Social System Research Paper

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A system is a set of differentiated and interdependent components. With such an abstract definition, the notion of system explicitly or implicitly underlies all or most of the theories of the social sciences. It is therefore useful to distinguish three ways of conceptualizing social systems, each one corresponding to a major paradigm. First, the historicist paradigm, according to which society constitutes a global system subject to a necessary law of historical evolution; this paradigm was mainly represented by Comte and Marx in the nineteenth century. Second, the structural-functional paradigm, according to which a society is a system whose components are the social institutions (the family, religion, etc.); this approach was developed in anthropology by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in the 1930s, and then imported into sociology by Merton and Parsons. Third, the actionist paradigm, in which the social systems are constituted by actors and their interactions; one of the main sources of this paradigm is the subjectivist and marginalist revolution that happened in the 1870s in economics.

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1. The Historicist Conception Of Social Systems

According to the historicist conception, society is destined to go through a necessary succession of great historical stages, each of which is a social system. The aim of sociology, then, is to determine the nature of these systems, and especially the historical ‘law’ governing their succession. Thanks to this historical ‘law,’ it becomes possible to know the nature of the social system that will appear in the future, the nature of the next great historical stage. What is the use of knowing in advance an inescapable future? Comte and Marx have the same answer: it gives us the power to facilitate and accelerate the advent of the ideal future society, since according to them the future social system will be the ultimate stage in the progress of humanity.

1.1 Comte And Marx

In his positivist theory, Comte (1824) analyzes the past and future evolution of society as the succession of three great social systems. The theological system, first, was represented by the European absolute monarchies: social phenomena were then interpreted in the frame of the Christian religion, the spiritual power was held by the priests and the temporal power by the aristocracy (the sword). Then came the metaphysical system ushered in by the French Revolution: social phenomena were interpreted in the frame of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the spiritual power gave way to freedom of conscience, and the temporal power came into the hands of the people (democracy). According to Comte, this metaphysical system is only transitional. It has a destructive nature and is thus unable to constitute a lasting social order. It will be replaced in the future by the positive system, in which sociology will become a ‘positive’ science (founded, just like modern physics and chemistry, upon observation and invariable natural laws), and in which the spiritual power will be held by the scientists and the temporal power by the producers (the manufacturers). Each social system is thus defined by its ‘civilization’ (the state of our understanding of social phenomena) and by its ‘social organization’ (as defined by who holds the spiritual and of the temporal powers). Social organization is here supposed to be determined by the state of civilization, and the latter is determined by scientific progress. Comte believed that this progress obeyed the law of the three stages: he thought that sociology, like the other positive sciences, would appear at the end of a three-stage process (‘theological,’ ‘metaphysical,’ and ‘positive’) through which knowledge is progressively liberated from its animistic and anthropomorphic bias. In this way, the components of each social system and social evolution itself are determined by the progress of knowledge, and this progress is in turn determined by the law of the three stages.

Marx’s historicism (1859), or dialectical materialism, describes a succession of four ‘modes of production’ (or social systems), antique, feudal, capitalistic, and socialistic. Each one of these systems is made up of two major components: the ‘material productive forces’ (techniques, tools, machinery) and the ‘production relations’ (property laws). The productive forces are supposed to determine the production relations, and also all the other ideological features of society (politics, religion, esthetics, philosophy). Marx illustrated this idea with a famous sentence: ‘the hand mill gives you feudal society, the steam mill industrial capitalism’ (Misere de la philosophie 1847). In a watered-down version of his historicism, Marx (1859, Preface) explains that the succession of these systems is a historical necessity arising from the development of the productive forces (i.e., of the technical capacities of production). Technical and economic progress end up being incompatible with existing production relations. When this contradiction reaches its climax, the production relations are unshackled, and a great social revolution takes place, marking the transition between two modes of production. In Das Kapital (1867, Vol. 1), Marx attempts to study in a much more detailed way, with an actionist methodology, the necessary future succession between capitalism and socialism (see Sect. 3 for actionism).

The historicist view was widely held in the nineteenth century. It is to be found in Tocqueville’s analysis of the secular transition between aristocratic and democratic society (De la Democratie en Amerique, Vol. 1, 1835). Durkheim, greatly influenced by Comte, attempts to explain in De la Division du Travail Social (1893) the necessary transition between the primitive societies, where social cohesion is ‘mechanical’ (cohesion comes from the similarity between individuals), and modern society, where social cohesion is ‘organic’ (cohesion arises from the differences between and the complementarity of individuals). In Spencer’s historicism (The Principles of Sociology, 1891), the historical law of succession between the primitive and modern societies is a law of evolution from a simple to a complex organization, based in part on the biological principles of Darwinism.

