Social Systems: Definition & Theory

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Status Set in Sociology: Definition & Example

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 What Is a Social System?
  • 1:17 Agil Paradigm
  • 2:23 Examples of Social Systems
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn what defines social systems, and gain insight into how their relationships create a functioning society. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with the quiz.

What Is a Social System?

Think about the town or city that you live in - what are the pieces that make it a community? There are probably private businesses and manufacturing, public schools, government agencies, and possibly even a few religious institutions. Although we tend to think of these things as being independent entities that provide us with certain services, they are also the individual pieces that comprise a community or society.

In sociology, the groups and institutions that work together to make a complete whole are known as social systems. As a concept and academic theory, social systems are used to identify relationships that connect people and organizations, which ultimately contribute to a larger institution.

For example, public education is a kind of social system because it attempts to unify people by providing standard education, which will allow them to participate in and contribute to the economy, thus strengthening the overall society.

While it may seem like a fairly straightforward concept, social systems can be difficult to understand depending on the context in which they are being applied. In the broadest sense, you can think of social systems as a way of breaking down a larger group, such as an entire society, and categorizing them to understand how their interactions combine to create a functional whole.

AGIL Paradigm

Though social systems themselves have likely existed for as long as human beings have been living collectively, the concept emerged as an academic theory in sociologist Talcott Parson's book, The Structure of Social Action. Through this work, Parsons constructed the AGIL paradigm which he used to identify the four basic conditions that societies needed in order to survive- adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency.

The AGIL paradigm is a rather complicated system for assessing the functional needs of societies, but his framework allowed him to break down each category into sub-categories. In doing this, Parsons was able to categorize the different social systems, and analyze how they intersected with each other in order to contribute to a successful whole.

Parsons believed that the conditions of the AGIL paradigm were static and were not influenced by changes in culture and society, and could be applied to any society, regardless of place or time. Because of this, the theory drew considerable criticism for being excessively complicated, too rigid, and unwilling to consider cultural difference.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account