Structure and social action

Image: Alexander Grombach


The social order as a foundation for the stability of systems of interaction between social actors

Talcott Parsons and Peter Berger are concerned about one of the subjects that has guided sociological studies in the last century: the ways in which life in society is based, not only on individual wills, but on norms, laws and formalities – sometimes implicit or not –, established in advance and guaranteed by means of control mechanisms (institutions).

There is, in these authors, a certain reluctance to approach the discussion of the distribution of people within the society in which they live and the various elements of consonance between the individual and the collective. The aim is, therefore, to understand the purpose and functionality of these distributions, whether they are or not, and what mechanisms guarantee a binding of conventional arrangements of reproduction and transformation. At least this last point stands out with a greater understanding conflict from which the authors themselves do not converge on analytical similarities.

In the text by Jeffrey Alexsander (1990), initially, there is a historical rescue of the period of crisis experienced by the theorist Talcott Parsons. The year 1930 was troubled in several ways, mainly with regard to the political-ideological contradictions that broke out between the political right (focusing on Nazism) and left (communism). For Jeffrey Alexsander (1990), this is a reflection of the ineffectiveness of classical liberal theory, which no longer provided solid foundations for society's demands, even more so at a time of global economic crisis.

It was in this context that the sociology of Talcott Parsons emerged with the concern to respond to the crisis, emphasizing the social order as the foundation for the stability of systems of interaction between social actors. In this way, the theorist launched efforts to found an epistemological base that would present another theoretical apparatus for the effective performance of studies on reality and, at the same time, contribute to the liberal theory so that it could guarantee the “integrity of the individual and the exercise of reason”.

Even though he was initially inspired by Émile Durkheim's functionalist theoretical model, Talcott Parsons incorporated new elements that distanced the notion of social actors and the configuration of the social system. He criticized utilitarianism and tried to distance himself from the readings that conditioned individual actions to the social structure, precisely in the aspect in which Peter Berger's effort is found: the speculation that there is a set of structures predetermined to individuals and inherent to their wills that prescribes a series of forms of relationship and social action from which individuals only act in accordance with “what society expects from them”, removing their transforming capacity. And what can be observed as the most important element added by Talcott Parsons is the idea of ​​voluntarism.

This new proposal recognizes that individuals have the capacity to act in the social structure through their individual efforts. It is a kind of ability to recognize structures and individual freedom to act. However, simply using voluntary action is not enough; there must be external conditions and situations that are beyond the actor's control in order to achieve success and effectiveness in actions. The individuals act on the structure, which will respond on the individuals. In this way, it has been breaking with the idea that structures acquire an automatic coercive and self-regulating character that is alien to individualities. In other words, the Durkheimian “collective conscience” of guaranteeing social cohesion is denied and it is emphasized that organized individual effort can also provide commitments and social constructions that can guarantee the functioning of society.

On the other point that should be highlighted, both authors succeed in understanding the effect that socially given structures cause on individuals in their formation and in the process of assimilating the logic of action in a reigning society, as well as the social control mechanisms that operate about individuals who do not correspond to what is given to them as conduct or norm. This can be explained in two parts.

Initially, returning to Peter Berger, there are social strata that mean a system of hierarchy, from which individuals assume positions, whether pre-established before birth or through effort, superior or inferior in terms of power, prestige and privilege. At the same time, as each social layer is distributed with different attributions and influences, this guarantees that individuals tend to absorb social forms and rules under different interpretations and ways of acting. In other words, whoever is born in a quilombola community tends to reproduce the practices of that group, considering the degree of proximity and interference of the collective organism that assumes its security of existence, functioning and success through the social control of individuals. Here comes the second point. The authors present several arguments, examples and situations that justify such procedures.

Talcott Parsons enunciates different pieces that contribute to the social system – which is the space in which there will be a relationship of elements that complement each other and guarantee the functioning of the structures. Each sphere assumes a purpose in response to the solidary organization in society. For example, the economy assimilates an adaptation stance. The family, education and culture contribute with the role of insertion of individuals in this environment, almost in a kind of continuous management of molding and maintenance of eventual tensions. In politics, the individual may act voluntarily.

From this, one can make the following assessment, which perhaps Talcott Parsons did not want to make explicit: the individual, before presenting himself to the action, must receive an entire ideological, religious, political, traditions, assimilation of right and wrong , of legal and illegal, and after almost being formatted completely, if possible, it will question the world set (at this level, it already assumes a natural aspect for the individual in question).

On the other hand, it is known that the world is permeated throughout its history of conflicts, in all spheres mentioned above. Thus, while he receives school education, the family's behavioral influence, the imposition of tastes, customs and needs through the media, he is faced with violence by individuals against themselves or by the police against others; he lives, at the same time, environments of cultural, moral, ethnic, ideological contradictions, mainly in the case of a globalized world and supposedly democratic in the cohabitation with the differences (but this is not a general rule).

Therefore, individuals can indeed enjoy their rational capacity, not necessarily being preconditioned to a given single thought. However, as quoted by Peter Berger, there is a strong behavioral and action control of individuals, which becomes increasingly effective in the psychology of these subjects, as the sphere of relationships narrows, for example, disapproval by the family in the face of attitude X or judgment Y that they will receive and possibly inflect their conscience and shape their way of acting, as they also seek prestige, recognition, given that they need credit to continue in an endless game of disputed social positions .

