|Theory of Culture|
source ref: ebookcul.htm
|Part I:Theory Of Culture|
Explaining the concept of culture is usually held to be a difficult task; there is, however, general agreement that a satisfactory definition is likely to be attainable only within the framework of an elaborated theory of social action. In this regard, it may be worth looking at Talcott Parsons's attempt to locate "culture" systematically within his theory of social systems. Closer examination will show that the various proposals he makes reveal not only empirical deficiencies but also a number of faults characteristic of his own theorizing, which can be corrected only by revising his theory's metatheoretical basis. In order to discuss the virtues and limitations of Parsons's concept of culture, I propose first to review his most important thoughts on culture; second, I shall evaluate his conceptualization critically; and third, I shall use my criticism as a starting point for suggesting some ways in which an improved version of a theory of culture might be worked out.
During the last four decades of his life, Parsons constantly modified his theory of culture. This development cannot be reviewed in all detail here; I shall restrict myself to differentiating between three distinct phases of his conceptualization.
Within the so-called action frame of reference of Parsons's first and admirable sketch of a theory of the "structure of social action," the concept of culture did not play a central role (Parsons 1968 ). Only later, evidently under the influence of Morris and Mead, did he turn his attention to culture, incorporating it into a theory of symbolization (Parsons 1951, 1953, 1964; Parsons and Shils 1951). This theory served to reconcile his analysis of the equilibrium of social systems with the fact that actors can interconnect their actions only by externalizing their mental states (for instance, their motivation to act in a certain way or their emotionality and need-dispositions) with the help of symbols in order to grant their coactors the opportunity to do the same. Symbols both express and communicate what other actors may expect in a given action situation and encourage or stimulate them to express their own attitudes in a situation (Parsons 1953:36 and elsewhere). Such symbolizations can serve to render less uncertain the inevitable "contingency" of mutual gratification and can increase the possibility that projected actions will be undertaken mutually (Parsons 1951:26-45, 36-43, 1953:42, 44, and elsewhere).
Insofar as symbols allow for such an externalized and interactive coordination of different actions, the single intentional act may be described as "having a meaning" (Parsons 1951:5-6, 10, 1953:31). But in order that such acts may be understood )that is, mutually interpreted by the participants of a social interaction as a relation or interconnection between an actor and his situation) and used to establish a mutually adopted orientation of actions, some necessary conditions must be met. Expressive symbols must "materialize" themselves as external signs; only as signs are the meaningfully intentional acts of an individual actor at the disposal of his fellow actors (Parsons 1951:10, 1953:33-39). But signs are not understood by themselves, even in this externalized form: they can only be interpreted unambiguously through the help of a set of quite conventional rules of appropriateness (Parsons 1951:11, 16, 1953:38, 1972:256; Sheldon 1951:32 and elsewhere). Only under this condition do they have a "common meaning" (Parsons 1953:36); only then do they serve to construct a "shared order of symbolic meaning" (Parsons 1951:11, 1961:980); and only then can they be used as a reliable means of communication (Parsons and Shils 1951:16; Parsons 1951:36-37, 1953:38-39, 1964:21). In this context, "symbolic generalization" seems to be the most important process by which symbols can be generated and transformed transindividually, transsituationally, and transgenerationally; this in turn permits them to be learned and internalized within social interaction (Parsons 1951:11, 15-18, 209-226, 1953:42-44, 1959:617; Parsons and Shils 1951:106, 126, 130, 161, and elsewhere).
On the basis of this symbolic generalization, a kind of common "symbolic significance" (Parsons 1953:31, 38, and elsewhere) is established by which specific "objects" are constituted as a "reality sui generis" (Parsons 1953:44) and to which all the actors in a given action situation can refer. These objects can be connected with an individual's actions if the "common meanings," through which the intended action performances are constructed (Parsons 1953:44-45), form either an "ordered pattern of value orientations" (Parsons 1951:37, 1953:42) or a "normative pattern structure of values" (Parsons 1951:37), which in turn supplies the selective standards for one's cognitive, cathectic, and evaluative decision dilemmata (which are described by the famous "pattern variables"). In other words, these symbolically ordered standards that help to determine individual decisions in the form of cognitive, evaluative, and value related "cultural orientations" are used by the actor to plan all kinds of instrumental, expressive, or moral courses of action. Actors can thus order their cognitions, motivations, and need-dispositions and use this order to adapt to a given situation (Parsons 1951:3-23, 45-51, 58-67, 101-112, 1953:45-53, 58-62; Parsons and Shils 1951:78-79, 183-189, 203-233).
If several actors can perform this process mutually and in a stable (that is, institutionalized) form, they are likely to succeed in coordinating their collective actions. The coordination of mutual action orientations, which is at the basis of any social interaction, is thus the result of an ordered symbolic commonality, which Parsons regularly calls a cultural pattern (Parsons 1951:48) or a common culture (Parsons 1964:22, 1977:168; Parsons and Shils 1951:105). Such a pattern or culture is considered ordered (and thus legitimate) if it reveals "pattern consistency" (Parsons 1951:15) and "symmetry" (Parsons 1951:87) or "meaning congruence" and "logical consistency" (Parsons 1961:963).
If these various definitional elements are taken together, the following concept of culture emerges (Parsons and Shils 1951:160-189): Culture is understood as an ordered symbolic system (Parsons 1977:168), that is, a symbolically mediated pattern of values or standards of appropriateness that permits the construction of a set of action-guiding, normative, conventional rules through which significant cultural objects are generated and used. If a symbolic system has validity for all of the participating actors, it is able "to give order to action" (Sheldon 1951:40). At least for the early Parsons this common order embraces not only the system of standards, regulating the use of symbols, but also the symbolically signified objects themselves, allowing differentiation between the principles of symbolic order and their actional products (Parsons 1951:4, 120-121, 418-429; Kroeber and Parsons 1958:583).
