What is structural functionalism in sociology

The structural-functional systems theory of Talcott Parsons


1 Introduction

2. Social action
2.1. Action systems
2.2. System functions

3. Socialization as an internalization and integration process
3.1. Social role
3.2. Role system of the nuclear family

4. Socialization as a process of differentiating between roles and dispositions of needs
4.1. Pattern variables
4.2. Principle of division into two

5. Socialization as a learning process

6. Phases of the socialization process

7. Criticism

Structural-functional systems theory

1 Introduction

One of the most important founders of sociological functionalism is the American sociologist Talcott Parsons. Talcott Parsons lived from 1902 to 1979 and developed his theory of socialization as early as the 1950s.

This theory is on the one hand the result of his theory of action and systems, on the other hand it emerged from an idiosyncratic further development of the Freudian object relations of the toddler (see R. Reichwein 1970, p. 163).

Structural functionalism asks about the tasks or functions of social phenomena, i.e. which tasks and functions social phenomena fulfill within society.

With social phenomena are meant social actions that are available to a person in his system of action. They either fulfill a functional task, thus contributing to the integration and stabilization of the social system, or they have a dysfunctional task of disintegration and destabilization. This means that the term functionality is of central importance.

Functionalist systems theory is therefore about the relationships between the individual and society. In this way, Parsons tries to connect the micro perspective, i.e. the individual with his or her individual psychological dynamics, with the macro perspective, the social structures of society.

The aim of functional systems theory is to explain how unity and order arise in a society. In other words, it is the question of how the next generation takes on the norms and values ​​of a society and internalizes them so that society can survive.

2. Social action

2.1. Action systems

The medium in which learning takes place about the adoption and internalization of social norms and values ​​is social action. Social behavior by people does not occur in isolation, but in constellations that Parsons calls "systems". There are four systems of action, they are subsystems of social action: the organic system, the psychological system, the social system and the cultural system.

The organic system, also called the system of the organism of the human personality, becomes the starting point for all action processes. The organism has only diffuse organic needs e.g. food intake, sleep, breathing. But he also has a libidinal need for social contacts and relationships. Parsons describes these needs as the primary needs. The organism has a general motivational source of energy and supplies the personality with energy for physical and psychological basic functions (input-output relationship).

The psychic system comprises above all the dispositions of needs. From the primary needs, additional needs are created through social contacts. These are the secondary dispositions of needs. They are readiness to act to satisfy needs. The psychic system controls the disposition of needs and tries to guide them into socially permitted and prescribed paths. These controlled dispositions of needs develop into stable characteristics and driving forces in the course of the internalization of social controls.

The social system is characterized by the actions of individuals, i.e. by interaction. The place is the family and the social system is formed by the various relationships between people in their capacity as bearers of certain roles. The child internalizes the behavior of his caregivers and thus also his own behavior. The mutual interaction between the child and his or her caregivers is therefore crucial for the psychological system.

The cultural system is at the top of the control hierarchy. In the following, the cultural system controls the social and the social controls the psychological system. The cultural system consists of everything that defines the culture in terms of content. For explanation, the following definition: "The totality of the behavioral configurations of a society, which are transmitted through symbols over generations, take shape in tools and products, become conscious in values ​​and ideas" (see Lexicon for Sociology, 3rd edition 1995) Aus The social behavior of people results from these four systems.

2.2. System functions

These four systems are in a system-environment relationship with each other, after which each system is confronted with general problems that result directly from the interaction relationship. The problem with the systems explained above is the preservation of stocks (boundary maintenance) vis-à-vis the environment. This means that the systems must be brought back into balance with respect to environmental changes. This task is carried out by four system functions. The adaptation function (adaptation), the goal attainment function (goal attainment), integration function (integration) and the latency function (latent pattern maintance).

The task of the adaptation function is to adapt each system to the respective external conditions. So the adaptation to the environment.

The goal-realization function must achieve that the systems bundle their energy so that they try to enforce the goals according to their importance.

The integration function is responsible for the integration and control of the internal order.

The latency function is indispensable for the maintenance of a system, since the latent basic structures required for control must be stabilized and maintained. In other words, a latent maintenance of the value model and a balance of tension.

These four functions as the tasks of safeguarding existing systems and borders can also be understood as the basic properties of the individual systems of action. The AGIL scheme results from the first letters of each of the functions. Every system needs all these functions in order to survive, with a certain function also being assigned to a certain system.