1.2 Limits And Errors Of Historicism

It is easy today to perceive the limits of historicist theories. From a static point of view, social systems are represented in an oversimplified way, and their internal causal relations are debatable (the alleged primacy of ‘civilization’ over ‘social organization’ in Comte, and of ‘productive forces’ over ‘production relations’ in Marx). But these theories are especially questionable from a dynamic point of view: regardless of the obvious errors of prediction of a Comte or a Marx, the historicist project may be conclusively refuted with the help of an epistemological argument. Historicist ‘laws’ are supposed to be the equivalent in the field of social phenomena of physical laws in the field of natural phenomena. But physical laws (for instance, the law of falling bodies) explain reproducible phenomena, i.e., phenomena that may be repeatedly observed because they recur a great number of times. Historicist ‘laws,’ on the other hand, try to explain a unique phenomenon, human history. This phenomenon, which happens only once and is definitely not reproducible, cannot be explained by a scientific law in the sense of the natural sciences (Popper 1957). In other words, the claim of historicism to possess a scientific character is completely unfounded. Historicist authors are unable to establish, in a convincing way, the causal relations that are supposed to determine the necessary succession between the great social systems or historical stages (for an analysis of other deep contradictions in the positivism of Comte see Hayek 1952, and in the dialectical materialism of Marx see Mises 1957).

2. The Structural-Functional Conception Of Social Systems

In the structural-functional paradigm, social institutions are the components of society considered as a system. On the one hand, these institutions play a role in the functioning of society ( functionalism) and on the other hand are held together by relationships of complementarity that constitute a structure (structuralism). The historicist sociologists of the nineteenth century were immersed in a vast process of sociological, economic, and political change. This process seemed to be explainable in terms of a necessary succession of great social systems. The structuralfunctional paradigm was born in a totally different intellectual context. It originated from the anthropological study of primitive societies, whose long-term history was unknown. As a consequence, this paradigm was completely severed from the most questionable aspect of historicism, namely the search for a global historical ‘law’ of succession between great social systems.

2.1 Society As A Functional System

As formulated by anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown (1935), the basic idea of functionalism is that in a given society, every institution, every social process, every cultural form possesses a ‘function,’ i.e., it plays a definite and even indispensable role in the survival and perpetuation of this system. This reasoning is borrowed from biology, where each organ plays a necessary role in the survival of the organism. Faced with a social institution, whatever it may be, the social scientist is supposed to establish its function from the standpoint of the global system constituted by society. For instance, Radcliffe-Brown explains the existence of ancestor worship in traditional societies by the function of strengthening solidarity: thanks to these rites, individuals learn that they can count on the magical help of their forebears, and also that they must submit to the traditional rules. A narrower conception of functionalism was offered by Malinowski (1944). According to him, the economic, educational and political institutions of a society have the function of satisfying—directly or indirectly—the ‘primary’ needs related to the biological survival of individuals (food, medical care, reproduction). These primary needs give birth to ‘derivative’ needs. Satisfying the need for food, for instance, implies a cooperation between the members of society. Since this cooperation requires rules of conduct, these rules themselves become a need, but an ‘indirect’ one in the sense that it is derived from a primary need.

Functionalism was then imported into the sociology of complex societies by Merton (1949). His functional analysis is more qualified than the basic or ‘absolute’ functionalism developed by the anthropologists of traditional societies. Merton begins by distinguishing the functions that are ‘manifest’ (i.e., deliberately sought for or designed by the actors taking part in the system) and the functions that are ‘latent’ (i.e., those that play a role unknown to the participants in the system). The function of the cult of the ancestors according to Radcliffe-Brown is an example of a latent function. Merton then observes that in modern societies some institutions can be functional for a given group, and at the same time dysfunctional for another group (a technical advance, for instance, can increase the average productivity of labor, but also create a redundancy in some branches of production and compel some workers to search for a new job). A modern society, considered as a system, shares none of the ‘functional unity’ of biological organisms. Furthermore, some institutions or customs may not have any function. Finally, Merton criticizes the idea that there exist a certain number of functions that are necessary to the survival of any society, and that the same specific institutions would be indispensable to perform these functions across all societies.

