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Talcott Parsons: Sociological Thinkers

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons was born on 13th December 1902. His teachings influenced the life of many individuals in the 20th century. You should be influenced by his life after going through this article. It will help you to understand his life personally. He was residing in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He founded many social theories, and the most famous one is his theory of the sick role. He made major contributions in the famous ‘The Grand Theory’. This figure, in the sociological field, has immensely transformed and added strings of contribution to it. 

Functionalist even though he talks about voluntarism in his ideas. Never conducted any empirical study. Led to the emergence of neo-evolutionist trend. Structure vs agency – choice within a closed range.

Parsons developed three guiding principles out of his study of prevailing European tradition in sociology:

  1. Sociological theory should be voluntaristic theory of action. (Inspired from German idealist tradition; Weber)
  2. It should be general theory. (Positivist tradition; Durkheim)
  3. Should be in keeping with the principle of emergence (Gestalt). Social reality can be viewed as a system (Social fact). (Inspired from the utilitarian tradition which was reductionist; Parsons learnt from it).

Social Action

Weber posits that the fundamental building block of social life is social action, which he defines as a purposeful response to external stimuli. In any given action, there are two integral components: an actor, responsible for assigning meaning, and an external situation, comprising physical objects, social elements, and cultural factors. This situation itself consists of two elements, conditions and means.

How does culture shape meaning?

When any action is performed, there are bio-psychic drives in the body. They are socially shaped into need dispositions, which give rise to motives and value orientations. Ex. sex is a bio-psychic drive, relationships are need dispositions, flirting a motive, and flirting with the right girl a value orientation.

Every motive has 3 components:

  1. Cognitive element. Distinction between what is right and wrong.
  2. Cathartic element. Emotions, ex. love/hate, and desire for particular things.
  3. Evaluative element. Optimising gratification. These are shaped culturally in terms of cognitive, appreciative and moral standards.

Pattern Variables

Parsons says that culture is dualistically patterned and thus, meanings derived from culture are dualistically patterned too, which is demonstrated at 5 levels:

  1. Affectivity v. Affective Neutrality
  2. Particular v. Universal
  3. Quality v. Efficiency
  4. Diffuseness v. Specificity (I like you for you vs I like you cause you present well)
  5. Collective Orientation v. Self-Orientation

Here the first two pattern variables relate to the modality of the object and the last two relate to the modality of the actor. Overall the pattern allocations are like Gameinschaft (left) and Gesellschaft (right). Parsons says that society is moving from gameinschaft values to gesellschaft values over time.

These pattern variables thus become culturally limiting range of choices for the actor. The actor only has freedom to the extent of choosing from culturally defined options.

NOTE: Parsons is only concerned with human behaviour only so far as it is culturally shared. Not interested in outliers. Same as Durkheim.

General Theory of Social Action

According to Parsons, the characteristics of a system (social reality) are:

  1. A system is a unified whole. Made up of interconnected and interdependent parts.
  2. A system is structured. Parts connected in definite and predictable patterns.
  3. A system has needs. They may be universal (across all systems) or special (system specific).
  4. A system has a goal orientation. (It does not exist in vacuum)
  5. A system is self-equilibrating. Borrowed from the biological idea of homeostasis.

How is equilibrium maintained?

When needs are fulfilled by parts, this results in stability (equilibrium according to Parsons). Parsons never talked about equilibrium at the level of single social action, he was only concerned with building a general theory and not typifying its individual manifestations.

Parsons said that actors in social positions occupy roles, which can be generalised at macro levels. He said there are 4 functional prerequisites of social action (and by extension, of the social system):

  1. Adaptation. Every system needs to be in harmony with its environment.
  2. Goal Attainment. System has to channelize its parts to achieve goals.
  3. Integration. Coordination between parts is necessary for system to function.
  4. Latency. Pattern maintenance and tension management.

1/2 are external needs and 3/4 are internal needs. Thus he developed the AGIL Schema.

Adaptation Organismic systemGoal Attainment Personality system
Latency Cultural systemIntegration Social system

He takes a single social action as a system which has AGIL needs and identifies sub-systems:

  • Organismic system is the biological component which adapts to individual social situations while choosing from culturally limited option (pattern variables).
  • Goals are identified by personality.
  • Integration needs are fulfilled by society.
  • Cultural system supplies values that allow for pattern maintenance.

He calls this the Functional Paradigm of System of Social Action. As Social System is the subject matter of sociology; the Organismic, Personality and Cultural systems comprise the environment of social system, thus, biology, psychology, and anthropology are the environment of sociology. All are interdependent and comprise the ecology of sociology.

Social System

Parsons provided a definition of a social system as a collective of individual actors engaging in interactions within a situation that encompasses both physical and environmental aspects. These actors are driven by a motivation to optimize their gratification, and their relationships within their situations, including interactions with one another, are structured and mediated through a system of culturally shared symbols.

Parsons contended that no single social action occurs in isolation; each action is a response to a preceding one. Consequently, social reality is a complex and interlinked chain of social actions. These structured and recurring interactions collectively form a social system. Additionally, Parsons emphasized that each social system possesses both universal and specific needs and strives to maintain equilibrium with its surrounding environment.

Like this Parsons lays down the functional paradigm of social system.

Adaptation Economic SystemGoal Attainment Political System
Latency Fiduciary SystemIntegration Societal Community

The above are the parts of a social system and their corresponding functions.