Figure not included in this excerpt

The adaptive function is assigned to the organism. This means that the organic system, mainly through the reception and processing of information in the central nervous system, realizes the adaptation to the environment. The adaptation function is thus the symbolization of the conditions and means in the environment.

The goal-realization function is part of the psychological system. The psychological system therefore organizes the individual action processes with regard to the function of goal achievement. The goal-realization function is thus the motivational input for the personality.

The social system takes on the integrative functions of coordinating actions. The integration function therefore has the task of the systemic order of the social system.

The culture is the system place for the cultural values. Through the latency function, the cultural system fulfills the function of maintaining value

3. Socialization as a process of internalization and integration

3.1 Social role

In order to understand Parsons 'theory, I would like to briefly address the concept of social role, as this concept is crucial in Parsons' socialization theory. Every position that a person occupies in a society has certain behaviors that one expects from the person who holds this position, e.g. class rascals. With each position, society gives the person a role to play. Society has certain role expectations for each role, which are protected by sanctions, either positive or negative. If the person in question corresponds to these role expectations, then a corresponding role behavior becomes apparent.

3.2. Role system of the nuclear family according to Parsons

The child begins to internalize social objects, paying particular attention to the first carer in the first few months. This person, mostly their own mother, is mainly included in their role relationships and thus refers to the social and cultural system.

The family becomes the most important socialization distance for the child, so that in the first stage of socialization the child gradually internalizes the role structure of the nuclear family. The nuclear family typically consists of mother, father, son and daughter. The role structure of the core family is characterized by the division of roles into generation roles and gender roles. The generational roles of parents are characterized by the properties of power and authority. Children’s, on the other hand, are powerless and dependent.

The gender roles of the father and the son are assigned to the characteristics of the instrumental, i.e. purposeful, rational behavior. The mother and daughter, on the other hand, show expressive, that is, emotional behavior.

In this way, the child's own social roles become part of his personality system and this becomes a mirror image (mirrow image) of the social system.

4. Socialization as a process of differentiating between roles and dispositions of needs

4.1 Pattern Variables

The task of primary socialization consists above all in the assumption of the necessary orientations for satisfactory action in a role, i.e. in the development of general action and role competence.

In this way, value orientation patterns are brought to the child by the social environment and the child gets to know these orientation dimensions, also known as pattern variables, which it has available in a system of action. The five value orientations are as follows:

Figure not included in this excerpt

1. Self-orientation versus collective orientation.

The child has to decide whether he wants to pursue his own interests or pursue the social obligations expected of him.

2. Specification versus diffusivity

Either the child enters into close specific contact (emotions) with others or in general, diffuse contact.

2. Affectivity versus neutrality

The child will use the opportunities for satisfaction or put the needs aside.

4. Particularism versus universalism

In particularistic relationships, the child behaves emotionally and subjectively, otherwise more rationally.

5. Attribution to performance

Either you evaluate another person according to their appearance or according to their characteristics and achievements.

Behind these advertising orientations, Parsons distinguishes between the small family group and the complex, thoroughly rationalized society. So community versus society.

These five values ​​are acquired and internalized one after the other. On the one hand, they serve to categorize objects, which means the classification of perceived and internalized objects, such as the mother. On the other hand, they serve to differentiate between the dispositions of needs, for example autonomy versus dependence.

4.2. Principle of division into two

The process of differentiating the dispositions of needs proceeds according to the principle of division into two. After each differentiation, both the internalized roles and the disposition of needs are doubled. The division into two can no longer be reversed, resulting in an irreversible sequence.

According to the principle of division into two, an increasingly branching system of dispositions of needs develops in the course of the socialization process in the child's mental system, which grows out of a single root like a tree. Parsons therefore speaks of a “genealogical tree” of the motivational structure in the personality system of the socialized individual.

In the course of the socialization process, all primary organic needs and drives are integrated into the family tree. The personality system is also integrated into the social system and thus there is a match between both systems. This correspondence makes the personality system a “mirror image” of the social system.

5. Socialization as a learning process

At Parsons, learning is the answer to changed situation conditions. These changes are the child's biological maturation and others' response to this process.

Due to the interaction structures, needs disposition and value orientations internalized up to then, the child is in equilibrium. The changed situation leads to an imbalance and a new state of equilibrium must be built up.

This includes four phases:

1. Frustration

In the early stages of individual development, the various parental control techniques aim to allow children to express all of their needs.

