Talcott Parsons: The Social System, and General Action Theory (1952)


Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was a prominent American Sociologist of twentieth century. He served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1921 to 1973. Parsons made a rapid academic progress. He was made chairman of the Harvard Sociology department in 1944; in 1946, he set up and chaired the innovative department of Social relations; in 1949 he had been elected president of the American Sociological Association. He was a dominant figure in American Sociology, mainly in 1950s and 1960s.

However, in the late 1960s Parsons came under attack of radical wing of American Sociology. His theory was considered highly conservative, complex, and abstract; and he was seen as Political conservative. But in 1980s and after that there was resurgence in interest in Parsonian theory not only in United States but around the world.

In his book ‘The Social System’ Talcott Parsons attempted to bring together, in a systematic and generalized form, the main outlines of a conceptual scheme for the analysis of structures and processes of social system (centered on the phenomena of the institutionalization of patterns of value orientation in roles). The social system is analyzed as a part of the larger conceptual scheme, which Parsons called the ‘theory of action’. As such it is one of the three main differentiated sub-systems of action, the other two being personality and culture.

Though here we are mainly concerned with Parsons’ “The Social System” but to understand his present work more clearly some concepts are also taken from his other important works like “Towards a General Theory of Action” and “The Structure of Social Action”. The following are the major concept and theories propounded by Parsons.

Understanding Action: Unit Act

For Parsons, the basic unit of any action system is the unit act (referred as voluntaristic theory). Voluntarism is subjective decision-making process of individual actors but such decisions are partial outcomes of certain kind of constraints, both normative and situational. Voluntaristic action (unit act) therefore involves these basic elements:

  • Actors (who are at this point are individual persons) are viewed as goal seeking, i.e., they act to achieve some goals.
  • Actors have alternative means to achieve the goals.
  • Actors are confronted with a variety of situational conditions such as their own biological make up and heredity as well as various external ecological constrains, that influence the selection of goals and means.
  • Actors are seen to be governed by values, norms and other ideas while choosing goals and means to achieve it.
  • Thus, action involves actors making subjective decisions about means to achieve the goals, all of which are constrained by norms, values and ideas and situational conditions.

In Parsonian theory, the unit act is basic unit on which more complex and systematic processes and structures are built. However, the structure of social system can’t be derived directly from the actors’ unit act. It requires the functional analysis of the complications introduced by the interaction of a plurality of actors.

General Action Theory

The theory of action is a conceptual scheme for the analysis of the behaviour of living organisms. It conceives of this behaviour as oriented to the attainment of ends (goals) in situations, by means of the normatively regulated expenditure of energy (motivation). When behaviour is analyzed like this, it is called action.

Components of the frame of reference of theory of action:

  1. The frame of reference of the theory of action involves actors, a situation of action, and the orientation of the actor to that situation.
  2. The actor is both a system of action and a point of reference. As a system of action the actor may be either an individual or a collectivity. As a point of reference the actor may be either an actor-subject (sometimes called simply actor) or a social object.
  3. The situation of action may be divided into a class of social objects (individuals and collectivities) and a class of non-social (physical and cultural) objects.
  4. Social objects include actors as persons and as collectivities (i.e., systems of action is composed of a plurality of individual actors in determinate relations to one another). The actor-subject may be oriented to himself as an object as well as to other social objects. A collectivity, when it is considered as a social object, is never constituted by all the action of the participating individual actors; it may, however, be constituted by anything from a specified segment of their actions specific system of roles.
  5. Non-social objects are any objects which are not actors. Non-social objects may be classified on the basis of whether they are physical objects or cultural objects.

Physical objects are those objects which are located in space and time; which do not “interact” with the actor-subject, as other actors do; and which constitute only objects, not subjects, of cognitive, cathectic, and evaluative orientation. Thus they can constitute instrumentally significant means, conditions, goal objects, obstacles or significant symbols.

Cultural objects are elements of the cultural tradition or heritage (for example, laws, ideas, recipes) when these are taken as objects of orientation. These too may be objects of cognitive, cathectic, and evaluative orientation in the sense that one may understand the meaning of a law, want a law, and decide what to do about a law. Also, these may serve as normative rules, as instrumentally significant means, and as conditions or obstacles of action, or as systems of significant symbols. These cultural objects are the laws, ideas, and so forth, as the actor-subject sees these things existing outside of him. The same laws and ideas may eventually become internalized elements of culture for the actor-subject; as such they will not be cultural objects but components of the actor-subject’s system of action. Cultural objects as norms may be divided into classes (cognitive, appreciative, and moral) exactly parallel to the three classes into which the value standards of the motivational orientation of the actor are divided in the next section of this outline.

