A social system as a concept in sociological theory is one of great importance and indeed necessary. As a theoretical concept and component of theoretical explanation, it highlights the intricate nature of the society we live in. (Craib 1992) Talcott Parsons, a dominant functionalist theorist, focused much of his work on the concept of a social system. (Water 1994) Such a concept is indeed synonymous with his work. Whilst there is no universal sociological definition of the concept, Parsons defined a social system as:
“a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of the tendency to the “optimization of gratification” and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured symbols.” (cited in Wallace & Wolf 1999)
In order to fully grasp the features of Parsons’ social system it is necessary to examine such a concept in the context of his all-embracing system theory, or more in particular his theory of action. However, theoretical vices become apparent, thus it is imperative to briefly address the concept from an alternative perspective, such as Dahrendorf’s theory, in order to highlight varying features of the concept of a social system, but also the interpretative nature such a concept entails. Therefore this essay primarily will deal only with those highlights or ‘features’.
From a functionalist perspective, society is viewed as a system insofar as it is made up of parts, which mesh together. The basic unit of analysis is society, and its various parts are understood primarily in terms of their relationship to the whole. (Craib 1992) The early functionalists often drew an analogy between society and organisms, such as the human body. Such an analogy involves the understanding of any organ of the body and its relationship to other bodily organs, and in particular its contribution to the maintenance of the body organism as a whole. (Haralambos & van Krieken & Smith & Holborn 1996 p, 673)) In the same way, an understanding of any part of society requires an analysis of its relationship to other parts, and most importantly, of its contribution to the maintenance of society. (Haralambos et al 1996 p, 673) As can be deduced from the above definition, Parsons takes a similar approach to the concept of a social system.
Sociological perspectives are well known for their penetrating breadth, but also for their high level of abstractness, which may often have led to more confusion than clarification in discussing their relevance. ( Deflem 1998)This is in fact a foundational feature of the concept of a social system, as well as most theoretical concepts, whereby the intricateness and complexity of the concept immediately becomes apparent. The abstractness therefore accentuates the inability to grasp its features at face value without delving further in to Parsons’ system theory. (Craib 1992)
Parsons posits that the most empirically significant sociological theory must be concerned with complex systems, that is systems composed of many subsystems. The primary empirical type reference is to society, which is highly complex. (Craib 1992) He understands a modern social system to be a distinct entity, different from but interdependent with three other action systems or subsystems. Those of the culture system, personality system and the behavioural organism system. (Waters 1994)
Each system contributes specialised functions to any other subsystem as well as to the entire social system. Parsons’ functional references diverge from the structural components in a dynamic direction and serve the purpose of integrating, mediating between the system’s structure and that imposed by environing systems. (Collins 1988) Parsons attributes the functions of adaptation (A) to the behavioural organism, goal attainment (G) to the personality system; integration (I) to the social system; and latency (L) to the cultural system. (Collins 1988) The structural elements of social system are treated as constants over certain ranges of variation. These four types of independently variable components include role (A), collectivity (G), norms (I) and value (L). (Waters 1994) These roughly cover the social structure from individual to social system and form the fundamental integrating principle in society. (Deflem 1998)
Put simply, if members of society are committed to the same values, they share a common identity, which provides a basis for unity and cooperation, and common goals. Values provide a general conception of what is desirable and worthwhile. (Wallace et al 1999) Goals provide the direction in specific situations, while a common goal provides an incentive for cooperation. Role provides a means whereby values and goals are translated into action. The content of roles is structured in terms of norms which define the rights and obligations. (Wallace et al 1999) Norms are then seen as specific expressions of values which tend to ensure that role behaviour is standardised. These are referred to as ’system needs’ and are essential to the functioning of the social system. (Wallace et al 1999) It is here that one can identify Parsons’ use of many concepts. A feature of his theory is indeed the conceptual relationships he establishes. (Craib 1992)
