Select a social issue and analyze it from both a macro-theoretical perspective and a micro-theoretical perspective. Be sure to analyze the micro-macro linkage if applicable. Compare and contrast both approaches. Which approach do you believe has more explanatory power?


In this answer I would like to analyze the creationism trial in Arkansas from two points of view, namely Mead's symbolic interactionism and Parsonian structural functionalism.

1.1 Creationism trial in Arkansas

The case I analyze is the creationism trial in Arkansas. Creationism is a movement to take the biblical explanations of the origin of the species and human being literally and therefore to fight against evolutionary biology and other branches of science which contradict with the Bible. According to a survey, in several states 30 % of teachers agree that creationism should be taught in public schools (Eve and Harrold 1990, 163). In 1981, the senate and the house of representatives of Arkansas passed a bill called "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act (Act 590)" and the governor signed it. This act required teachers in public schools to teach creation-science (defined in Act 590, mentioning neither the Bible nor the Creator) and evolution-science evenly. The legislation caused wide opposition by various religious and educational groups. The battle was brought into the court room (this trial is called McLean vs. Arkansas) and Judge Overton in the district court ruled that Act 590 violated the separation of church and state. I would like to ask two questions about this case: First, why was creationism so influential that the original legislation was possible?; Second, what does the ruling by the judge against the law mean sociologically? To answer these questions, I use Mead's microscopic theory and Parsons' macroscopic theory for the analyses.

1.2 Meadean analysis

Mead's symbolic interactionism explains the emergence of self in behavioristic terms. A symbolic interaction is an interaction with significant symbols (Ritzer 1996, 371). Significant symbols are gestures which "arouse in the individual who is making them the same kind of response as they are supposed to elicit from those to whom the gestures are addressed" (370). Language is a typical significant symbol. Mind is a process of internalized symbolic interactions which enable the actor to respond to the whole society in an organized way (374). Symbolic interaction is also essential for the development of self. Self is defined by Mead as the ability to look upon oneself as an object (374). There are two stages in the development of self (375-377). In the first stage children learn to play someone else's role (play stage). In this stage they look at themselves from a particular person's point of view, by playing at being that person. In the next stage children learn to look at themselves from everyone else's point of view by playing games like baseball (game stage). If a child does not know the purpose of the entire team and does not think about his/her appropriate behavior from that point of view, the child cannot take part in the game. This everyone else's point of view is called the 'generalized other,' and 'self' is an ability to take oneself as an object from this generalized other's point of view (376). This generalized other regulates each individual's action. In this point Mead distinguishes "I" and "me" (378-379). "I" is the immediate response of an individual to others and an incalculable, unpredictable and creative part of the self. "Me" is an adoption of an organized set of attitudes of others, namely generalized other. Social control is the dominance of 'me' over 'I'. Social institutions are just patterned actions of such individuals.

From this point of view, we can understand the importance of public school education for creationists. Creationists are those who have developed the pattern of action to take the Bible literally (this includes patterned responses to the questions like 'what is the origin of the human being?' or 'did the flood reported in the Bible really occur?'). On the other hand, school education aims at developing different kind of patterns through science education. When a teacher talks about evolution, students internalize the talk, and it becomes a part of the generalized other, and therefore define a part of the self of the students (the same thing will happen if the teacher talks about creationism). This analysis is in accord with Mead's definition of education. According to Mead, education is "the process by which the common habits of the community (the institution) are 'internalized' in the actor" (Ritzer 1996, 379). Applied to this case, this means that to learn about evolution is not just a matter of knowledge, but involves learning to behave as an evolutionist by internalizing the habits of the scientific community. This behavior conflicts with creationist behavior. Since, according to Mead, self is nothing more than behavior, what was at stake for creationists was their (or, at least their children's) self identities.

This motivation of creationists is understandable. But what is more interesting is the motivations of those who passed the bill, i.e. senators, representatives, and the governor of Arkansas. Most of them were not creationists. What motivated them to vote for such a bill? From Mead's point of view, we can translate the question as follows: what is the generalized other for those people? A part of it can be found easily. A representative (who finally had voted against the bill) reported the effectiveness of the lobbying of creationists: "when you get a mass of phone calls in favor of a bill and none against, and when it appears to be in support of motherhood, apple pie, and the American way of life, it is hard to vote against it" (Webb 1994, 230). This statement reveals a couple of interesting points. First, it shows that conversations over the phone played an important role in senators' and representatives' decisions. In other words, this 'mass of phone calls' became a part of their generalized other through the internalization of the conversations, and it regulated their behaviors. Of course the content of the conversations was also important, and this is the second point. In the course of their lives, those people had developed certain patterned reactions to the phrases like 'American way of life' (and 'motherhood' and 'apple pie,' as significant symbols). In this case, the bill was associated with these phrases, and they approved the bill obeying the pattern. Other key words used in the lobbying were "fairness" and "freedom of choice" (ibid.). These and other similar words seem to have special effects on politicians. For example, a section in the act 590 says that " public schools ... shall not discriminate ... against any student who demonstrates a satisfactory understanding of both evolution-science and creation-science and who accepts or rejects either model in whole or part" (Ruse 1988, 284. emphasis added). In the course of their career, politicians acquire a pattern of arguing for fairness and arguing against discrimination. So it was hard for them to vote against any bill associated with 'fairness.'