2.2 The Structure Of Social Systems

The conception of society as a functional system of institutions leads quite naturally to an analysis of social structure, that is, to an analysis of the complementarity of these institutions. A famous illustration is given by Parsons (1951). He observes that a highly industrialized society requires actors to be socially and geographically mobile. But this mobility is possible only if the actors are not too closely connected to their parents: there must be a clear-cut separation between an actor’s ‘orientation’ family (where he or she was born) and the ‘procreation’ family (the one created by his or her marriage). If we follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, industrialization is seen to be incompatible with powerful and extensive traditional family ties. Those two components—industrialization on the one hand and the separation between orientation and procreation families on the other—constitute a consistent social structure typical of modern societies. Conversely, the absence of industrialization and extensive and powerful family ties are the components of another stable social structure, typical of traditional societies. This example shows how the existence of one institution can imply the existence of another institution, their combination representing a stable and coherent social structure.

In anthropology, with Levi-Strauss (1958), the study of social structure became a structuralism based largely upon linguistics. Levi-Strauss realized that in traditional societies kinship relations (brother/sister), (husband/wife), (uncle / nephew), (father / son) constitute a system characterized by a law of opposition. If, in a given society, the relations between a brother and his sister are generally ‘good’ (friendly), then (husband / wife) relations are ‘bad’ (reserved or hostile); in the same way, if (uncle / nephew) relations are ‘good,’ then (father / son) relations are ‘bad,’ or vice versa. The system of kinship (brother / sister)(husband /wife) (uncle / nephew)(father /son) can thus exist in only four structures in the different societies: ‘+ – / + -,’ ‘+ – / – +,’ ‘ – + / + -,’ or ‘- + / – +.’ The first of these structures, ‘ + – / + – ,’ means that (brother/ sister) relations are good, as symbolized by the ‘ + ’ sign, (husband / wife) relations are bad, ‘-’ sign, (uncle /nephew) relations are good, and (father / son) relations are bad.

This law of opposition, in which relations take precedence over the components they relate, is perfectly similar to the law that had been previously discovered by the linguists N. S. Troubetzkoy and R. Jakobson in the area of structural phonology (these authors showed that language as a communication system rests on a law of opposition between the phonemes).

2.3 The Explanatory Limits Of Structural-Functional

This paradigm has been criticized mainly for its lack of explanatory power. In principle, the ‘absolute’ functionalism of a Radcliffe-Brown or a Malinowski permits us to explain the existence of an institution by the role it plays in the working and thus in the existence of a given society. But the more qualified conception of functionalism to be found in Merton does not enable us to explain the existence of an institution by its latent function, since this institution or function is not considered as a functional requisite of the society anymore. The existence of an institution, then, can only be explained with the help of a ‘genetic’ analysis consisting of the study of the historical origin of this institution. Two important criticisms have been aimed at structural-functional from an actionist viewpoint by Homans (1987): first, this paradigm takes for granted the actors’ obedience to social rules, and does not explain why the actors choose to follow these rules; second, the existence of social structures is also taken for granted, and no explanation is offered as to how these structures emerge from social interaction.

3. The Actionist Conception Of Social Systems

The actionist paradigm aims at discovering the causes of social phenomena in the actions of individuals, and more precisely in the combination of these actions (e.g., see Action, Theories of Social; Methodological Indi idualism in Sociology). Social systems are defined as systems of actions or of interactions, from the smallest (two actors) to the largest ones (for instance, the international division of labor). In this paradigm, individual actions are generally considered as rational. This rationality may be utilitarian (appropriateness of means to ends), cognitive (rationality of positive beliefs, i.e., of factual propositions), or axiological (rationality of normative beliefs). The focus of attention, here, is neither on the global evolution of society (historicism), nor on social institutions seen from the standpoint of their functional role and of their mutual relationships (structural-functional), but on human action: social phenomena are considered as emergent and possibly unintentional effects whose causes are actions constituting a system. The actionist paradigm is widely used in economics as well as in sociology. It is quite old since it implicitly underlies, for instance, the works of a classical economist like A. Smith (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776). Its importance was reinforced in the 1870s by the marginalist and subjectivist revolution that took place in economics. This revolution consisted of a much more rigorous analysis of human choices and actions in an environment characterized by the scarcity of goods, and made possible the development of really satisfying theories of prices and interest rates.

