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Quotes from
Talcott Parsons

Concepts for Sociology

Talcott Parsons says we are actors
playing in a theatre of:
Click on the flying
actor to read about
roles in modern sociology
What Parsons calls "a completely concrete system of social action" (a real society?) has three aspects to its "structuring": the personality system of the individual actors, the cultural system which is built into their action and the social system, which is individual actors interacting with one another (using symbols). (See quotes from Parsons 1951). However, do not forget that the actors have bodies: so there are four "sub-systems of human action" when you include our body (the "organism") (See quote from Parsons 1966)

1937 The Structure of Social Action
1942 "Propaganda and Social Control"
1951 The Social System
Introduction to 1950s
2.1952 "The superego and the theory of social systems"
10.1.1954 "The incest taboo in relation to social structure and the socialisation of the child"
1955 Family, Socialisation and Interaction Process
1956 "A Sociological Approach to the Theory of Organisations"
1959 "The School Class as a Social System: Some of its Functions in American Society"
1966 Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives

Parsons, T. 1937 The Structure of Social Action. A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers

Highlights from Contents:


Part 1: The Positivistic Theory of Action.
Theory and empirical fact

Chapter 2: The Theory of Action.
The Unit of Action Systems
The Utilitarian System
The Positivistic Theory of Action.

Chapter 3: Some Phases of the Historical Development of Individualistic Positivism in the Theory of Action.
Hobbes and the Problem of Order

Part 2: The Emergence of a Voluntaristic Theory of Action from the Positivistic Tradition

Chapter 4: Alfred Marshall: Wants and Activities and the Problem of the Scope of Economics.

Chapters 5 to 7: Vilfredo Pareto

Chapters 8 to 11: Emile Durkheim

Part 3: The Emergence of a Voluntaristic Theory of Action from the Idealistic Tradition

Chapter 13 The Idealistic Tradition
Methodological Background
The Problem of Capitalism
The Spirit of Capitalism

Chapters 14 to 18: Max Weber

Part 4: Conclusion

Chapter 19: Tentative Methodological Implications
The Action Frame of Reference
The General Status of the Theory of Action
The Place of Sociology


... the present work is.. a.. study of a group of writers...

... it is a study in social theory, not theories. Its interest is .. in .. a single body of systematic theoretical reasoning the development of which can be traced through a critical analysis of the writings of this group, and of certain of their predecessors... ... they have all... made important contributions to this single coherent body of theory, and the analysis of their works constitutes a convenient way of elucidating the structure and empirical usefulness of the system of theory itself.

This body of theory. the "theory of social action" is not simply a group of concepts with their logical interrelations. It is a theory of empirical science the concepts of which refer to something beyond themselves.


Chapter I


The Problem

"Who now reads Spencer? It is difficult for us to realize how great a stir he made in the world. . . . He was the intimate confidant of a strange and rather unsatisfactory God, whom he called the principle of Evolution. His God has betrayed him. We have evolved beyond Spencer."

Professor Brinton's verdict may be paraphrased as that of the coroner, "Dead by suicide or at the hands of person or persons unknown." We must agree with the verdict. Spencer is dead. But who killed him and how? This is the problem.

Footnote: Not, of course, that nothing in his thought will last. It is his social theory as a total structure that is dead.

Of course there may well be particular reasons why Spencer rather than others is dead, as there were also particular reasons why he rather than others made such a stir. With these this study is not concerned. But in the "crime", the solution of which is here sought, much more than the reputation of, or interest in, a single writer has been done to death. Spencer was, in the general outline of his views, a typical representative of the later stages of development of a system of thought about man and society which has played a very great part in the intellectual history of the English- speaking peoples, the positivistic-utilitarian tradition. What has happened to it? Why has it died?

Footnote: See the following two chapters for an analytical and a historical account.

The thesis of this study will be that it is the victim of the vengeance of the jealous god, Evolution, in this case the evolution of scientific theory. In the present chapter it is not proposed to present an account either of what has evolved or of what it has evolved into; all that will come later. It is necessary to preface this with a tentative statement of the problem, and an outline of some general considerations relevant to the way the present task is to be undertaken, and how the present study should be judged.

Spencer's god was Evolution, sometimes also called Progress. Spencer was one of the most vociferous in his devotions to this god, but by no means alone among the faithful. With many other social thinkers he believed that man stood near the culminating point of a long linear process extending back unbroken, without essential changes of direction, to the dawn of primitive man. Spencer, moreover, believed that this culminating point was being approached in the industrial society of modern Western Europe. He and those who thought like him were confident that evolution would carry this process on almost indefinitely in the same direction cumulatively.

Theory and empirical fact
There is, more often implicit than explicit, a deep-rooted view that the progress of scientific knowledge consists essentially in the cumulative piling up of "discoveries" of "fact." Knowledge is held to be an entirely quantitative affair. The one important thing is to have observed what had not been observed before. Theory, according to this view, would consist only in generalisation from known facts, in the sense of what general statements the known body of fact would justify. Development of theory would consist entirely in the process of modification of these general statements to take account of new discoveries of fact. Above all, the process of discovery of fact is held to be essentially independent of the existing body of "theory," to be the result of some such impulse as "idle curiosity."

... against the view just roughly sketched may be set another, namely, that scientific "theory" - most generally defined as a body of logically interrelated "general concepts" of empirical reference - is not only a dependent but an independent variable in the development of science. It goes without saying that a theory to be sound must fit the facts but it does not follow that the facts alone, discovered independently of theory, determine what the theory is to be, nor that theory is not a factor in determining what facts will be discovered, what is to be the direction of interest of scientific investigation.