  • Economic System – adaptation to environment.
  • Political System – attaining common goals.
  • Societal Community – integration of the social system.
  • Fiduciary System – internalisation of values/pattern maintenance. (ex. family, schools, etc.)

The qualities prescribed by (A) demand Gesellschaft type relationships while the qualities prescribed by (I) demand Gameinschaft type relationships. Parsons said that all subsystems of a social system are interdependent, and interconnected to each other with input-output functions going on among all.

Conflicts (Phase I)

  • Parsons said that perfect equilibrium is never achieved at the societal level but working order can be established.
  • Besides attaining AGIL needs we need to solve some other problems of order (Hobbesian order – war of all against all).
  • A mutual steering mechanism is needed, but works only if there is value consensus.
  • All subsystems are interdependent and thus need to be in harmony for order to result.
  • Parsons moved away from voluntarism and applied structural functionalist approach to various subsystems of society.
  • Family. It performs certain irreducible functions. Primary socialisation and adult personality stabilisation.
  • Religion. Strengthens value consensus in society. Answers questions science cannot answer.
  • Stratification. Talked about importance of inequality. Those who perform better get rewarded more.


  • By the late 1950s critics said that Parsons’ stand was influenced by McCarthyism as he worked towards legitimization of capitalistic world order. Kept saying US was the most developed social system.
  • In Parsons’ theory everything contributed towards order in society. He said that explanation of order was more important than explanation of conflict. He said that deviance from order would be checked by value consensus.
  • Conflict theoriests called it a veiled status quoist ideology. No empirical basis for his pattern variables, they were created to point to order. No attempt to account for change. As equilibrium needs to be maintained and everything points to order.
  • Ralf Dahrendorf says that conflict is present in every society so management of conflict is an essential part of society and thus, Sociology. But Parsons over glorified integration hence his theory is not realistic.
  • CW Mills said that Parsons theory is teleological and tautological.
  • Jesse Bernard attacked his adult personality stabilisation as male personality stabilisation. The SF approach legitimising patriarchy.
  • Critics also said that he ignored the exploitative side of inequality when he said that it strengthened value consensus.
  • Anthony Giddens said that his conception of a system is flawed. He said that Parsons just assumed the organismic analogy, saying that the system was self-equilibrating and ascribed everything to equilibrium without testing anything.
  • Giddens further said that the word structuration should be used to denote an ongoing process (society) which is both enabling and constraining. He called Parsons’ actor a socially programmed robot.

Cybernetic Hierarchy of Control

Following intense criticism in the 50s, Parsons began working on change. He developed a cybernetic hierarchy which shows that a system high in information controls a system high in energy.

LHigh info end.Cultural SystemCulture guides patterns of interaction in society.
ISocial SystemSocial system guides personality development.
GPersonality SystemPersonality guides the action of the body.
AHigh energy end.Organismic SystemConcerned with the body.

He claims that there exists a correspondence between energy flow and information flow in a system.

How does change occur?

When due to external (cultural contact) or internal factors (sub-system incompatibility), stresses develop among the sub-systems, the social system tries to resolve these stresses through an adaptational upgrade via greater structural differentiation and/or value generalisation. Hence, it reaches a new stage of equilibrium.

He sought to differentiate between the social system and organismic system, he said that an organism while resolving strain reaches it’s old equilibrium, a society reaches a new equilibrium. Every time the social system resolves a strain it attains a new equilibrium distinct from that of it’s previous stages. This equilibrium is always dynamic in nature as social reality is complex. Hence, he said this equilibrium is a moving equilibrium.

Parsons said that as structural differentiation increases, energy flow also increases. This leads to an adaptational upgrade. This in turn creates a need for integration which is met by value generalisation, which ensures greater inclusion. These two are in sync with each other. (Inspired by ideas of Herbert Spencer)

He then introduced the concept of Evolutionary Universals, in order to develop an evolutionary model of society (inspired by Spencer, but avoiding his pitfalls). Parson defines it as: “An evolutionary universal is an organisational development sufficiently important to further evolution that rather than emerging only once, it is likely to be hit upon by various systems operating under different conditions.”

Stage of EvolutionEU for this stage.Comments
PrimitiveStratificationPeople are bound only by kinship ties.
Primitive (Evolved)Written LanguagePeople are bound by domicile. Priestly classes emerge.
Intermediate (I)This has three sub parts.
Archaic (IA)3 ClassesRoyalty, clergy, and commoners.
Historic (IB)Separation of religion and polityHere two further stages may develop due to belief in transcendence of god: World Rejection Ethos. Ex. in India. Social evolution stagnates. World Affirmation Ethos. Ex. Protestant work ethic.
Seed Bed (IC)Universal Legal SystemAll are equal in the eyes of god and hence law.
ModernDemocracyA society does not complete the last transition till it becomes a democracy.


  • Heralded the neo-evolutionist trend with this theory.
  • Didn’t claim that all societies follow a particular path, made a branched web. Gave a general theory of social evolution and the various stages of integration and differentiation.
  • Incorporated the idea of cultural diffusion (seed bed stage of Greece).
  • Just identified the structural model of evolution. Didn’t say anything about how change occurs from one stage to the next.
  • His theory still couldn’t account for revolutionary change.

Read Also: Max Weber: Sociological Thinkers

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