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Introduction :
WTalcott Parsons was born 13 December 1902 in
Colorado. As an undergraduate, Parsons studied
biology, sociology and philosophy at Amherst
College and received his B.A. After Amherst, he
studied at the London School of Economics for a year,
where he was exposed to the work of R. H. Tawney,
Bronisaw Malinowski, and Leonard Trelawny
Hobhouse. Parsons went on to the University of
Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology
and economics.
Pattern variables are five dichotomies, developed by
Talcott Parsons, to draw out the contrasting values to
which individuals orient themselves in social
interaction. One side of the dichotomies reflects the
value patterns dominant in traditional society
(Gemeinschaft), the other reflects the dominant
values of modern society (Gesellschaft).[1]
Social change can be defined as alterations that occur
in the social structure and social relationship.
Alterations may occur in norms, values, cultural
products and symbols in a society. Institutions,
patterns of interaction, work, leisure activities, roles,
norms and other aspects of society can be altered over
time as a result of the process of social change.[2]
Parsons asserted that there were two dimensions to
societies: instrumental and expressive. By this he
meant that there are qualitative differences between
kinds of social interaction. He observed that people
can have personalized and formally detached
relationships based on the roles that they play. The
characteristics that were associated with each kind of
interaction are called the Pattern Variables.
Role being the most vital element of the social system,
its performance generates forces of strain or tension.
The extent of strain depends on the way role-
expectations are institutionalized in society and also
on the degree to which the values of role-expectations
are internalized by social actors. In relation to
motivational orientation and value orientation, in the
performance of roles, each actor faces dilemmas.
These dilemmas emanate from strains in an
individual's choice of or preference within a range of
orientations both related to needs and to values.[3]
Though t hes e di l emmas are of t en s een
dichotomously they in fact are placed along a
continuum. The actor must choose between the
options, before she or he can act with respect to the
situation. For example, in a situation, which requires
an actor to choose between universalistic values or
particularistic values, the actor can choose only one of
Parsons argues that there are a strictly limited and
defined set of alternatives or choices that can be made,
and the relative primacies given to choices constitute
the ''patterning of relational institutions.'' These
choices or alternatives are called orientation-
selection.[4] There are five pattern variables of role-
definition that Parsons discusses; each side of it
Vol-III No. (3) : 18-21 (2012)
Roshan John Joseph
Hidayatullah National Law University New Raipur - 493661 (C.G.) India
Received : 5 Dec 2011 Accepted : 15 Jan 2012
Parsons Pattern Variable and Social Change Analysis
I would like to thank Mr. Uttam Kumar Panda, for offering this subject, Parsons Pattern Variable and Social
Change and for his valuable guidance and advice. He inspired me greatly to work in this project. His willingness
to motivate me contributed tremendously to my project. I also would like to thank him for showing me some
example that related to the topic of my project.
Feb 2012-May 2012
variable which defines the role situation where the
actor's dilemma is between the cognitive versus the
cathective (or emotional standards) evaluation. A
very good example of roles adhering to universalistic
standards of human behaviour is role performances
which go strictly by legal norms and legal sanctions. If
one abides by the rule of law irrespective of personal,
kinship or friendship considerations, then that would
be an example of the universalistic mode of role
performance. If one violates legal norms only because
the person involved is a kin or a friend, then
particularistic considerations would be said to be
Parsons says that in societies where the role of the
bureaucracy of formal organizations and modern
institutions has become widespread there the
dilemmas of Universalism and particularism have
become a matter of choice in everyday life.
The actor's dilemma in the ascription versus
achievement pattern variable is based on whether or
not the actor defines the objects of his or her role
either in terms of quality or performance. In India a
very good example of this pattern variable is the role
performance governed by the caste system. In the
caste system, the statuses of persons are determined
not on the basis of their personal achievement or
personal skills or knowledge but on the basis of their
Ascription is based on assigning certain quality to a
person either by birth, or age, or sex or kinship or
race. Achievement is based on personal acquisition of
skills and levels of performance in society.