This definition of culture involves a number of explicit or tacit assumptions. First, it becomes clear that "society" exists only in the projections of its members, that is, in their action orientations and expectations (or in those symbolically regulated factors that contribute to forming those orientations and expectations) (Parsons 1953:52-53). Culture thus becomes the "pure and free creation of mind" (Sheldon 1951:39). Parsons's definition also implies that the actors depend on the use of shared symbols in order to coordinate, in an ordered and stable way, their motivations, cognitions, and need-dispositions, and, consequently, their attitudes concerning their social and nonsocial actional situations. Finally, contrary to any theoretical expectation, actors may succeed in stabilizing those "doubly contingent" social relations (Parsons 1951:10, 36; Parsons and Shils 1951:190-230) that they must establish in order to obtain their mutual gratification. Parsons's theory repeatedly shows that the establishment of such stable social relations is the result of individual learning processes, interactive socialization and control, and collective decision making (Parsons 1951:34-36, 52-53, 207, 211, 226-243, 1953:42-44, 1964:4-10, 36-37, 49-50, 75-76, 79-80, 88-89, 105-106, 212-217, 234-235, 263-266, and elsewhere; Parsons and Shils 1951:123-131, 304-318, and elsewhere; Parsons and Bales 1955:353-394).
My reconstruction so far has shown that Parsons evidently succeeded in formulating a viable action-theoretical definition of culture. According to this definition, culture finds its objective reality in the interactively established and coordinated subjective representations of actors and in their action orientations and their ability to deal systematically with those sets of rules that help them construct and use these orientations (Parsons and Shils 1951:159 and elsewhere). But as actors mutually constructing a cultural reality have recourse to intersubjective symbols that are incorporated in physical entities and whose function is dependent on an externalization of subjective meaning (Parsons 1953:52; Parsons and Shils 1951:160-162 and elsewhere), a notion of culture is introduced that slightly changes the definitions. In this modified definition of culture, Parsons stresses that the sphere of culture has a logic of its own. Culture as a system possesses its own standards of logical consistency and semantic congruence and is provided with a framework of order that is not immediately connected with the motives and the orientational problems of the culture-using actors. Culture (its constitutive logic and its products) thus cannot be reduced to the motives of actors simply because it is only effective as an internalized outline that helps them choose between different possible orientations and attitudes (Parsons 1951:14-15). Nor can culture, by virtue of its own particular logic, be reduced to those very social relations that actors try to stabilize by symbolically reconciling their individual action orientations (Parsons 1951:51-58 and elsewhere). As a logical consequence of this reasoning, culture cannot and must not be placed on the same conceptual level as those actions and actional relations that are initially constructed by means of these symbolic presuppositions of culture; as an ordered "set of norms for action" and as a "set of symbols of communication" (Parsons and Shils 1951:106), culture has to be kept analytically distinct from the social and the mental realms.
This analytical distinction, which was supported by Kroeber (Kroeber and Parsons 1958) and which even in his later work Parsons believed to be indispensable (Parsons 1972:253), became significant when Parsons began to consider culture as a part of a more comprehensive "action system." This theoretical move had already been prepared for, by the original conceptualization of culture, inasmuch as Parsons had always believed that culture would be unable to fulfill its action-guiding functions unless it could be regarded as a system; culture, that is, should not be conceived of as a random list of principles or as a series of unconnected artifacts (Parsons 1953:38). This central theoretical conviction was now embedded in a more comprehensive thesis: every individual act and set of connected actions should be analyzed as a "system," or an ordered set of differentiated elements. To promote such an analysis, Parsons initially differentiated between three (and later four) subsystems of a "general action system" (Parsons and Shils 1951:3-27; Parsons 1959, 1961a, 1977, 1978; Ackermann and Parsons 1966; and elsewhere). Within the systematics of this general action system, the actor and his mental system (his consciousness and its operation , terms no longer used by Parsons) were dealt with as a "personal system" (Parsons and Shils 1951:110-158; Parsons 1959) with its own dynamic and structure, the main outline of which Parsons borrowed from the theories of Freud and Olds and from culture and personality research (Parsons 1951:14-15, 239n.). Similarly, the "social system," as the second subsystem of the general action system, followed its own logic of normatively regulated self-stabilization on the basis of mutual gratification exchange (Parsons 1951; Parsons and Shils 1951:23-26, 190-233). In a later phase of the development of his theory, Parsons additionally accepted a proposal by the Lidz brothers (Parsons 1977:5, 106, 126) to consider a "behavioral system" that would serve as a specialized subsystem of the general action system. Its function was to contact, or to "intersect," with its (nonsocial) environment; it was designed to replace the original definition of that subsystem as organic . Finally, a cultural subsystem was distinguished as a system of wholly abstract and symbolically mediated entities, for the analysis of which Parsons needed to refine his existing model only slightly (Parsons and Shils 1951:161, 369).
Parsons emphasized the analytical differentiation between the cultural system and its neighboring systems for several reasons. First, he required an independent cultural system as a hierarchically superordinated control system. According to the cybernetic guidelines of that phase of theoretical development, the latter should be able, as a lowenergy system of high (semantic and symbolic) information, to control and regulate the other subsystems of the more comprehensive action system; these in turn were regarded as systems with downgrading information and upgrading energetic levels (Parsons 1977:49-50, 236, 1978:327, 362-367, 374-381, 388). Second, by introducing an analytically independent culture system, it was possible for the L-component, which fulfills the function of pattern maintenance within the AGIL-schematization of the general action system and thus assumes the role of an ultimate guarantor of order, to be given an easy and plausible action-theoretical interpretation (Parsons 1961a:37-41, 1969:439-472). Finally, a cultural system so defined could easily be connected with the theoretical idea, originally developed in collaboration with Smelser, that the sub- or partial systems of any more comprehensive system (including the general action system itself) should be able to enter into relations of exchange for mutual stabilization or equilibration (Parsons and Smelser 1956; Parsons 1961a:60-66, 1969:352-396).
