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The Social System

Parsonn, Talcott (1991) The Social System. Routledge, London.


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THE present volume is an attempt to bring together, in systematic and generalized form, the main outlines of a conceptual scheme for the analysis of the structure and processes of social systems. In the nature of the case, within the frame of reference of action, such a conceptual scheme must focus on the delineation of the system of institutionalized roles and the motivational processes organized about them. Because of this focus and the very elementary treatment of processes of economic exchange and of the organization of political power, the book should be regarded as a statement of general sociological theory, since this is here interpreted to be that part of the theory of the social system which is centered on the phenomena of the institutionalization of patterns of value- orientation in roles. The title, The Social System, goes back, more than to any other source, to the insistence of the late Professor L.J.Henderson on the extreme importance of the concept of system in scientific theory, and his clear realization that the attempt to delineate the social system as a system was the most important contribution of Pareto’s great work.1 This book therefore is an attempt to carry out Pareto’s intention, using an approach, the “structural-functional” level of analysis, which is quite different from that of Pareto, and, of course, taking advantage of the very considerable advances in our knowledge at many points, which have accumulated in the generation since Pareto wrote. For the reader’s orientation it is important to relate the present book both to the author’s previously published work and to his nearly simultaneously appearing contribution to the volume Toward a General Theory of Action by members of the Harvard University Department of Social Relations and their collaborators. The author’s Structure of Social Action was not a study in sociological theory in a strict sense, but an analysis, in relation to the work of a group of authors, of the nature and implications of the action frame of reference. Since its publication in 1937 there has been gradually taking shape a formulation of a systematic approach to the narrower tasks of sociological theory as such, stimulated by empirical work in a variety of fields and by the writings of other authors, particularly Merton.2 Various steps in this development are documented in the papers published in thc collection Essays in Sociological Theory. For some years I have intended, when opportunity offered and the time seemed ripe, to attempt to pull these strands of thought together in a general book. In the fall of 1947 I 1 Cf. L.J.Henderson, Pareto’s General Sociology.  held at Harvard a seminar on the Theory of Social Systems. The clarification of thought achieved there was documented in exceedingly condensed form in the paper The Position of Sociological Theory (Essays, Chapter I). Then an invitation to deliver the University Lectures in Sociology at the University of London in January-February 1949 provided an occasion for further systematic consideration of the problem. In a rather rough sense those lectures, which were not published as such, constituted the outline of the present book. Then in connection with a collaborative attempt to clarify some of the theoretical fundamentals of the whole field involved in sociology, social anthropology and social psychology, I was given leave of absence from Harvard teaching for the fall term of 1949–50. Starting in the summer of 1949, and continuing in the fall while group discussions were proceeding, I made it my principal contribution to the early phase of this project to work on the first draft of the long projected book. The work of this broader project, particularly since it proceeded in such a stimulating atmosphere of group discussion, entailed reappraisal of many of the fundamentals of the action frame of reference as they underlay, not only sociological theory, but the other disciplines of the social relations field. Late in November of 1949 this rethinking of the underlying frame of reference reached a culmination out of which the volume to be published as the most direct result of the broader theoretical project mentioned above took shape. My principal personal contribution to that, the monograph written together with Edward Shils under the title Values, Motives and Systems of Action constitutes essentially a new and extended statement of the theoretical subject matter of the Structure of Social Action. Indeed, if that title had not already been preempted it might have been the most appropriate for the monograph. The work which has resulted in the writing of the general monograph on systems of action thus bears a critically important relation to the present volume. In the first place it has necessitated far more extensive revision of the first draft of the present book (more than three fourths of what had been projected stood in first draft) than would ordinarily have been the case. As a result this is a greatly different and I think a far better book than it would have been. The monograph also provides, in readily accessible form, a careful and systematic analysis of many of the methodological problems, and general problems of the theory of action and of its personality and cultural phases, which underlie or are intimately related to the subject of this book at many points. It thus relieves this volume of a serious burden and frees it for concentration on its central problems. In a sense this book should, therefore, be treated as a second volume of a systematic treatise on the theory of action of which the monograph would serve as the first. The body of the monograph consists of four long chapters. The first