The interpenetrating and interdependency of the subsystems are imperative to Parsons’ social system and evidently form an important feature of his use of the concept. (Waters 1994) He conceived a social system to be ‘open’ in that it engaged in continual interchange of inputs and outputs with their environments. Furthermore, another feature becomes apparent. The networking of each subsystem of the complex social system, as discussed above, can be seen at the appropriate level of reference as a social system in its own right. (Craib 1992)
Moreover, it is essential to establish Parsons’ social system as one which is self- equilibrating. (Wallace et al 1999 p, 41) Whist this has been criticised as a functionalist vice, it is however, a feature of Parsons’ social system. He asserts that the structured elements, (ie. role, collectivity, norms and values) from the most general level – the central value system – to the most specific – normative conduct – the social system is infused with common values, thus providing the basis for social order. (Haralambos et al 1996) When values become institutionalised and behaviour structured in terms of them, the result is a stable system, a state of ’social equilibrium’ when the various parts of the system are in a state of balance. (Collins 1988) However, the maintenance of such a stable state is through socialisation and mechanisms of social control which discourage deviance and so maintain order in the system. (Collins 1988)
How then, does Parsons account for social change? Indeed society is ever changing. Parsons’ approached this problem by arguing that although a certain degree of equilibrium is essential for the survival of societies, “no system is in a perfect state of equilibrium.” (Haralambos et al 1996 p, 676) Although systems never attain complete equilibrium, they do however, move toward this state whereby a social systems reaction to a disturbance will lead to some degree of change, however small, in the system as a whole. He regarded change as a process of ’social evolution’. (Craib 1992) Parsons’ belief (however limited due to teleology) that the parts of the system will reorganise to bring back to normal is a feature of his social system as well as the functionalist perspective in general. (Wallace et al 1999)
It is necessary to establish a varying perspective of the ’social system’ or society and the way in which an alternative theory offers different features of the same topic. Contrary to the functionalist perspective, conflict theorists, such as Darendorf, seek to examine the notion of society in terms of a composure of groups that have fundamentally different and conflicting interests.(Ritzer 1988) However, both perspectives share the use of a model of society as a whole and therefore adopt a structural approach. Despite theoretical debates within the conflict perspective, an important feature of their ’social system’ is the assertion that conflict does exist. Parsons’ and functionalists in general, more or less saw society as harmonious integrated wholes. (Wallace et al 1999)
Darendorf, also refers to the concept of a ’system’. However, he does not see such a system to be in ‘equilibrium’.(Ritzer 1988) From an integrative perspective, that is, stemming from Marx and Webber, Darendorf argued that conflicts were no longer based on economic division. Instead, he saw conflict as being concerned with power and authority.(Ritzer 1988) While Parsons’ saw society as being manifested by value consensus, Dahrendorf saw society’s interests as divided. Such a division highlights a feature of Dahrendorf’s social system. (Haralambos et al 1996)
Dahrendorf suggested that the existence of dominant and subordinate positions within ‘associations’ or organisations, produces a situation in which individuals have different interests.(Craib 1992), those individuals in positions of dominance will seek to maintain the social structure that gives them more authority than others. On the other hand, those in the positions of subordination will seek to change those aspects of the social structure that deprive them of authority. Such a conflict of interests is evident in all aspects of society. (Collins 1988) Therefore there are many potential groups or ‘quasi-groups’ which could be in conflict with each other, while other groups may join together to pursue their common interest. Dahrendorf firmly believed that while conflicts may be “channelled, institutionalised, and shorn of their more violent manifestations, they can never be eradicated from the human scene”. (Coser 1977 p, 581)
It is therefore obvious that the concept of a social system has many features. This has become evident through the examination of a functionalist perspective of the social system and more in particular through Parsons grand theory of action. Parsons established features that included the high level of abstraction of the concept and its relationship with many others. By addressing the concept in the context of Parsons’ theory, features such as an interpenetrating, interdependent and self-equilibrating social system becomes apparent. Such a system, and all its parts, will always reorganise to bring back to normal. Dahrendorf, on the other hand, highlighted a social system with a conflictual nature. One in which has its interests divided.
Collins, R. (1988) Theoretical Sociology. Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich: San Diego.
Craib, I. (1992) Modern Social Theory. Harvester Wheatsheaf: London.
Deflem, Mathieu. (1998) Systems theory from Parsons to Luhmann and Habermas. Social Forces, 76 (3), pp 775-818.
Ritzer, G. (1988) Sociological theory. 2nd edn. Knopf: New York.
Waters, M. (1994) Modern sociological theory. Sage: London.