All of the preceding definitional elements of culture were retained during the third phase of conceptualization, but they underwent a more comprehensive theoretical interpretation in light of biological genetics and Chomsky's theory of generative grammar. As before, culture is taken to mean "symbolic formulations" of cognitive, cathectic, and expressive orientations and a "system of ordered"-symbolically mediated, as it were-"selective standards," and, as before, the concept of culture is connected with the theoretical idea of a symbolic, hierarchical control of those subsystems that are situated below the L-component of the general action system. But Parsons's concept of culture now additionally contains the thesis that the culture-constitutive set of standards should be understood as a code; such a code has a dispositional character and realizes itself in the construction or generation of concrete symbolic acts. This code is explicitly analogous to the principles of generative grammar, which serve to formulate individual messages or utterances, or to the genetic code, which determines the generation of species and within which variations are established (Parsons 1977:113, 131, 281, 1978:220-221, 1982; Parsons and Platt 1973:220n.40). This is well on the way to being a generative (or structuralist) linguistic model of "culture as language" (Parsons 1977:235), whose most general explanatory principle is located in a "culturally structured 'symbolic code'" (Parsons 1977:330).
The advantages of this further conceptual modification of Parsons's theory are easily summarized. Drawing on the now well-grounded identification of language and medium, Parsons interprets all forms of personal interaction and intersystemic exchange as based on a languagelike code; this interpretation, by implication, enables him to understand the connections and interchanges within and between independently differentiated systems and subsystems as the products of a number of Sondersprachen (Jensen 1980:12) or as forms of "communication" (Parsons 1969:352-396, 405-429, 433-438, 457, 1977:204-228, 1978:394-395). At the same time, Parsons's theory of the mutual interpenetration of divergent systems and subsystems takes on a new shape. The interpenetration of systems is no longer represented by the idea of an overlapping or intersecting membership of parts or elements of different systems, and thus by implication as a relationship between a system and its parts, but is now conceptualized as a form of symbolic mediation (Parsons 1977:200 and elsewhere). Finally, Parsons has an empirically reliable explanation for the relative longevity of the cultural system compared with the transitory nature of the singular acts that it helps to generate; for it is obvious that the control system of culture, if understood as a code, can change only partially and as the result of an increased input of energy, which, for Parsons, means charismatic energy (Parsons 1961a:78-79), as even the construction of precisely those actions that might eventually change the cultural code necessarily presupposes such a code (Parsons 1961a:61-62, 72, 73-74).
It can hardly be denied that Parsons tried hard to find an appropriate place for the concept of culture within a general theory of individual and social action, and that his ideas were developed in close contact with modern linguistics and semantics. This attempt is in line with his general strategy of integrating diverse and apparently divergent theoretical traditions within a common frame of reference. In light of such attempts at theoretical integration, it is advisable to modify somewhat the symbolic interactionists' widespread objection that Parsons's theory deals exclusively with structural factors and neglects their symbolic mediation (cf. Blumer 1969:15-21, 85-89, 1975:62-65; Parsons 1974; Marrione 1975). But even given this modification, there remains in his integrational theorizing a number of somewhat questionable implications that fail to stand up to closer scrutiny.
There are, first, some purely terminological problems. Parsons nowhere accounts for the fact that he introduces his cultural system through terminology and concepts that should under no conditions be persistently equated with one another and thus conflated. For example, Parsons uses the concept of meaning partially in the sense of reference , thus expressing in a usual way that certain signs have the task or function of referring to an extrasymbolic Gegenstand (or object ) (Parsons 1953:34); in discussing some basic ideas of Max Weber, he understands the concept of meaning as relevance in the sense that an object might be bedeutsam (meaningful) for an actor and his aims insofar as such an actor has a "problem of meaning" (a Sinnproblem according to Weber) (Parsons 1951:164-167, 1986:93-94), which in turn implies that it might be appropriate to differentiate between empirical and non-empirical meanings or aims (Parsons 1951:328-329, 332-334, 359-379, 1986:87-109). It is obvious that these two "meanings of meaning" should not have been confused and that by implication these Sinnprobleme are elements of the cultural system only as they are symbolically formulated. Thus they have, if one likes, only a kind of derivative cultural status, and we require an additional argument why such Sinnprobleme should be so dominant in the definition of the cultural system. I do not overlook the fact that Parsons is here examining a problem posed by Max Weber, and that Weber might have some quite acceptable reasons for emphasizing the Kulturbedeutung of Sinnfragen or that, as Parsons has expressed it himself, "die affektive Anpassung an eine emotional aufw?ende Situation" (the affective adjustment to an emotionally stirring situation) could be a problem worth avoiding (Parsons 1986:94). But it is puzzling that Parsons, as late as his Human Condition (1978:352-433), should lend such weight to the problem of meaning in his theorizing on actors' orientations and situational definitions. Parsons's assumption is questionable because he clings to the idea that such problems of meaning demand religious (Parsons 1951:163-167, 367-368, 1972:258-259, and elsewhere), or, as he calls it in his later work, telic , answers (Parsons 1978:381-392). He is ultimately adhering to a Durkheimian thesis that cannot be derived without additional qualifications from his conceptual definition of the cultural system and that can be contested empirically.
A similar objection can be raised to Parsons's constant identification of culture with values, values with norms, and meanings with values (1968:75-77, 1951:213-215, 263-264, 1972:236-237, and elsewhere). Without wishing to be pedantic, I feel it necessary to point out that a number of normally discrete ideas have been yoked together in Parsons's definition of the cultural system as a "normative pattern-structure of values" (Parsons 1951:37), or in the statement that "culture provides the standards (value orientations) that are applied in evaluative processes" (1953:16), or in the conceptualization of culture as "the organization of the values, norms, and symbols" (Parsons and Shils 1951:55). The original definition of culture as an exclusively symbolically organized system of abstract Sinnzusammenhä®§e (Parsons 1951:11, 237, 1953, 1961:963) quite evidently does not justify limiting the definition of culture to an ordered set of values, even if these values are the ultimate instances that have to be appealed to in order to resolve provisionally those decisional dilemmata that are a logical consequence of the voluntaristic character of human action (cf. Alexander 1978; Procter 1978). Culture actually includes everything that is symbolically accessible to actors, and values quite obviously do not exhaust the set of culturally encoded Sinnzusammenhä®§e . Parsons, indeed, is well aware that this is the case (1972:258-262); nevertheless, we repeatedly encounter these quite misleading summaries and easy definitions, and even the most benevolent reader can only conclude that Parsons intends to confine culture to standards and values (1951:237; Parsons and Shils 1951:159-160, 170-172). It should be obvious that this limited understanding of culture cannot be accepted on the basis of Parsons's formal definitions.
