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structural functionalism

  A tradition of social theory most closely associated with the writings of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-79), whose central proposition is that the structure of any social system cannot be derived from \'the actor\'s point of view\' but must instead be explained by the ways in which four \'functional imperatives\' necessary for the survival of any social system are met (see also functionalism). These functions are:

Adaptation [which] refers to the problem of obtaining enough resources or facilities from the system\'s external environment, and their subsequent distribution in the system.

Goal attainment [which] refers to the features of an action system which serve to establish its goals, and to motivate and mobilize effort and energy in the system towards their achievement.

Integration [which] refers to the problem of maintaining coherence or solidarity, and involves those elements which establish control, maintain coordination of subsystems and prevent major disruption in the system.

Latency [which] refers to the processes by which motivational energy is stored and distributed to the system, [and] involves two interlinked problems: pattern-maintenance, the supply of symbols, ideas, tastes and judgements from the cultural system, and tension-management, the resolution of internal strains and tensions of actors. (Hamilton, 1983, p. 108)

The most detailed account of this \'A-G-I-L\' schema is provided in Parsons\'s The social system (1951). This is often contrasted with his early account of The structure of social action (1937), which is usually assumed to be \'voluntarist\' in its overarching concern with developing an action theory around the so-called \'unit act\'. But there are some basic continuities between the two formulations, and Parsons himself subsequently rejected descriptions of his work as structural functionalism and reinstated the earlier term \'action theory\'.

Parsons insisted that the analysis of any social system requires the conjunction of static (\'structure\') and dynamic (\'function\') components and he constantly accentuated the need to grasp the dynamics of social systems. Hence he attributed crucial importance to the interchanges between the systems and sub-systems and, in order to sharpen the focus still further, in his later formulations he developed a more formal cybernetic model of society. This drew upon biology and general systems theory as much as it did upon classical social theory and was primarily concerned with interchanges of information and energy and with modelling the evolution of societies \'as an extension of biological evolution\' (Giddens, 1984, pp. 263-74; Parsons, 1971).

Although Parsons\'s views have been subjected to a sustained and at times devastating critique, his influence on modern social theory has been quite extraordinary. Not only has there been a series of striking developments of systems theory — including Alexander\'s (1983) vigorously constructive appraisal of Parsons\'s ideas; Luhmann\'s innovative extensions of Parsons\'s original schema (Luhmann, 1979, 1981); and Wallerstein\'s world-systems analysis, which Cooper (1981) calls \'Parsonianism on a world scale\' (see Aronowitz, 1981) — but even those seemingly distant from Parsons have often made a series of critical appropriations of his ideas (see, e.g., Giddens, 1977; Habermas, 1987).

For all this, however, Parsons\'s shadow over human geography has been much shorter. This is partly the result of the atheoretical cast of traditional social geography — Parsons described himself as \'an incurable theorist\' — but even the more theoretical exercises in social geography that followed (where they addressed such issues at all) concerned themselves with general models of social systems rather than Parsons\'s specific formulations. Interestingly, however, many of the criticisms which were made of structural Marxism within human geography (e.g. Duncan and Ley, 1982) mimic exactly those objections which have been most frequently registered against structural functionalism (DiTomaso, 1982; Gregory, 1980; see also human agency). The more recent arrival of the \'posts-\' has driven more nails into Parsons\'s coffin. Both postmodernism and post-structuralism have underwritten a scepticism towards totalizing claims to knowledge and \'foundational\' epistemologies (see foundationalism) which makes it highly unlikely that Parsons\'s version of Grand Theory will attract a sympathetic audience in human geography in the immediate future. And the interest in postcolonialism reinforces the critique of Parsons\'s scheme as an intellectual imperialism: many commentators have seen structural functionalism as another attempt to construct a general model of society out of what is in fact a highly particular reading of the United States of America. (DG)

References Alexander, J. 1983: Theoretical logic in sociology, vol. 4: The modern reconstruction of social thought: Talcott Parsons. Berkeley: University of California Press. Aronowitz, S. 1981: A metatheoretical critique of Immanuel Wallerstein\'s The modern world-system. Theory and Society 9: 503-20. Cooper, F. 1981: Africa and the world economy. African Studies Review 14: 1-86. DiTomaso, N. 1982: \'Sociological reductionism\' from Parsons to Althusser: linking action and structure in social theory. American Sociological Review 47: 14-28. Duncan, J. and Ley, D. 1982: Structural Marxism and human geography: a critical assessment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 30-59. Giddens, A. 1977: Studies in social and political theory. London: Hutchinson. Giddens, A. 1984: The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press. Gregory, D. 1980: The ideology of control: systems theory and geography. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 71: 327-42. Habermas, J. 1987: The theory of communicative action, vol. 2: Lifeworld and system: a critique of functionalist reason. Cambridge: Polity Press. Hamilton, P. 1983: Talcott Parsons. London and New York: Tavistock. Luhmann, N. 1979: Trust and power. New York: John Wiley. Luhmann, N. 1981: The differentiation of society. New York: Columbia University Press. Parsons, T. 1937: The structure of social action. New York: Free Press. Parsons, T. 1951: The social system. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Parsons, T. 1971: The system of modern societies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Suggested Reading Alexander (1983). Hamilton (1983).



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