The concept of social systems became central to sociology with The Social System of Talcott Parsons, published in 1951. Parsons’s formulations were modeled on concepts of homeostasis developed in physiology rather than simpler notions of equilibrium used by Vilfredo Pareto and other earlier theorists. Parsons portrayed equilibria in social systems not as static balances among forces but as complex interdependencies involving mutual adjustments among many independent components. He emphasized that social systems are moving equilibria that accommodate change while maintaining overall stability. He noted that equilibria can break down, resulting in anomie, strain, and conflict.
For the system concept to be useful in sociology, Parsons held, it required adaptation to the empirical nature of social reality. Social systems are not concrete, directly observable entities but rather analytically defined domains of objects. They can be identified only by abstracting social interaction, relationships, and institutions from environing phenomena—physical-chemical, biological, psychological, and cultural. Yet, social systems also interpenetrate, or share elements with, their environments. They exist in time, space, and ecological settings. They gain structure by institutionalizing values and norms that have their sources in cultural systems. Their members’ affective attachments to normative orders and motivation to pursue socially validated goals derive from personality systems.
Social systems vary in size and duration. Brief interactions between individuals can be treated as social systems. So can large-scale societies that endure for centuries, such as Chinese civilization. Institutions of intermediate scale—the business corporation, medical practice, or electoral politics—are social systems. Complexes of institutions, such as modern metropolises or global trade, may be analyzed as social systems. Individuals participate in many social systems, typically adopting different social roles in each—employees in business firms, members of political parties, fathers or mothers in families.
Parsons viewed social interaction as a dynamic give-and-take of expectations among independent actors. Actors support their expectations with sanctions, invoked contingently on others as rewards when expectations are met or as punishments when expectations are broken. Parsons held that an actor’s behavior, even in simple relationships, is doubly contingent, dependent on expectations and sanctions held by both the actor and other parties. Because of different experience and exposure to social strains, actors often hold conflicting expectations for performance of their own or others’ roles. Conflicts in expectations emerge in everyday interaction, as between parents and children, and in role relations of macrosocial importance, as between a president and members of Congress over legislative oversight.
Conflicts over role expectations may release powerfully motivated pressures to change roles and the institutions that coordinate them. After adjustment in roles and underlying norms and values, new equilibria may emerge. Motivation that is deviant from previous role expectations may thus be a source of creative social change. Yet, role incumbents mobilize sanctions to counter deviant expectations and are generally able to suppress potential change. Social institutions tend to reimpose established equilibria, whether through informal interaction, the procedures of formal organizations, or legal procedures.
Parsons identified four general system problems that all social systems confront. He called them functions and treated them as general dimensions of the organization of social systems. The idea of a closed and ordered set of functions applicable to all social systems was a radical innovation. Previous functional theories had been based on open-ended lists of functions without limitation in theoretical principle. The four-function paradigm provided the conceptual frame for Parsons’s work after the mid-1950s. The four functions are:
- Adaptation, or the gaining of control over conditions in environments of the system. Adaptive processes involve developing new resources or improving allocations of resources to strengthen a system’s capabilities and efficiencies.
- Goal attainment, or the processes of organizing the activities of social units to bring about a valued state in the system’s relationships to its environments, typically including other social systems.
- Integration, or the processes of mutual adjustment among a system’s components to promote their long-term dependence on one another and attachment to the system.
- Pattern maintenance, or the processes of developing long-term commitment to values and other principles that distinguish the system from its environments.
Parsons proposed that the four-function paradigm might outline the primary dimensions of structural differentiation in societies. He thus developed a theory of four functionally specialized subsystems of society, with each subsystem treated as a complex set of interdependent institutions, even subsystems of their own. The four subsystems of society are:
- The economy serves the adaptive function. In modern societies, it includes the markets for labor and capital, the business corporation, entrepreneurial roles, and the legal institutions of property, contract, credit, and employment.
- The polity serves the goal-attainment function. In modern societies, it includes government agencies, including administrative, executive, legislative, and judicial authorities.
- The societal community serves the integrative function. It encompasses ties of social solidarity, including social classes, status groups, voluntary associations, lifestyle groups, ethnic groups, and extended kinship groups. Phenomena of integration, stratification, and conflict are shaped largely by institutions of class structure, status order, and primordial ties, but also by common law, informal normative orders, and public opinion.
- The fiduciary system serves the pattern-maintenance function, centering on development of the shared values and culture of a society. Its major institutions concern religion, family, socialization, and education. Following Max Weber’s emphasis on religious ethics, Parsons argued that change in fiduciary systems has been the greatest source of long-term macrosocial change.
Parsons’s theory of societal subsystems was never fully detailed, despite two decades of efforts to analyze the institutional structures of the four systems. He argued that each subsystem has its own forms of inequality, and the chief institutions of the respective subsystems—economic exchange, relationships of political authority, solitary ties in status groups, and socialization in family life—are intertwined with factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, cultural background, and educational differences, although in historically variable ways. He also argued that institutions in each subsystem integrate normative and interest-driven elements and ideal and material factors. Where social control is effective, the pursuit of self-interest reinforces the controlling normative institutions, as when the conduct of business relies on institutions of property, contract, and employment.
Functional theory holds that the differentiated subsystems of society are mutually dependent. Each subsystem can fulfill its specialized function only if the other subsystems fulfill their functions. Applying this proposition to social processes as well as structures, Parsons hypothesized that each subsystem needs resources from the other subsystems to carry out its own processes. He developed a model in which the four subsystems are linked through six double interchanges, or exchanges of resources, between pairs of subsystems. A basis of this model was the economists’ treatment of circular flow between business firms and households (wages for labor, consumer spending for goods and services), which Parsons identified as the interchange between the economy and the fiduciary system. He then outlined five other double interchanges.
