pattern variables


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Fig. 22 Pattern variables. A location of examples of contrasting types of society in terms of their dominant cultural values, expressed in terms ofTalcott Parsons’ pattern variables.

pattern variables

the four (sometimes five) basic ‘pattern-alternatives of value orientation’ for individuals and cultures, according to PARSONS. On this formulation, cultures are seen as organizing action, and actors as faced with implicit ‘choices’ in relationships, in terms of four dichotomous alternative modes of orientation to social objects’, including other actors:
  1. affective involvement/affective neutrality - orientation by the actor to immediate gratifications or the absence of such immediate gratification, e.g. eating a meal or watching a football match compared with work that does not engage one's emotions;
  2. ascription/achievement (also referred to as the quality/performance distinction) -judgements about ‘social objects’, including actors according to their membership or not of specified social categories as against judgements made in terms of more general criteria which apply to the actual performance of actors, e.g. in most societies gender is ascribed, while success at football or in a musical career involves achievement;
  3. particularism/universalism - the choice whether to treat a ‘social object’ in accordance with their standing in some particular relationship independently of general norms, or to treat it in accordance with ‘a general norm covering all the objects in a category’, e.g. a mother’s relationship with her child may sometimes be particularistic but at other times involve universalistic criteria (appraising performance at school, for example);
  4. diffuseness/specificity - social relationships involving an across-the-board personal involvement, e.g. the mother-child relationship and family relationships in general, or relationships which have only a specified and limited purpose, e.g. a bus conductor issuing tickets.

A fifth variable, collectivity-orientation/self-orientation, originally proposed by Parsons, was subsequently dropped as being of a different order from the other four.

Parsons‘ conception of pattern variables was presented by him as deriving from previous characterizations of types of society such as TÖNNIES’ distinction between GEMEINSCHAFT AND GESELLSCHAFT. He saw his pattern variables as providing an exhaustive general statement of the fundamental ‘dilemmas’ perennially facing all actors and involved in all social organization. Accordingly it was also possible to locate particular societies in terms of the schema (see Fig. 22).

While the vocabulary provided by the pattern variables has been widely used in both sociology theory and empirical research, Parsons’ suggestion that these variables can be regarded as a formal derivation from his overall general theory of social systems is no longer convincing.

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