Not only is theory an independent variable in the development of science, but the body of theory in a given field at a given time constitutes to a greater or less degree an integrated "system." ' That is, the general propositions ... which constitute a body of theory have mutual logical relations to each other. Not, of course, that all the rest are deducible from any one - that would confine theory to the one proposition - but in the sense that any substantive change in the statement of one important proposition of the system has logical consequences for the statement of the others. Another way of putting this is to say that any system of theory has a determinate logical structure.

Now obviously the propositions of the system have reference to matters of empirical fact; if they did not, they could have no claim to be called scientific. Indeed, if the term fact is properly interpreted it may be said that a theoretical proposition, if it has a place in science at all, is either itself a statement of fact or a statement of a mode of relations between facts. It follows that any important change in our knowledge of fact in the field in question must of itself change the statement of at least one of the propositions of the theoretical system and, through the logical consequences of this change, that of other propositions to a greater or lesser degree. This is to say, the structure of the theoretical system is changed. All this seems to be in accord with the empiricist methodology sketched above.

But, in the first place, it will be noted that the word "important " used above was italicised. What does an important change in our knowledge of fact mean in this context? Not that the new facts are vaguely "interesting," that they satisfy "idle curiosity, " or that they demonstrate the goodness of God. But the scientific importance of a change in knowledge of fact consists precisely in its having consequences for a system of theory. A scientifically unimportant discovery is one which, however true and however interesting for other reasons, has no consequences for a system of theory with which scientists in that field are concerned. Conversely, even the most trivial observation from any other point of new - a very small deviation of the observed from the calculated position of a star, for instance - may be not only important but of revolutionary importance, if its logical consequences for the structure of theory are far-reaching. It is probably safe to say that all the changes of factual knowledge which have led to the relativity theory, resulting in a very great theoretical development, are completely trivial from any point of view except their relevance to the structure of a theoretical system. They have not, for instance, affected in any way the practice of engineering or navigation.

This matter of the importance of facts is, however, only one part of the picture. A theoretical system does not merely state facts which have been observed and that logically deducible relations to other facts which have also been observed. In so far as such a theory is empirically correct it will also tell us what empirical facts it should be possible to observe in a given set of circumstances. It is the most elementary rule of scientific integrity that the formulator of a theoretical proposition must take into account all the relevant known facts accessible to him. This process of verification, fundamental to science, does not consist merely in reconsideration of this applicability to known facts by others than the original formulator of the theory, and then simply waiting for new facts to turn up. It consists in deliberately investigating phenomena with the expectations derived from the theory in mind and seeing whether or not the facts actually found agree with these expectations.

This investigation is one of situations which have been studied either never at all before or not with these particular theoretical problems in mind. Where possible the situations to be investigated are experimentally produced and controlled. But this is a matter of practical technique, not of logic.

In so far as the expectations from the theory agree with the facts found, making allowance for "errors of observation," etc., the theory is "verified." But the significance of the process of verification is by no means confined to this. If this does not happen, as is often so, either the facts may be found to disagree with the theoretical expectations, or other facts may be found which have no place in the theoretical system. Either result necessitates critical reconsideration of the system itself. There is, then, a reciprocal process: direction, by the expectations derived from a system of theory, toward fields of factual investigation, then reaction of the results of this investigation on the theory.

Finally, verification in this sense is not the only important relation of a theoretical system to the direction of empirical investigation. Not only are specific theoretical propositions which have been directly formulated with definite matters of fact in view subject to verification. But further, a theoretical system built up upon observations of fact will be found, as its implications are progressively worked out, to have logical consequences for fields of fact with which its original formulators were not directly concerned. If certain things in one field are true, then other things in another, related field must also be true. These implications also are subject to verification, which in this case takes the form of finding out what are the facts in this field. The results of this investigation may have the same kind of reaction on the theoretical system itself.

Thus, in general, in the first instance, the direction of interest in empirical fact will be canalised by the logical structure of the theoretical system. The importance of certain problems concerning the facts will be inherent in the structure of the system. Empirical interest will be in the facts so far as they are relevant to the solution of these problems. Theory not only formulates what we know but also tells us what we want to know, that is, the questions to which an answer is needed. Moreover, the structure of a theoretical system tells us what alternatives are open in the possible answers to a given question. If observed facts of undoubted accuracy will not fit any of the alternatives it leaves open, the system itself is in need of reconstruction.

A further point is of importance in the present connection. Not only do theoretical propositions stand in logical interrelations to each other so that they may be said to constitute "systems" but it is in the nature of the case that theoretical systems should attempt to become "logically closed." That is, a system starts with a group of interrelated propositions which involve reference to empirical observations within the logical framework of the propositions in question. Each of these propositions has logical implications. The system becomes logically closed when each of the logical implications which can be derived from any one proposition within the system finds its statement in another proposition in the same system. It may be repeated that this does not mean that all the other propositions must be logically derivable from any one - on the contrary, if this were true scientific theory would be sheer tautology.

The simplest way to see the meaning of the concept of a closed, system in this sense is to consider the example of a system of simultaneous equations. Such a system is determinate, i.e., closed, when there are as many independent equations as there are independent variables. If there are four equations and only three variables, and no one of the equations is derivable from the others by algebraic manipulation then there is another variable missing. Put in general logical terms: the propositions stated in the four equations logically involve an assumption which is not stated in the definitions of the three variables.

The importance of this is clear. If the explicit propositions of a system do not constitute a logically closed system in this sense it may be inferred that the arguments invoked rest for their logical cogency on one or more unstated assumptions. It is one of the prime functions of logical criticism of theoretical systems to apply this criterion and, if gaps are found, to uncover the implicit assumptions. But though all theory tends to develop logically closed systems in this sense it is dangerous to confuse this with the " empirical " closure of a system. To this issue, that of "empiricism," it will be necessary often to return.