In addition, the internal differentiation of the cultural system (and, consequently, the development of an acceptable theory of action) is poorly served by the lack of a firm distinction between norms and values. The concept of value denotes a "desired state of affairs" (as Parsons knows [1969:441]), while the concept of norms can indicate "demands" or "expectations"; if conceptualized in this way, value and norm obviously refer to two completely different phenomena that can vary independently of each other. The empirical relation between them cannot be examined scientifically if both concepts are constantly conflated, as occurs, for example, whenever the assumption is made that a certain state is desired if it is normatively expected or that the formulation of a norm is identical with the achieving of a desirable state. Unfortunately, this danger of conflation has not been exposed even by some of the most prominent interpreters of Parsons's work (cf. Alexander 1982:65-69, 73-74, 76-79; M?h 1982:68-69; an exception can be found in Saurwein 1988:21).
Similar objections can be raised to the equating of meaning with values . It may be uncontestable that "questions concerning the meaning" (or relevance) of a phenomenon (in the sense of Sinnfragen ) can sometimes amount to "questions concerning ultimate values" ("Fragen nach den 'letzten Werten,'" as Schluchter [1980:131] formulates it). It is, however, somewhat rash to conclude that such a thesis will hold for all questions of relevance, for it is conceivable that people might wish to solve problems (or to answer questions) of meaning that have nothing to do with ultimate values (or letzten Stellungnahmen in a Weberian sense) or that they may believe in the validity of these ultimate values without thus invoking problems of meaning or Sinnfragen . Thus, to clarify such impermeable relations between values and meanings, it may be advisable to eschew purely terminological questions when proposing hypotheses about their factual status.
In order to clear away such conceptual discrepancies and inconsistencies, I propose the use of the word cultural (or culture ) solely to denote the fact that a certain object is available in a symbolic form, that is, only when actors necessarily orient themselves toward these objects by means of symbolic operations. This definition implies a twofold conclusion that is crucial to my understanding of the theoretical problem. The existence of nonsymbolic cultural objects need not be postulated; nor does the proposed definition of culture imply any a priori stipulation concerning the specific (empirical) character of those cultural objects. The important thing is for actors only to be able to communicate with each other by having at their disposition an intersubjectively shared and normatively regulated set of symbolic operations that allows the construction of informative propositions, which in turn can be kept open to collective (critical or confirmative) argumentation and use. It is exclusively the dispositional character of symbols that grants them (and the rules of symbolic operations) their "objectivity," which is irreducible to the mental preconditions of their subjective use.
Parsons is customarily regarded as a theoretician of social integration (see Demerath and Peterson 1967; Gouldner 1971). This is correct insofar as he (like Durkheim) reconstructs the dynamics of all (not just social) system processes by presupposing a state of perfect system integration in order to identify a set of mechanisms that necessarily produce this very state of integration. It is this mode of reasoning that defines his functionalism (Parsons 1951:480-490, 1977:234).
This kind of explanatory logic, the merits of which need not be discussed in the present context (see Schmid 1989:130-164), also determines Parsons's conceptualization of culture. Like all systems, the cultural system is analyzed on the assumption that the conditions of its internal integration are fulfilled, that is, that culture can be regarded as a logically and semantically consistent system. The most important consequence of this functionalistic analysis is clear. For Parsons, every ordered communication between actors depends on a logically consistent use of symbols; this in turn seems to be possible only so long as the actors can refer to a commonly shared system of rules or, in one of Parsons's formulations, to a "shared cultural tradition" (1951:12); as this common culture is in turn an inevitable precondition of any successful mutual adaption of action orientations, social integration will result if and only if the necessary preconditions are realized. Taking these considerations to their logical conclusion, we may infer that social order and solidarity will immediately occur if the rules of symbolic usage are consistently formulated and shared by all actors. Conversely, as Parsons cannot conceive of these rules and standards-the cultural code, in short-functioning without being consistent and mutually shared, we may further conclude that the very existence of a common code is sufficient to evoke such actions that eventually lead to mutually integrated social relations (cf. Parsons 1953). In any case, the commonality of consistent collective symbols suffices to ensure societal solidarity (to put it in Durkheimian terms).
However, this assumption is open to criticism in several ways. Parsons seems to be defending the position that the ordered, integrative functioning of culture can only be assumed if all actors have free and equal access to their cultural tradition. But in a society that exhibits a high degree of division of labor and that secures its continuity by anonymous exchanges of goods and achievements rather than exclusively by a common culture, at least two problems arise that Parsons does not consider. First, he seems unable to imagine a society that is integrated, not on the basis of a common moral or value system, but largely by means of the external control of such externalities as are unacceptable to the controllers. The decisive theoretical point is that we might (under conditions requiring further clarification, of course) expect the perfect integration of a society even if there is no complete consensus on those externalities that have to be controlled and excluded. On the other hand, Parsons's position seems to imply that there will be no integration if the actors, in order to assimilate their actions to their social or nonsocial situations, activate quite divergent parts of their cultural tradition. That is to say, Parsons seems unable to imagine the empirical possibility of conflict-free social relations where actors are orienting themselves, not to a common culture, but to quite different, and possibly contradictory, parts of it (cf. Lechner 1985).
