Review of The Social System by Talcott Parsons

Ellsworth Faris

A summary of the contents of this book are set forth on the jacket. The first two chapters lay down the essentials of the frame of reference and the following three show how these fundamental components are combined to form systems, so that a conceptual scheme for the analysis of a total society is built up. A classification of societies is attempted in Chapter V.

There follows an analysis of motivational processes in two stages: the mechanisms of socialization, and the breaking down into deviant behavior, followed by the re-establishment of control. The next main section, in two chapters, deals with Belief Systems and Systems of Expressive Symbolism. Next follows a discussion of Social Change and its relation to social systems. The final chapter outlines the fields of the various social sciences. The most important new point is asserted to be the clear establishment of the nonrational mechanisms in the processes of behavior,

The reader is impressed throughout by the truly scientific character of this book. The disciples of the Swede who holds that, since all sociology is written by prejudiced writers, the only recourse is to confess the bias, will find no support for their practice in this volume. Nor will the knowledge-for-what school find here any warrant for their views. The hook is characterized by disinterestedness, objectivity, and rationality without which no work is truly scientific, Moreover, Parsons frequently pronounces a conclusion as tentative, knowing that science never produces finalities. The book has the scientific temper throughout.

But the language employed is, to a sociologist, strange and unfamiliar. The object of the author is to construct a scheme from the concepts and these concepts we assume to be the concepts of sociology. Like every science, our body of concepts is cumulative and cooperative, the work of many men over long periods of time, working together and cooperating through books, articles, and conferences. We are justly proud of our roster of gifted men whose work has given us our conceptual tools. Their names are familiar to all: Spencer, Ward, Giddings, Sumner, Park, Mead, Dewey, Cooley, Thomas, Ogburn, Burgess, Znaniecki, Maclver, Lundberg, Barnes, Odum, and others whose names it is almost invidious to omit. The reader is astounded to find that not a single one of the above names is even given a footnote or a place in the index.

And, since their work is neglected, their contributions are likewise ignored. The concepts these men have contributed are "household words" among us. Among the most indispensable are: group, folkways, mores, primary group, in-group, out-group, community, social organization, self, other, generalized other, looking glass self, ethnocentrism, conflict, accommodation, assimilation, emergence, the "I" and the "me," significant symbol, self-stimulation, taking-the-role-of-the-other, imagination, reasoning, social class, social process, crescive and enacted institutions, wish, conduct, acculturation-the list could be extended.

Most of these concepts can be found in al-most any single number of the Review and, while every one would hardly find a place in any one book, yet Parsons has accomplished the astonishing feat of writing a systematic book of some 200,000 words without listing one single concept of the above list in his index or using it as a concept. This makes the book unique. Ogburn and Nimkoff in their systematic conceptual scheme employ every one of the concepts just listed, with a single exception, or perhaps two.

Instead of the familiar symbols which we employ in our communication system, Parsons substitutes a rather formidable set of terms with which to build his scheme. They are terms like these: role-expectation, need-disposition, pattern-integrations, cognate collectivity organizations, universalistic-specific achievement pat-terns, universalistic-generalized orientation system, complementary role-expectation-sanction system, achievement oriented roles, action frame of reference, pattern-alternatives of value-orientation, value-acquisition, person-pattern focus, ego-integrative action orientations, cathectic-evaluative learning mechanisms, and so on.

A few of our familiar concepts are employed, such as role, institution, ecology, but these are changed in meaning so as to be unrecognizable. Role, as best I can make out, is the response of the other, as Parsons uses it. As used by Mead a role is a part or function assumed by anyone. Four-year old children play

( 104) roles; the boy is now a policeman, now an engineer, or a postman or a preacher. Parsons defines role as follows: "A role, then, is a sector of the total orientation system of an individual actor which is organized about expectations in relation to a particular interaction context, that is integrated with a particular set of value-standards which govern interaction with one or more alters in the appropriate complementary roles." This definition could stand clarification.

A role is not to be confused with a specific response. The uniformed officer is in the role of a policeman whether he gives you an arrest slip, a scolding, or a friendly greeting. It is too valuable a tool to be surrendered. Parsons does surrender.

Or take the concept institution. Sumner made it current forty years ago. An institution is an association organized and maintained by fixed rules and agencies. The mores are not institutions but they may develop into institutions. Friendship can never be an institution; the law courts can never be anything else. Parsons seems to mean in some passages the mere organization of a relation. Even personality is said to be institutionalized. There are said to be all degrees of institutionalization. The definition is on page 39: "An institution will be said to be a complex of institutionalized role integrates which is of strategic structural significance in the social system in question. "Many readers will stop when they get as far as "a complex of institutionalized," recognizing the tautology, as if water were defined as an aqueous liquid, or a tree as an arboreal plant.

