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Structural Functionalism and the Works of Talcott Parsons

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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 1:05 Talcott Parsons
  • 2:24 Adaptation & Goal Achievement
  • 3:48 Integration & Latency
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson will seek to explain structural functionalism and the works of Talcott Parsons. In doing so, it will highlight the AGIL system and the functional theory of stratification.

Definition of Terms

Today's lesson on structural functionalism and the works of Talcott Parsons will be a bit odd in that many of his theories are looked down upon by modern anthropologists. However, just like the idea that you can catch a cold by going outside without a jacket has been pooh-poohed by modern science, moms all over the world still make kids bundle up. Like this, structural functionalism still finds its way into most, if not all, anthropology textbooks.

For starters, and to really simplify, structural functionalism is the theoretical perspective that seeks to understand the function that each aspect of culture plays in supporting the structure of a society. In seeking to do this, one of its main premises is the idea that individuals and culture function in order to support the structure of their society. In simple terms, everyone has a role to play or a function to perform, and they perform it in order to support the structure of their society, hence the name 'structural functionalism.'

Talcott Parsons

With this definition of sorts in mind, let's turn our attention to Talcott Parsons, the guy who's often heralded as the greatest contributor to the theory of structural functionalism. As a structural functionalist, Parsons was very, very interested in the idea of social order. Like many of his structural functionalist cronies, he held to the functional theory of stratification, the idea that hierarchical class systems and orders were necessary for society to function. Although it sounds rather foreign to some modern minds, structural functionalists felt inequality was a necessary part of any working society since inequality is what they believed kept society ticking along.

To break it down, they might say it this way: 'if everyone felt equal, there would be no desire for a person to achieve more.' To use a familiar phrase, there'd be no desire to keep 'movin' on up!' Without this desire for individual improvement, society as a whole would stagnate. Therefore, in the mind of the structural functionalist, inequality functions to keep individuals striving upward. This, in turn, keeps the structure of society not just intact but moving forward.

Adaptation & Goal Achievement

Sort of building on this idea, Talcott Parsons is probably best remembered for what has become known as his AGIL system. As an acronym, this system explained the four things Parsons felt all societies must have in order to survive. For the remainder of the lesson, we'll take a look at these four, and we'll try to give them some sticking power.

Starting with the 'A' in the acronym AGIL, we have a society's ability to adapt or change in order to survive. For our purposes, we'll use my siblings and me. In our earlier years, we moved around a lot. Since this can be very scary for kids, my sisters and I were very close. We adapted to our environment by leaning on each other. This helped us survive moves to different areas and different schools. While some kids were closer to their friends, my sisters and I were closer to each other. We adapted!

Let's move on to the 'G' in AGIL. This one stands for goal achievement, the idea that every society has an inherent set of goals. Again using my siblings and me, we definitely had some goals. No, we never got together and formally wrote them down, but we inherently knew that our goal was to have a place where we belonged. For this reason, we didn't tend to argue nearly as much as I remember my friends arguing with their siblings.

Integration & Latency

This brings us to the 'I' for integration. This one signifies a society's ability to make its members function within its goals. For this one, I'll use my poor little brother. By the time he came along, our family was no longer moving around, and we had laid down some roots. Therefore, he was able to make some closer friendships outside the home. However, my sisters and I still made it quite clear to him that we were the big sisters in charge and we got to call the shots. We were close, and like all big sisters, we were going to force him to be close whether he liked it or not! To Parsons, this would just be our little sibling society's way of making sure we survived; to my brother, it was torture!

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