These considerations are closely related to another point. Parsons obviously presupposes that the commonality of cultural symbols implies that the cultural system contains no contradictory elements, neither in the sense that the rules constituting the cultural code may be formulated inconsistently nor in the other sense that it is possible to construct incompatible, ambivalent, and contradictory cultural objects (or propositions referring to these objects). Parsons seems, that is, to exclude the possibility that divergent cultural interpretations may arise from one and the same set of symbols or codes. It would surely be unfair to imply that Parsons' idea of a unified cultural system entails the conclusion that every empirical (or contingently factual) cultural system must be logically consistent and without incongruencies of meaning. Otherwise his repeated theoretical treatment of control mechanisms (1951:31-32, 207, 234-235) and integrative communication (1961a: 68-69, 74-76) would be quite superfluous. Nevertheless, his functional analysis constantly presupposes that these standards of logical consistency and semantic congruency might serve as a "theoretical point of reference," including the assumption that a system of social relations can indeed be regarded as stable and integrated only if the corresponding actors have recourse to a commonly binding cultural tradition. But, quite contrary to this assumption, it is empirically incontestable that under certain conditions it may well be possible to detect socially stable relations between actors without reference to a unified and commonly accepted cultural system. That is to say, actors may be able to exchange gratifications fairly and to the satisfaction of each without the exchange being mediated and supported by an unambiguous, nondivergent system of symbols (cf. Archer 1988:185-226). This conclusion suggests that Parsons's thesis is definitely in need of serious qualification.
That Parsons's hypothesis of the necessary accord between cultural consistency and social integration might be untenable can also be shown by the aid of an argument found in the writings of Luhmann and Bauman (Luhmann 1971:48-50, 84-86, 100, 1986a:176; Bauman 1973:170-178). These authors assert that it is erroneous to identify the unity of a symbolic code with the factual guarantee of social consensus; the logical consistency of a code does not rule out saying "no," thereby negating the normative demands or value convictions of other actors by proposing a new regulation of social relations or even by initiating conflict. It is even possible to strengthen this argument: without a unified consensual code, actors would be unable to negate at all, and, without recourse to a consensual cultural tradition, they might never have a forum for their deviant opinions and proposals. But that would mean that actors are never able to circumvent the uncertainty of their social relations, a fact that Parsons quite correctly took as a starting point for his whole theoretical program. Consequently it is difficult to believe that the "double contingency" of these relations can ever be neutralized by the fact that actors speak the same language. Of course actors may minimize that double contingency to a certain degree by finding a common set of normative ideas to define their mutual rights and duties, even if such a means of stabilizing their mutual social relations cannot answer all the questions that may arise, as the "dilemma of altruism" clearly shows (cf. Spencer 1875:234, 1894:253-256, 260-265; Ullmann-Margalit 1977:48). But such a commonality of normative duties does not logically derive from the acceptance of a common symbolic code, which can only serve as a medium of communication, and which, as such, can guide action but not determine it (Luhmann 1986a:176); Parsons seems to be suggesting as much when he calls himself a "cultural determinist" (1977a:234). This argument remains true notwithstanding Kluckhohn's correct observation that actors without a consistent normative orientation "feel uncomfortably adrift in a capricious, chaotic world" (1951:399). In short, the logical consistency of a normative code must not be identified with the existence of a socially integrative consensus; to believe the contrary would be to commit a "fallacy of normative determinism" (Blake and Davis 1968:470-472).
The deficiency of Parsons's argument centers on one misleading deduction: from the fact that a symbolically meaningful code is grounded on a set of normative regulations that actors have to accept to communicate without friction and constant misunderstanding, he draws the logically untenable conclusion that actors cannot accept motivations and interests that are not normatively legitimized and supported (1951:327, 1953:39, 1961:980). "Parsons has turned Hobbes's error on its head, arguing that if actors engage in normative, noninstrumental action their activities must be complementary" (Alexander 1983:222, 1984:291). In Luhmann's words (1988:135), Parsons constantly confuses a symbolic "code" with the "programme," which may or may not be formulated by the help of this code.
Parsons's misleading theory of the allegedly integrative function of cultural codes helps to explain the relative one-sidedness of his theory of understanding. This theory seems to presuppose that it would suffice to interpret the actions and utterances of alter ego if ego recognizes that alter ego, in order to make his or her own intentions plausible or understandable, uses the same symbols and accepts the same set of rules for their use as ego does (Parsons 1953:61), and that this recognition in turn would be enough to guarantee the appropriateness of the mutual reactions and interactions of ego and alter ego (1953:38). But such a thesis is clearly open to criticism on several points. First, understanding the intentions of another actor can serve at most as one necessary condition for the successful mutual assimilation of interests and gratification exchanges (Luchmann 1986a:176). Second, Parson's theory of intentional understanding, perhaps inspired by Weber's theory of motivational understanding, is much too simple to account for the actual variety of understanding processes. Parsons does not seem to see that intentions constitute only one field of understanding among others, and problems of theory may arise that his somewhat restricted theory is not equipped to handle. Nor has he kept pace with recent hermeneutic theories of understanding, which vigorously question whether a commonality of meaning between actors trying to understand the utterances of their fellow actors can realistically be presupposed at all (see Gadamer 1965). As Parsons constantly ignores such objections and qualifications, for reasons about which I can only speculate, they cannot, of course, persuade him to modify his thesis of the integrative function of a language code; consequently, even in his later work he retains the idea that a mutually understandable language should be regarded as the primary normative and constitutive element of an analytically distinct cultural system (1972:254, 1977:169, and 1961:971-976, where language is believed to be the "groundwork of culture"). We would be well advised to compensate for these deficiencies by seeking a much more elaborated theory of understanding.
There is one very general consequence to be drawn from Parsons's repeated, yet quite misleading, equation of cultural consistency with social integration: we need to take as seriously as possible the analytical autonomy of the cultural system from its neighboring systems (something Parsons frequently emphasized) and to deduce from this autonomous status of culture (as a purely symbolic system) that the cultural and the social systems not only are mutually irreducible systems but also reveal factual relations and connections that are much more complicated and complex than Parsons's theory admits. Parsons's assumption of an integrated synchronization of culture and social systems can thus be reduced to a somewhat improbable limiting case of a much more comprehensive theory.
Although the theory of Talcott Parsons emphatically recommends the analytical separation of the cultural from the other subsystems of the general action system, he seems compelled in certain decisive passages to revoke his own hallowed theoretical standpoint. The reason for this revocation seems to be his belated insight that the cultural system cannot be regarded as a valid subsystem unless it is taken to be an acting system itself-a theoretical position that Parsons originally did not defend at all (1951:66, 1961:964, 1967:194, 1978:367n.). It is certainly true that this revision of his theoretical conception does not mean that Parsons wholly intends to discard the structural component of the cultural system (1961:964), that is, the symbolically codified generative formalism that serves to construct cultural objects. On the other hand, he wants to do justice to his insight that "the important patterns of culture . . . could not be created and/or maintained as available recourses for action unless there were processes of action primarily oriented to their creation and/or maintenance. These processes may be part of a 'society,' just as the life of an individual as personality may be; but analytically, the subsystem of action focused in this way should be distinguished from the social system as focused on interaction relationships" (1961:964). Thus the maintenance of a religious actional orientation by a church may be considered an interpenetration of the cultural and the social system, "but a church as such would be regarded as a collectivity with cultural primacy, i.e., as first a cultural 'system of action,' and second, a social system" (1961:964).
I am inclined to share Larry Brownstein's opinion that this passage is somewhat "obscure" (Brownstein 1982:108). It evidently says that the original distinction between the cultural and the social spheres should be maintained by continuously defining the cultural system through its symbolic and generative formalisms; as such, this cannot be regarded as an acting entity in any technical sense of Parsons's action terminology. But Parsons also tries to convince his readers that the cultural system does act by ensuring that those cultural objects that actors require for their orientation are actually constructed and maintained; he is thus suggesting that the original analytical distinction between culture and the social system can be blurred. But in view of Parsons's statements on cultural institutions (1951:52-53) and his conception of culture as a set of Idealfaktoren (1972:265), such an argument is quite inconclusive and in need of commentary. As I see it, the inconclusiveness of Parsons's theoretical position derives from the fact that he is combining two quite divergent lines of argument: on the one hand, Parsons intends to develop a valid analytical instrument that, with the help of the concept of a system, allows for the conceptualization of relations between analytically distinct theoretical elements of a general action scheme. On the other hand, such a system-theoretical explication of the concept of action should also be able to answer the question of how actions are "energized" and by what "forces" they are driven; without a valid answer to this question, there can be no hope of developing a genuinely dynamic theory of individual and collective action. Originally Parsons had found quite an acceptable solution to this problem in his theory of motivation, which was located exclusively within the framework of the personal and the social subsystems of the general action system. But these two lines of theoretical argument are rendered incompatible and even contradictory as soon as Parsons begins to strengthen his thesis that an appropriate conception of action depends on the presupposition that all subsystems of the general system should be able to act in a technical sense of the word (Brownstein 1982:74-114). For under no circumstances is it admissible to conceptualize the cultural system as an "energetic system," one which, in Parsons's theoretical strategy, would be a "motivational system." That is, the thesis that culture as a system of abstract symbolic entities and rules can energetically force actors to act in a certain way can hardly be regarded a fruitful contribution to the development of an acceptable theory of action. As Parsons evidently reserves the status of an energetic system for the personal and the social subsystems (of the general action scheme), I shall not try to defend his tendency to darken this essential theoretical assumption by taking back his analytical distinction between the cultural and the social systems. I would rather concede the irreparable logical deficiency of Parsons's theoretical construction of the general action system than relinquish the analytical gains that result from recognizing the analytical self-sufficiency of the cultural system.
There was a logical outcome to Parsons's tendency (culminating in Parsons and Platt 1973) to act against his original insights by interpreting the cultural system as an energetic, or acting, system. He tends to negate his initial theoretical position that the cultural system as such, that is, as a symbolically ordered system, obviously cannot of itself enter into active communication or exchange relationships with the other subsystems of the general action system. It also makes little sense for Parsons, in the same context, to assume that there might be "interchanges" between the different subsystems of the cultural system itself (Parsons and Platt 1973:65), a slip that has been openly and rightly criticized by Jeffrey Alexander (1983:170-174, 176-183). Difficulties in understanding such a theoretical position are caused not only by the topology of the AGIL-schema, which does not allow the L-component to make representable connections with its neighboring systems, but also, and even more importantly, with itself; problems also arise when the cultural system, understood as a symbolically structured system, is taken to be an active one capable of entering into real interactions and interchanges with the other subsystems. It is hard to see how these interactions or interchanges can be understood in anything but a metaphorical sense (Alexander 1983:173-177). But Parsons evidently cannot, of course, accept such objections. By dropping the thesis that the cultural system could be regarded as an energetically acting system, his theoretical construction of a cybernetic control hierarchy would break down, along with the associated idea that the cultural system can actively steer the hierarchically subordinated neighboring systems; this would rob Parsons's theory of social order of an essential theoretical support.
Parsons's argument is persuasive only when he deals with cultural symbols and their codificational rules as resources, and thus as restrictions on action orientation that constrain an actor's scope for decision making (1951:33, 35-36, 1961:964, and elsewhere). Such a thesis is not dependent on the dubious idea that the cultural system has an energetic potential of its own. Unfortunately Parsons cannot accept such a restricted understanding of culture.
Thus Parsons's theory of culture can be regarded as a fruitful attempt to support a thesis that he had already formulated decades before, to the effect that "culture . . . is on the one hand the product of, and on the other hand a determinant of, systems of social interaction" (1951:87). As I have attempted to demonstrate, however, Parsons's solution has been reached only at the cost of theoretical and empirical validity.
To conclude this chapter, I should like to offer some heuristic reflections on how a convincing theory of culture might be shaped-one that retains the acceptable parts of Parsons's theory yet avoids its deficiencies. It is most profitable to proceed roughly along the following lines.
