Free Relations and Systems Theory


The establishment of self-identity is highly dependent on the interactions approach in the “high modernity” society. For this reason, the individual plays a central role in influencing the way social systems function. As such, an individual’s behaviors and actions have a substantial effect on society as a whole, and especially the adopted culture. As a result, the emergence of free relations, especially at the family level, a basic unit of the social structure, affects functionality in ensuring productive engagements in the modern society.1 The society’s success relies on the effective functionality of each social institution, mainly at the family level.

As underlined by the Parsonian theory, the functionality of a society is subject to the cultural, social, and personality aspects of development to a certain degree.2 The interdependency of these three features that influence the development works in a structural and functional way. This assertion implies that the weakness of a single element could undermine the healthy growth and development of a “high modernity” society. Notably, the contemporary society allows room for people to make independent choices that shape their culture, as depicted by secularism. However, secularism has influenced the development of beliefs, values, and expressive systems. This influence raises concerns regarding the compatibility of the new systems with traditional norms, values, and attitudes.

Therefore, the construction of self-identity in contemporary society has great influence on its overall performance, as seen by the outcome of free relations.3 For this reason, this paper explores the extent to which systems theory models the emergence of free relations at the family level and in relationships, thus affecting the family’s functionality. In doing so, one would gain an understanding of the influence that self-identity has on the relational, regulative, and cultural institutions that characterize the “high modernity” social system.

Parsons’ Functional Model

As a structural functionalist, Talcott Parsons contributed significantly to the essence of maintaining equilibrium with regard to the socio-economic and political aspects of relationships. He came up with the concept of action systems, which is likened to the social systems. Parsons focused on the various action systems to assess the interaction and relationship that take place among individuals4. Importantly, the functionalist theorist underscored that a personality system, which is associated with the elements of orientation and motivation, forms the basis of social systems. In this way, culture and other social features influence or motivate the individual to find acceptance in social relationships. Apparently, culture plays a central role in determining the behavior of individuals in a social setting, which then influences the nature of decisions made and the relationships formed.

Besides the relationships element, the individual personality gains its foundation from a fusion of biological and cultural drives. Thus, the forces that shape the individual identity could come from within or outside the organism. However, regardless of the point of origin, these forces determine how an individual relates with others in a social setting. Considering this aspect, Parsons integrated the socio-biological perspective with the development of the social systems, wherein the individual’s biological organization affects the identity that s/he acquires, thus affecting the functionality of the social structure in general.

Parsons’ macro-sociological approach to enhancing an understanding of the functionality of the various systems that construct a society is applicable to date. Mainly, Parsons concentrated on the elements of personality and culture, and their influence on the structural functionality of the various social systems, including the family unit5.Therefore, Parsons assisted considerably in fostering an understanding of how the development of self-identity through personal and interpersonal relations affects the performance of social systems. However, in analyzing the relations of overall society, Parsons focused on the micro-sociological aspects of relations in the family setting.

Parsons conducted an analysis of family relations, depicting the way the individual, especially the child, established their self-identity, besides being braced by acquiring the culture embraced by the family6. Mainly, Parsons viewed socialization as the key feature that facilitates the transfer of acceptable norms, values, attitudes, practices, and traditions from the male and female adult in the family to the children. Furthermore, in transferring acceptable culture to the children, the parents exercise their power in the family, led by the father figure, who acts as the head7. Therefore, the father figure traditionally influenced the conduct of relations within the family, to ensure that the family unit conformed to the acceptable standards in the society. In so doing, the family plays a key role in facilitating the streamlined functionality of the various social systems.

Notably, Parsons did not emphasize the husband’s use of power in the family to dominate the wife and children, but that the husband acts as the family’s representative at the community level8. Therefore, the father figure ought to allow a level of liberal interactions in the family setting. In this regard, besides influencing the self-identity of the children, the father also allows them to acquire insights from alternative agents to facilitate their growth and development9. In this respect, Parsons underlined that, besides exercising their power over the family, the father figure ought to play an instrumental role that fosters the survival of the family. Therefore, the husband is expected to ensure the sustainability of the entire society, by playing his roles effectively at the family level. From the sustainable strategies employed at the family level, society gains its place in contributing to its prosperity.

Through his instrumental role, the father in a particular household has the responsibility of engaging in economic activities that would facilitate the survival and sustainability of the family. As the father figure executes his instrumental role, the mother assumes the integrative and expressive roles that influence the establishment of self-identity among the children. In this case, the mother nurtures the children and the husband psychologically, together with performing other household chores.10

Structuration and Human Relationships

Through the structuration theory, Anthony Giddens provides substantial insights concerning the establishment of social systems founded on two key elements: agents and structure. Giddens focuses on the structure and agency concept upholding the restoration of equilibrium of key social causes that include phenomenology, hermeneutics, and social practices11. Thus, maintaining the balance of the abovementioned forces denotes the incorporation of structural functionalism, for the maintenance of constructive relations that reinforce the social systems.