2. Support

In particular, the child's attempts to meet the social expectations of their caregivers are actively supported.

3. Refusal of reciprocity

In order for the growing children to gradually approach adulthood, the parents must deny their children full reciprocity (exchange) of interaction, especially in the oedipal phase.

4. Selective reward

The child's behavior is controlled through the targeted use of sanctions and gratuities.

In this way, the child learns to differentiate between desired and undesired behavior (discrimination), to strengthen the desired and place it in the place of others (substitution) and to suppress and delete the undesired (extinction). In this way, the new, appropriate behavior pattern of the child arises on the way of learning-theoretical conditioning. These four phases are used for social control of the child and are therefore also called predominant types of social control.

Figure not included in this excerpt

After each of the four phases, a new state of equilibrium is reached, which can now become the starting point for the next phase of socialization.

Parsons speaks of a "spiral cycle". The socialization process gets its spiral structure from the fact that the new state of equilibrium assumes a higher level than the first.

6. Phases of the socialization process

In order to be able to act as adults, the adolescents must gradually expand their action competencies, as the interaction systems are becoming more and more complex. This process takes place in the five successive stages of development described by Freud. The phases of the socialization process correspond to those of the psychosexual development in Freud and Erikson.

6.1. The stage of oral dependence on the mother (1st year)

The transition phase from the state of the child as "pure oganism" to oral dependence is known as oral crisis. With the oral phase the process of socialization begins and the mother becomes the source of satisfaction and care. In this way a special relationship develops between the child and the mother, which is called the “mother-child identity”.

In the first phase of the socialization process, the child learns the value orientation dimension “self-orientation” versus “collective orientation”. In this way the child learns to separate its self-related actions from the mother as a “we-unit”. In the first phase, the child only has organic needs and a libidinal need for care and tenderness.

6.2. The phase of love addiction from the mother (2nd-3rd year)

At the beginning of the second phase, the child's balance is disturbed, as the child is expected to be more independent and active. This is how the child gets into the anal crisis. The child must recognize that there are now two role units, namely the mother role, which has power and authority, and the child's own role with the respective characteristics weak and relatively expressive.

The disposition of needs is divided by the organic needs in “dependency” in the form of care, and “autonomy”, because the child wants to please the mother. The predominant type of social control is to “support” the child so that the child can learn conformal behavior from the start.

The predominant alternative orientation in the second phase is specificity as opposed to diffusivity, so that the child learns to differentiate between people in their roles with whom it has specific contact (mother) and with whom it has only diffuse contact (relatives).

6.3. The oedipal phase (4-6 years of age)

At the beginning of the oedipal phase, the child's father and siblings come into focus. They become objects of identification as part of the mother's affective bond is transferred to them. This creates a further differentiation of the interaction and role systems. Three identifications must take place in the phase:

1. Family as a collective
2. with one's own gender
3. with the generation

The gender role identification is more difficult for the boy than for the girl, since the boy has to give up the previous object of identification (the mother) in order to identify with the unknown and in some respects threatening object, the father. At the end of the third phase, the child has internalized the nuclear family, which is seen as the prototype of the social system. The psychic apparatus (Freud: psychoanalysis) of “superego”, “me” and “id” is also fully integrated at the end of this socialization phase. The disposition of needs is divided into dependency in need for care and conformity and autonomy in security and appropriateness.

The alternative orientation in this phase is “affectivity” versus “neutrality”, that is, whether the child uses his possibilities for satisfaction or rather sets aside.

6.4. The latency phase (7-13 years of age)

When the child enters stage four, they are old enough to start school. At school, they get to know their peers. Thus, the further superordinate system is now made up of the family of origin, the school and the “peer groups”. The alternative orientation is “universalism” versus “particularism” and the child learns about universal categories such as man, woman, boy, neighbors and so on. With the child, the rational-cognitive moments come to the fore and it is now about the meaning of objects, i.e. object categorization.

In the latency phase there is a division of labor in socialization between the school and the peer group. The school focuses on generation differentiation and the peer group on gender role categorization, as this is crucial for the next and final phase.

6.5. The adolescence phase (14-18 years of age)

In the last, the adolescence phase, the further expansion of the social space of experience takes place, because new roles are added to the previous role areas:

1. the procreative family
2. the occupational system
3. Parish

With the conception family, Parsons means the revival of erotic relationships, which refers to the social role of the parent and spouse.