The implications of these considerations justify the statement that all empirically verifiable knowledge even the commonsense knowledge of everyday life - involves implicitly, if not explicitly, systematic theory in this sense. The importance of this statement lies in the fact that certain persons who write on social subjects vehemently deny it. They say they state merely facts and let them "speak for themselves." But the fact a person denies that he is theorising is no reason for taking him at his word and failing to investigate what implicit theory is involved in his statements. This is important since "empiricism" in this sense has been a very common methodological position in the social sciences.

From all this it follows what the general character of the problem of the development of a body of scientific knowledge is, in so far as it depends on elements internal to science itself. It is that of increasing knowledge of empirical fact, intimately combined with changing interpretations of this body of fact - hence changing general statements about it - and, not least, a changing a structure of the theoretical system. Special emphasis should be laid on this intimate interrelation of general statements about empirical fact with the logical elements and structure of theoretical systems.

In one of its main aspects the present study may be regarded as an attempt to verify empirically this view of the nature of science and its development in the social field. It takes the form of the thesis that intimately associated with the revolution in empirical interpretations of society sketched above there has in fact occurred an equally radical change in the structure of theoretical systems. The hypothesis may be put forward, to be tested by the s subsequent investigation, that this development has been in large part a matter of the reciprocal interaction of new factual insights and knowledge on the one hand with changes in the theoretical system on the other. Neither is the "cause" of the other. Both are in a state of close mutual interdependence.

This verification is here attempted in monographic form. The central focus of attention is in the process of development of one coherent theoretical system, that to be denoted as the voluntaristic theory of action, and the definition of the general concepts of which this theory is composed. In the historical aspect the primary interest is in the process of transition from one phase of its development to another, distinctly different, one. Of the first phase Spencer may be regarded as a late, and in some points extreme, but nevertheless a typical representative. For convenience of reference and for no other purpose this has been designated as the "positivistic" system of the theory of action, and its variant, - which is most important to the present study, the "utilitarian." Both these terms are used in technical senses in this work and they will be defined in the next chapter, where the main logical structure of the positivistic system is outlined.

It is, however, a striking fact that what is in all essential respects the same system may be found emerging by a similar process of transition from the background of a radically different theoretical tradition which may be designated as the "idealistic." One dominant case of this latter transition, the work of Max Weber, will be dealt with at length. It goes without saying that this convergence, if it can be demonstrated, is a very strong argument for the view that correct observation and interpretation of the facts constitute at least one major element in the explanation of why this particular theoretical system has developed at all.

Hobbes and the Problem of Order

The basis of Hobbes' social thinking lies in his famous concept of the state of nature as the war of all against all...

The good is simply that which any man desires

... reason is essentially a servant of the passions - it is the faculty of devising ways and means to secure what one desires. Desires are random, there is "no common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves"


But Hobbes went... further than... defining... the basic units of a utilitarian system of action. He went on to deduce the character of the concrete system which would result... And in so doing he became involved in an empirical problem... the problem of order.
... under the assumption of rationality men will seek to attain their ends by the most efficient means available. Among their ends is... the recognition of others. And... under social conditions... the services of others are always ... to be found among the potential means to their ends. To securing both... recognition and service... the most immediately efficient means... are force and fraud... But the effect of their unlimited employment is that men will "endeavour to destroy or subdue one another". That is, according to the strictest utilitarian assumptions, under social conditions, a complete system of action will turn out to be... not an order at all, but chaos...

The point under discussion here is not Hobbes' own solution to this crucial problem... a genuine solution... has never been attained on an strictly utilitarian basis.

Emile Durkheim


Durkheim confines himself to the rate and makes no attempt to explain individual cases. Thus he succeeds in eliminating factors in the latter which bear only upon incidence. Rate is here meant in the sense similar to 'death rate'. It is the number of suicides annually per 100,000 of a given population. Factors of incidence are, on the other hand, those explaining why a given person committed suicide rather than another. Thus to take an example from another field, personal inefficiency may well explain why one person rather than another is unemployed at a given time. But it is extremely unlikely that a sudden change in the efficiency of the working population of the United States occurred which could account for the enormous increase in unemployment between 1929 and 1932. The latter is a problem of rate, not incidence.

Parsons, T. 1949 Preface to the Second Edition of The Structure of Social Action

...A central problem... has been and is, how to bring theory of this sort close to the possibilities of ... testing...

... an important series of steps in this direct seems to be made possible by a shift in theoretical level from the analysis of the structure of social action as such to the structural-functional analysis of social systems. These are, of course "in the last analysis" systems of social action. But the structure of such systems is, in the newer version, treated not directly in action terms, but as "institutionalised patterns" close to a level of readily described and tested empirical generalisation.

Parsons, T. 1942 "Propaganda and Social Control"

Every social system is a functioning entity. That is, it is a system of interdependent structures and processes such that it tends to maintain a relative stability and distinctiveness of pattern and behaviour as an entity by contrast with its - social or other - environment, and with it a relative independence from environmental forces. It "responds", to be sure, to the environmental stimuli, but is not completely assimilated to its environment, maintaining rather an element of distinctiveness in the face of variations in environmental conditions. To this extent it is analogous to an organism. 1954 Essays, p.143)

Parsons, T. 1951 The Social System.


The title, The Social System, goes back... to the insistence of the late Professor L.J. Henderson [in Pareto's General Sociology] on the extreme importance of the concept of system in scientific theory, and his clear realisation that the attempt to delineate the social system as a system was the most important contribution of Pareto,s great work. This book therefore is an attempt to carry out Pareto's intention, using an approach, the structural functional level of analysis, which is quite different from that of Pareto...

... to relate the present (p.viii) book... to the author's previously published work...

Structure of Social Action was not a study in sociological in a strict sense, but an analysis in relation to the work of a group of authors of the nature and implications of the action frame of reference. Since publication in 1937 there has been gradually taking shape a formulation of a systematic approach to the narrower tasks of sociological theory as such, stimulated by empirical work in a variety of fields and by the writings of other authors, particularly Merton {footnote: See especially Social Theory and Social Structure}...

