“Action Systems and Social Systems”


Talcott Parsons



Summary By

Suzanne Ghais


The overall “system of action” is composed of four constituent elements: social systems, and the following three “constituents of its environment”: “cultural systems, personality systems, and behavioral organisms,” each with different functions (301).
· The social system serves primarily an integrative function, coordinating the actions of individuals and, in some cases, collectivities.
· The cultural system serves primarily the pattern-maintenance and (pattern-change) function—involving “complexes of symbolic meaning” (301).
· The individual personality serves primarily a goal-attainment function and “is the primary agency of action processes, hence of the implementation of cultural principles and requirements” (301).
· The behavioral organism serves primarily the function of adaptation to the physical environment.
There is “interpenetration” between these four subsystems (302). Examples:
· The personality system internalizes cultural and social norms from those two subsystems.
· Norms from the cultural system get institutionalized in the social subsystem.
· Language cuts across all four of the systems [if I understood correctly—bottom of p. 302].
In line with Durkheim (as Parsons acknowledges), society [not clear if this is just the social “subsystem” specifically or the whole “action system”] is a reality unto itself and not merely epiphenomenal of individual actions.
The social system has four components (all p. 303):
· Values, which “take primacy in the pattern-maintenance functioning of social systems.”
· Norms, which “integrate social systems” in a way more “specific to … types of social situations.”
· Collectivities have “goal-attainment primacy” and are not just any set of people but a group that has clearly-defined membership and some differentiation among members in terms of status and function.
· Roles have “primacy in the adaptive function” and relate to “reciprocal expectations… in a particular collectivity.”
These four components can vary independently of each other, and “social systems are comprised of combinations of these structural components” (303).

Discussion points

From a draft of my first precis:
In many ways, this theoretical framework does not make sense. Parsons sometimes uses the term “system” and sometimes “subsystem” in discussing the social, cultural, personality, and organism elements. It is not clear whether the social system encompasses the other three or are on the same level of analysis with them under “action system.” If the latter, it is unclear what an action system is. In a confusing twist, he also changes course on the locus of agency: in the four (sub)systems, the “personality” has agency, but in the components (values/norms/collectivities/roles), collectivities have “goal-attainment primacy” suggesting such entities can also have agency. It is unclear what is the relationship of the four “components” (values, norms, collectivities, and roles) to the four (sub)systems. Moreover, it seems odd to have values and norms in the same list as collectivities and roles. Further, since norms seem a more limited application of values and roles are a part of collectivities, it is questionable whether each of these four “components” is truly independent of the others (can different value systems still have the same norms related to a particular activity?). Finally, it is not clear what “pattern maintenance” is, a function performed by both cultural (sub)systems and values.
Nevertheless, Parsons’ work contains some important insights regarding the sources of social cohesion. First, although the social system is its own independent reality, and thus presumably its own potential for causation, agency still rests with the individual personality, as well as with “collectivities,” which are narrowly defined.Second, norms and values serve as social glue. Finally, interesting implications can be drawn from Parsons’ description of collectivities and roles. Role differentiation and even perhaps status differentiation may be routes toward cooperation within a group.