It is crucial that the terminology used to describe culture and locate it within the framework of a general theory of social action neither implies nor excludes specific empirical assumptions about the content of a possible cultural order. At the same time, it would be unwise to speak of a culture only if the cultural "symbolic-meaning complex" (Parsons 1955:396) exclusively comprehends logically consistent and semantically meaningful rules and cultural objects. If we did, we would sacrifice the chance to investigate those cases where the cultural system is clearly not logically and consistently ordered but is still used by the actors as a basis for organizing their mutual actions. That implies that cultural-theoretical analysis should concentrate on investigating quite different internal orders of symbolically formulated propositions and should accept the fact that meaning congruence, symmetries, relations of logical consistency, and unambiguously derivative relations between propositions can only be ideal or limiting cases and empirical exceptions. The individual theoretician should, of course, feel free to examine the presuppositions and consequences of cultural consistencies and logically ordered symbolic systems rather than their inconsistencies and weaknesses; indeed Parsons's continuous interest in the development of "rational" kinds of action orientation has doubtlessly contributed to this "positive" tendency (Parsons 1951:499-503, 1972a, 1977:35-36, 71-74, and elsewhere). But such a one-sided interest cannot serve as the basis of a really comprehensive and integrated theory of cultural systems. It should not (as Parsons's theoretical functionalism inevitably tends to do) regard cultural inconsistencies, incongruencies, contradictions, and imbalances as necessary deficiencies and insufficiencies. Rather, it should analyze the precise content of such propositional incompatibilities with a view to understanding how these incompatibilities are reflected in the situational logic of the actors concerned and as special restrictions and problems that they must confront. Closer examination of these restrictions and problems shows that the formation of a self-sufficient cultural (or, more precisely, social) subsystem dedicated to securing and maintaining the logical consistency of the cultural tradition (including the subsystem's own tradition) constitutes only one of the many ways of dealing with cultural contradiction. It should be clear that the specific conditions necessary for this or any other process of cultural problem solving to take place cannot in practice be isolated by exclusive reliance on Parsons's AGIL-architecture.
The foregoing has, of course, introduced another potentially fruitful heuristic approach that is likely to trouble only those who still find virtue in Parsons's conflation of culture and social system, and that is the strict separation of these two areas. If no analytical distinction between these concepts is made, then there is potential for a number of errors, all of them detrimental to a fruitful analysis of cultural systems. I would therefore maintain, along with Margret Archer, that by refusing to draw a precise line between these two fields, one is obliged either to take a reductionist approach to the analysis of culture or to favor a theory of the mutual constitution of cultural entities and social actions. Neither line of argument is without pitfalls.
If one accepts a reductionist program, there are two directions one can take. One procedure involves showing why and how the cultural system can totally control actions and action relations. Empirically, however, such cultural determination of actions is not universally observable. The other procedure, which may be regarded as a Marxian version of cultural reductionism, has to explain how different forms of social relations between actors can help determine modes of cultural orientation. But even such an inverse reductionist thesis encounters the empirical objection that no cultural system-that is, its content and its operative rules-can be determined by the sociostructural organization of specific action relations. Dogmatic rejection of such empirical observations means failing to explore the much more complicated relations and connections that actually obtain between culture and social systems. The same is true of the assumption that cultural traditions and social actions are mutually constitutive, which would mean that cultural entities are "real" only insofar as they find their expression in the practical actions of actors and, conversely, that these actions cannot be realized without recourse to cultural factors (see Bauman 1973; Giddens 1979; and, with grave qualifications, Tenbruck 1986). This assumption is flawed simply because, expressed more precisely in the form of a biconditional, it comes dangerously close to being an empty tautology (for culture); furthermore, to consider it seriously is to render impossible any independent analysis of cultural propositions and social relations.
One can, however, avoid having to choose between these empirically and theoretically untenable theses by distinguishing between culture and social relations. This distinction is legitimate if one accepts that the cultural system represents exclusively "propositional systems" or (because propositions can be formulated only by means of symbols and corresponding operative rules) wholly "symbolic systems" (Hornung 1988:295); "social systems" instead have to be regarded as "systems of action," which are not based on a kind of propositional order but on Handelnsordnungen in von Hayek's sense (see Hayek 1969: 161-198). Such ordered connections between different actions cannot arise without actors using information that symbolically encodes the preconditions and expected results of their action situation, even if it often contradicts their beliefs and can occur independently of their available knowledge (see Wippler 1978; Boudon 1982). But neither the existence of such actional connections nor the specific forms they take can be identified with the fact that the actors really use certain kinds of codes or with the assumption that these codes are logically consistent.
I would uphold the present thesis against both Luhmann and Parsons. The approach I have outlined clarifies that Luhmann, in defining social relations as communicational processes, thereby seems to defend a kind of questionable reductionism (Luhmann 1984, 1986, 1986a, and elsewhere). At the same time, the argument against the conflation of culture and social structure helps to explain why Parsons's assumption that unified and common symbolic rules are sufficient to guarantee social integration should constitute only one of several theoretical possibilities. This can be simply illustrated by constructing a cross table that, accepting the distinction between cultural and social systems, uses two specific dichotomies, "logical consistency" and "logical inconsistency" (of culture) versus "integration" and "nonintegration" (of social relations), to describe the set of logically possible relations between the two systems (Alexander 1984). The resulting matrix clearly shows not only the case argued by Parsons but also three additional states, the preconditions for which unfortunately cannot be derived from Parsons's general theoretical apparatus. But the ability to perform such derivations should, in my view, be one of the indispensable prerequisites of an integral, sociologically relevant theory of culture formation.
I attempt to show, in conclusion, that the deficiencies of Parsons's theory of culture are not traceable simply to the particular intransigence of its object. On the contrary, Parsons successfully incorporated the most important and relevant theoretical discussions of his time into his theoretical scheme, thereby promoting profound understanding of the function of cultural systems. Nevertheless, in the course of establishing his theoretical program, he became too frequently involved in hypotheses and assumptions concerning the specific attributes of cultural and social systems and their mutual relations; closer examination has proved many of these assumptions to be empirically and theoretically untenable. The reasons for these deviations are, I believe, found in Parsons's functionalism, that is, his inclination to analyze any kind of system (both its internal structure and its external relations) by hypothesizing a state of (perfect) system integration and asking under what conditions and with what mechanisms certain processes can be detected and described that produce such states of integration. The basic flaw of this analytical technique is not, as has been repeatedly supposed and exposed, that it has set up system integration as a kind of "theoretical fetish" responsible for Parsons's reckless theoretical presuppositions concerning the factual and desirable degree of integration of (empirical) systems (see Lockwood 1976). The opposite seems to be true. A much more serious criticism is that Parsons, because of his unshakable functionalistic approach, did not stop trying to carry out systems analysis as a form of equilibrium analysis; indeed, the state of systems analysis in his time and his own training as an economist prevented him from doing so. One immediate and logical result of this constraint was his entrapment by quite specific methodological consequences and preconditions, which did not allow him to develop his theories beyond a certain point (Schmid 1989:115-197).
