From Talcott Parsons, The System of Modern Societies.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971, pp. 4-8.


Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) developed his social theory of actionsystems throughout his career. In "Action Systems and SocialSystems,'' his summary of that theory as he worked it between 1961and 1971, two of the most distinctive features of Parsons's socialtheory are illustrated. First, he understands the social system to bea distinct entity, different from but interdependent with three otheraction systems: culture, personality, and the behavioral organism.Second, Parsons makes explicit reference to Durkheim in his view thatsocial systems are sui generis things in which values serve tomaintain the patterned integrity of the system. Some have argued thatthese theoretical convictions were traceable to the Golden Ageculture, in which it was widely believed America was theexemplification of society itself because of the power of its values.

"Sex Roles in the American Kinship System" ( 1943) is anillustration of Parsons's theory applied to an empirical topic. Here,Parsons demonstrates his remarkable ability to press deeper anddeeper into the logic of his theoretical systems. In the 1940s and1950s, when this essay was most widely studied, his ideas were notparticularly remarkable; the family as he discussed it was taken forgranted by social scientists. By the 1970s, however, feministscholars began to use Parsons's theory as a point of protest againstsystematic, social scientific sexism. Today, of course, anyone canunderstand why feminists would object to being defined as dependent,neurotic, and compulsive, perhaps especially when these views arestated in so cool a scientific language .

Introduction from Charles Lemert, Social Theory. New York:Westview Press, 1991, p. 321.


Action Systems and Social Systems

Talcott Parsons (1961-1971)

We consider social systems to be constituents of the more generalsystem of action, the other primary constituents being culturalsystems, personality systems, and behavioral organisms; all four areabstractly defined relative to the concrete behavior of socialinteraction. We treat the three subsystems of actions other than thesocial system as constituents of its environment. This usage issomewhat unfamiliar, especially for the case of the personalities ofindividuals. It is justified fully elsewhere, but to understand whatfollows it is essential to keep in mind that neither social norpersonality systems are here conceived as concrete entities.

The distinctions among the four subsystems of action arefunctional. We draw them in terms of the four primary functions whichwe impute to all systems of action, namely pattern- maintenance,integration, goal-attainment, and adaptation.

An action system's primary integrative problem is the coordinationof its constituent units, in the first instance human individuals,though for certain purposes collectivities may be treated as actors.Hence, we attribute primacy of integrative function to the socialsystem.

We attribute primacy of pattern-maintenance--and of creativepattern change--to the cultural system. Whereas social systems areorganized with primary reference to the articulation of socialrelationships, cultural systems are organized around thecharacteristics of complexes of symbolic meanings--the codes in termsof which they are structured, the particular clusters of symbols theyemploy, and the conditions of their utilization, maintenance, andchange as parts of action systems.

We attribute primacy of goal-attainment to the personality of theindividual. The personality system is the primary agency ofaction processes, hence of the implementation of cultural principlesand requirements. On the level of reward in the motivational sensethe optimization of gratification or satisfaction to personalities isthe primary goal of action..

The behavioral organism is conceived as the adaptive subsystem,the locus of the primary human facilities which underlie the othersystems. It embodies a set of conditions to which action must adaptand comprises the primary mechanism of interrelation with thephysical environment, especially through the input and processing ofinformation in the central nervous system and through motor activityin coping with exigencies of the physical environment. Theserelationships are presented systematically in Table 1.



Primary Functions




Pattern Maintenance*


Goal Attainment*

Behavioral Organism*


* These are the social subsystem's environment.

There are two systems of reality which are environmental toaction in general and not constituents of action in our analyticalsense. The first is the physical environment including not onlyphenomena as understandable in terms of physics and chemistry, butalso the world of living organisms so far as they are not integratedinto action systems. The second, which we conceive to be independentof the physical environment as well as of action systems as such, wewill call ''ultimate reality" in a sense derived fromtraditions of philosophy. It concerns what Weber called "problem ofmeaning" for human action and is mediated into action primarily bythe cultural system's structuring of meaningful orientations thatinclude but are not exhausted by, cognitive "answers."

