Last Updated 10 Mar 2020

Parson’s Theory of Social Evolution

Category Evolutіon, Theories
Essay type Research
Words 2316 (9 pages)
Views 579
Table of contents


The role and importance of ‘differentiation’ and ‘specialization’ in Parsons’ theory of the evolution of ‘modern society’ will be outlined and discussed in this assignment. An overview of Parsons theory of social evolution will first be provided in order to determine how Parsons views the creation of modern society. The role and importance of differentiation and specialization in Parsons’ theory will then be examined so that an assessment can be made as to whether these two concepts are important elements for the development of society. Once this has been done, it will then be considered how society adapts to change. Various academic opinions will be analysed by collecting data from relevant journal articles, text books and online databases. Once all of the applicable information has been gathered an appropriate conclusion will then be drawn summarising all of the main findings.

Main Body

Haven’t found the relevant content? Hire a subject expert to help you with Parson’s Theory of Social Evolution

Hire writer

Overview of Parsons Theory of Social Evolution

Talcott Parsons developed a theory of social evolution which was centred on social change within a modern society. Thus, it was believed by Parsons that the key to social evolution was “increasing social differentiation or the process by which societies produce more specialised structures that come to be related to each other in more complex ways” (Sanderson, 2001: 20). In effect, it was illustrated by Parsons that the differentiation of individual statuses is what a modern society requires. This is because; he believed that increased differentiation gave “modern systems of stratification a distinctive character” (Parsons, 1971: 14). Parson’s theory is arguably one of the most important theories of modernity since he helped us to identify the problems that existed between culture and social structure. The contributions made by Parsons developed on a number of different levels with the most important being the “emphasis that culture does not constitute a distinct “entity” but rather a central analytical component dimension of any action and social interaction” (Eisenstadt, 2004: 5). Parsons thereby stressed that there were three different transformative processes that helped to develop modern societies. These were; 1) industrial; 2) democratic and 3) educational, which all contributed to the evolution of society through differentiation and specialization. However, not all agree with the views of Parsons and instead it has been argued that differentiation and specialization creates an integration problem (Hamalainen, 2003: 49). Nevertheless, it was asserted by Tainter (1988: 116) that complex societies do experience organisational problems, yet this increases productivity and therefore promotes change: “Due to the expansion and integration of markets the new best practice organizational arrangements must be able to handle more extensive market failures than their predecessors” (Hamalainen, 2003: 49).

The Role and Importance of Differentiation and Specialization in Parsons’ Theory

As social differentiation occurs; societies naturally adapt and adjust to their changing environments so that they can function more effectively. This is known as “adaptive upgrading” and ultimately leads to structural transformations being made. Accordingly “Parsons’ advances the notion that, as a society’s specialized subsystems become progressively differentiated, this allows more flexible mobilization for more varied purposes” (Trevino, 2001: 1). This is vital in helping to enhance social evolution because without differentiation; the three crucial transformative processes of modern societies would not exist. The industrial process which happened in the late 18th Century was a major turning point in society and significantly changed societal attitudes and beliefs. The standard of living was improved and ordinary people began to see an increase in the number of job opportunities available which led to the growth of the market economy. These social changes clearly reflect the views of Parsons and illustrate the importance of differentiation and specialization. Thus, without these two concepts the industrial revolution may never have occurred since interdependence is increased by structural differentiation and functional specialization: “Farmer, physician, miner, telegrapher, etc are dependent upon one another. But together they form a system that is much more effective in the struggle for survival than the relatively undifferentiated and atomistically self-sufficient societies of early stages of social evolution” (White, 2007: 161). The formation of different social groups contributes to social evolution by increasing co-operation and promoting unity regardless of the difference in culture. Essentially, a society lacking differentiation would not evolve as well as a differentiated society which again highlights the significance of Parsons’ theories.

