It’s Not What You Think: Talcott Parsons’ Conception of Functional Subsystems of Society

Monday, 16 July 2018: 15:30
Oral Presentation
Victor LIDZ, Department of Psychiatry, Drexel College of Medicine, USA
Helmut STAUBMANN, University of Innsbruck, Austria
As early as 1939, Talcott Parsons proposed that two institutional mechanisms, allocation of resources and social integration, made essential contributions to the functioning of society. The “functionalism” of The Social System (1951) elaborated the same ideas. In Working Papers in the Theory of Action (1953) Parsons proposed, with Robert F. Bales and Edward Shils, the first versions of the four-function paradigm, based on abstractly defined functions of adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance. Four-function theory was presented as a more efficient method than Bales’ interaction process analysis for small groups, which included 16 process categories. Working Papers then extended the four functions to analysis of major institutional complexes, each contributing differently to societal operations. In Economy and Society (with Neil Smelser, 1956) the four functions were treated with greater specificity and detail as a closed conceptual set. Analysis focused on the economy as adaptive subsystem of society, but the four functions also provided the basis for a theory of the structural differentiation of society into four complex subsystems, each itself analyzable into functionally defined subsystems. Parsons later extended four-function analysis: to political institutions and processes as goal attainment subsystem of society; to institutions of the integrative and pattern maintenance subsystems; to functional differentiation of American society; and, beyond social systems, to cultural and personality systems. In Societies; Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives and The System of Modern Societies, he used the four functions to analyze societies and civilizations very different from American and even Western civilization. We argue that, given the later formulations of the four functions as abstractly defined dimensions of action systems, the theory did not privilege states of equilibrium, favor order over conditions of stress and conflict, align with capitalism over other ideologies, or privilege American society, allegations that have predominated in the literature.