Noting that money is an essential mediator of economic processes, including circular flow, Parsons identified additional symbolic media that regulate processes for the other three societal subsystems. He proposed that power is the symbolic medium of the polity, influence is that of the societal community, and commitments are that of the fiduciary system. Identifying the set of symbolic media that regulate processes within and across the boundaries of the four subsystems greatly advanced theoretical analysis of equilibrium processes in society.
In the years after Parsons’s theory of social systems reached maturity with the concepts just discussed, the most original thinking about social systems came from German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann was influenced by Parsons and retained some of his terminology but developed a distinct theory.
Luhmann’s conception of social systems emphasizes not equilibrium but autopoesis, a term he adopted from biological theory. Autopoetic (literally, self-producing) systems are capable of self-reproduction of their components. Luhmann emphasized the self-organizing, self-sustaining qualities of social systems and their components, not balances among components, as in equilibrium theories. Luhmann adhered to functional analysis but treated function as a relationship between a system and its multiple environments. Presenting his conception as continuous with Darwinian natural selection, he suggested that autopoetic systems are adaptive within specific ecological settings.
Luhmann emphasized that autopoetic systems of all kinds emerge by reducing the complexities of organization among the various systems in their environments. Every system represents a reduction of antecedent environmental complexities. Biological systems reduce the complexities of their physical and chemical environments. Psychic and social systems emerged as reductions of biological as well as physical-chemical environments. Once social systems evolved, they maintained intricate dynamic relationships with their environments—psychic, biological, and physical-chemical. The relationships with psychic systems are especially important as they, too, are systems of meaning, and meanings pass back and forth between psychic and social systems. Social systems themselves evolve to complexity as a natural process of adapting to their varied and intricately organized environments. Their complexity then creates opportunities for the emergence of new systems within themselves—subsystems—by the same principle of reduction of complexity.
Luhmann, defining social systems as systems of communication, used information theory and cybernetics to analyze processes of communication. He criticized transfer theories of communication, emphasizing that one does not give up anything when communicating ideas to another. Moreover, what the other receives is not necessarily the message originally intended. He accordingly focused the analysis of communication on how it changes the recipient. Communication in this view selects among open possibilities, confirming some possibilities while ruling out others. After receiving a communication, a person knows to orient future conduct to certain possibilities and leave others aside. Communication often occurs simply in physical gestures, but its meaning may be shaped, conveyed, or amplified through three classes of media: language, as used in everyday exchanges between individuals; the media of dissemination in written, print, or electronic forms, which can reach large or specialized audiences over extended times and places; and the symbolically generalized media that act on the relation between motivation and the selective effects of communication. The symbolic media help to connect communication with macrosocial structures, but Luhmann did not match the media to specific subsystems of society, as did Parsons. He gave different lists of symbolic media in his works, but generally included truth, love, money, power or law, and religious or ideological belief.
The symbolic media also serve, Luhmann suggested, as catalysts for the differentiation of society. He rejected Parsons’s four-function theory of societal subsystems, maintaining that subsystems emerge only by exploiting particular opportunities to reduce complexity in environing systems. Thus, the emergence of subsystems in particular societies can be identified only through analysis of the historical conditions that created the opportunities for reduction of complexity. Nevertheless, Luhmann identified law, politics, economy, religion and ideology, and science as common subsystems of modern societies. Each of the subsystems contains historically evolved semantic codes for regulating communication, codes that also regulate uses of the symbolic media. Issues of discrimination by race, ethnicity, gender, or cultural background can be understood by analyzing the semantic codes of specific media.
Parsons’s conceptual scheme was designed to guide empirical research in sociology and related social sciences. Over a period of several decades, a substantial body of empirical studies has been conducted in its terms, with many of the studies standing as major contributions. Luhmann developed his theory of social systems with greater concern for meta-theoretical issues than empirical research. Its long-term influence will likely derive from the critical perspective it provides on other theories. Both bodies of theory demonstrate the importance of theoretical analysis of social systems, yet both also leave significant issues open to further investigation.
SEE ALSO Communication; Discrimination; Functionalism; Media; Pareto, Vilfredo; Parsons, Talcott; Role Conflict; Role Theory; Sociology, Parsonian; Structuralism; Systems Theory
Luhmann, Niklas. 1986. Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy. Trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Luhmann, Niklas. 1989. Ecological Communication. Trans. John Bednarz Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. Social Systems. Trans. John Bednarz Jr. and Dirk Baecker. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Parsons, Talcott. 1969. Politics and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Parsons, Talcott. 1971. The System of Modern Societies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Parsons, Talcott, and Gerald M. Platt. 1973. The American University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Parsons, Talcott, and Neil J. Smelser. 1956. Economy and Society: A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
The functionalism of Talcott Parsons offers the fullest employment of systems theory in sociology (see especially The Social System, 1951
). In Parsonsian terms, social system can refer to a stable relationship between two actors, to societies as a whole, to systems of societies, or indeed any level between these. all are analysed principally in terms of their so-called cybernetic aspects; that is, as systems of information exchange and control, where equilibrium is maintained through symbolic exchanges with other systems across boundaries. In economic systems, for example, the exchange is not usually direct but mediated by money. Power is the medium of exchange in political systems.
More recently, Anthony Giddens (Central Problems in Social Theory, 1979) has criticized this conception of the social system on the grounds that systems do not possess emergent properties over and above the social actors who comprise them, but are rather produced and reproduced by structured and routine social practices. The systematic properties of social systems thus stem from the nature of social action rather than the system itself.