In summary, in addition to corrective and control measures in the sphere that escapes total centralizing control by the State – that is, in the sphere of the family, the community, the traditional culture, in case this does not work to maintain the order that Talcott Parsons so desires – , there is the superior apparatus to ensure that individuals do not offer “resistance” and cause “disruptions”. Ultimately, there is the violent force that will annul the existence of such individuals or even start to correct them in its own way, so that it gives continuity to the interests of society. There is no way to escape the historical accumulation of techniques and social institutions themselves.

However, here too, as well as in Peter Berger's text, there is a limitation and it is still unilateral, in the understanding of institutions, of social action around the maintenance of the status quo and a solidary functionality of cohesion guarantee mechanisms. On the one hand, there are social structures, institutions, which accumulate experiences of coexistence and historical social format resulting from conflicts, agreements and differences, which begin to regulate and guide individual and collective daily life. On the other hand, this same collective of individuals (more specifically rescuing the idea of ​​Talcott Parsons) reacts rationally to control measures for a “perpetuation of the species” – of society – and can organize itself and present other forms of recognition and functioning to the order.

However, this same order, if philosophical and ideological foundations are analyzed (as it is difficult to escape, until today, in the field of sociological research), must be guaranteed by the apparatuses previously presented (as everyone who studies history can observe) and resulting of conflicts of interests, cultures, ideas, rules and religion through wars, murders, impositions and coups. All this for the benefit of groups that take control of society and begin to shape it to their will and benefit. By dominating the apparatuses of violent force (army and police), they maintain final control (in the authors' logic) over other regulatory institutions, such as the economy, politics and even culture itself.

Culture, in this relationship, is what permeates social vitality and supports measures, however, by reversing this process, culture can also be guided. As quoted by Peter Berger, individuals come to legitimize, over time, rules imposed and maintained initially through the use of force. This author's conclusive assumptions refer to a prison-world from which one cannot escape, that is, a place where some celebrate prestige and have the privilege of oppressing the broad and almost totalizing part of society not endowed with bad faith. In his words, referring to Durkheim (and even found in Talcott Parsons when trying a theory of the voluntary capacity of individuals to act in the system on them), all this works external to individuals.

And all they can do is act on structures, properly separating their degree of influence, interference and control. This tends to benefit those favored by classical liberalism, their heirs and all those who come to acquire power or status in this system clearly legitimized by the authors as hierarchical.

Peter Berger presents the stratifications of society, legitimizing that each society has many and that they are all related. Talcott Parsons tries to take the liberal assumptions of competition and benefit to the extreme, however, he criticizes certain immaturities of the subjects and flaws in the way things go. That is, there were deviations, crises and questions, as previously mentioned, in the examples of the rise of Nazism and/or communism, among other collectivist systems.

It is noted, then, as Jeffrey Alexander himself pointed out in the conclusion of the second chapter of his work, a clear tendency to improve the liberal model, playing with the notion of defect, anomaly of the order and functioning of Western society, any proposals that compete with other cultural, economic and political models. The very idea of ​​competition, in this way, falls into contradiction.

However, it is not possible to cover the analysis in such a way due to being faced with small fragments of great ideas that last, which have been perfected or surpassed today in the sociological scientific field, including why the authors did not address what anthropologists have focused on. mainly occupied for a long period: the apprehension of a transition from the animal/natural state of man to the state in society, as well as the emergence of institutions that, even today, are believed to be “eternal”, such as the family, or even the social role of violence.

Nevertheless, it is important to value their efforts, at least in understanding the functioning of advanced structures of accumulation and social reproduction that will certainly not be erased or modified according to individual wishes. A degree of complexity has been reached in these structures and in society itself at the height of globalization that it is no longer possible to destroy what historically sustains humanity and the world. There are, however, disputes over projects, hegemony and ideas remaining or not from the liberal enlightenment, but all this weighed in during the gestation period of such philosophical conceptions.

In another direction, one cannot naturalize the institutions, but - now rescuing the concerns of the authors in the sense of the role of sociology in the face of all this and what analytical method to use - demystify them mainly with the constant use of historical reference, even modifying a Berger's idea of ​​classes (without letting it be classified as a mere stratum) little to define cultures and the set of predilections, norms, philosophical purposes and all interference of interests that surround and act in societies, whether directly in the structures and their historical reproducers or that come from individuals who aim or not at the revolution or reform of such institutions.

* André Luiz de Souza is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).


ALEXANDER, Jeffrey. Parsons' first synthesis. In: ALEXANDER, Jeffrey. Sociological theories since the Second World War. Barcelona: Gedisa Editorial SA, 1990. p. 17-25.

ALEXANDER, Jeffrey. The structural-functionalism. In: ALEXANDER, Jeffrey. Sociological theories since the Second World War. Barcelona: Gedisa Editorial SA, 1990. P. 25-34.

BERGER, Peter L. The sociological perspective – man in society. In: BERGER, Peter L.  Sociological perspectives: a humanistic view. Petrópolis: Voices, 1976. p. 75-100.

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