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Testing Parsons: Evidence from an Organizational Subunit and Implications for Structural Functional Theorizing


  • In developing this paper, the authors have benefitted from intellectual exchange with Jonathan Turner, Jerald Hage, Robert Dubin, Philip “Boo” Riley, Laura Nichols, Harry Johnson, Andrew Sofranko, Michael Klausner, and Alasdair Marshall. We are particularly grateful to the journal’s anonymous reviewers for their detailed and insightful comments. Please direct correspondence to: Charles Powers, Santa Clara University, Sociology Department, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053, USA; e-mail:


Talcott Parsons’ ideas are shown to have operational meaning when applied to organizations in two respects. (1) Parsons’ typology of system needs provides a meaningful way of categorizing administrative rules (protocols) developed by the subunit under study, and (2) “phase dominance,” anticipated by structural functionalists, is tested. Our analysis adds to Parsons’ framework (a) by helping to clarify the distinctive (and generally unappreciated) role that can be played by ground-level administrative units in the process of adaptive change within large and complex organizations, and (b) by informing our understanding of organizational alignment with external societal forces.