Achievement-orientation roles are those which place
an emphasis on the performances of the people,
whereas ascribed roles, the qualities or attributes of
people are emphasized independently of specific
expected performances. [8]
In specificity versus diffuseness, if one adopts an
orientation of specificity towards an object, it means
that the definition of the role as orienting to the social
object in specific terms. In contrast, in a diffuse
orientation, the mode of orientation is outside the
range of obligations defined by the role-expectation.
Some social interactions, such as between doctors and
represents one polar extreme.
Affectivity versus affective neutrality concerns the
dilemma of role performance where evaluation is
involved in relation to a situation. The dilemma here
is in deciding whether one expresses their orientation
in terms of immediate gratification (affectivity) or
whether they renounce immediate gratification in
favour of moral interests (affective-neutrality).
Parsons says, ''No actor can subsist without
gratifications, while at the same time no action system
can be organized or integrated without the
renunciation of some gratifications which are
available in the given situation''.[5]
Take for example the mother-child relationship. It
has high degree of affective orientation, but discipline
is also required. So on many occasions a mother
would have to exercise affective-neutral role in
relation to her child's socialization. But mother-child
relationship is essentially dominated by affectivity.
But according to Parsons in all role performance
situations, the dilemma of choice and its degree of
expression or commitment remains.
Self-orientation versus collectivity orientation
pattern variable, the main issue is that of moral
standard in the procedure of evaluation. The moral
standard arises from the fact that actor has to make a
choice between his or her own gratification and its
deferment for the good of a larger number of people, a
collectivity. Some form of altruism and self-sacrifice is
involved. The dilemma of this pattern variable has
always been present in human life from primitive
mode of economy and society to modern civilization.
The notion of socialist society and socialist
consciousness offers us a good example where a whole
social system and patterns of its institutions are based
on the dominant choice in favour of collectivity
orientation. Parsons explains, ''a role, then, may
define certain areas of pursuit of private interests as
legitimate, and in other areas obligate the actor to
pursuit of the common interests of the collectivity.
The primacy of the former alternative may be called
''self-orientation,'' that of the latter, ''collectivity-
Universalism versus particularism is a pattern
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towards self-maintenance that we witness operating
in the processes of change within biological systems
to a large extent also operate within the social system.
In addition social systems also undergo changes from
within due to cultural innovations within the system,
contact with other cultures and diffusion of new
values and styles of living.
A primary factor related to processes of change
within the social system is increase in population, its
density and aggregation. It has been observed
historically that major social systems, such as large
communities, cities and organized forms of polity
emerged in the past near river valleys and fertile lands
where production of food could be harnessed in larger
quantities.[12] This increase in food production
contributed to a growth of population and for other
major changes within the social system, such as the
division of labour, emergence of urban centers, and
more complex form of social organizations such as
caste in India.
According to Parsons these changes did not come
about smoothly but almost invariably through the
need for re-establishing equilibrium in the system.
This reestablishing of equilibrium was required due
to strains in relationships between past and present
patterns of relationship, values and interests. Parsons
says, Change is never just alteration of pattern but
alteration by the overcoming of resistance. By
overcoming of resistance, Parsons meant the
resolution of strain or conflict in the social system.
Each social system, according to Parsons, develops a
vested interest or interests of different kinds over a
period of time as it integrates itself in accordance with
its functional prerequisites (adaptation, goal
attainment, integration and latency). But the
demands of new ideas from within, need for changes
in technology or the mere pressure of external factors
on the system, such as changes in climate, ecology or
pestilence, etc., force social systems to shed pre-
existing vested interests and give way to accepting
new modes of thinking; to new ideas, technology,
patterns of work, division of labour, and so on. These
contribute to disturbances in the older mode of
equilibrium and to its replacement by a new
equilibrium in the social system.
patients or between buyers and sellers of goods in the
market, have a very specific scope. The nature of these
interactions is defined in terms of a very precise
context of interaction. [9]
A doctor does not have to understand the social,
financial or political background of his or her patients
in order to treat them and to give them a prescription.
