- systems theory, systems analysisThe concept of a system is not peculiar to sociology: it is used in any scientific analysis where a researcher is concerned to understand the pattern or structure between any set of parts or units. A system is thus any structured or patterned relationship between any number of elements, where this system forms a whole or unity. It is assumed that a system has an environment and thus there is the requirement of boundary maintenance . There is an interchange between a system and its environment. Systems theory which employs a cybernetic approach considers these interchanges in terms of the storage and control of information. It is further assumed that systems will tend towards an equilibrium state or homeostasis. Finally, systems change by becoming more internally differentiated. The concept of system has been influential in the natural sciences, especially in biology.In sociology, the concept of social system was developed by writers like Herbert Spencer and Vilfredo Pareto , but its modern usage was heavily shaped by the social philosophy of Lawrence J. Henderson, who was inspired by Pareto (see’s Pareto's General Sociology, 1935), and by the biologist Walter B. Cannon (see The Wisdom of the Body, 1932). Talcott Parsons , who was influenced at Harvard by Henderson's interpretation of Pareto, is the sociologist who, through the development of the theory of structural functionalism , is most generally associated with the elaboration of systems theory.Parsons argued (in The Structure of Social Action, 1937) that the basic analytical component of a sociological theory of an action system is the unit act, which involves an actor, an end or goal, a situation composed of conditions and means, and norms and values by which ends and means are selected. An action system is a structured collection of unit acts. He then defined a social system as ‘a mode of organization of action elements relative to the persistence or ordered processes of change of the interactive patterns of a plurality of individual actors’ (The Social System, 1951). Parsons argued that a social system is faced by two major problems. One is the (external) problem of the production and allocation of scarce resources; the other is the (internal) problem of achieving social order or integration. This notion gave rise to Parsons's famous development of four sub-systems, which respond to the external and internal ‘functional prerequisites of a system of action’, namely adaptation (economy), goal-attainment (polity), integration (societal community), and latency (socialization). This was defined as the AGIL model of the social system. These subsystems are connected by flows of inputs and outputs, which Parsons called ‘media of exchange’ (Economy and Society, 1956). These are money (A), power (G), influence (I), and commitments (L). The equilibrium of a social system depends on these complex exchanges between the various subsystems.Social systems theory has been much criticized, because it involves an organic analogy which is inappropriate; entails a conservative bias towards the study of social order rather than social conflict ; does not provide a satisfactory theory of social change , since it merely describes the process of differentiation; has not generated an adequate explanation of social stratification , especially of social class; is tautological , because the concept of function cannot be given any substantive content; has developed a formal terminology which obscures rather than clarifies social phenomena; and, finally, because the assumptions of the theory cannot be operationalized.Although these criticisms have been generally accepted by sociologists, in the 1980s there has been a revival of interest in systems theory. The American neofunctionalists (see, Neo-functionalism, 1985) have argued that it is possible to develop Parsonsian sociology as a perspective which can explain social change and conflict. There has also been a major development of social systems approaches in Germany. For example, Niklas Luhmann has rejected the idea that human individuals are aspects of social systems, which he defines as a system of communicative acts. Systems, according to Luhmann, function to reduce the complexity of meaning. Consequently, he has been interested in the system problems of successful communication on the basis of the development of codes. For him, the principal media of communication are truth, love, money, and power. Luhmann has applied these ideas to such diverse topics as law (A Sociological Theory of Law, 1985), differentiation (The Differentiation of Society, 1982), love (Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, 1986), and religion (Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies, 1977).
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.
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