Chapter 1: The Action Frame of Reference and the General Theory of Action Systems: Culture, Personality and the Place of Social Systems

(¶1.1) The subject of this volume is the exposition and illustration of a conceptual scheme for the analysis of social systems in terms of the action frame of reference...

(¶1.2) The fundamental starting point is the concept of social systems of action. The interaction of individual actors, that is, takes place under such conditions that it is possible to treat such a process of interaction as a system in the scientific sense...

... The frame of reference concerns the "orientation" of one or more actors ... to a situation, which includes other actors.

(¶1.4) The situation is defined as consisting of objects of orientation... It is convenient... to classify the object world as composed of ... "social", "physical" and "cultural" objects.

A social object is an actor, which may in turn be any given other individual actor (alter), the actor who is taken as the point of reference himself (ego), or a collectivity...

Physical objects... do not "interact" with or "respond" to ego. They are means and conditions of his action.

Cultural objects are symbolic elements of the cultural tradition, ideas or beliefs, expressive symbols or value patterns... treated as situational objects by ego.

(¶1.6) ... action... does not consist only of a ad hoc "responses" to particular situational "stimuli" but... the actor develops a system of "expectations" relative to the various objects of the situation.

... in the case of interaction with social objects... part of ego's expectation... consists in the probable reaction of alter to ego's possible action, a reaction that comes to be anticipated in advance and thus to affect ego's own choices.

(¶1.7) ... various elements of the situation come to have special "meanings" for ego as "signs" or "symbols", which becomes relevant to the organization of his expectation system. Especially where there is social interaction, signs and symbols acquire common meanings and serve as media of communication between actors.

(¶1.9) Reduced to the simplest terms, then, a social system consists in 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 a tendency to the "optimization of gratification" and whose relation to their situations (p.6), including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols.

(¶1.10) Thus conceived, a social system is only one of three aspects of the structuring of a completely concrete system of social action. The other two are the personality system of the individual actors and the cultural system which is built into their action.

(¶1.18) A word must be said about the problem of the ultimate structuring of "gratification needs".

(¶1.19) ... in their sociologically relevant forms "motivations" come to us organised on the personality level. We deal, that is, with more concrete structures which are conceived as products of the interaction of genetically given need components with social experience.

It is the uniformities on this level which are empirically significant for sociological problems. To make use of knowledge of such uniformities it is generally not necessary to unravel the genetic and experiential components underlying them. The principle exception to this statement arises in connection with problems of the limits of social variability in the structure of social systems which may be imposed by the biological constitution of the relevant population.

(¶1.49) ... the systematisation of theory in the present state of knowledge must be in structural-functional terms...

(¶1.50)... all scientific theory is concerned with the analysis of elements of uniformity in empirical processes. This is what is ordinarily meant by the dynamic interest of theory. The essential question is how far the state of theory is developed to the point of permitting deductive transitions from one aspect or state of a system to another, so that it is possible to say that if the facts in A sector are W and X, those in B sector must be Y and Z...

(¶1.52) ... completely raw empiricism is overcome by describing phenomena as parts of or processes within systematically conceived empirical systems. The set of descriptive categories employed...is a carefully...worked out system of concepts which are capable of application to all relevant parts or aspects of a concrete system in a coherent way.

Parsons is using Kant's terms and concepts. We need a conceptual system (categories) to organise our empirical observations if they are to provide meaningful knowledge.

(¶1.53) A particularly important aspect of our system of categories is the (p.21) structural aspect. We simply are not in a position to "catch" the uniformities of dynamic process in the social system except here and there. But in order to give those we can catch a setting and to be in the most advantageous position to extend our dynamic knowledge we must have a picture of the system within which they fit, of the given relationships of its parts in a given state of the system, and, where changes take place, of what changes into what through what order of intermediate stages. The system of structural categories is the conceptual scheme which gives the setting for dynamic analysis...

(¶1.54)... our primary concern in this work must be with the categorisations of the structure of social systems, the modes of structural differentiation within such systems, and the ranges of variability with reference to each structural category between systems.

(¶1.55)... we... "place" a dynamic process structurally in the social system. But beyond this we must have a test of the significance of generalisations relative to it. That test... takes the form of the functional relevance of the process. The test is to ask the question, what would be the differential consequences for the system of two or more alternative outcomes of a dynamic (p.22) process? Such consequences will be found to fit into the terms of maintenance of stability or production of change, of integration or disruption of the system in some sense.

Chapter 2: The Major Points of Reference and Structural Components of the Social System

[This is the chapter intended to hold the book together - Parsons urges his readers (p.67) "keep continually referring back to the fundamental conceptual elements of chapter two"

The Institutional Integration of Action Elements

(¶2.39) The problem of order, and thus of the nature of the integration of stable systems of social interaction, that is, of social structure, ... focuses on the integration of the motivation of actors with the normative cultural standards which integrate the action system, in our context interpersonally.

(¶2.43) Generally, in so far as the normative standards in terms of which ego and alter are interacting are shared and clear, favourable reactions on the part of alter will tend to be stimulated by ego's action conforming with the standards in question, and the unfavourable, by his deviating from them...

... the basic condition on which an interaction system can be stabilised is for the interests of the actors to be bound to conformity with a shared system of value-orientation standards.

(¶2.44) There is in turn a two-fold structure of this "binding in".

  1. In the first place, by virtue of internalisation of the standard, conformity with it tends to be of a personal, expressive and/or instrumental significance to ego.

  2. In the second place, the structuring of the reactions of alter to ego's action as sanctions is a function of his conformity with the standard.

Therefore conformity as a direct mode of the fulfilment of his own need dispositions [1] tends to coincide with conformity as a condition of eliciting the favourable and avoiding the unfavourable reactions of others.

