In this article we will discuss about the meaning and functions of social system.
Meaning of Social System:
The concept of system got currency in modern sociology only a few decades ago. Previously, the sociologists dealt with every social phenomenon as a phase of social organisation. In their analysis they did not make much use of the word ‘system’.
The reason which prompted sociologists to give up the previous approach and adopt a systems approach is that there was the need for a term which would “put the emphasis on the arrangement and interaction of parts”.
Talcott Parsons, more than anyone else in recent years, has given the concept of system currency in modern sociology. He defined social system thus:
“A social system consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which at least has a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the ‘optimization of gratification’ and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols”, (The Social System).
Ogbum and Nimkoff have given a simplified version of this definition of Parsons:
“A social system may be defined as a plurality of individuals interacting with each other according to shared cultural norms and meanings”.
A careful analysis of the above definition would show that the emphasis has been placed on interrelationship or interaction among individuals within the framework of a normative pattern. That is, individuals do not behave with one another erratically or in a haphazard manner.
On the contrary, their mutual interaction is very much patterned. They play their roles in terms of the statuses they occupy in the society. The relationship among individuals is thus structured. Likewise, social groups function within the normative pattern of the society. Here also haphazard or erratic functioning of social groups is ruled out.
A system presupposes a structure that is designed to perform certain functions. A watch, for instance, may be considered to be a system because it has a structure consisting of different parts which are interrelated with one another in such a way as to perform its function, which in this case is to indicate correct time.
If any part gets detached or if the balance existing among the parts is disturbed, the watch fails to fulfill its function, viz. of indicating the time correctly. If society is looked upon as a system, it also must have a structure consisting of various parts which are designed to perform certain functions of the system.
What are then the parts of the social structure? From what has been discussed above, it follows that individuals and groups in a society may be considered to be parts of the social structure. We also noted that individuals and groups have patterned roles in terms of the prevailing social norms.
Again, these social norms reflect the dominant values of society. Following Durkheim, we may consider social norms and values as ‘things’ and hence parts of the social structure.
Radcliffe-Brown has defined social structure thus:
“The components of social structure are human beings, the structure itself being an arrangement of persons in relationship institutionally defined and regulated”.
Functions of Social System:
We have seen that a system presupposes not only a structure but also certain functions which its structure is supposed to perform. What are the functions of the social system? Talcott Parsons has given a four-function paradigm.
This paradigm posits that every social system must continually confront and solve the four sets of organisational problems indicated below. In abbreviated form, the four-function paradigm is referred to as AGIL.
The problems of adapting the social system to its physical and social environments. The most important problems in this respect are procuring resources needed for its activities, providing for protection against physical and social threats, and developing information relating to these.
2. Goal Attainment:
The organisational problem of effecting co-ordination in any collective tasks directed outside the system itself.
The internal problem of maintaining satisfying relations among the interacting, members and avoiding disrupting conflicts. For small groups, this concerns inter-personal relations. For larger organisation, it concerns inter-group relations.
4. Latent Pattern Maintenance:
The internal organisational problem of ordering activity patterns of the system, and also of adjusting the role demands on members, so that these are compatible with their other role commitments.
It is evident that the first two organisational problems concern the external relations of the social system with its environment, including its physical habitat, the bodily needs of its members, and other social systems with which it comes in contact The second pair of problems concern the internal organisation of the social system as a human group of socialised and interacting persons with cultural commitments.
How does a social system ensure that these important functions are properly performed? The society sets up various institutions which are “a constellation of socially significant customs collected around some function or set of functions, such as ruling, fighting and worshipping “.
We may identify five of these great social institutions— namely, family, economic, political, educational, and religious institutions —which are found in all societies in all eras and in all parts of the world.
These institutions “centre upon getting food and other items of wealth, procreation, worship, and ruling. Getting a living, begetting and rearing children, believing in higher powers, and enforcing order are repetitive activities found in Babylon and in New York, among the Australian aborigines and among the Australian whites”.
The social institutions are all closely interrelated and they form a complex whole. That is why institutions are referred to as “a cluster of institutions”, one impinging upon the others.
The social system, the social structure with its interrelated parts, the basic functions of the system together with corresponding institutions designed to fulfill these functions are set out in diagrammatic form below: