Social Systems (Writing Science)


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An Overview of Four Key Perspectives

Lin's own strong commitment to basic science was communicated in every context of our interaction and further strengthened the more abstract lessons I was learning through my reading.

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It was he who brought me into every phase of the community power structure project from conceptual discussion to interviewing to data analysis to writing of research reports and an article for publication in ASR. It was socialization to basic science that, even today, few students acquire in such depth. Among other things, when I became aware of a then recent paper by Rapoport and Horvath dealing with a new way to analyze large sociograms, I followed Lin's advice and embarked on learning enough about it to apply it to our data as my Ph.

After earning the doctorate, through Lin's influence, I was appointed to the faculty of the department and assigned to very congenial courses, one or two of which dealt with formalization problems. These courses allowed me to communicate my ideas about the philosophy of science and to teach formal logic and axiomatics as well as finite mathematical model building in sociology e. I felt inadequately prepared in classical non-finite mathematics and applied for and obtained a three-year postdoctoral fellowship for the study of pure and applied mathematics at Stanford University.

Then, in , through Lin's influence I was offered a position at the University of Pittsburgh where Lin and I resumed our contact for several years. I remained there for the remainder of my career, while Lin moved on. Here now, in the twilight of a career that would have been quite different without my connection to him, I am pleased to present some ideas about sociological theory that developed over the years.

This paper discusses theoretical sociology in historical perspective: from the classic tradition to postclassical efforts of synthesis that culminated in multiple paradigms to the situation today in which theorists are more and more constructing formal models as essential components of their methodology.

The tradition of sociological theory as a whole exhibits a mixture of three types of sociological interests that I call theoretical sociology, world-historical sociology and normative-critical sociology. I discuss this mixture in the classical phase and then the remainder of the paper has theoretical sociology as its focus. This focus represents the sort of basic science interest that Lin communicated to me about forty years ago and to which I remained committed over the years.

I limit my treatment of the postclassical phase to two theorists, Parsons and Homans, each discussed in terms of a shift in theory construction strategy as well as in terms of their common focus on the Durkheimian problem of social integration. In analyzing the recent phase of theoretical sociology, I first discuss the situation of multiple theoretical perspectives and then draw attention to what I call mutations and new combinations.

I emphasize that the role of models has become a major part of the tradition of theoretical sociology, describing models of structure and of process before defining two types of models that combine a structural focus with process analysis. Three Phases. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a handful of scholars who by and large worked independently, elaborated conceptions of sociology as a science.

Probably the most enduring contributions were produced by Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel, and, mainly for his influence on later theorists, Pareto. In addition, Comte and Spencer were important 19th century precursors. Finally, although neither George Herbert Mead nor Karl Marx ever elaborated a conception of sociology, their writings have been incorporated into the tradition. These various writings are commonly referred to as "classical sociological theory" and comprise the first phase of the tradition. The second phase, which I will call "postclassical," began with integrative efforts directed toward building a common theoretical framework for sociology.

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Influential writers with this ambition included Talcott Parsons and George Homans, among others. But a unifying framework did not emerge and an era of proliferation of perspectives took hold under the conception of sociology as a multiple-paradigm science. In the recent third phase of sociological theory, the multiple paradigms or perspectives continue -- with mutations and new combinations -- alongside renewed efforts to consolidate theoretical ideas.

Examples of commitments to the growth of scientific theories in sociology compete with postmodernist and other viewpoints that rest upon a repudiation of the entire idea of sociology as a science. Three Components. In addition to this phase description, it is useful to interpret the corpus of writings over these phases as comprised of three components, reflecting different intellectual interests.

In a simplified model, I suggest just three such components pervade the entire tradition of sociological theory. See Figure 1. Figure 1.

One is the elaboration of ideas relating to the construction of generalized frameworks of sociological thought. I treat this aspect of classical theory as the first phase of theoretical sociology, the first of the three component sets of interests. A second component relates to an intellectual interest in world-historical social and cultural forces in the creation of the modern world. Today, this type of world-historical interest has shifted from modernization to globalization and postmodernity. One reason for distinguishing this focus from general theoretical sociology is that it enables a distinction between the importance of a general theoretical problem and the importance of the empirical instance studied in terms of that problem.

Thus, the evaluation of theoretical model can occur with respect to empirical instances that have little importance outside this scientific context. Finally, a third component of the tradition of sociological theory involves critical normative ideas. It entails evaluation of social phenomena rather than their explanation or historical interpretation. For instance, from Hegel and Marx to Habermas, critical theory emphasizes the task of critique of society and culture in the interests of human emancipation from what it treats as coercive structures of production and consumption.

Feminist theory also has a primacy of interest in social critique. Although such theories draw upon general theoretical sociology, as does the world-historical orientation, they foster a primacy of ideology that detracts from the pursuit of an interest in basic scientific knowledge of social life. Nevertheless, the three components tend to be interrelated in the literature of sociological theory. As a result, any body of theory -- or even a single work -- can be regarded as a kind of weighted combination of the three components.