Parsons's wholly inadequate theory of cultural change reflects this entrapment only too clearly. To meet the challenge of such a theoretical program, he really elaborated only his theory of internalization (Parsons and Bales 1955), which helped to explain how cultural patterns can be incorporated and fixed within the personal system. His cultural theory has to some extent also been influenced by his theory of social control (1951), which specifies the conditions under which we can expect deviant beliefs and motivations to be invalidated by the help of accepted cultural standards. In some passages, too, a rough model can be glimpsed of a functionally specialized cultural subsystem that establishes and maintains the use and function of logically consistent cultural patterns (Parsons 1961, 1978:133-153, 154-164; Parsons and Platt 1973). As a logical consequence of this line of reasoning, culture has to be taken as an institutionalized guarantor of a shared tradition. But not very much is actually learned about the nature of the processes that generate this unified cultural tradition or about their chances of success. These lacunae can be filled to some extent by recourse to Parsons's self-regulation hypothesis (1951:350, 482-483, 1953:43, 1959:634, and elsewhere). This hypothesis, which was intended to solve the general theoretical problem of how any system behaves whenever it is under reproductive pressure, implies that a system will constantly strive to restabilize itself by regaining its original state. But this hypothesis is vaguely formulated and largely ignores or leaves quite open the conditions required for the successful re-equilibration of a disturbed system. It also leaves unclear whether anything more than sheer chaos can result from the breakdown of regulative structures, which have to restore system equilibrium. In Parsons's philosophy of science there are also indications that he conceives of the reconstruction of symbolic systems as an "accumulation" and "integration" of divergent themes and theories (1959:703-709, 1961:984-988). But, even in this case, Parsons tends to overlook the fact that the connection between theoretical accumulation and conceptual integration is only one of several strategies of cultural change; he is unable to specify the conditions under which actors are likely to unify divergent theories and propositions instead of modifying or even relinquishing them.
These points of criticism suggest inescapably that Parsons does not have an elaborated theory of cultural change, although his earlier work correctly stated that culture should be understood as both product and determinant of human social interaction (1951:87). But neither his preferred analytical instrument of functional equilibrium analysis nor his conceptualization of culture as an ultimate instance of action control allows him to see that an acceptable theoretical analysis of cultural change and, more generally, of any structural change demands a totally different theoretical starting point (see Schmid 1989:19-81, 115-197).
Parsons saw that, in any of their action situations, actors encounter cultural objects (among other things). However, his Durkheimian perspective led him to forget that such objects involve both restrictions and opportunities and that the two generate quite divergent consequences depending on whether the cultural system contains contradictions. If Parsons had been able to accept this idea, he might have noticed that the various discrete logical properties of actors' theories or beliefs create entirely different kinds of situational logic (see Archer 1988:145, 154, and elsewhere), thus giving rise to heterogeneous problems that actors try to solve in divergent ways and (a fact critical to the development of a valid theory) with no prospect of lasting integrative success. This situation implies, among other things, that even solutions that are collectively acceptable and are regarded as part of a common tradition will inevitably lead to further problems. These problems, by changing the empirical and logical conditions that the actors have to meet, will destabilize their common action situation anew; and because the actors can never be sure that the new questions can be given traditional answers, the development of their culture will find no natural resting point. It is precisely the constant recursive process of disequilibration that is the most essential condition continuing the cultural process. In consequence of such a manifest insight, Parsons would certainly not have been able to miss the point that this kind of irresistible cultural dynamic involves not only accumulative or integrative changes but also "cultural revolutions" (as Parsons [1977:301] recognizes), abrupt losses of traditions, breakdown of regulative structures, and all other kinds of discontinuous transformation.
I do not wish to adhere dogmatically to the view that these shortcomings are a logical implication of Parsons's conceptual apparatus. However, I do think that the theoretical and empirical deficiencies of Parsons's views discussed so far can be summarized by the fact that the functional logic that he favors-a logic of equilibrium analysis which, contrary to his belief, is not a necessary prerequisite for dealing with his main theoretical problem, the establishment of social order-is fundamentally and logically ill-equipped to deal with the morphogenesis of cultural and other kinds of systems. Functional analysis cannot come to terms with the active and formative meaning of cultural contradictions in explaining the transformation of cultural systems because it allows for no reconstruction of the reproductive and selective system processes as disequilibrium and fundamentally discontinuous phase transition processes (see Freber and Schmid 1986; Tiryakian 1985; Schmid 1989:145-153, among others). Such a mode of theoretical analysis requires the logic of equilibrium analysis to be rejected or at least modified; there is no place for the guiding metatheoretical idea, or Leitmotiv , that systems and their dynamics can be stable or integrated under all possible boundary conditions and parameters; likewise absent is the logical consequence of this: that it is inadvisable to persist in analyzing cultural (and other) systems by unshakably adhering to contrary metatheoretical presuppositions, no matter what the circumstances.
My reconstruction of Parsons's theory of the cultural system has necessarily involved criticizing it. I conclude that we should not accept all its implications without considerable modifications. Such a conclusion is justified by recent empirical and theoretical findings that show Parsons's theoretical analysis of the cultural system and its constitutive processes is not universally valid. It is important, however, to recall that Parsons once showed-in The Structure of Social Action , which I regard as his classic contribution to the theory of sociology-that even such a highly rated theory as the utilitarian theory of action is merely a specific instance of a much more general and comprehensive theoretical model. Let us hope that Parsons could have reconciled himself to the fact that his own theories would suffer the same fate.
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