Finally, we should analyze the behavior of the judge and others who argued against Act 590. Of course their major ground for arguing against the act was the separation of church and state written in the U.S. Constitution. And of course this is another patterned reaction. But another look at their arguments reveals an interesting point. Many scientists and a philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, testified in the trial that creationism is not a science. Especially Ruse set up five criteria for science (dependence on natural law, explanation by natural law, testability, tentativeness, and falsifiability) in his testimony and argued that creationism does not meet these criteria. Judge Overton used this testimony as a crucial part of his opinion. So, for those people, the demarcation of science and non-science is even more important than the separation of church and state. But what is so special about science? Mead has something to say about this (Ritzer 1996, 380-382). For Mead, science is an important part of the evolution of human beings and human society. This means that there is nothing special in the methodology of science, because it is just a refined way of using our minds. Science also meets the need of society to maintain the order but still be able to change and progress (382). Mead does not explain where this societal need come from, but at least it explains why scientists (and in this case, philosophers of science) are conditioned to demarcate science and non-science strictly.

The above analysis does not seem to leave the room for free will of the actors, but we can find creativity, what Mead called "I," in several points. First of all, the creationist movement itself is a product of creativity on the part of creationists. Their strategy, namely the legislation of the 'balanced treatment' is also creative part of their movement. Ruse's criteria of science is another creative part of the story (even though the criteria is criticized as too naive; see Ruse 1988). All of these things are of course incorporated in the patterned actions, but the exact content of the actions does not seem to be determined by the generalized other altogether.

1.3 Parsonian analysis

Parsons developed a theory called structural functionalism. Parsons' theory ranges from the microscopic to the macroscopic level, and has significantly changed in the course of his career. Here we concentrate on his macroscopic analysis of the action system in his later works. He defines a function as a complex of activity directed towards meeting a need or needs of the system (Ritzer 1996, 420). There are four kinds of functional imperatives all systems need to meet; that is, adaptation (to cope with the environment), goal attainment (to define and achieve the goal), integration (to regulate the interrelationship of its components), and latency (pattern maintenance) (ibid.). This is known as the AGIL scheme. Parsons uses this scheme in analyzing the action system, the system of levels of social analysis. There are four levels in the action system (social system, cultural system, personality system, and behavioral organism), and each of them corresponds to the AGIL. First, the social system is defined as a plurality of individual actors interacting in a situation for optimization of gratification (424). The social system serves as the integration function in the action system, and itself is divided into four subsystems, i.e. economy, polity, fiducial system, and societal community (426-427). Economy serves the function of adaptation of society by labor, production, and allocation. Polity serves as the goal attainment function by pursuing societal objectives. The fiduciary system serves the latency function by transmitting culture (school, family). Finally, the societal community coordinates the various components of society by laws (integration). The cultural system is a system of symbols that are objects of orientation for actors, internalized aspects of the personality system, and institutionalized patterns. In other words, the cultural system controls the other three levels through conditioning (for the behavioral organism), internalization (for the personality system) and as norms and values (for the social system). Through these relationships, the cultural system serves the latency function in the action system. The personality system is the organized system of orientation and motivation of action of the individual actor. An actor is provided with a status role, i.e. position in a structure of interaction (417), by the social system, and provided with value orientations by the cultural system through internalization. So in this view an actor plays a passive role in the action system. Anyway, the personality system is supposed to serve the goal attainment function by defining system goals. The behavioral organism consists of a genetic constitution, learning and conditioning. This serves the adaptation function.

From this functionalist's point of view, functions of public schools, state legislatures, state governments, and courts are clear. Schools are part of the fiduciary system, while the state legislature and the government are a part of polity, and the court is a part of the societal community. But to answer my first question why the senators, the representatives, and the governor of Arkansas approved the bill, we should determine the function of creationists and creationism in the society. Even though the creationists lost in the court, the movement itself is supported by many people in several states. Of course religion in general is a part of cultural system, but this particular movement is not very functional for society, because it tries to interfere with the science education. Still, a functionalist analysis is possible. Maybe the functions of creationists are these: first, they remind us of the importance of science and science education; second, by admitting even this kind of movement, we can reinforce the norm of religious freedom.