The occupational system means that the adolescent must now think about his future future, namely which occupation he would like to pursue. The municipality refers to the remaining category for role differentiation, such as neighbor, citizen, etc.

The predominant alternative orientation in the last phase is “attribution” versus “performance”. The adolescent now has to decide, when he gets to know new people or, in general, comes into contact with others, whether he judges them according to their external appearance, for example hair color, skin color, clothing or according to their qualities and achievements.

Figure not included in this excerpt

7. Criticism

The functionalist role and socialization theory by Parsons is a logical and closed theory that impresses with its comprehensive and comprehensible structure. Parson's theory is based on the assumption of a general consensus of norms and values ​​in the cultural system.

This consensus is primarily expressed in general role expectations and role norms. But this basic requirement of his theory is questioned in today's developed, pluralistic societies and thus his theory becomes fragile.

His whole theory is based on the thesis of an overpowering society that no longer offers space for individuals. It is a theory of socialization in which the future of young people is strongly predetermined.

So his argumentation boils down to the adaptation of individuals to social conditions and the prevailing norms.

This can also be seen in the ES construction, which Parson took over from Freud.

Freud understands the ES as the counterforce of all socio-cultural environmental influences. Parson reworked this term into a product of these socialization influences. In Parsons' case, the ES only emerges in the second phase of socialization, i.e. it is brought in from outside and not innate. Thus, the ES is deprived of its counterforce, its real purpose in Freud's theory.

The socialisand is only given a passive role, because he cannot participate in his socialization and development process. Parson's theory thus implies a socialization for complete role conformity, which is neither normal nor desirable. In conclusion, the social system would reshape the psychic system and the question would arise whether an autonomous identity formation would then be possible at all.

Parsons added "social control" to underpin his theory. The four phases (permissiveness, support, refusal of reciprocity, sanction control and status control) to control the behavior of the child, i.e. as a learning-theoretical conditioning, thus supports his theory and shows once again that he subordinates the cultural system to a middle-class specific bourgeois normal path.

Parsons is not that interested in the problems of particular individuals. He sees them and their problems more as a “cost” than a must for a functionalist society. It is a real, living example that can also be used as a warning / caution for others.

Finally, I would like to address the conceptual constructions used by Parsons.

The conceptual constructions of the disposition of needs, as well as the motives for action and value orientations are settlements. These are assertions that Parsons have not checked for their empirical significance. These conceptual constructions have a persuasive power that captivates through their argumentative, logical, consecutive context, but when viewed on their own they seem rather questionable.

In conclusion, one can say that Parsons did a really impressive job with his functionalist socialization theory. His theory is comprehensive, logical, well supported by arguments and, above all, understandable.


Hurrelmann, K. (1986): Introduction to Socialization Theory. Weinheim and Basel: Beltz Mühlbauer, K.-R. (1980): Socialization. Reinbek: Rowohlt

Tillmann, K. (1989): Theories of Socialization. Reinbek: Rowohlt

Structural functionalism

- asks about the tasks or functions of social phenomena

-functional task: integration and stabilization of functionality

-Micro perspective and macro perspective

Objective: To explain how the next generation takes on and internalized the norms and values ​​of a society

Social action

-Medium in which norms and values ​​are internalized

- occurs in constellations that Parsons calls systems

Four subsystems of social action

1. organic system
2. mental system
3. social system
4. cultural system

-Problem of safeguarding stocks against environmental changes

-Systems need to be brought back into balance

This task is carried out by four system functions

1. "A" (adjustment function)

2. "G" (goal achievement function)

3. "I" (integration function)

4. "L" (latency function)

Role system of the nuclear family

- The family becomes the most important socialization authority

- In the first stage of socialization, the child gradually internalizes the role structure of the nuclear family

- own social roles become part of the personality system and this becomes a mirror image

Pattern variables / value orientations

-. These five value orientations are acquired and internalized one after the other

- They serve to categorize objects and to differentiate between dispositions of needs

From these value orientations, the agent must make a selection in every situation

- Differentiation proceeds according to the principle of division into two

-. "Family tree" of the motivation structure

Phases of the socialization process

1. the phase of oral dependence on the mother (1st year)
2. the mother's love addiction phase (2nd-3rd year)
3. the oedipal phase (4th-6th year)
4. the latency phase (7th-13th year)
5. the adolescence phase (14th-18th year)