In so far as, relative to the actions of a plurality of actors, conformity with a value orientation standard meets both these criteria, that is from the point of view of any given actor in the system, it is both a mode of the fulfilment of his own need-dispositions and a condition of "optimising" the actions of other significant actors, that standard will be said to be "institutionalised".

(¶2.45) A value pattern in this sense is always institutionalised in an interaction context. Therefore there is always a double aspect of the expectation system which is integrated in relation to it.

The relation between role-expectations and sanctions then is clearly reciprocal. What are sanctions to ego are role-expectations to alter and vice versa.

(¶2.46) A role then is a sector of the total orientation system of an individual actor which is organised about expectations in relation to a particular interaction context, that is integrated with a particular set of value- standards which govern interaction with one or more alters in the appropriate complementary roles...

(¶2.47) The institutionalisation of a set of role-expectations and of the corresponding sanctions is clearly a matter of degree. This degree is a function of two sets of variables;

... a variety of factors can influence this degree of institutionalisation through each of these channels.

The polar antithesis of full institutionalisation is ... anomie, the absence of structured complementarity of the interaction process or, what is the same thing, the complete breakdown of normative order in both senses. This is, however, a limiting concept which is never descriptive of a concrete social system. Just as there are degrees of institutionalisation so there are also degrees of anomie. The one is the obverse of the other.

(¶2.48) An institution will be said to be a complex of institutionalised role integrates {*} which is of strategic structural significance in the social system in question.

{footnote * Or status-relationships. There are no roles without corresponding statuses and vice-versa}

The institution should be considered to be a higher order unit of social structure than the role, and indeed it is made up of a plurality of independent role-patterns or components of them. Thus when we speak of the "institution of property" in a social system we bring together those aspects of the roles of the component actors which have to do with the integration of action-expectations with the value-patterns governing the definition of rights in "possessions" and obligations relative to them...

p. 58

Types of Evaluative Action Orientation

1. Instrumental
2. Expressive ("acting out") of a need disposition in terms of pattern of expressive symbolism)
3. Moral - Ego-integrative [and] Collectivity-integrative

The Pattern Alternative of Value Orientation as Definitions of Relational Role-Expectation Patterns

The role-partner in a social relationship is a social object.

The most direct path to gratification in an organised action system is through expressive orientations., hence relative to the expressive, both the instrumental and the moral modes of orientation impose renunciation or discipline.

The social object is always actually and potentially to some degree an object of cathexis. (p.60) Hence in patterning the orientation to that object it is always a problem whether, in certain relevant respects, expressive orientation in terms of immediate gratification interests is permissable, or is to be renounced in favour of instrumental or moral, that is certain types of evaluative interests. The first alternative may be defined as that of "affectivity", the second as "affective neutrality".

A role... may define certain areas of pursuit of private interests as legitimate, and in other areas obligate the actor to pursuit of the common interests of the collectivity. The primacy of the former alternative may be called "self-orientation", that of the latter, "collective orientation".

... the public official has an interest in his own financial well-being, which for example he may take into account in deciding between jobs, but he is expected not to take this into consideration respecting public policy where the two potentially conflict.

pp 62-63

... particularistic role-obligation may be formulated in terms of a general rule in the sense that it states In general terms the particularistic obligations of all those in the relevant class of roles. Thus "honour they father and thy mother" is stated as a general rule of morality. But it is its form that is general. The content of the obligation is particularistic, namely for each child toward his particular parents. If the rule were, on the other hand, "pay honour to parents because of their quality of parenthood as such, regardless of whose parents they are", it would be a universalistic norm

Orientation to the actor's performance... means that the focus is on achievement. The expectation is that the actor is committed to the achievement of certain goals or expressive performances and that expectations are orientated to his "effectiveness" or "success" in achieving them, hence that positive sanctions will reward such success and negative sanctions will ensue in case of failure to achieve...

On the other hand, even though actors can and do perform in the above sense, the major focus of a particular role-expectation need not be on this performance. All objects have attributes, they not only do this or that, but they are such and such. They have attributes of sex, age, intelligence, physical characteristics, statuses in relational systems, e.g. collective memberships. The focus of orientation than may be what the object is in this sense, e.g., that he is ego's father, that he is a physician, or that he is over six feet tall...

This distinction has become current in the sociological literature in Linton's terms of achieved and ascribed status... Achievement-orientated roles are those which place the accent on the performances of the incumbent, ascribed roles, on his qualities or attributes independently of specific performances.

There remains the question of the scope of ego's "interest" in the object

... one horn of the dilemma will be the definition of the role as orientating to the the social object in specific terms..

The alternative is to treat the object as significant in an indefinite plurality of specific orientation contexts.

pp 66-67

... five concept-pairs, which will be called the pattern-variables of role-definition, may be schematically outlined as follows

Chapter 3: The Structure of the Social System, 1: The Organisation of the components into sub-systems

pp 74-75

The economic problem is two-fold. On the one hand, within a given institutional role-structure, it concerns the processes of allocation of resources, i.e. "labour power" and facilities within the system. On the other hand, it concerns in motivational terms the processes of balancing advantages and cost with special reference to the settlement of terms and within a given role-structure and a given set of power conditions.

Political science, on the other hand, is concerned with the power relations within the institutional system and with a broader aspect of settlement of terms.

Chapter 4: The Structure of the Social System, 2: Invariant points of reference for the structural differentiation and variation of societies

p. 121

So far as it concerns the problem of the allocation of facilities this basically relational problem of order we shall, following Hobbes, call the problem of power. With one qualification Hobbes' own famous definition of power "a man's present means to any future good" fits the case. We would add the qualification, that such means constitute his power, so far as these means are dependent on his relations to other actors; the correlative is the obligation of alter to respect ego's rights.

pp 125-126

... what is distinctive about political power is... extension of the scope of considerations relevant to its definition and exercise...