An author who proposes to introduce a new set of concepts is under obligations to be very precise in his definitions. Parsons has difficulty in achieving clarity and brevity. One test of a good definition is to leave out the word de-fined and observe how much the definition tells. If I should define a given word as the study of the position and movements in space of populations, most of my readers would know that I was trying to define human ecology, a subject which has produced a 'considerable literature. Parsons defines one concept thus: " ... a state of mutually oriented interdependence of a plurality of actors who are not integrated by bonds of solidarity to form a collectivity but who are objects to one another." If the reader has difficulty with what is being defined he will read on page 93 that the term is ecological system.

The concept, group, has been central in sociological writing and has proved indispensable, giving us primary group, in-group, out-group, group consciousness (esprit de corps), group confidence (morale), small groups (much studied recently), and we could hardly dispense with it. Parsons substitutes throughout for group the word collectivity with no apparent reason and with no gain but much real loss.

Self and other, with the term self-consciousness and other useful combination is likewise rejected. He prefers to use ego and alter, and then ego acquires the dignity of the protagonist or principal of the action, and we have the Latin pronoun elevated to the status of a noun as when we read about "ego's own personality."

One more among many others will be noted, the discarding of the concept attitude. Attitude studies have produced a formidable literature and the word has proved one of our most valuable concepts. On page 110 we are told that need-dispositions are the same as attitudes. One can confidently predict that this change will fail to meet approval. It is difficult to imagine Stouffer sending his students out to make an attitude study instructing them to ask their informants: "What is your need-disposition to-ward socialized medicine?" Why does Parsons do it?

Two possible answers suggest themselves. The first is lack of familiarity with our literature and tradition. Parsons is one of our newest, though very welcome, recruits. He was not trained in sociology and was not made an instructor till 1931, the year Mead died. Up to that time there was no sociology at Harvard. As late as 1937 he was occupied with his commentary on Marshall, Pareto, and Co. He was made a full professor in 1944. The period of greatest activity in sociology which began with the first volume of The Polish Peasant in 1917 and which witnessed in the next decade the beginning of attitude re-search, and the rise of human ecology, was naturally of no interest to him even if he were aware of it. But it was an exciting period when new departments were organized over the nation as fast as graduate students could be trained to man them. Empirical research flourished, one series of such studies sold 30,000 copies. Cultural lag, ecology, dominance, succession, gradient and other familiar concepts occurred in this period. Cooley, Dewey, Thomas, Park, and many others were active and productive, It is not impossible that our author has not had the time to familiarize himself with the large output of our literature before he came into the field and that his seeming indifference to our conceptual tools results from mere unfamiliarity.

The alternative explanation would be that his purpose is not only to construct a conceptual scheme but to originate the concepts instead of availing himself of the body of terms that have been accumulated through the years.

The right to do this is unchallenged; the wisdom of so doing is questionable. The success of such an endeavor will depend on the ac-

( 105) -ceptance by others of his new terms. To be the Linnaeus of sociology is a high ambition but the risk of failure is great. The importance of the issue cannot be denied. For if it is proposed to erect a structure, the materials used in the building of it are very important. If the materials are faulty, the building will fail to find acceptance, however it may be put together.

It would be difficult to contend that the hook is well written. Even his loyal disciples will often confess that there are parts that are very difficult to understand. While there are sections that are passably clear, the greater part is writ-ten in bad English with a jumble of obscure and undefined terms resulting in a high degree of obscurity and unintelligibility. There seems to be a sort of allergy to prepositional phrases, in which our English tongue delights, and nouns are strung together in concatenated hyphenation and degraded into adjectives, such as gratification-deprivation balance, activity-passivity co-ordinates, role-expectation-sanction system and hundreds of similar offenses against good idiomatic practice.

There is much careless writing. Instead of searching for the appropriate English word, we have numerous slip-shod creations such as: directionality, quantifiability, scapegoating, complementarity, politicism, socializee, ethnicity, radicality and such like. Obverse is incorrectly used throughout and he writes "and/or" (a symbol appropriate enough in a legal document). Freud, writing in German, used the Greek noun cathexis; Parsons, with a good English word available, uses the noun cathexis, but presently transforms it into an English verb so that we read "cathected" and even "he cathects him." Nexi is written for the plural of nexus (has Latinity disappeared?).

Let no one think that this point is unimportant or that, if the matter is sound, the style and manner in which it is presented is unimportant. That were a grievous error. Books are written to communicate the thought of the writer to the reader and this must involve the employment of commonly understood symbols, properly used. Nor is it necessary to write down to the unlearned nor to eschew technical terms. William James' great book was soundly scientific and excellently written. It is agreed that James greatly enhanced the prestige of psychology. Huxley wrote so well that his books did much to secure the acceptance of Darwin's views. Our books will be read not alone by sociologists, for we have a large educated public whose sup-port is essential if sociology is to fulfill its mission. It is not too much to assert that the present wide acceptance of sociology is due in no small part to the writings of the men who knew how to write well: Giddings, Thomas, Park, Odum, Ross and especially Cooley. Our bad writers do us great harm.