Therefore, the emergence of free relations in the modern-day world is influenced by the dynamic cycle of structuration that allows the acquisition of new processes, including the absorption of new cultures. Essentially, for the sake of fostering an understanding of the structuration theory, Giddens concentrates on an analysis of the modality, interaction, and structure elements. The modality feature investigates the way structures transform into social systems in the greater society. Social connections influence the relationships embraced by individuals within a given context of societal systems. The legal structures in the society also influence the approach toward interaction among different individuals and groups in the society, as depicted in the family setting, where the husband exercises power over the wife and offspring12.

Importantly, the existence of some frames that regulate interactions allows individuals to interact in a way that demonstrates ontological security, facilitating the predictability of daily actions and interactions. For this reason, the emergence of free relations in modern society is influenced by the rationalization and ritualization of actions that influence social order. In this context, social order concerns mainly the extensiveness of time and space that determine human social relationships. Therefore, if order transcends time and space, then human beings would interact in ways acceptable by the current values, norms, and practices. For this reason, the reutilization of the post-modern culture, which is denoted by a considerably secular world, evidences that the “high modernity” concept triggers the emergence of free relations.

Giddens argues that the contours of “high modernity” affect the development of new approaches to social interactions and relationships. Denoted by industrialization, capitalism, total war, and the unprecedented development of organizations in contemporary society, the “high modernity” system promotes extreme dynamism, triggering an abandonment of the traditional interaction of agents that foster different structures to form reinforced social systems13. Therefore, analyzing the agency intentions leading to unintentional outcomes, as demonstrated by vices and other detrimental practices in the contemporary society, is essential.

The Emergence of Free Relations

To a considerable degree, the structures of contemporary society have promoted the establishment of free relations. In this light, Parsons’ proposal for the development of social systems, constructed by features that function interdependently for the sustainability of the whole, holds water in explaining the current state of the “high modernity” society. Therefore, analyzing the sub-systems that trigger the current state of relationships and interactions is crucial.

Importantly, Parsons underlines that orientation and motivation facilitate the creation of an individual’s personal identity. In this regard, modern society orients people to act based on fulfilling their cognitive, cathartic, and evaluative needs. Therefore, if the pursuit for cognitive reinforcement prompts an individual to engage in new forms of interactions or relationships with others, then the dynamism of the contemporary world influences the construction of the individual identity significantly14. For instance, Parsons underscored that the primary function of the family unit was to facilitate the transfer of the upheld culture to the younger family members through socialization. However, since cognitive development is considered integral in bolstering the development of the individual identity, the role has been ascribed to other institutions and agents, such as schools15.

In this light, the traditional roles and functions of the family setting have been relatively abandoned, since new motivations orient individuals to embrace modern approaches to interaction. Consequently, the dynamism aspect of culture is promoted by other structures of the society besides the family unit. Notably, the “high modernity” society favors the emergence of free relations, since different parties and institutions have assumed the traditional roles of other agents, to design contemporary relations. For instance, Parsons insisted that husbands, apart from playing the instrumental role of exercising power, also ought to carry out economic roles that would allow them to execute their roles as breadwinners effectively. As such, the “high modern society” that favors capitalism is promoted by the notion that the family representative, the father, has to work for the sustainability of the family that guides the functionality of the social systems. Consequently, the children and mothers assume new approaches to the development of their individual identity, as seen by the embracing of new relationship patterns.

Notably, multiple family forms have existed over the centuries and in different places. The dynamism of the family forms denotes the notion, upheld by Giddens, that social interactions could transcend the aspects of space and time, in seeking the development of profound social systems16. In this light, today, modern families are symbolized by the plurality of diverse and socially acknowledged forms that indicate the inception of free relations among different individuals and agents. Notably, the contemporary setting allows the determinants of marriage to transcend traditional limits denoted by sexual attraction and romantic love17.

Therefore, to maintain an equilibrium regarding the interaction of individuals, particularly at the family level, present-day society has allowed an increase in intermarriages across races, and gay marriages in some countries. The trend reveals that the process of shaping the individual identity has taken a new turn, as people express their sexuality without fear, compared to the past18. In this regard, recognizing the rights of LGBT persons shows that the “high modernity” environment integrates the orientation and motivation of different social groups, by allowing them to experience free relations in their individual settings, and thus, facilitate the collective contribution of the different structures to the effective functionality of the whole.

