System Levels Theory – Parsons (Parsonian Social System)

The concept of a system is at the core of any discussion of Parsonian theory (Parsonian Social System). Parsons stated, “The concept of system in the action field as in others, has been central to my thinking from a very early stage.” His general theory of action, in which he gives his overall picture of how societies are structured and fit together, includes four systems: the cultural system, the social system, the personality system, and the behavioral organism as a system.

How does Parsons define his four system levels? First of all is the cultural system, in which the basic unit of analysis is “meaning,” or “symbolic system.” Some examples of symbolic systems are religious beliefs, languages, and national values. As we would expect, at this level Parsons focuses on shared values. A key concept here is socialization, whereby societal values are internalized by a society’s members; that is, they make society’s values their own. In Parsons’ view, socialization is a very powerful integrative force in maintaining social control and holding a society together.

The preeminence of the cultural system in Parsons’ thinking is illustrated in his statement:

It is quite clear that the high elaboration of human action systems is not possible without relatively stable symbolic systems where meaning is not contingent on highly particularized situations…. It is such a shared symbolic system which functions in interaction which will here be called a cultural tradition.

Heads of state often draw on the functionalist perspective in their speeches. The following excerpts from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, exemplify a leader’s appeal to shared values on both national and international levels:

Let every nation know … that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty . . . . In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty . . . . And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

The social system is the next level in Parsons’ scheme, and it is the one on which he has elaborated the most. Here the basic unit is “role interaction.” Parsons devoted an entire book to this topic, and he defined the social system thus:

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, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols.

In Parsons’ definition of a social system, plurality can mean two or more, and actors can be people or collectivities. Thus, a social system can be made up of anything from two people interacting in a restaurant to the relationships within the United Nations, where the actors are member nations. The relationship of the social system to the cultural system is apparent in Parsons’ reference to “culturally structured and shared symbols,” which define the way actors interact. In addition, Parsons shows how the other two systems penetrate the social system as well. He refers to “individual actors” whose motive is self-gratification because of the nature of their personality system, and he brings in a “physical or environmental aspect,” which sets boundaries around this situation where interaction takes place and is itself a function of the behavioral organisms involved.

According to Parsons, the basic unit of the personality system is the individual actor, the human person. His focus at this level is on individual needs, motives, and attitudes, such as the “motivation toward gratification,” which he emphasizes in the definition we have quoted. As we shall see, “motivation toward gratification” corresponds to both conflict theory’s and exchange theory’s explicit assumptions that people are “self-interested” or “profit maximizers.”

In the fourth system, the behavioral organism, the basic unit is the human being in its biological sense-that is, the physical aspect of the human person, including the organic and physical environment in which the human being lives. In referring to this system, Parsons explicitly mentions the organism’s central nervous system and motor activity. One of Parsons’ later interests was in socio-biology, which is the study of the biological basis of social behavior.

Parsons’ view of socialization will illustrate how all these systems are interrelated. At birth we are simply behavioral organisms; only as we develop as individuals do we gain any personal identity. How, then, do people become socialized? As we mentioned earlier, Parsons says that people internalize the values of a society; that is, they make the social values of the cultural system their own by learning from other actors in the social system what is expected of them. In other words, they learn “role expectations” and so become full participants in society. Thus, the values come from the cultural system; the corresponding normative or role expectations are learned in the social system; the individual identity comes from the personality system; and the biological equipment comes from the behavioral organism.

Let us take a concrete social system and see how socialization “works” within it. Consider a juvenile gang. If one of the values of that gang is the ability to steal cars, then juveniles who wish to become full members of that gang not only will have to make that value their own (cultural system), but they must also know how much of such behavior is expected of them. In social system terms, they must conform to normative expectations. Also, their own identity must be involved in their membership: membership in the gang must answer certain needs or drives in their own personalities. The behavioral organism is also involved, since potential gang members must possess a certain dexterity and the physical skills to steal cars successfully and live up to the expectations of the gang members.

This example should help illustrate the interpenetration of all four systems. Parsons does not consider his four system levels to be mutually exclusive; rather, they exhibit the interdependence that functionalism consistently stresses. In the following section, we discuss Parsons’ theory of action, a framework for describing actual behavior within the context of the four systems.

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