Wednesday, July 13, 2011

(d) Talcolt Parsons- Social system, pattern variables.

(d) Talcolt Parsons- Social system, pattern variables.

What is social system?

A social system has been defined by Mitchell (1979: 203) as ‘consisting of a plurality of al actors interacting directly or indirectly with each other in a bounded situation. There may be physical or territorial boundaries but the main point of reference sociologically is that here individuals are oriented, in a wide sense, to a common focus or interrelated foci’.

Early approaches to the concept of social system.

Utilitarianism - Utilitarianism is a school of thought, which believes in the fact that pleasure is better than pain. It is a philosophical outlook and is generally associated with the name of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). According to this outlook utility is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The proper goal of all human beings should be maximisation of utility.

Bentham believed that good motives are good as far as they lead to harmony of interests of an individual with those of others.

Positivism - This term also has been used for the distinct doctrines of school of philosophers known as ‘logical positivists’. They believed in the central idea that the meaning of a statement lay in the method of its varification. Any statement, which could not be verified, therefore, becomes meaningless.

Idealism - Idealism is the school of thought, which believes that the mind plays a key role in the constitution of the world as it is experienced. In the history we can discern different forms and applications of idealism. Its most radical form has been rejected because it is equivalent to solipsism. Solipsism is the view that all reality is nothing but the activity of one’s own mind and that in reality nothing exists but one’s own self However, idealists usually recognise the existence of the external or natural world fully. They do not claim that it can be reduced to the mere process of thinking. They believe that the mind is active and

capable of producing and sustaining modes of being that would not have existed otherwise, such as law, religion, art and mathematics

Concept of Social Action

The concept of action, according to Parsons, is derived from behaviour of human beings as living organism. As living organisms they interact (orientate) with outside reality as well as within their own mind. Behaviour becomes action when four conditions are present.

i) it is oriented to attainment of ends or goals or other anticipated affairs,

ii) it occurs in situations,

iii) it is regulated by norms and values of society,

iv) it involves an investment of ‘energy’ or motivation or effort.

When all these factors are present, a behaviour becomes action. Take for example a lady driving an automobile to go to a temple. She is probably going to offer prayers. In which case then the offering of the prayer is her end or goal to which she is oriented. Her situation is the road on which she is driving and the car in which she is sitting. Moreover, her behaviour is regulated by social norms or values in which the offering of prayers is recognised as desirable. In addition, she is applying her intelligence in the skill of driving which is learnt from society. Finally, the very act of driving the car implies expenditure of energy, holding the wheel, regulating the accelerator and skilful negotiation through the traffic on the road. When behaviour is seen in this analytical context, it can be defined as action.

Orientation of action can therefore be divided into two components, the motivational orientation and the value orientation. Motivational orientation refers to a situation in which action takes place taking into account needs, external appearances and plans. The second form of orientation is value orientation, which is based on considerations of standards of values, aesthetics, morality and of thinking.

A social system, according to Parsons, has the following characteristics.

i) It involves an interaction between two or more actors, and the interaction process is its main focus.

ii) Interaction takes place in a situation, which implies other actors or alters. These alters are objects of emotion and value judgement and through them goals and means of action are achieved.

iii) There exists in a social system collective goal orientation or common values and a consensus on expectations in normative and cognitive (intellectual) senses.


The Motivational Orientation

The range of motivational orientations are three. These are the cognitive, the cathectic and the evaluative orientations.

i) The cognitive orientation makes actors see their environment or object in relation to their need dispositions as a mental object. They, i.e. the actors, attempt to understand the objectivity of the subject matter of observation.

ii) The cathectic orientation involves emotional attitude of actors towards their object.

iii) The evaluative orientation leads the actors to organise their effort in realisation of their object with optimum efficiency. Take for example the behaviour of a housewife going to the market to purchase vegetables. The cognitive orientation enables her to judge the quality

of vegetables in relation to her need and need in relation to its prices, the cathectic orientation would determine as to which vegetable she likes more than the others, and the evaluative orientation would make it possible for her to make a choice of a vegetable which gives her maximum satisfaction.

The Value Orientation

The range of value orientations also comprises three parts. These are the cognitive, the appreciative and the moral.

i) The cognitive orientation is one, which relates to the issue of validity of judgement.

ii) The appreciative orientation is that which makes it possible for actors to judge their emotional response to object, its appropriateness or consistency.

iii) The moral orientation is one, which refers to value commitment of an actor towards his or her objects.