I will illustrate this point in my discussion of the classical phase of sociological theory. For brevity, I select just five classical theorists and present a compact and brief listing of some of the key ideas of each of them: Mead, Weber, Simmel, Durkheim and Pareto, organized in terms of the three components. The format serves to illustrate the three types of intellectual interests that permeate the tradition of sociological theory. Each theorist's main foundational contribution to theoretical sociology is also highlighted at the outset of the listing of sample elements of the three components in that theorist's work.

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In what follows, my discussion of the postclassical and recent phases of sociological theory will be limited to theoretical sociology. Figure 2 outlines the phases of theoretical sociology, showing the foci of discussion in this chapter. Figure 2. Although there are various streams of developments in theoretical sociology that can be traced to the influence of the classical theorists, in this paper I focus on two theorists with a common background and a common aspiration, namely Talcott Parsons and George Homans. Both were at Harvard in the s when the idea of creating a general theoretical sociology was discussed in the famous Pareto seminar.

The keynote for Parsons and Homans was the creation of an analytical sociological theory that was based upon the classical phase of sociology and on related empirical research not only in sociology but also in related fields, particularly anthropology. In each instance, we can partition the resulting career of theoretical work into two phases marked by a shift in theory construction strategy. Parsons: The First Phase. Theoretical sociology was a central but not exclusive concern of Talcott Parsons and his first major work, The Structure of Social Action , played a major role in subsequent developments.

He analyzed the writings of the economic theorist Marshall as well as those of Pareto, Durkheim and Weber. His objective was to show that these writers had expanded the scope of analytical social theory beyond the traditions from which they emerged, with their more limited perspectives.

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Any analytical theory, Parsons argued, treats only selected aspects of a complex reality, formulating two kinds of conceptual schemes. One such scheme specifies a general structural account of the type of empirical system of interest. It key concepts refer to parts and relations among them. The other type of conceptual scheme presupposes some sort of structural analysis and goes on to specify an analytical system, a set of variables and relationships among them.

His convergence argument, he noted, pertained only to structural analysis. Following Weber and Pareto, Parsons initiates his analysis in terms of an action frame of reference. He treats social entities such as groups as systems of social actions. Hence, structural analysis, at this level, will focus on relations among types of acts so as to describe "the structure of social action" as a prelude to an analytical theory of such social action systems.

Parsons' basic structural concept is the means-end chain. Each such chain represents a series of interconnected actions, a kind of path through an action space. This suggests representing means-end chains by paths in a finite directed graph. An edge, denoted m, e , corresponds to an action in which certain means m are employed toward some end e.

Paths intersect because some means are employed toward the same end and some ends are means in various further actions. The structure of this system of social action has three sectors. Think of the graph in a vertical orientation, the lines point upward. At the bottom are points with no edges directed to them: they are only means, never ends. They comprise what Parsons calls the ultimate means sector of the structure of social action. Similarly, at the top are points such that no edge is directed from them: they are only ends, never means.


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They comprise what Parsons calls the ultimate ends sector of the structure. All other points have edges entering and leaving them: they are both means and ends. They comprise what Parsons calls the intermediate sector of the structure. Looking downward, in which ends control the selection of means, we have a hierarchy of normative control from the ultimate end sector to the intermediate sector to the ultimate means sector of the social action system.

Moreover, the various ultimate ends some of which are diffuse values are not independent.

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Connections among them constitute the emergent property of value-integration, as in the existence of value systems. When such values are not only connected but are shared among actors, they are said to exhibit the property of common value-integration. Parsons argues that the classical phase of sociological theory converged on the thesis that the emergent property of common value-integration is essential for social order.


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  • His "sociologistic theorem" says that a necessary condition for social equilibrium social order is the existence of a common value system. He argues that economic and political theories have focused on the intermediate sector in which actions are means to immediate but not ultimate ends.

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    Some such ultimate ends are not even empirical. In such cases, Parsons classifies the corresponding actions as nonrational because there is no scientific way of saying that the means are inappropriate, in intrinsic or causal terms, to the attainment of such ends. The actions may be appropriate in some symbolic sense, as in ritual action. Thus, Parsons' conceptual scheme links the existence of social order to the nonrational aspect of action systems via the sociologistic theorem. Moreover, in defining sociological theory as only one of the analytical sciences of action, Parsons associates it with the emergent common value-integration property and the sociologistic theorem.

    Parsons: The Second Phase. The theorem states that the stability of social equilibrium requires the institutionalization of a value system that is also sufficiently internalized in the personalities of members. Between the first and the second books, Parsons had changed his theory construction strategy. In the first work, the entire elaborate discussion of the means-end structure of social action systems was regarded as a preliminary to the task of constructing an analytical theory.

    With the conception of the scope of theoretical sociology as focussed on the emergent property of common value-integration, the analytical variables that were needed would be value pattern variables -- variables whose combinations could be used to characterize the dynamics of social action.

    These led to his famous "pattern variable scheme" involving such value polarities as universalism versus particularism and affectivity versus affective neutrality.

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