... political power is capacity to control the relational system as a system, whether it be an organisation or a diffuser, less integrated system.
This diffuse character of political power explains the peculiar relevance to it of the gradient of drasticness of means. Since ability to use force in its relation to territoriality is one ultimate focus of the political power system, in one sense the crucial focus.

It is this which gives state its central position in the power system of a complex society.

p. 127

The problem of control of political power is above all the problem of integration, of building the power of individuals and sub=collectivities into a coherent system of legitimised authority where power is fused into collective responsibility.

Chapter 5: The Structure of the Social System, 3: Empirical Differentiation and Variation in the Structure of Societies

p. 152

.. in certain crucial areas of social structure we do not find that empirically observable structures cover anything like the whole range of theoretically possible variability...

Actual structures are, rather, concentrated in empirical "clusterings"... we will review... evidence for the special importance of four such clusterings;

1) Kinship, control of sex relations and socialisation

2) the organisation of instrumental achievement roles and stratification

3) the relation between power, force and territoriality

4) the relation of the paramount integration of value-orientations to cognitive orientations and certain problems of personality adjustment in "religion"

Chapter 6: The Learning of Social Role-Expectations and the Mechanisms of Socialisation of Motivation.


...the problems of the socialisation process are formulated on the assumption that the factors producing the equilibrium of the interaction process are stabilised with the exception that the requisite orientations for adequate functioning of a give actor in a given role have not yet been learned. But concretely this is not the case. Both within the individual actors as personalities and in the situation in which the act there are factors tending to upset the equilibrium. Changes in the situation as such may be said to present new learning problems and thus fall within the scope of socialisation. But certain changes arising from the personalities of the interacting factors and their reactions to situational changes are another matter.

We have seen that the very structure of the interaction process provides the major dimension for the organisation of such tendencies. They are tendencies to deviance, to depart from conformity with the normative standards which have come to be set up as the common culture. A tendency to deviance in this sense is a process of motivated action, on the part of an actor who has unquestionably had a full opportunity to learn the requisite orientations, tending to deviate from the complementary expectations of conformity with common standards so far as these are relevant to the definition of his role. Tendencies to deviance in this sense in turn confront the social system with "problems" of control, since deviance if tolerated beyond certain limits will tend to change or to disintegrate the system...

Chapter 7: Deviant Behaviour and the Mechanisms of Social Control.

Chapter 10: Social Structure and Dynamic Process: The Case of Modern Medical Practice.

p.431 ...illness is a state of disturbance in the "normal" functioning of the total human individual, including both the state of the organism as a biological system and of his personal and social adjustments. It is thus partly biologically and partly socially defined. Participation in the social system is always potentially relevant to the state of illness, to its etiology and to the conditions of successful therapy, as well as to other things.

p.436 ...for common sense there may be some question of whether "being sick" constitutes a social role at all - isn't it simply a state of fact, a "condition"? ...The test is the existence of a set of institutionalised expectations and the corresponding sentiments and sanctions.

There seem to be four aspects of the institutionalised expectation system relative to the sick role.

  • First, is the exemption from normal social role responsibilities...[p.437]

  • The second closely related aspect is the institutionalised definition that the sick person cannot be expected by "pulling himself together" to get well by an act of decision or will. In this sense also he is exempted from responsibility-he is in a condition that must be "taken care of"...

  • The third element is the definition of the state of being ill as itself undesirable with its obligation to want to "get well"...

  • ...the fourth..is the obligation...to seek technically competent help...

...the role of motivational factors in illness immensely broadens the scope and increases the importance of the institutionalised role aspect of being sick...The privileges and exemptions of the sick role may become objects of a "secondary gain" which the patient is positively motivated, usually unconsciously, to secure or to retain.

p.439 ...a pattern of behaviour on the part not only of the physician, but also of the patient, is expected...

p.440 ...it must be remembered that there is an enormous range of different types of illness, and of degrees of severity. Hence a certain abstraction is inevitable in any such general account as the present...

By institutional definition of the sick role the sick person is helpless and therefore in need of help. If being sick is to be regarded as "deviant" as certainly in important respects it must, it is as we have noted distinguished from other deviant roles precisely by the fact that the sick person is not regarded as "responsible" for his condition, "he can't help it."

Introduction (1964) to following

My work on The Social System ... had opened up what seemed to me to be new perspectives on the relations between the social system and the personality of the individual. Chapter 1 ["The superego and the theory of social systems" February 1952] was an attempt to reconsider the nature and significance of Freud's own contribution to the theoretical integration of personality and social system. It took as its point of departure the immense importance of the convergence between Freud and Durkheim with respect to the internalisation of normative culture and the personality of the individual.

footnote 3, p.2 On rereading it is evident to me that the contribution of the American social psychologists, Cooley, G.H. Mead, and W.I. Thomas, to this same development sjould have been acknowledged there, as it has been in later publications.

Parsons, T. 2.1952 "The superego and the theory of social systems" February 1952 page numbers from Parsons, T. 1964

Psychoanalysis, in common with other traditions of psychological thought, has naturally concentrated on the study of the personality of the individual as the focus of its frame of reference. Sociology, on the other hand, has equally naturally been primarily concerned with the patterning of the behaviour of a plurality of individuals as constituting what, increasingly, we tend to call a social system...

recent theoretical work (*)

shows that, in accord with convergent trends of thought, it is possible to bring the main theoretical trends of these disciplines together under a common frame of reference, that which some sociologists have called the "theory of action"...

the concept of the superego... has been, historically, at the centre of an actual process of convergence... Freud's discovery of the internalisation of moral values as an essential part of the structure of personality ... constituted ... a crucial landmark in the development of the sciences of human behaviour....

footnote p.19 two of the most important discussions of the superego are found in The Ego and the Id... and the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis ...

the formulation most dramatically convergent with Freud's theory of the superego was that of the social role of moral norms made by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim -

Durkheim's insights into this subject slightly antedated those of Freud.