3.1 The Systems Of Economic Exchange

The most simple system of exchange is composed of two actors, either of which possesses a good and decides or refuses to exchange it against the other good, according to his or her subjective preferences. For an exchange to take place, the good supplied must have less subjective value than the good demanded (and this is true of each of the two actors). This system can be generalized to a market comprising many sellers and buyers trading one good for another. It may then be generalized to a whole economic system made up of a great numbers of markets. In the tradition originating in L. Walras (Elements d ’Economie Politique Pure, 1874), the representation of a global economic system rests on the concept of general equilibrium. In a situation of general equilibrium, all the actions of all the actors on all the markets are compatible with one another: they can all be carried out without any actor feeling any regret or disappointment. Thanks to a mathematical formalization of the subjective preferences of the consumers and the possibilities of production of the producers, the existence of a general equilibrium can be logically demonstrated: under some conditions, there exists a set of prices of consumer goods and factors of production such that all the actions of buying and selling are compatible (Arrow and Hahn 1971). This theory is rather complex from a mathematical point of view, and it suffers from two main defects: it does not demonstrate that the system converges towards a general equilibrium, and it does not take into account the radical uncertainty of the future.

In another school of thought, the Austrian school (Mises 1949), the focus is on market processes. Economic analysis here focuses on the consequences in the economic system of a change in one of its elements. If, for instance, the consumers change their preferences and decide to spend more than before on good A and less on good B, the demand for A rises and its price tends to rise. The rate of profit also tends to rise in the branch of production of good A (since the price of this product rises when its costs of production remain the same). If this rate of profit becomes higher than the current rate of profit, more resources will be invested in the production of good A. Two consequences follow: first, the demand for the factors of production of A will rise and thus the prices of these factors will tend to rise; and second, the supply of A will increase and thus its price will tend to diminish. In this way, the rate of profit in the branch of production of A is brought down to the current level (since the price diminishes and the costs rise). Conversely, as the demand for B and its price are lowered, the rate of profit falls below the current level, and a disinvestment occurs. Demand for the factors of production of B decreases, resulting in lower prices. As a consequence, the supply of B tends to drop and its price to rise. As a consequence, the rate of profit in the production of B is brought back to the current level (the price rises and the costs diminish). A first adaptation of the economic system to the change of demand is thus achieved: the branch of production of A expands and the branch of B contracts. But the changes are not restricted to these two branches of production. To the extent that the demand for the factors of production of A or B (and for the factors of production of these factors) is also changed, the changes diffuse throughout the system and a new balance between the various branches of industry is established. It is possible to study in the same way the diffusion of the effects of a technical advance, or of a variation in the supply of a natural resource, in the quantity of money, in savings, and so on.

3.2 The Actionist Systems In Sociology

The actionist tradition in sociology was born in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. Weber (1956), for instance, developed a ‘comprehensive’ method, which consists of trying to understand actions from the point of view of the actors themselves. This method constitutes a generalization of the analysis of human choices derived from the subjectivist revolution of the 1870s in economics. The German sociological tradition had a major influence on sociology in the twentieth century, for instance through the ‘interactionist’ approach (e.g., see Interactionism, Symbolic). The use of actionist systems enables us to explain in a convincing way a number of important and puzzling phenomena. Boudon (1973) has thus explained ‘Anderson’s paradox’ in the field of sociology of education. From the 1960s on, an important democratization of schooling took place, as the proportion of children of low socioeconomic status increased in the colleges and universities. Since future social status is strongly related to academic achievement, vertical social mobility was expected to increase in developed countries. But, and this is the paradox, it didn’t. In spite of a reduction of this inequality, social mobility was not greater than before. Boudon showed that this paradox could be explained due to an actionist system based on the motivations and choices of individuals. Many other examples could be taken from the various fields of sociology (see Boudon 1979 for a survey).

4. The General System Theory

In the 1940s, Bertalanffy (1968) began to develop a ‘general system theory,’ aiming at transcending the frontiers between a wide range of disciplines—physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and the social sciences. His basic idea was that the systems analyzed in these different branches of learning share a number of features that can and should be the subject of a science of systems as such. But if it is admitted that the aim of science is to find satisfactory explanations of important phenomena, then the analogies that can be discovered between the systems originating from different branches of science do not matter very much. These analogies can constitute genuine scientific contributions only if they suggest new ways of explaining phenomena, or if they improve the existing explanations. Structural anthropology (Levi-Strauss 1958) is a good example of a set of theories that originated from an abstract theory of the structure of systems (see Sect. 2 above), but it is an exception. Most of the time, the study of social systems can dispense with a general science of systems (obviously, the opposite is not true).


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