In analyzing the interrelations among the four subsystems ofaction--and between these systems and the environments of action--itis essential to keep in mind the phenomenon ofinterpenetration. Perhaps the best-known case ofinterpenetration is the internalization of social objects andcultural norms into the personality of the individual. Learnedcontent of experience, organized and stored in the memory apparatusof the organism, is another example, as is theinstitutionalization of normative components of culturalsystems as constitutive structures of social systems. We hold thatthe boundary between any pair of action systems involves a "zone" ofstructured components or patterns which must be treated theoreticallyas common to both systems, not simply allocated to onesystem or the other. For example, it is untenable to say that normsof conduct derived from social experience, which both Freud (in theconcept of the Superego) and Durkheim (in. the concept of collectiverepresentations) treated as parts of the personality of theindividual, must be either that or part of the socialsystem.

It is by virtue of the zones of interpenetration that processes ofinterchange among systems can take place. This is especially true atthe levels of symbolic meaning and generalized motivation. In orderto "communicate symbolically, individuals must have culturallyorganized common codes, such as those of language, which are alsointegrated into systems of their social interaction. In order to makeinformation stored in the central nervous system utilizable for thepersonality, the behavioral organism must have mobilization andretrieval mechanisms which, through interpenetration, subservemotives organized at the personality level.

Thus, we conceived social systems to be "open," engaged incontinual interchange of inputs and outputs with their environments.Moreover, we conceive them to be internally differentiated intovarious orders of subcomponents which are also continually involvedin processes of interchange.

Social systems are those constituted by states and processes ofsocial interaction among acting units. If the properties ofinteraction were derivable from properties of the acting units,social systems would be epiphenomenal, as much "individualistic"social theory has contended. Our position is sharply in disagreement:it derives particularly from Durkheim's statement that society--andother social systems-- is a "reality sui generis.''

The structure of social systems may be analyzed in terms of fourtypes of independently variable components: values, norms,collectivities, and roles. Values take primacy in thepattern-maintenance functioning of social systems, for they areconceptions of desirable types of social systems that regulate themaking of commitments by social units. Norms, which functionprimarily to integrate social systems, are specific to particularsocial functions and types of social situations. They include notonly value components specified to appropriate levels in thestructure of a social system, but also specific modes of orientationfor acting under the functional and situational conditions ofparticular collectivities and roles. Collectivities are the type ofstructural component that have goal-attainment primacy. Putting asidethe many instances of highly fluid group systems, such as crowds, wespeak of a collectivity only where two specific criteria arefulfilled. First, there must be definite statuses of membership sothat a useful distinction between members and nonmembers cangenerally be drawn, a criterion fulfilled by cases that vary fromnuclear families to political communities. Second, there must be somedifferentiation among members in relation to their statuses andfunctions within the collectivity, so that some categories of membersare expected to do certain things which are not expected of othermembers. A role, they type of structural component that has primacyin the adaptive function, we conceive as defining a class ofindividuals who, through reciprocal expectations, are involved in aparticular collectivity. Hence, roles comprise the primary zones ofinterpenetration between the social system and the personality of theindividual. A role is never idiosyncratic to a particular individual,however. A father is specific to his children in his fatherhood, buthe is a father in terms of the role-structure of his society. At thesame time, he also participates in various other contexts ofinteraction, filling, for example, an occupational role.

The reality sui generis of social systems may involve theindependent variability of each of these types of structuralcomponents relative to the others. A generalized value-pattern doesnot legitimize the same norms, collectivities, or roles under allconditions, for example. Similarly, many norms regulate the action ofindefinite numbers of collectivities and roles, but only specificsectors of their action. Hence a collectivity generally functionsunder the control of a large number of particular norms. It alwaysinvolves a plurality of roles, although almost any major category ofrole is performed in a plurality of particular collectivities.Nevertheless, social systems are comprised of combinations of thesestructural components. To be institutionalized in a stable fashion,collectivities and roles must be "governed" by specific values andnorms, whereas values and norms are themselves institutionalized onlyinsofar as they are "implemented" by particular collectivities androles.


Back to the Syllabus