Bringing ideas to life

Parsons’ neglect of social pathologies, Part 1.

Published in Frankfurt School by Mark Murphy on February 19, 2014

theory4Readings taken from Habermas, J: Chapter 7, Section 3: The theory of modernity, Theory of Communicative action, Volume 2, 1987

As we have witnessed in the previous set of posts on Parsons (see here for a full list), the major structural development in Parsons’ theoretical construction was his decision to cede conceptual primacy from action theory over to systems theory. The major implication of this development is the leveling of his prior distinction between two different types of integration, functional and social integration. As a starting point for the present discussion, it is necessary to situate this development in Parsons’ thought vis-a-vis Habermas’s main thesis. On page 283, Habermas himself provides a summation of his own argument regarding processes of rationalization and modernization, and at the same time, situates his own thesis in the context of Parsons’ major conceptual development:

the far reaching uncoupling of system and lifeworld was a necessary condition for the transition from the stratified class societies of European feudalism to the economic classes of the early modern period; but the capitalist pattern of modernization is marked by a deformation, a reification of the symbolic structures of the lifeworld under the imperatives of subsystems differentiated out via money and power and rendered self-sufficient. If these two theses are correct, the weaknesses of a theory that retracts the basic conceptual distinction between system and lifeworld should show up especially in dealing with this topic.

As we saw from our earlier discussions, Parsons in his mature period constructed a theory of society which placed center stage the imperatives of system maintenance, or what Habermas would refer to as the material reproduction of the lifeworld. The space within which the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld could at least be accounted for, was subsumed under the demands of system maintenance. In this construction, it is difficult to understand the resistance of the lifeworld to functional imperatives, as the processes of symbolic reproduction now serve the processes of material reproduction. Instead of a situation in which the imperatives of the lifeworld and the imperatives of the system clash, we have a situation in which the two sets of imperatives work in harmony, essentially because they fulfill the same function, i.e., that of system maintenance. Habermas (p284) explains the implications of Parsons’ systems functionalism for a theory of social pathologies:

Because he does not resolve the competition between lifeworld and system but only quiets it down with a compromise, Parsons has to bring the rationalization of the lifeworld conceptually into line with the growth of system complexity. Hence he is unable to grasp the dialectic inherent in modernization processes, the burdens placed on the internal structures of the lifeworld by growing system complexity. He has to reduce these phenomena to the scale of crisis manifestations explicable on the model of inflation and deflation. Media dynamics of this kind relate only to accidental and temporary disturbances of the equilibrium in intersystemic interchange processes. Parsons cannot explain the systemic tendencies toward the sorts of pathologies that Marx, Durkheim, and Weber had in view.

We can recall from other readings that the issue most sensitive to Habermas in his construction of his theoretical model was the relationship between processes of rationalization and processes of capitalist modernization. It should be remembered that Habermas began his two volume set on The Theory of Communicative Action with the question: can the process of capitalist modernization be conceived as a process of one-sided rationalization? It was crucial for Habermas not to equate processes of rationalization directly to modernization processes, as the objective of The Theory of Communicative Action was in essence to answer this question. The problem with Parsons model, however, is that it does exactly this. As Habermas explains (p287-288), Parsons

assimilates the rationalization of the lifeworld to processes of system differentiation. And he accounts for the latter in accordance with his four   function paradigm, into which the idea of value realization has been built. Thus there is an analytical connection between the growing steering capacity of the social system and increasing inclusion and value generalization. This connection at the analytical level leaves the theoretical interpretation of modernity ambivalent: (a) on the one hand, it makes it possible to conceive of modernization processes described in systems-theoretical terms not only as a growing autonomy of society in relation to its environments but at the same time as a rationalization of the lifeworld; (b) on the other hand, it makes it necessary to identify the one with other – increasing system complexity means eo ipso progress in the rational shaping of the conditions of life.

It is difficult to see how Parsons, by directly connecting processes of material reproduction to processes of symbolic reproduction, could account in any adequate way for the type of social pathologies that interest Habermas (and for the matter, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber). In fact, this theoretical construction results in Parsons actually positing a society imbued with harmony. Habermas (p291) compares Parsons’ diagnosis of the times with that of Weber. According to him, Parsons

generally took the opposite position to Weber’s in questions concerning the diagnosis of the age. He did not believe that the disintegration of religious and metaphysical worldviews in modern societies threatened the solidarity relations and the identity of individuals who could no longer orient their lives to ‘ultimate ideas.’ He was convinced, rather, that modern societies has brought about an incomparable increase in freedom for the great mass of their populations. He rejects both elements of the Weberian Diagnosis -the thesis of a loss of meaning as well as that of a loss of freedom.

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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.

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