Bringing ideas to life

Where did culture fit in Parsons’ social theory?

Published in Frankfurt School by Mark Murphy on October 15, 2013

(c) Thomas Hawk

(c) Thomas Hawk

Readings taken from Habermas, J: Chapter 7, Section C (PP225-234): The Refinement of the System Concept and the Abandonment of the Primacy of Action theory, Theory of Communicative action, volume 2, 1987

This section is formally concerned with what Habermas called the third most important decision in Parsons’ theory construction, which is Parsons’ move away from action theory and asserting the conceptual primacy of systems theory. In effect, this decision sets the context within which a much more significant issue arises, and that is the issue of social pathologies, or more precisely, the place of social pathologies within the context of constructing a viable and adequate theory of society. It appears that Parsons left behind his attempts to construct a theory of society out of action theoretical concepts because of their inability, for him at least, to account for pathological phenomena. Coupling this problem with those he experienced with the pattern variables model, it seems natural that Parsons, faced with these conceptual difficulties, had nowhere else to go but towards a systems theory of society. In this section, again, Habermas concentrates his discussion around the problematic of culture and its place in Parsons’ theoretical model. First of all, though, I want to briefly discuss the concept of system as Habermas perceives it in relation to Parsons. From the last section, it was noted that Parsons outlined three action systems, culture, society and personality. In this later period, Parsons differentiates between these, and separates the cultural ‘system’ away from both the social and personality systems. Already in his early middle period, Parsons had differentiated between these in the sense that the personality and social systems worked as the channels through which the raw material of the cultural system, value patterns, became internalized and institutionalized respectively, thereby determining (determining as Parsons saw it) an individual’s action orientations. In this later stage, culture retains this aura of difference to the two action systems, but now the difference is more rigorously applied:

When Parsons speaks now of the structure of a tradition, of a cultural system of values, he means the order of internal relations between meaning components  and not the order found in external (e.g., functional) relations between the empirical elements of the organized whole. Thus, he also distinguishes the logical sense in which boundary-maintaining systems are ‘integrated.’ The coherence of symbolic structures produced according to rules is to be judged under aspects of validity, whereas the coherence of systems subject to environmental influences is to be assessed from the standpoint of self-maintenance. Parsons reserves the expression ‘integration’ for empirical interconnections of system components; he understands the coherence of meaning complexes as ‘consistency.’ (p226)

Parsons now adopts the notion of a self-regulating system that maintains its boundaries relative to a ‘hypercomplex’ environment (p225). Both the social and personality systems fall under this category, in the sense that they both (according to Parsons) struggle to maintain themselves in the face of environmental pressures. Culture, however, cannot be conceived as a self-maintaining system as it is structured around symbolic meanings rather than material functions; it therefore loses the title of a system, at least in the sense that Parsons holds for social and personality systems. But the question is, where does culture fit exactly in Parsons’ overall scheme? Habermas (p227) states the following in regard to this question:

The cultural system is a kind of placeholder for the missing concept of the lifeworld; as a result, it has the ambiguous status of an environment that is at once superordinate and internal to action systems and that is stripped, so to speak, of the empirical properties of a system environment.

Figure 30 on page 228 provides a good graphic outline of culture’s place in Parsons’ schema. What Habermas is referring to is the fact that the cultural system is not in fact a system in the strict sense of the word; while neither is it strictly an environment within which systems have to maintain themselves. Before I explain the place of culture in the schema, it is necessary to explain the model more adequately. There are two action systems, society and personality, which have to maintain themselves in the face of the ‘hypercomplex’ environment mentioned earlier. Internally, they have to maintain themselves in the face of cultural imperatives. So, as Habermas puts it (p228), the action systems are involved in a ‘continually renewed compromise’ between the ‘imperatives of functional and social integration, both of which must be fulfilled simultaneously.’ Pressure is coming from two sides: imperatives of self-maintenance (functional integration)  and the imperatives of cultural requirements (social integration). In this situation, conflict between the two sets of imperatives is inevitable:

The scope for compromise is such that complete integration is a limiting case seldom or never achieved. Especially in complex societies, manifestations of the permanent conflict between consistency requirements and functional imperatives have to be headed off, rendered innocuous, and set aside (p229).

Now what Habermas is concerned with in the context of the present discussion is those type of conflicts that cannot be so easily set aside, conflicts which Parsons was also aware of. As he states (quoted in Habermas, p229),

[P]roblematic facts in the present sense are those which it is functionally imperative to face and which necessitate actions with value implications incompatible with the paramount value system.

So these are conflicts which are rendered benign only at the cost of pathological side-effects, whether they be social or individual. On this theory, both Habermas and Parsons seem to be in agreement. It is the way in which Parsons accounts for these pathological phenomena, however, that provides the main focus for Habermas’ critique. As he states on page 229,

it is just such pathologies of society and personality that make manifest the fragility of his dualistic construction of the action system. While this construction enables Parsons to recognize pathological forms of conflict resolution, it is not clear how he can accommodate such phemonena within his framework.

At issue here is not the fact that Parsons recognizes pathologies, but the way in which he explains them in the context of his theoretical construction. 

Spread the love!

About the author /


Avatar

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

Post your comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *