blood; or as a member of a race; as a woman) OR in terms of his/her qualifications (e.g. as a professional)



AFFECTIVITY/AFFECTIVE NEUTRALITY - EITHER respond to another actor emotionally OR exhibit distance/reserve



DIFFUSENESS/SPECIFICTY - treat another actor EITHER in terms of all of his/her characteristics and activities OR in terms of one activity




The occupational structure of advanced industrial societies is:


“a system of universalistic-specific-affectively neutral achievement-oriented roles”

(The Social System, p.177)



A rose:


‘A convoluted red form with a linear green attachment’


Dr. P.




The occupational structure of advanced industrial societies is:


‘a system of universalistic-specific-affectively neutral achievement-oriented roles’


Professor P.


 


FUNCTIONAL PREREQUISITES OF A SOCIAL SYSTEM




ADAPTATION - ways of getting and allocating resources from the external world or environment




GOAL-ATTAINMENT - ways of ensuring that important tasks are accomplished (roles and organisations, e.g. political organisations)




INTEGRATION - ways of ensuring that actors fill their roles (e.g. formal-legal or informal norms)




LATENCY - ways of keeping the system as a whole in a state of equilibrium (e.g. ultimate values, beliefs)




A

ECONOMY


(symbolic medium of exchange - money)

G

POLITY


(symbolic medium of exchange - power)

SOCIALISATION SYSTEM

(e.g. family, education, churches)


(symbolic medium of exchange – values)

L

SOCIETAL COMMUNITY

(legal system, voluntary associations/professional bodies)


(symbolic medium of exchange – influence)

I



 



























FUNCTIONAL PREREQUISITES OF A SOCIAL SYSTEM

Marx


ADAPTATION - ways of getting and allocating resources from the external world or environment






GOAL-ATTAINMENT - ways of ensuring that important tasks are accomplished (roles and organisations, e.g. political organisations)






INTEGRATION - ways of ensuring that actors fill their roles (e.g. formal-legal or informal norms)





LATENCY - ways of keeping the system as a whole in a state of equilibrium (e.g. ultimate values, beliefs)



Parsons