It is evident that sociological writing has de-generated in recent years. Severe strictures are pronounced by literary critics and editors of publishing houses. One such editor recently de-voted the greater part of a convocation address at Chicago to the bad writing of contemporary sociologists, contending doggedly that the obscurity of their style was consciously designed to deceive the public! Of course the charge is unwarranted, giving the bad writers credit for defects of which they are unaware. To a lady who complained to John Dewey that she found some parts of his books difficult to understand, he answered that it was probably because he, himself, was not clear in his own mind in those instances.

Good writing does not depend wholly on training in the schools; witness the admirable immigrant autobiographies or the books of Conrad, Poor writing is the result of unclear thinking; we think in words and when we lack fit words we lack fit thought. Our English tongue is rich and flexible and can achieve grace and beauty but at least should be written with clarity. Let our young men be mindful of style, for the style is the man.

The lack of clarity resulting from the unfamiliar combinations in this book are not insuperable obstacles to its understanding if the reader will devote sufficient time to the task. The book can be its own Rosetta Stone and it is an interesting game to try to ferret out meanings by comparing passages till the puzzle is solved. Thus, action theory seems not to be a theory at all but the assumption that human behavior involves interaction of persons. Need-dispositions may be translated attitudes. Role-expectations is probably any expected response, at least in some passages. System seems to mean organization, The Social System does not mean that one system is being discussed. Every group, every friendship, even every personality is a system. Institution seems to mean organization in any degree, as noted above. It would be possible to discover familiar meanings in all of this private vocabulary, given time and plenty of it.

Mention should be made of the author's interest in classification and the method adopted. Numerous frames or boxes, called paradigms, are employed, using arbitrary concepts. Classes of social structures are obtained by taking four words, treated as logical contradictories. Universalistic and particularistic are the first two, achievement and ascription the other pair. Combined they yield four classes: Universalistic-ascription, Particularistic-ascription, and the other two. This formal, conceptual method begins

( 106) with words instead of the material. It is not the method by which zoologists or botanists have worked out a taxonomy. The ivory tower is a noble structure and wisdom has come from those who have resided in it for a reason, but the ivory tower is not the place to classify birds or flowers or fishes or social systems.

We are told that this book was almost written twice for, in 1949, when the first draft was three-fourths completed, "certain fundamental new insights" came to the author, the implications of which were so far-reaching that it became necessary to start entirely anew. The result was highly satisfactory to the author and the concluding chapter ends on a note of triumph. Uninhibited by diffidence the claim is proudly made that the clarification which he has achieved goes "well beyond what is now current in even the best literature on the subject." Of the relation of personality to systems he says: "this set of relationships has never been so clearly understood before." The brief concluding chapter contains other similar expressions by the author concerning the superiority of his work.

Parsons confidently believes that new knowledge has come into the world. Unfortunately he does not spell out clearly these revelations and the reader is left to discover them for him-self. He cannot mean "the clear establishment of the reasons why the mechanisms of behavior involve the non-rational process," for this, while accepted, was set forth by Sumner in 1909, emphasized by Dewey in 1922, made central by Mead and has been long familiar to us all.

Nor does he mean the doctrine of "optimization of gratification" for this is indistinguishable from hedonism of which he, himself, has ex-pressed doubts.

The proudest boast in Chapter XII is the discovery of the combination of interdependence and independence of personality, culture and system (organization). This claim borders on the incredible. Fifty years ago Cooley spoke of society and the individual as like the player and the orchestra-two aspects of human life. Thomas taught that personality is the subjective aspect of culture, Dewey elaborated on this truth and more recently Sorokin in 1947 has made the same point in words strikingly similar to those of Parsons.

Culture is prior to every individual born of woman, for all are born into a family which has habits, customs, and language which we call culture. Any aspect of the whole can be isolated for pedagogical purpose or for study, and they are thus methodologically independent, but these are only necessary and convenient abstractions. Will future historians record that as late as1952 we were asked to consider this discovery to be an independent and novel contribution to our knowledge?

And finally, Parsons takes pride in the discovery that personality is as much a social phenomenon as the social system. If this is new, so is the horse and buggy. No further comment.

The Social System by Talcott Parsons is an important book. It is important because it is the work of an industrious scholar who occupies an important position in a great university with a body of loyal students over whom he wields influence. The author is a scholar and a gentleman and this reviewer counts him among his friends. Others may rate this book differently and assign it high rank. This review is hardly favorable. It is my belief that the author can produce a far better book than this. If an old man whose work is done can venture to exhort a gifted scholar in the prime of life, I would urge him to continue to be productive in the hope that his views and my own should come more closely to correspond, assuming at the same time that we both wish to approach ever nearer the truth.

By combining short passages from page 237 and page 211, and with only slight additions, I am able to reproduce a concluding expression of good will in the idiom of the book:

"Knowing you to be an individual in whom the general value-orientation pattern of achievement-universalism, specificity, neutrality and collective orientation is well established, I have long cathected you and still cathect. Let us look forward to an integration of ego (you) into a role complementary to that of alter (me) in such a way that the common values are internalized in ego's personality and/or alter's, and our respective behaviors come to constitute a complementary role-expectation-sanction system."

Lake. Forest, Illinois


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2