Social System Essay

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A social system may be defined as two or more people engaged in on-going social interaction. The aspect of interaction which makes it specifically a ”system” is a high degree of regularity conducive to permanent structural arrangements. While this categorization of a social system is largely identified with mid-twentieth century structural functional-ism, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) earlier drew an analogy between the social system and biological organisms. Spencer’s speculation that all social systems evolved” led him to develop a three-fold scheme for categorizing societies based on complex or simple structures and their degree of stability. Firstly, a simple” system is undifferentiated by sections, groups, or tribal formations. Secondly, a compound” system amounts to an amalgamation of communities with a rudimentary hierarchy and division of labor. Thirdly, doubly compound” systems are more complex still and united under one authority (Spencer 1971).

The major contributor to structural functional-ism, Talcott Parsons (1902-97), drew a blueprint of the social system applicable universally while allowing for complexity as societies evolved from pre-industrial to industrial forms. For Parsons, the social system was constituted by interacting function parts” that dealt with essential prerequisites and whose fulfillment ensured the survival of any society. Also ensuring the endurance of the system was the need of constituent parts to evolve through the differentiation that came with modernization.

In Parson’s schemata, a four-fold system of functional prerequisites gave way to universal structural arrangements: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance. These universal “sub-systems” realized these prerequisites through the following: economic activity (control over the environment), political arrangements (establishing goals and priorities), integration (the adjustment of potential or actual conflict) and the maintenance of value patterns (kinship structures and socialization processes). Parsons identified cultural values as the key to stability since value consensus integrates the various institutions or subsystems and engenders common goals. In Parson’s model both value consensus and sub-system formations structured patterned and recurrent human action and relationship in terms of rules, social status, roles, and norms.

For Parsons, the task of sociology was to analyze the institutionalization of the social system’s value orientation. When values were institutionalized and behavior structured in terms of them, the result was a stable system. This social equilibrium” was sustained by socialization – the means by which values are transmitted, alongside forms of social control encouraging conformity and discouraging deviance.

According to Parsons change in one constitutive part (adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance) was likely to bring change in another. Such evolution involved a general adaptive capacity as the social system increased its control over the environment. However, while economic adaptation might provide the initial stimulus for social evolution, it was changes in value consensus that ensured that such change was forthcoming.

In identifying the evolutionary state of any given social system, Parsons outlined five variables which he referred to as cultural patterns A” and B.” The former were synonymous with more simple forms, while the latter constituted the cultural patterns of advanced societies. Firstly, the change from ascribed to achieved” status allowed social mobility according to merit. Secondly, the move from the diffuse and organic nature of social relationships towards the more utilitarian relationships associated with modernity. Thirdly, particularism” is transformed into social acts according to universal principles. Fourthly, the change from the affectivity of immediate gratification to deferred gratification. Finally, the evolution from a collective orientation towards self-orientation.

In attempting to develop functionalist theory, Robert Merton (1910-2003) focused upon the alleged efficacy of a number of underlying assumptions. In particular, Merton questioned whether any given sub-system or constituent element of the social system may be alternatively functional, dysfunctional, or non-functional. Thus, he advocated the necessity of evaluating their overall contribution to system survival. Secondly, he speculated whether the functional utility of the constituent elements of a social system are particularly integrative, especially in advanced industrial society.

A damaging criticism of the paradigm of a social system was derived from the teleology inherent in structural functionalism. While advancing the view that constituent parts of the social system existed because they have beneficial consequences, it effectively treated an effect as a cause. Moreover, assessing the positive effects of these elements is often unquantifiable. Subsequently, the biological analogy on which the paradigm was initially based became perceived as ultimately flawed.


  1. Merton, R. (1949) Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
  2. Parsons, T. (1951)  The Social System. Free Press, New York.
  3. Spencer, H. (1971) Structure, Function and Evolution. Nelson, London.

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