Footnote 2: Durkheim's insights were first clearly stated in a paper "Détermination du Fait moral"... in 1906, and were much further developed in Les Formes élémentaires de la Vie religieuse, his last book... 1912

[The theme of the Détermination du Fait moral] is further elaborated in the posthumously published lectures... L'Education morale

Strongly influenced by Durkheim is the work of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, who has developed his view on the psychological side. See especially his The Moral Judgement of the Child

Durkheim started from the insight that the individual, as a member of society, is not wholly free to make his own moral decisions but is in some sense "constrained" to accept the orientations common to the society of which he is a member.

He went through a series of attempts at interpretation of the nature of this constraint, coming in the end to concentrate on two primary features of the phenomenon:

first, that moral rules "constrain" behaviour most fundamentally by moral authority rather than by any external coercion; and

secondly, that the effectiveness of moral authority could not be explained without assuming that, as we would now say, the value patterns were internalised as part of personality...

Parsons, T. 10.1.1954 "The incest taboo in relation to social structure and the socialisation of the child" - page numbers from Parsons, T. 1964

The universality of some order of incest taboo is of course directly connected with the fact that the nuclear family is also universal to all known human societies. The minimal criteria for the nuclear family are, I suggest, first that there should be a solidary relationship between mother and child lasting over a period of years and transcending physical care in its significance. Secondly, in her motherhood of this child the woman should have a special relationship to a man outside her own descent group who is sociologically the "father" of the child, and that this relationship is the focus of the "legitimacy" of the child, of his referential status in the larger kinship system. {footnote: It will be noted that I deliberately assume the incest taboo as part of the constitution of the family itself} (pages 58-59)

Parsons, T. and Bales, F.B. 1955 Family, Socialisation and Interaction Process

Chapter 1: "The American Family: Its Relations to Personality and to Social Structure" by Talcott Parsons

The American family has, in the past generation or more, been undergoing a profound process of change... Some have cited facts such as the very high rates of divorce, the changes in the older sex morality, and until fairly recently, the decline in birth rates, as evidence of a trend to disorganization in an absolute sense.

... the "loss of function" of the family (*) ... refers to the fact that so many needs, for example as for clothing, which formerly were met by family members working in the home, are now met by outside agencies. Thus clothing is now usually bought ready-made; there is much less food-processing in the household, there is a great deal of commercial recreation outside the home, etc

* footnote: Emphasised particularly by W.G. Ogburn. See, for instance, chapter 13, "The Family and its Functions" Recent Social Trends in the U.S., Report of President's Research Committee on Social Trends, 1933

... in many "primitive" societies there is a sense in which kinship "dominates" the social structure...

... in the more "advanced" societies a far greater part is played by non-kinship structures. States, churches, the larger business firms, universities and professional associations cannot be treated as "extensions" of the kinship system.

The process by which non-kinship units become of prime importance in a social structure, inevitably entails "loss of function" on the part of some or even all of the kinship units. In the process of social evolution there have been many stages by which this process has gone on, and many different directions in which it has worked out.

Our suggestion is ... that what has recently been happening in the American family constitutes part of one of these stage of a process of differentiation. The trend of the evidence points to the beginning of new type of family structure ... in which the family is more specialised but not ... less important.

The Principle Functions of the Nuclear Family

Within this broad setting of the structure of society, what can we say about the functions of the family, that is, the isolated nuclear family?
The functions of the family in a highly differentiated society are not to be interpreted as functions directly on behalf of the society, but on behalf of personality... It is because the human personality is not "born" but must be "made" through the socialisation process that in the first instance families are necessary. They are factories which produce human personalities.

We therefore suggest that the basic and irreducible functions of the family are two:

first the primary socialisation of children so that they can truly become members of the society into which they have been born;

second, the stabilisation of the adult personalities of the population of the (p. 17) society.

footnote 15: Burgess and his associates distinguish the "institutional family" from the "companionship" family... Burgess and Locke characterise the institutional as a family with "family behaviour controlled by the mores, public opinion and the law." It is a family "in which its unity would be determined entirely by the social pressure impinging on family members". The companionship form of the family has "family behaviour arising from the mutual affections and consensus of its members.... and intimate association of husband and wife and parents and children"

Sex Role and Family Structure ... we argue that probably the importance of the family and its function for society constitutes the primary set of reasons why there is a social as distinguished from purely reproductive differentiation of sex roles.

The problem is not why [differentiation] appears ... but why the man takes the more instrumental role, the woman the more expressive, and why ... these roles take particular forms.

Chapter 2: Family Structure and the Socialisation of the Child

... the nuclear family is never, most certainly not in the American case, an independent society, but a small and highly differentiated subsystem of a society. ... the parents, as socialising agents, occupy not merely their familial roles, but these articulate, i.e. interpenetrate, with their roles in other structures of the society...

... any large scale social system (a society) should be considered not in a 'monolithic' way, but as an intricate network of interdependent and interpenetrating subsystems. This has been one of the most important contributions of the concept or role, to throw into relief the fact that the same individual participates in many social systems, not merely one; he has multiple roles.

Parsons, T. 6/7.1956 "A Sociological Approach to the Theory of Organisations" - page numbers from Parsons, T. 1960

pp 44-45

Organisations are... part of a larger social structure of the society in which they occur...

organisations may... be classified in terms of the type of goal or function about which they are organised. The same basic classification can be used for goal types which has been used earlier in dealing with the functions of a social system. Thus we speak of adaptive goals, implementive goals, integrative goals, and pattern-maintenance goals

Seen in these terms the principle broad types of organisation are:

1) Organisations orientated to economic production

The type case in this category is the business firm...