In order to develop concepts, which could reflect the properties of all action systems, Parsons was led to a set of concepts, which could bring out the variable properties of these systems. These concepts are termed pattern variables.

There are in all five pattern variables, each side of it represents one polar extreme. These pattern variables are

i) affectivity versus affective neutrality

ii) self-orientation versus collectivity orientation

iii) universalism versus particularism

iv) ascription versus achievement

v) specificity versus diffuseness.

Affectivity versus Affective Neutrality

Affectivity versus affective neutrality concerns the dilemma of role performance where evaluation is involved in relation to a situation. How much should a situation be evaluated in emotional terms or with a degree of emotional neutrality? This poses a difficult choice in most roles that we are expected to perform in society. Take for example the mother-child

relationship. It has high degree of affective orientation, but discipline is also required. So on many occasions a mother would have to exercise affective-neutral role in relation to her child’s socialisation. But motherchild relationship is essentially dominated by affectivity. In comparison, doctor-patient relationship brings out the aspect of affective neutrality that

characterises a doctor’s role. Affective-neutrality is essential for proper medical care, especially where surgical treatments are involved. But according to Parsons in all role performance situations the dilemma of choice and its degree of expression or commitment remains.

Self-orientation versus Collectivity Orientation

Similarly, in self-orientation versus collectivity orientation pattern variable the main issue is that of moral standard in the procedure of evaluation. The moral standard arises from the fact that actor has to make a choice between his or her own gratification and its deferment for the good of a larger number of people, a collectivity. Some form of altruism and selfsacrifice is involved. The dilemma of this pattern variable has always been present in human life from primitive mode of economy and society to modern civilisation. The notion of socialist society and socialist consciousness offers us a good example where a whole social system and patterns of its institutions are based on the dominant choice in favour of

collectivity orientation. But as Parsons has rightly pointed out, institutionalisation of such values is always fragile. This is because the response to the situation by the actor is always in the form of a dilemma.

Universalism versus Particularism

Universalism versus particularism is a pattern variable which defines the role situation where the actor’s dilemma is between the cognitive versus the cathective (or emotional standards) evaluation. A very good example of roles adhering to universalistic standards of human behaviour are role performances which go strictly by legal norms and legal sanctions. It one abides by the rule of law irrespective of personal, kinship or friendship

considerations, then that would be an example of the universalistic mode of role performance. If one violates legal norms only because the person involved is a kin or a friend, then particularistic considerations would be said to be operating. Parsons says that in societies where the role of the bureaucracy of formal organisations and modern institutions have become widespread there the dilemmas of Universalism and particularism have

become a matter of choice in everyday life.

Ascription versus Achievement

The actor’s dilemma in the ascription versus achievement pattern variable is based on whether or not the actor defines the objects of his or her role either in terms of quality or performance. In India a very good example of this pattern variable is the role performance governed by the caste system. In the caste system, the statuses of persons are determined not on the basis of their personal achievement or personal skills or knowledge but on the

basis of their birth. Ascription is based on assigning certain quality to a person either by birth, or age, or sex or kinship or race. Achievement is based on personal acquisition of skills and levels of performance in society.

Specificity versus Diffuseness

The specificity versus diffuseness pattern variable concerns the scope of the object of role performance. Scope, in this case, is to be understood in terms of the nature of social interaction.

Some social interactions, such as between doctors and patients or between buyers and sellers of goods in the market, have a very specific scope. The nature of these interactions is defined in terms of a very precise context of interaction. A doctor does not have to understand the social, financial or political background of his or her patients in order to treat them and to give them a prescription. Doctor’s task is very specific. So is the case of

sellers of commodities in the market, who do not have to know the general details of the life of their customers. Such roles are specific in terms of the standards of response between actors.

On the contrary, some role relationships are very general and encompassing in nature. Such roles involve several aspects of the object of interaction. Some examples of such role relationships are friendship, conjugal relationship between husband and wife, relationships between kin of various degrees. All these relationships are such where the actor does not

interact with another in a relationship in a specific context as such, but in a diffused manner such as in case of two close friends. The scope of interaction is flexible, open and encompassing in nature.


  1. Sir...for the first time i would be able to understand parson....thanks

  2. Sir...for the first time i would be able to understand parson....thanks

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