System Theories Essay

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Within sociology there have been several system theories, differing from one another in the extent to which, for example, human agency, creativity, and entrepreneurship are assumed to play a role in system functioning, formation and reformation; conflict and struggle are recognized; power and stratification are part and parcel of the theorizing; structural change and transformation – and more generally historically developments – are taken into account and explained.

There are at least three general social system approaches: functionalist and neo-functionalist theories (identified particularly with Parsons); the historical, Marxian approach; and actor-oriented, dynamic system theories.

Functionalist Systems Theories

The theorists in this tradition explain the emergence and/or maintenance of parts, structures, institutions, norms or cultural patterns of a social system in terms of their consequences, that is, the particular functions each realizes or satisfies. This includes, for instance, their contribution to the maintenance and reproduction over time of the larger system. The major functionalist in sociology is arguably Talcott Parsons. Society in a Parsonian perspective is not just an aggregate of social structures but a functioning or operating system, with a relatively high degree of coherence, integration, and effectiveness.

Of particular importance is Parsons’s theory of universal functions or requisites. He identified four universal functions (AGIL) with which any society must deal in order to be sustainable: Goal attainment (G); Adaptation or economic efficiency (A); Latency (L); Integration (I). The performance and effectiveness of AGIL institutions in accomplishing relevant functions may be treated as variables, thus suggesting varying degrees of societal effectiveness and sustainability of any given system. Another important development related to Parsonian systems theory is Niklas Luhmann’s autopoietic systems theory.

Historical Political Economic Systems Theory

The Marxian approach to system theorizing clearly points to sociologically important phenomena: the material conditions of social life, stratification and social class, conflict, the reproduction as well as transformation of capitalist systems, the conditions that affect group mobilization and political power, and the ways ideas functions as ideologies. Marx’s historical approach conceives of all societies as evolving in a series of stages. Each stage is characterized by a particular structure, a certain mode of production, the ”superstructure” of politics, and a culture derived from and dependent on the substructure of production. Human beings generate these structures through their own actions, but not always under the conditions of their own choosing or in the ways they intend. Marx and Marxists focused their theoretical and empirical research on the emergence and transformation of capitalist systems. Because of systemic contradictions -between, for instance, the ”forces of production” (such as new knowledge, techniques, and scientific developments that contribute to generating such forces) and the ”relations of production” (such as the private ownership of the means of production) -the capitalist system undergoes crises, leading eventually to its transformation. Among other related major developments, world systems theory should be mentioned. Inspired by Marxist theories, it emphasized global exchange and trade relations, focusing on dependency among nations and imperialism and putting the evolution of capitalist systems in a global and comparative perspective.

Actor-Oriented Dynamic Systems Theories

This family of theories – inspired to a great extent by Walter Buckley and developed by Margaret Archer and Tom R. Burns and Helena Flam, among others -is non-functionalist. Complex, dynamic social systems are analyzed in terms of stabilizing and destabilizing mechanisms, with human agents playing strategic roles in these processes. Institutions and cultural formations of society are carried by, transmitted, and reformed through individual and collective actions and interactions. On the one hand, such structures – temporally prior and relatively autonomous with respect to social action – exhibit causal force. They constrain and enable people’s social actions and interactions. On the other hand, individual and collective agents through their interactions generate the reproduction, elaboration, and transformation of those very same structures. Such an approach entails systematic theorizing of individual as   well  as   collective  agents,  institutions and cultural formations and their part in processes of social reproduction and transformation and, in general, the endogenous and exogenous drivers of system stability and change. One identifies and explains the real and variegated structures which have emerged historically and are elaborated and developed in ongoing interaction processes.

System theories have contributed generally to the development of conceptual and methodological tools to investigate system interdependencies and their dynamics and interaction-structure loops explaining, for instance, institutional reproduction and transformation.


  1. Archer, M. S. (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Buckley, W. (1967) Sociology and Modern Systems Theory. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  3. Burns, T. R. & Flam, H. (1987) The Shaping of Social Organization: Social   Rule   System   Theory with Applications. Sage, London.
  4. Luhmann, N. (1995) Social Systems, trans. J. Bednarz, with D. Baecker. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  5. Wallerstein,    (2004)   World-Systems  Analysis: An Introduction. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

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