The Most Important Features of a Social System
A social system as a concept in sociological theory is one of great importance and indeed necessary. As a theoretical concept and component of theoretical explanation, it highlights the intricate nature of the society we live in. (Craib 1992) Talcott Parsons, a dominant functionalist theorist, focused much of his work on the concept of a social system. (Water 1994) Such a concept is indeed synonymous with his work. Whilst there is no universal sociological definition of the concept, Parsons defined a social system as:
"a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of the tendency to the "optimization of gratification" and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured symbols." (cited in Wallace & Wolf 1999)
In order to fully grasp the features of Parsons' social system it is necessary to examine such a concept in the context of his all-embracing system theory, or more in particular his theory of action. However, theoretical vices become apparent, thus it is imperative to briefly address the concept from an alternative perspective, such as Dahrendorf's theory, in order to highlight varying features of the concept of a social system, but also the interpretative nature such a concept entails. Therefore this essay primarily will deal only with those highlights or 'features'.
From a functionalist perspective, society is viewed as a system insofar as it is made up of parts, which mesh together. The basic unit of analysis is society, and its various parts are understood primarily in terms of their relationship to the whole. (Craib 1992) The early functionalists often drew an analogy between society and organisms, such as the human body. Such an analogy involves the understanding of any organ of the body and its relationship to other bodily organs, and in particular its contribution to the maintenance of the body organism as a whole. (Haralambos & van Krieken & Smith & Holborn 1996 p, 673)) In the same way, an understanding of any part of society requires an analysis of its relationship to other parts, and most importantly, of its contribution to the maintenance of society. (Haralambos et al 1996 p, 673) As can be deduced from the above definition, Parsons takes a similar approach to the concept of a social system.
Sociological perspectives are well known for their penetrating breadth, but also for their high level of abstractness, which may often have led to more confusion than clarification in discussing their relevance. ( Deflem 1998)This is in fact a foundational feature of the concept of a social system, as well as most theoretical concepts, whereby the intricateness and complexity of the concept immediately becomes apparent. The abstractness therefore accentuates the inability to grasp...