The democratic process which happened in the 18th and 19th centuries was a political revolution which saw the creation of a democratic government. Thus, individuals were given greater rights and a fully integrated social system was established. This was a major breakthrough for society and it became apparent that democracy resulted from modernization. This was largely due to the fact that; “modernization consisted of a gradual differentiation and specialization of social structures that culminates in a separation of political structures from other structures and makes democracy possible” (Przeworski and Limongi, 1997: 155). Democracy therefore relates to social evolution and as asserted by O’Donnell (1973: 3); “if other countries become as rich as the economically advanced nations, it is highly probable that they will become political democracies.” This suggests that developed countries automatically become democratic and that because social evolution leads to advanced nations, democracy is clearly an element of this. The educational process is another element of social evolution because of its relationship to modernization and although its development did not begin until the 20th Century, its prominence to the evolution of modern society is evident: “in most modern societies the educational system has become an increasingly important market” (Blossfield, 2003: 1). In effect, the industrialisation, democratic and educational processes are all the result of social evolution through differentiation and specialization. Modern societies adapt to change without difficulty, yet this is largely the result of structural differentiation. This is because; differentiation provides an element of flexibility within all societies which allows them to embrace change which leads to the “increased specialization of a new subsystem.”


Modern societies respond well to changing environments and although different cultures exist, society has learnt how to co-ordinate and integrate these difference together so that a workable environment is established. This is the main element of social evolution and unless societies accept these differences, advancements would not be made. Essentially, differentiation and specialization are therefore important elements of Parsons’ theory of social evolution and as put by Toby (1972: 395); “shared symbolic systems (culture) is the pivotal idea in Parsons’ analysis not only of societal evolution but of human behaviour generally.” Therefore, it is imperative that symbolic systems are shared within society so that human behaviour and social evolution can be developed. Nevertheless, whilst society generally adapts to the changes within society voluntarily, much of the changes are made by law. As a result of this, it could be said that individuals often have no choice but to agree with certain developments that are created. Hence, it is believed by Marxist theorists that the law is an ideological instrument for the maintenance of existing social relations which control the means of production. Accordingly, it is believed that individuals within society should have the freedom to choose what changes they shall adapt so long as it does not harm others. This ultimately shapes the way legal rules and principles are formed: “the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily without regard for other men, independently from society, the right of selfishness” (Marx, 1837-1844: 53). This indicates that individuality forms the basis of society which is supportive of the democratic process.

Conversely, however, because different laws are continuously being created by the State, it is questionable whether individual democracy is in fact a workable development. This was illustrated by Bottormore (1991: 504) when it was stated that; “social changes in this century have rendered much of the thesis irrelevant.” Consequently, Bottomore is thus of the view that Marxists theories are obsolete and are no longer relevant in today’s society because of the fact that individuals do not create the law. If this is the case, it could also be said that the views of Parsons’ are also incorrect since he also believes that social evolution is created through democracy. On the other hand, it was made clear by Curzon (2001: 214) that; “society requires and therefore creates as part of the superstructure, legal rules and institutions, referred to collectively as the law.” Given the development of human rights, however, it seems as though Parsons’ theory may be a true reflection of a modern society. This is because the introduction of the International Bill of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly, declared that all Member states shall incorporate the rights of the Bill into their national law and be therefore bound by these rights. Effectively, the law must be considerate of individual rights and needs which are based upon societal views and attitudes. This evidentially reflects the views of Parsons who believes in individual democracy which is created through the education system. Yet, as noted by Markovic (1981: 1); “in different societies it will assume different forms and priorities: In the countries of developed capitalism it is possible to use the level of political liberties already achieved in order to abolish present-day forms of economic exploitation and social oppression.”