  • The orientation of the actor to the situation may be broken down into a set of analytic elements. These elements are not separate within the orientation process; they might be conceived as different aspects or different ingredients of that process. They may be divided into two analytically independent categories: a category of elements of motivational orientation (appearances, wants, plans), and a category of elements of value-orientation (cognitive standards, aesthetic standards, moral standards).
  • Motivational orientation refers to those aspects of the actor’s orientation to his situation which are related to actual or potential gratification or deprivation of the actor’s need-dispositions. We will speak of three modes of motivational orientation.
  • cognitive (need for information)
  • cathectic (need for emotional attachment)
  • evaluative (need for assessment)
  • Value-orientation refers to those aspects of the actor’s orientation which commit him to the observance of certain norms, standards, criteria of selection, whenever he is in a contingent situation which allows (and requires) him to make a choice. Whenever an actor is forced to choose among various means objects, whenever he is forced to choose among various goal objects, whenever he is forced to choose which need-disposition he will gratify, or how much he will gratify a need-disposition (in short whenever he is forced to make any choice whatever) his value-orientations may commit him to certain norms that will guide him in his choices. The value-orientations which commit a man to the observance of certain rules in making selections from available alternatives are not random but tend to form a system of value-orientations which commit the individual to some organized set of rules (so that the rules themselves do not contradict one another). On a cultural level we view the organized set of rules or standards as such, abstracted, from the actor who is committed to them by his own value-orientations and in whom they exist as need-dispositions to observe these rules. Thus, a culture includes a set of standards. An individual’s value-orientation is his commitment to these standards. There are three modes of value-orientation, which parallel the modes of motivational orientation.
  • cognitive (evaluation in terms of objective standards)
  • appreciative (evaluation in terms of aesthetic standards)
  • moral (evaluation in terms of absolute rightness or wrongness)

5) The motivational and value orientations, for any actor, creates a composite type of action, which can be one of three types:

  1. instrumental: action orientated to realize explicit goals efficiently
  2. expressive: action directed at realizing emotional satisfaction (drives)
  3. moral: action concerned with realizing standards of right and wrong.

The Action Systems: The Organization of Action into systems

Parsons argued that action is not discrete but occur in systems. He proposed three action systems (modes of organization of action elements) namely personality system, social system and cultural system. He also added a fourth system of action in his later works namely behavioral organism. While understanding these action systems, the reader should keep in mind that they do not exist in real world but are, rather analytical tools for analyzing the real world.

  1. Personality System: Personalities are systems of motivated action organized about the living organism. The personality system is an organized system of orientations and motivation of the individual actor. The basic component of personality is the need-dispositions. Need-dispositions impel actors to accept or reject objects presented in the environment or to seek out new objects if the ones that are available do not adequately satisfy need-dispositions. Parsons differentiated among three basic types of need-dispositions. The first type impels actors to seek love, approval, and so forth, from their social relationships. The second type includes internalized values that lead actors to observe various cultural standards. Finally, there are the role expectations that lead actors to give and get appropriate responses. Thus, the personality system is controlled not only by cultural system but also by the social system.
  2. Social System: Social systems are systems of motivated action organized about the relations of actors to each other. Parsons’ conception of the social system begins at the micro level with interaction between ego and alter ego, defined as the most elementary form of the social system. In his analysis of the social system, Parsons was interested primarily in its structural components. In addition to a concern with the status-role, Parsons was interested in such large-scale components of social systems as collectivities, norms, and values.

Parsons was interested in the ways in which the norms and values of a system are transferred to the actors within the system. In a successful socialization process these norms and values are internalized; that is, they become part of the actors’ “consciences.” As a result, in pursuing their own interests, the actors are in fact serving the interests of the system as a whole.

  • Cultural System: Cultural systems, on the other hand, are systems of symbolic patterns (these patterns are created or manifested by individual actors and are transmitted among social systems by diffusion and among personalities by learning). Parsons conceived of culture as the major force binding the various elements of the social world, or, in his terms, the action system. Culture mediates interaction among actors and integrates the personality and the social systems. Culture has the peculiar capacity to become, at least in part, a component of the other systems. Thus, in the social system culture is embodied in norms and values, and in the personality system it is internalized by the actor. But the cultural system is not simply a part of other systems; it also has a separate existence in the form of the social stock of knowledge, symbols, and ideas. These aspects of the cultural system are available to the social and personality systems, but they do not become part of them.

Parsons defined the cultural system, as he did his other systems, in terms of its relationship to the other action systems. Thus, culture is seen as a patterned, ordered system of symbols that are objects of orientation to actors, internalized aspects of the personality system, and institutionalized patterns in the social system. Because it is largely symbolic and subjective, culture is transmitted readily from one system to another. Culture can move from one social system to another through diffusion and from one personality system to another through learning and socialization. However, the symbolic (subjective) character of culture also gives it another characteristic, the ability to control Parsons’ other action systems. This is one of the reasons Parsons came to view himself as a cultural determinist.

Social System: Understanding its Structure and Processes

After conceptualization of elements of action theory now we are in a better position to understand the concept of Social system. Parsons defined social system as:

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.

As variously orientated actors (in terms of their configuration of motivational and value orientations) interact, they come to develop agreements and sustain patterns of interaction, which become Institutionalized.

