Integration and Social Order at the Macro Level: Parsons' Structural-Functional Perspective

For modern sociology, functional theory was developed most systematically by Talcott Parsons, along with numerous colleagues. Although Parsons’ earliest contribution was an attempt to integrate previous perspectives into a comprehensive theory of social action, he is best remembered for his structural/functional analysis of the overall society. In this perspective, the focus is on how individuals’ actions are organized through their roles in social institutions in ways that contribute to society’s basic functional requirements. Although functional theory is usually seen as most relevant for a macro-level analysis of society itself, the strategy of functional analysis can be applied to any social system, including those at the micro and meso levels. Following a brief introductory section, the major themes from Parsons’ structural-functional framework to be discussed in this chapter are as follows:
  • Voluntaristic theory of social action—Parsons argued that human behavior involves choices people make, but these choices are regulated by shared values and norms.

  • The pattern variables—This refers to a series of specific choices individuals make within the normative guidelines of their society with regard to their orientations toward others as well as the priority they are expected to give to their own interests versus their normative obligations.

  • The strategy of structural-functional analysis—This section, sometimes considered the heart of Parsons’ theory, will deal with how the major institutional structures of society fit together in fulfilling its functional requirements. Parsons’ AGIL model, which is perhaps his most enduring legacy to contemporary theory, will be seen as applicable to other social system as well as the overall society.

  • Hierarchy of cultural control—Social systems are shown in this section to be linked to the culture, personality patterns, and the behavioral organism as analytically distinct systems. Cultural values and norms are seen as controlling the dynamics of social systems and personality formation, but this control operates within the constraints and conditions established by the lower level systems in the hierarchy.

  • Structural differentiation and evolutionary change—Despite his strong emphasis on stability and social order, Parsons also used his perspective to analyze the evolutionary changes leading to modern society.

  • The ultimate meaning of human life—This section reflects Parsons’ efforts to provide a comprehensive analysis of the “human condition” that incorporates the level of ultimate or transcendent meanings (as expressed in religious beliefs and symbols, for example) as well as the material environment and biological characteristics of human beings.


Social System Pattern Variable Social Order Functional Requirement Macro Level 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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