Doctor's task is very specific. The role is specific in
terms of the standards of response between actors. On
the contrary, some role relationships are very general
and encompassing in nature. Such roles involve
several aspects of the object of interaction. Some
examples of such role relationships are friendship,
conjugal relationship between husband and wife,
relationships between kin of various degrees. All
these relationships are such where the actor does not
interact with another in a relationship in a specific
context as such, but in a diffused manner and the
scope of interaction is flexible, open and
encompassing in nature. The pattern variables,
according to Parsons, not only provide an overview
of role interaction and role expectations in social
system but also gives us a direction provide in which
most members of a social system choose their roles.
Social Change was viewed by Parsons at two levels,
firstly, change which emerges from processes within
the social system, and secondly, the processes of
change of the social system itself. According to
Parsons social sciences have yet to formulate a general
theory of social change which can take into account
both these aspects of social change. [11] But sociology
can approach the problem of social change if it
delimits its analysis in two respects, first, change must
be studied with the help of a set of conceptual
categories or paradigms. Second, social change,
according to Parsons, must be studied at a specific
historical level rather than in a general form
applicable universally to all societies
He drew an analogy between the changes in biological
life cycles and changes within social systems,
although he qualified this analogy by saying that
unlike the organic or biological systems, social
systems are governed to a large extent by cultural
factors which transcend biology. Nevertheless, the
processes of growth, differentiation, the tendency
Feb 2012-May 2012
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[9] Yvette Reisinger, International Tourism:
Cultures and Behaviour 129 (1 ed. 2009)
[10] Sujit Kumar Choudhary, Thinkers and
Theories in Sociology: From Comte to
Giddens 201 (1 ed. 2006)
[11] Parsons and Merton, Functionalism and
Social Change- Parsons (Sociology Pg 34,
[12] Hermann Strasser and Susan C. Randall, An
Introduction to Theories of Social Change 137
(1 ed. 1981)
References :
1. Hermann Strasser and Susan C. Randall, An
Introduction to Theories of Social Change (1
ed. 1981)
2. Parsons and Merton, Functionalism and
Soci al Change- Parsons ( Soci ol ogy,
3. Parsons and Merton, The Concept of Social
System- Parsons, (Sociology, IGNOU)(2010)
4. Pattern Variables (March 30, 2011)
5. Pat t ern Vari abl es, ( Apri l 1, 2011)
6. Sujit Kumar Choudhary, Thinkers and
Theories in Sociology: From Comte to
Giddens (1 ed. 2006)
7. Ta l c ot t Pa r s ons ( Apr i l 1 , 2 0 1 1 )
8. Yvette Reisinger, International
Corresponding Author :
Cultures and Behaviour (1 ed. 2009)
Roshan John Joseph
The pattern variables, according to Parsons, not only
define the nature of role interaction and role
expectations in social system but provide in addition,
the overall direction in which most members of a
social system choose their roles. It also gives us an idea
about the nature of the social system. Pattern
variables are ''the principle tools of structural analysis
outlining the derivation of these categories from the
intrinsic logic of social action -- the inherent dilemmas
of choice facing actors''
Social systems also undergo changes from within due
to cultural innovations within the system, contact
with other cultures and diffusion of new values and
styles of living. Parsons on the other hand treats
theory in a very general and abstract manner. He
favors a rigorous logical method of classification of
concepts such as mentioned in his formulation of
pattern variables. Social change occurs through role
differentiation, socialization and institutionalization
processes. Parsons described social change within the
social system as well as change of social systems.
[1] Pattern Variables (March 30, 2011)
[2] Social Change, Sociology IGNOU study
[3] Parsons and Merton, The Concept of Social
System- Parsons, (Sociology Pg 19,
[4] Ta l c ot t Pa r s ons ( Apr i l 1 , 2 0 1 1 )
[5] Pat t ern Vari abl es, ( Apri l 1, 2011)
[6] Pattern Variables (March 30, 2011)
[7] Parsons and Merton, The Concept of Social
System- Parsons, (Sociology Pg 20-21,
[8] Pat t ern Vari abl es, ( Apri l 1, 2011)
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