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Social Systems: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:00 What Is a Social System?
  • 1:17 Agil Paradigm
  • 2:23 Examples of Social Systems
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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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.

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