Additionally, structural functionalism bolsters the emergence of free relations in contemporary society, especially regarding the fusion of the biological and cultural causes that influence identity creation. Therefore, through this fusion, human beings affirm that they need to live like social animals for the sake of improving their interactions. In this regard, individuals’ biological elements also influence their self-identity. Furthermore, the cultural element of the family ensures that, while interacting as social animals, they need to uphold the values, norms, attitudes, and practices that promote the sustainability of humanity. In this case, the interaction of culture and biology could affect the way societies act, and thus, alter the performance of the social systems19. Since culture acquires greater dynamism as it is transferred from one generation to another, the new culture could alter the attributes of the existing culture. Similarly, biological changes in the human species could also alter the way individuals engage with one another, thus triggering new forms of relations with time.

Further, the Social Darwinism concept comes to play in the facilitation of an understanding of the biological triggers that cause a change within human interactions in multiple and different social settings. Social Darwinism upholds that a cultural group’s proximity to the Western Europe normative appearance and behavior standards represent more evolved societies. Therefore, biology considerably determines the structuration of social agents particularly the individuals and their pursuit for identity. In this light, natural selection issues have a substantial influence on the relations in the “high modernity” environment, as denoted by the inequitable development levels in different regions20.

As a result, the integration of culture and biology has influenced the relationships among different social groups, based on their race, ethnicity, and gender, among other socio-biological elements. However, as opposed by Giddens, the development of unintentional outcomes, stemming from the interaction of different agents in the society, has activated the adoption of personal identities, where individuals perceive themselves as superior to others, owing to their genetic structure21. For instance, the issues of racism and gender inequality jeopardized the development of free relations in the past, compared to today, thus denoting the impact of fusing biology and culture to design individual identities that reinforce the cohesiveness of the structural-functional systems.

However, Giddens points out that relationships based on rationalism cancel out unintended consequences that degrade the performance of the structural systems22. Therefore, besides culture determining the conduct of relationships among individuals, the latter ought to engage their rationality acquired through social experiences. Therefore, contemporary society disregards the application of cultural and biological forces as the sole determinants of identity formation and relationships in the social setting, by engaging logical thinking. For this reason, advocacy against various forms of inequalities, including racism and gender inequalities in the “high modernity” setting, has led to the reduction of such a case, thus allowing free relations to dominate human social interactions. Therefore, since the individual aspects of the structural-functional system have to perform perfectly for the survival of the whole, as underpinned by Parsons, the integration of rationalism to guide the relations of the different agents is useful23. For this reason, current societies embrace free relations to ensure the perfect functionality of the globalized society.

Moreover, the structural-functionalism framework contributes to the development of free relations as supported by Giddens24. The different structures in the social systems have resources and rules that determine the transformation of relations. For instance, besides the husband solely contributing to the fulfillment of the family’s economic needs, contemporary culture encourages the wife to engage in economically productive activities to support the family. Furthermore, the social systems enable the reproduction of acceptable relations in various societal structures, as seen in the onset of new interactions in the political and economic arenas. Therefore, the arrival of free relations in the “high modern” atmosphere is reinforced by Parsons’ emphasis on improving the performance of each feature of the social system, an approach that gets absorbed by the structuration approach to human social relations25.


Parsons’ approach to identity development and social relationships, through the functionalistic perspective, significantly facilitates an understanding of the contemporary human interactions. People’s interactions and relationships are subject to different factors that exist in a functional society. Notably, the free relations enjoyed by society’s majority today depict the dynamism of culture and identity. For this reason, the traditional roles of the players in various institutions including the family have taken new turns owing to changes requiring the effective functionality of the multiple and interrelated structures. Consequently, unintentional consequences of the dynamic aspect of the social systems have led to the emergence of issues such as racism and gender discrimination in multicultural societies like the United States. However, due to the prevalence of highly functioning social systems, the emergence of free relations has dominated interaction in a way that supports the interest of different structures collectively.


Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967.

Foucault, Michel. Selections from the History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books. 1990.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. California: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Giddens, Anthony. The consequences of modernity. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Goffman, Erving. Selections from the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books. 1959.

Parsons, Talcott. The Social System. London, UK: Routledge, 2013.


  1. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age (California: Stanford University Press, 1991), 98.
  2. Talcott Parsons, The Social System (London: Routledge, 2013), 46.
  3. Erving Goffman, Selections from the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 20.
  4. Parsons, 49.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Anthony Giddens, The consequences of modernity (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 105.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Michel Foucault, Selections from the History of Sexuality, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 94.
  9. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 139.
  10. Goffman, 30.
  11. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity, 100.
  12. Giddens, The consequences of modernity, 86.
  13. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity, 102.
  14. Berger and Luckmann, 136.
  15. Parsons, 51.
  16. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity, 101.
  17. Berger and Luckmann, 154.
  18. Foucault, 92.
  19. Goffman, 40.
  20. Giddens, The consequences of modernity, 89.
  21. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity, 80.
  22. Ibid, 82.
  23. Parsons, 67.
  24. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity, 108.
  25. Goffman, 67.