From this point of view, let us reconstruct the story in Parsonian terms. At first, creationism as a system of belief is in the cultural system (this is the right place to start the story from Parsonian point of view). At the level of the personality system, people become creationists by internalizing the belief system of creationism. At the level of the social system creationists made a institution (Institute for Creation Research, ICR, founded in 1970 by Henry Morris). The aim of this institute is to propagate creationism, so we can identify it as a part of the fiduciary system. But the role of the institute will be better served, if it can cooperate with other institutions in the fiduciary system. Thus ICR started a movement for equal treatment of creation and evolution in public schools (which are, no doubt, an important part of the fiduciary system). But the matter is related to the goal of the society, so the decision was made by the legislature and the state government of Arkansas in the level of polity. As we saw above, the goals they set were the 'American way of life,' 'fairness,' 'freedom of choice,' and so on. (these values are also from the cultural system, but much more influential than creationism). From these points of view the bill for the 'balanced treatment' seemed fine, so they passed the bill. However, there are other norms and values controlling society, e.g. the separation between church and state, importance of science, and so on. The societal community, in this case the district court, came in to coordinate these norms. The result turned out that Act 590 did not serve fairness and violates the separation between church and state, so it was abolished. By going through this process, each norm and value involved in is reinforced, and at the same time the relations between the norms are adjusted and clarified (as a result, creationists no longer try to make that kind of laws after the trial). The existence of creationism was necessary for this reinforcement and clarification, and we can understand that this is a part of the function of the creationism as a part of the cultural system.

1.4 Comparisons of the analyses

There are several similarities between these two analysis. First of all, both Mead and Parsons emphasize the importance of internalization by the actors, and this makes their actors play passive roles in the story. We can explain the original legislation in terms of the 'American way of life,' 'fairness' and so on in either analysis. For the explanation of the ruling we can use the U.S. Constitution and the importance of science, again in either analysis.

They differ in the interpretation of these reasons. For Mead, there are no such abstract things like values or norms other than significant symbols and the behaviors invoked by the symbols. For Parsons, these are abstract reality in the cultural system. This difference corresponds to the difference the way they talk about institutions. In Meadean analysis, social institutions like schools, governments, courts are patterned actions of individuals, so to analyze what the institutions do we should consult the behavior of the individuals. For Parsons, these institutions are objective reality, and cannot be reduced to individual actions. So the major differences between two analyses are ontological ones, namely on the existence of macroscopic phenomena like institutions, norms and values.

These differences, however, are not so large as it seems at first. For Mead, the society and the generalized other precedes the mind and the self. The generalized other is floating around in a somewhat objective (or, in phenomenological terminology, intersubjective) domain. We can think of these things as objective (intersubjective) reality. These are not macroscopic in the genuine sense, however, because they can be decomposed into piecemeal processes. But at one point Mead even mentions to the societal need for order and progress in his account of science. If Mead can reduce this kind of societal need to microscopic individual needs, We do not need macroscopic level any more. If he cannot, and if he cannot even account for them in his scheme, then he is in trouble. But it seems to me that societal needs of this kind can be reduced to safety and welfare of present and future individuals in the society. If this is right, Mead does not need macroscopic level.

As for Parsons, his personality system serves as a macroscopic part of his theory. I think what he says about value-orientations and need-dispositions can be easily translated into behavioristic terms like behaviors, significant symbols, and the generalized other. My analyses on the creationists shows how we can say the same thing in these two different terminologies[1] . Maybe Parsons agrees in this point, but he would still object that macroscopic levels like the cultural system and the social system can not be reduced to microscopic level. I do not find much of such irreducible macroscopic phenomena in this case we consider here. Does it make any difference to talk about public schools instead of teachers in public schools and what they teach there? Does it make any difference to talk about the ruling of the court instead of ruling of Judge Overton? Maybe there are significant differences in other cases, but so far as this case is consern, I do not think so.

There is another difference between Meadean and Parsonian analyses. That is, they are different in their heuristic values. On the one hand, Meadean analysis enables us to boil down the complex situation into very basic patterned actions. His emphasis on the importance of significant symbols and his view on mind as process are illuminative to find out such patterns. On the other hand, Parsonian approach is good for determining functions of a seemingly useless component of a society. His AGIL scheme seems too abstract, but still provides some interesting guidelines for the task. Of course, we get a more powerful heuristic tool by combining the two approaches.

My conclusion from these comparisons is that Meadean analysis and Parsonian analysis are compatible in this case, if Parsons admits that there is nothing irreducibly macroscopic in this case. I also conclude that, by integrating these two approaches, we get a powerful heuristic tool for analyzing.


Eve, R. A. and Harrold, F. B. (1990), The Creationist Movement in Modern America. Boston: Twayne.

Ritzer, G. (1996), Classical Sociological Theory Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ruse, M. ed. (1988), But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Turner, J. (19??), The Structure of Sociological Theory. ??

Webb, G.E. (1994), The Evolution Controversy in America. The University Press of Kentucky.