This demonstrates how Parsons’ theory does actually hold some truth regardless as to whether the law governs society. This is because, legal rules and principles are developed in different societies through exploitation and social oppression which indicates that the law is in fact an ideological instrument. In addition; “Marxist legal theory is explanatory for it offers an account of law as expressing the interests of the ruling class” (Wacks, 2009: 8). Arguably, the explanation of Parsons does adequately reflect today’s society and given the advancement of the democratic process and the introduction of human rights, individuals do contribute to social evolution: “The state has individuality, and individuality is in essence an individual and in the sovereign an actual, immediate individual” (Hegel, 2012). Essentially, the law needs to be reflective of societal attitudes and beliefs and unless the law keeps abreast with the changes in society, the law will be considered outmoded in modern society. Differentiation is therefore a vital element of social evolution and “if the law fails to keep pace with reality, it becomes largely impotent” (Sifris, 2009). Conversely, it was put by Stoddard (1997: 1) that; “social change and legal change do not always walk hand in hand and for legal changes to be effective, a cultural shift or change in social norms is necessary.” Therefore, provided that social change has taken place, the law should follow suit since “legal argument can change over time and can be responsive to social pressures” and that “the general view is that law reflects and responds to external forces: conventional morality, custom, and power are three likely candidates, depending on one’s sociological, political and or sceptical inclinations” (Campbell, 2005: 222).


Overall, Parsons Theory of social evolution adequately reflects the creation of modern society. Accordingly, it was believed by Parsons that the key to social evolution was differentiation and specialization. This is because, as social differentiation occurs; societies naturally adapt and adjust to their changing environments so that they can function more effectively. This enables social evolution to be significantly advanced and helps to shape today’s society. Without differentiation and specialization, the industrial, democratic and educational processes would not have developed and significant changes to the way society functions would not have been made. In addition, despite the fact that the law is responsible for many changes that take effect, the law merely adapts to societal attitudes and beliefs which illustrates the importance of culture differences in shaping societal values. In effect, differentiation and specialization in Parsons’ theory are vital for social evolution since societies are able to produce more specialised structures that come to be related to each other in more complex ways. This enables an element of flexibility to be created which ultimately contributes to the development of society.


Blossfield, H. and Timm, A. (2003) Who Marries WhomEducational Systems as Marriage Markers in Modern Societies, [Online] Available:…/Who_Marries-Whom_Part1.pdf [10 December 2012].

Bottormore, T. B. (1991) A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd Edition.

Campbell, J. K. (2005) Law and Social Justice, MIT Press.

Curzon, L. B. (2001) Q&A Series: Jurisprudence, Routledge, 3rd Edition.

Eisendstadt, S. N. (2004) Social Evolution and Modernity: Some Observations on Parson’s Comparative and Evolutionary Analysis: Parsons’s Analysis from the Perspective of Multiple Modernities, The American Sociologist, Volume 35, Issue 4.

Hamalainen, T. J. (2003) National Competitiveness and Economic Growth: The Changing Determinants of Economic, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Hegel: (2012) Third Part: Ethical Life; The State, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Sovereignty vis-a-vis foreign States, [Online] Available: [11 December 2012].

Markovic, M. (1981) Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, Praxis International, No 4, [Online] Available: [11 December 2012].

Marx, K. (1837-1844) Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction, Karl Marx: Selected Writings.

O’Donnell, G. (1973) Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics, Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California.

Parsons, T. (1971) The System of Modern Societies, Prentice-Hall.

Przeworski, A. and Limongi, F. (1997) Modernization: Theories and Facts, World Politics, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sanderson, S. K. (2001) The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield.

Sifris, A. (2009) The Legal Recognition of Lesbian-Led Families: Justifications for Change, Child and Family Law Quarterly, [2009] CFLQ 197, Issue 2.

Tainter, J. A. (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University.

Toby, J. (1972) Parsons’ Theory of Social Evolution, Contemporary Sociology, Volume 1, No 5.

Trevino, A. J. (2001) Talcott Parsons Today: His Theory and Legacy in Contemporary Sociology, Rowman & Littlefield.

Wacks, R. (2009) Understanding Jurisprudence: An Introduction to Legal Theory, OUP Oxford, 2nd Edition.

White, L. A. (2007) The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilisation to the Fall of Rome, Left Coast Press.

Haven’t found the relevant content? Hire a subject expert to help you with Parson’s Theory of Social Evolution

Hire writer

Cite this page

Not Finding What You Need?

Search for essay samples now

We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Save time and let our verified experts help you.

Hire writer