... every organisation contributes in some way to every primary function (if it is well integrated in the society); hence we can speak only of economic primacy, never of an organisation being exclusively economic. This applies also to the other categories.

2) Organisations orientated to political goals

that is, to the attainment of valued goals and to the generation and allocation of power in the society:

3) Integrative organisations

These are organisations which on the societal level, contribute primarily to efficiency, not effectiveness. They concern the adjustment of conflicts and the direction of motivation to the fulfilment of institutionalised expectations. A substantial part of the functions of the courts and of the legal profession should be classed here. Political parties, whose function is the mobilisation of support for those responsible for government operations, belong to this category, and, to a certain extent, "interest groups" belong here to. Finally those organisations that are primarily mechanisms of social control in the narrower sense, for example hospitals, are mainly integrative.

4) Patter-maintenance organisations

The principle cases centering here are those with primarily "cultural", "educational", and "expressive" functions. Perhaps the most clear-cut organisational examples are churches and schools. (Pattern maintenance is not here conceived to preclude creativity; hence research is included). The arts so far as they give rise to organisation also belong here. Kinship groups are ordinarily not primarily organisations in our technical sense, but in a society so highly differentiated as our own the nuclear family approaches more closely the characteristics of an organisation than in other societies. As such it clearly belongs to the pattern-maintenance category.

Parsons, T. Autumn 1959 "The School Class as a Social System: Some of its Functions in American Society" page numbers from Parsons, T. 1964

p.130 a mechanic as well as doctor needs to have not only the basic "skills of his trade" , but also the ability to behave responsibly towards those people with whom he is brought into contact in his work.

p.131: completion of high school is increasingly coming to be the norm for minimum satisfactory educational attainment, and the most significant line for future occupational status has come to be drawn between members of an age-cohort who do and do not go to college.

The evidence also is that the selective process is genuinely assortative. (p.132) As in virtually all comparable processes, ascriptive as well as achieved factors influence the outcome. In this case the ascriptive factor is the socio-economic status of the child's family, and the factor underlying the opportunity for achievement is his individual ability.

In the study of 3,348 Boston high school boys on which these generalisations are based, each of these factors was quite highly correlated with planning college.

For example, the percentage planning college, by father's occupation, were: 12 per cent for semi-skilled and unskilled, 19 per cent for skilled, 26 per cent for minor white collar, 52 per cent for middle white collar, and 80 per cent for major white collar.

Likewise, intentions varied by ability (as measured by IQ), namely, 11 per cent for the lowest quintile, 17 per cent for the next, 24 per cent for the middle, 30 percent for the next to the top, and 52 per cent for the highest.

It should be noted also, that within any ability quintile, the relationship of plan's to father's occupation is seen. For example, within the very important top quintile in ability as measured, the range of college intentions was from 29 per cent for sons of labourers to 89 per cent for major white collar persons.

p.133: Considerations like these lead me to conclude that the main process of differentiation (which from another point of view is selection) that occurs during elementary school takes place on a single main axis of achievement. Broadly, moreover, the differentiation leads up through high school to a bifurcation into college-goers and non-college-goers...

Entering the system of formal education is the child's first major step out of primary involvement in the family of orientation. Within the family certain foundations of his motivational system have been laid down.

But the only characteristic fundamental to later roles which has been clearly "determined" and psychologically stamped in by that time is sex role. The post- oedipal complex child enters the system of formal education clearly categorised as boy or girl, but beyond that his role is not yet differentiated....

... the most important single predispositional facto with which the child enters the school is his level of independence. By this is meant his level of self- sufficiency relative to guidance by adults, his capacity to take responsibility and to make his own decisions in coping with new and varying situations. This, like his sex role, he has as a function of his experience in the family.

The family is a collectivity within which the basis status-structure is ascribed in terms of biological position, that is, by generation, sex and age. There are inevitable differences of performance relative to these, and they are rewarded and punished in ways that contribute to differential character formation. But these differences are not given the sanction of institutionalised social status. The school is the first socialising agency in the child's experience, which institutionalises a differentiation of status on non biological bases. Moreover, this is not an ascribed but an achieved status; it is a status "earned" by differential performance of the tasks set by the teacher, who is acting as an agent of the community's school system.

Parsons, T. 1966 Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives.

p. 7

The... classification of four highly general sub-systems of human action - the organism, personality, social system, and cultural system - is an application of a general paradigm which can be used throughout the field of action, and which I shall use below to analyse social systems. This paradigm analyses any action system in terms of the following four functional categories:

  • 1. that concerned with the maintenance of the highest "governing" or controlling patterns of the system

  • 2. the internal integration of the system

  • 3. it orientation to the attainment of goals in relation to its environment

  • 4. its more generalise adaptation to the broad conditions of the environment - e.g. the non-action, physical environment

Within action systems, cultural systems are specialised around the function of pattern-maintenance, social systems around the integration of acting units (human individuals or, more precisely, personalities engaged in roles), personality systems are goal-attainment, and the behavioural organism around adaptation.

p. 8

...the social system is the integrative sub-system of action in general. The other three sub-systems of action constitute principal environments in relation to it.

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Blue words go to
entries on this
page, red words
to another page

action frame of reference


alter (another person)




convergence - another example

cultural objects

cultural tradition


ego (oneself)

equilibrium - another quote

expressive symbols

family: 1954 - 1956 - 1959

goal attainment

gratification: optimization of (see utilitarianism)

gratification needs (motivations): structured by interaction of genetics and social experience

ideas or beliefs


Institutional Integration of Action Elements

institutionalised standards




objects of orientation

optimization of gratification (see utilitarianism)


physical objects




sick role


social objects

social role

status-relationships (see status)

statuses in relational systems - achieved and ascribed status

social structure (see structure)

social systems; defined in simplest terms

social system

symbolic elements

Structural-functional: see Preface and 1.49. See also Merton's use of the terms structure and function

value patterns