Sociologists Parsons and Merton explored the salient forces and processes that work in a social system. They sought to interpret the relationships of these forces in terms of how they govern the social discourse in various distinct settings. The theories they developed can be contrasted in line with how they established structural linkages and relations that work through a social system to create a meaningful whole. The fundamental differences in their theoretical conceptions are mostly represented in different roles they assigned to different structures of the society.
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Parson’s theory of action is essentially functionalist in aspect. He distinguishes social structures through a stratified system that reveals the functionalist nature of the social system. Parson’s interest lies in the forces that work within a social system. He described them as complex and consisting of other smaller systems which can be observed from collective and isolated aspects of social phenomena. His theory adopts an empirical methodology to create meaning from the complex forces that work within a society.
Merton, on the other hand, through his version of the anomie theory situates the workings of a social system in the element of deviancy as his example. Merton captures deviance in ways that portray it as a system that is basically reactionary to the social forces of its setting. He brings out a rather controversial exploration of deviance as a necessary social element that actively confronts imbalances and all forms of disequilibrium in society.
According to Merton, the existence of stable social structures that are held together by ordered social functions can only be made possible by the element of deviance as a factor of control. Merton argued that there cannot exist some inbuilt drive for the crime. That even in situations where deviancy seems to operate at the individual level, it is necessarily governed by a self-regulatory mechanism of the social structures. Crime according to Merton is necessitated by structural inequality which places pressure on people forcing them to act in groups or individuality in the process of seeking the adjustments.
Parsons believes that society is governed by the forces of the interpenetration of systems and their mutual influence. The implication in his school of thought is that there can never be an impermeable closure between any two or more social systems. The presumed closure of systems according to him is basically a theoretical construct because generally, the systems relate through complicated processes. This according to him implies a coordinated interchange in complicated processes. The underlying theoretical concern aligns with his ideal that each individual social structure serves some set role in the entire operation of the social system.
Merton’s theoretical construction of ideas is based on conformity, ritualism, rebellion, and innovation. These are the four main representations through which reactions, actions, and functions of social systems are based according to Merton. The matter of deviancy which is core to the theoretical framework is anchored on the innovation factor. This factor takes note of the fact that the human agent which is at the center of all social systems must develop behavioral adaptations to adjust to social realities. Therefore, Merton and Parson use different theoretical means to explore the functionality of society through systems relative to the structures of component systems.
Merton, Robert. Social theory and social structure. Ed 3. New York: Free Press, 1968.
Rhoads, John. Critical issues in social theory. Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1991.
Staubmann, Helmut. Action theory: methodological studies. Hamburg: LIT Verlag Munster, 2006.