outlines the fundamentals of the general conceptual scheme of action, the other three spelling it out for each of the three modes of systematization of action, Personality, Cultural Systems with special reference to systems of Value-orientation, and Social Systems. Thus in a sense the present volume is to be regarded as an expansion of the chapter on the Social System in the monograph, though it also impinges on other important parts of the latter. When an author is involved in two such closely related and nearly simultaneous publications, each of which is designed to be read independently, it would seem that a certain amount of overlapping is inevitable. An attempt, however, has been made to minimize this. The first chapter of the present book contains a condensed statement of the essentials of the structure of action and of action systems, and of the basic interrelations of personality, culture and social systems. The reader who finds this statement overly condensed will find the problems much more extensively discussed in the monograph. Obviously, further, much of the content of the chapter in the monograph on the Social System finds its place in this volume also, but this time in greatly expanded form, and with much more illustrative material. Finally, a special attempt has been made in this volume to deal systematically with the interrelations of the social system both with personality and with culture. Here the main difference from the monograph lies in the consistent maintenance of the perspective of relevance to the structure and functioning of social systems wherever personality and culture are discussed. A complete treatment of the theory of basic social science as here conceived would require two further volumes parallel to the present one. Another difference between the two publications lies in the fact that most of the material of the present book was, in its final form, written somewhat later than the text of the monograph. The development of theoretical ideas has been proceeding so rapidly that a difference of a few months or even weeks in time may lead to important changes, so there are some differences in the positions taken in the two publications. Indeed this process of development is such that it inevitably affects even the internal consistency of the present book. It is not possible to work intensively on one part without implications of the changes introduced arising for other points; the process of revision thus never fully catches up with itself. In general the reader may expect to find some of this less than perfect consistency. I have thought it better to run this risk and get the book published, rather than to work it over and over for too long. It can then get the benefit of critical discussion, and then, within a relatively short time, a revision may be attempted. It is fully expected that such a revision in, say, about five years, will lead to substantial changes. The field is in a process of such rapid development as to make this inevitable. A volume produced under the circumstances just outlined owes more than the usual debt to others. My heaviest direct obligation is to Edward Shils, co-author of the monograph on Values, Motives and Systems of Action. It is quite impossible to disentangle our individual contributions to the monograph and much of this joint thinking has spilled over into the present volume. Also very important is the debt to Edward Tolman in the many long discussions we had during the collaborative project, and to Richard Sheldon who participated in many of them. In the background of course lies the immense influence of the great founders of modern social science, of whom the three major figures of my previous studies, Pareto, Durkheim and Max Weber, stand out, and in addition to them especially Freud. Over the years there has been an outstandingly important influence of association with colleagues, especially with Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn, in the problems of culture and its relation to society and of Henry A. Murray and Gordon W.Allport in relation to personality and social psychology. In the more centrally sociological field many discussions with Samuel A.Stouffer, Robert K.Merton, Florence Kluckhohn, and Robert Freed Bales and Francis X.Sutton in particular have been most fruitful. Not least important have been many discussions with a succession of able students— these are too numerous for more than a few to be mentioned, but a sub-committee of a seminar on Social Structure which included François Bourricaud, René Fox, Miriam Massey, Rev. John V.Martin, Robert N.Wilson and Dr. Lyman Wynne may be especially singled out, since as a group we canvassed together many of the problems of motivational process in the social system. A considerable part of the work of this volume was done as part of the general project on the theoretical foundations of the field of Social Relations in connection with which Professors Tolman and Shils were brought to Harvard. It therefore shared the benefits of the financial support given to that project by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Harvard Laboratory of Social Relations. This help is hereby gratefully acknowledged. Finally, the secretary of the Department of Social Relations, Miss Weymouth Yelle, competently supervised the clerical work involved in processing of the manuscript, the actual processing being done by Mr. Seymour Katz and Mrs. Norman F.Geer. The index was prepared by Mr. Stuart Cleveland. The author’s gratitude foreffective performance of these indispensable services is hereby recorded.

Item Type: Book
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Depositing User: Juhaidi Ahmad AJ
Date Deposited: 20 Jul 2015 13:07
Last Modified: 20 Jul 2015 13:08
URI: http://idr.iain-antasari.ac.id/id/eprint/471

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