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May 28, 2013 / C H Thompson

Functional prerequisites

Parsons argued any successful social system has four functional prerequisites – adaptation; goal attainment; integration and pattern maintenance.

Adaptation – in order to survive any society needs the basics of food and shelter. Having these gives any society control over its environment. A society needs a functioning economy to provide this.

Goal attainment – all societies need to provide some sort of collective goals for it members to aspire to. Governments set goals such as New Labour setting a target of 50% of school leavers would attend university. To do deliver such goals governments provide the resources, laws and other institutional mechanisms so such goals can be met.

Integration – all societies need a legal system in order to mediate any conflict and therefore protect the social system from breaking down.

Pattern maintenance – this prerequisite is provided by institutions like education and the family. These institutions exist to reaffirm the essential values needed for society to function. For Parsons the key institution in passing on such basic values is religion.

As we can see Parsons’ position is any social system can be analysed on the basis of what function an institution plays in cultivating the four prerequisites. However the assumption in the above is the social system is in a constant state of stability. As we all know society is never stable and is susceptible to ‘social change’ as issues arise which threaten any stability, for example high unemployment. Parsons explained how his four functional perquisites compensate for each other in order to accommodate social change; he termed such change as ‘social evolution’. Social evolution is an inevitable form of social development, as societies become more complex both culturally and economically.

For example if a society has rising unemployment government policy could be to extend the school leaving age to 18 – thus the functional prerequisite of goal attainment can be applied in understanding why a new ‘goal’ has been created. Though a new goal of achievement has been established within the traditional framework of universalism, it has been adapted to meet the needs of a modern society by allowing wide variations as to what achievement is and how you might achieve such a goal. For example though the school leaving age is 18, an individual doesn’t have to stay at school per se, but can be trained in the workplace – differentiated levels of achievement fulfilling role allocation.

By having social differentiation Parsons argued the functional prerequisite of integration is maintained as individuals are allocated differentiated roles through a value consensus which retains social equilibrium and social order.

The image below covers most aspects covered in the last three pages. Follow this link to go back to the first functionalism page or return to the sociological theory page.


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