The basic condition on which an interaction system is stabilized is for the interest of actors to be bound to conformity with a shared system of value orientation standards (culture). Thus conformity as a direct mode of the fulfillment of actors’ own need-dispositions tends to coincide with conformity as a condition eliciting the favorable and avoiding the unfavorable reactions from others. Those value orientation standards to which plurality of individuals have conformity are said to be institutionalized. The institutionalized standards thus for ego, acts as ‘role expectations’ on one hand as well as ‘sanctions’ in his relations (interactions) with others (alters).

Such institutionalized patterns can be, in Parsons’ view conceptualized as a social system. The normative organization of status-role becomes Parsons’ key to this conceptualization, i.e., the subject matter of Sociology is the organization of status, roles and norms. Social System is an important component of action systems as it is integrated with both personality and cultural systems. Thus, process of institutionalization of interactions into stabilized patterns is called social system, which are penetrated by personality and circumscribed by culture.

Functional Prerequisite

Parsons believes that there are four functional imperatives that are necessary for (characteristic of) all systems—adaptation (A), goal attainment (G), integration (I), and latency (L), or pattern maintenance. Together, these four functional imperatives are known as the AGIL scheme. In order to survive, a system must perform these four functions:

  1. Adaptation: A system must cope with external situational exigencies. It must adapt to its environment and adapt the environment to its needs.
  2. Goal attainment: A system must define and achieve its primary goals.
  3. Integration: A system must regulate the interrelationship of its component parts. It also must manage the relationship among the other three functional imperatives (A, G, L).
  4. Latency (pattern maintenance): A system must furnish, maintain, and renew both the motivation of individuals and the cultural patterns that create and sustain that motivation. Parsons designed the AGIL scheme to be used at all levels in his theoretical system.

In the discussion on the action systems, we will illustrate how Parsons uses AGIL. The behavioral organism is the action system that handles the adaptation function by adjusting to and transforming the external world. The personality system performs the goal-attainment function by defining system goals and mobilizing resources to attain them. The social system copes with the integration function by controlling its component parts. Finally, the cultural system performs the latency function by providing actors with the norms and values that motivate them for action.

Pattern Variables

A Pattern Variable is a dichotomy, one side of which must be chosen by an actor before the meaning of a situation is determinate for him and thus before he can act with respect to that situation. That allow for the categorization of the modes of orientation in personality systems, the value patterns of culture, and the normative requirements in social system.

These pattern variables enter the action frame of reference at four different levels.
-They enter at the concrete level as five discrete choices (explicit or implicit) which every actor makes before he can act.

  • They enter on the personality level as habits of choice.
  • The pattern variables enter on the collectivity level as aspects of role definition.
  • The variables enter on the cultural level as aspects of value standards.

There are five pattern variables:

  1. Affectivity-Affective neutrality concerns the amount of emotion or affect that is appropriate in a given interaction situation. Should a great deal or little affect be expressed?
  2. Diffuseness-Specifity denotes the issue of how far reaching obligations in an interaction situation are to be. Should the obligations be narrow and specific, or should they be extensive and diffuse?
  3. Universalism-particularism points to the problem of whatever evaluation and judgment of others in an interaction situation is to apply to all actors or should all actors be assessed in terms of the same standard?
  4. Achievement-ascription deals with the issue of how to assess an actor, whether in terms of performance or on the basis of inborn qualities such as sex, age, and race. Should an actor treat others on the basis of achievement or ascriptive qualities that are unrelated to performance?
  5. Self-collectivity denotes the extent to which action is to be oriented to self-interest and individual goals or to group interests. Should actors consider their personal or self-related goals over those of the group or collectivity in which they are involved?

The structure of the personality and Social system is a reflection of the dominant patterns of value orientation (patterns variables preferred) in culture.

Talcott Parsons
The Social System

Equilibrium and Order in Social system

To address the issues of stability and order in social system, at the most abstract level, Parsons viewed two mechanisms that maintain order and stability in a social system.

  1. Socialization: the mechanism of socialization are seen by Parsons as means through which cultural patterns (values, beliefs, language and other symbols) are internalized into the personality system, thereby circumscribing its need structure. It is through this process that actors are made willing to deposit motivational energy in roles (thereby willing to conform to norms) and are given the interpersonal and other skills necessary for role playing roles. Another function of socialization mechanism is to provide stable and secure interpersonal ties that alleviate much of strain, anxiety and tension associated with acquiring proper motives and skills.
  2. Social Control: mechanism of social control involves those ways in which status-roles are organized in social systems to reduce strain and deviance. It guides individual to conform to the value standards of a system. There are numerous specific control mechanisms like Institutionalization, sanctions etc.

However, Parsons acknowledges that the mechanisms of socialization and social control are not always successful, hence allowing deviance and social change to occur.

Thus, to conclude, Parsons in his work ‘The Social System’ tried to present an integrative approach to understand the social system. Though this work is severely criticized for being conservative, abstract, and unintelligible but it is still considered important to understand different structures and processes of social system.


  1. Talcott Parsons, The Social System (New York: Free Press, 1951). Buy
    Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils and others, Towards a General Theory of Action, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1951).
  2. Jonathan H. Turner, The Structure of Sociological Theory, (Jaipur: Rawat Publication 1987).
  3. George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, (McGraw-Hill Publication 2013, 9th edition)
  4. Explore More

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