As mentioned earlier, Vilfredo Pareto’s conception of the social system was strongly to influence the early work of the leading American systematist, Talcott Parsons. This is true in part because the Italian succeeded in freeing the functionalist image of society and the vision of positive science from the simplistic organicism of other theories of order. His conception of systemic interdependence (which includes the relationship between human action and the external environment), the role of nonlogical action in both society and science, and the search for constants in the social universe proved to be enduring contributions. And for some, his insistence on cutting off utopian visions from explanations of how a society really works has been preserved. Clearly, however, discernable problems emerge from a critical analysis of this form of systems theory.
To begin, the construction of Pareto’s theory presents problems. He failed to implement his stated ideals of logical induction and disciplined observation (his so-called logico-experimental method). Instead, he settled for a classification scheme, a multilayered taxonomy of systemic elements and subelements. Second, despite an insistence on precision, Pareto’s major concepts are often poorly defined. This is especially true in the case of residues, which represent the fulcrum of his theory. However, this central concept can be faulted on more serious grounds than those of ambiguity.
By use of the term residues, Pareto sought to explain the emergence of the social system in terms of drives or impulses that are the reflections of underlying sentiments or instincts. His logic is flawed in two important ways. In terms of level of abstraction, Pareto’s residues represent a form of behavioral reductionism while the innate predispositions they supposedly manifest cannot be studied at all. Ultimately, Pareto turned to instincts to account for society and in so doing fell into a tautology. This circular reasoning can be expressed in the following: Why do human beings seek popularity and differential prestige (actions that for Pareto represent the residue of sociability)? Because of an underlying and innate sentiment. How do we know such a sentiment exists? Because human beings seek popularity and differential prestige.
Furthermore, Pareto’s insistence that inequality is constant and that systems are universally governed by an elite falls victim to the naturalistic fallacy that commonly plagues order theories. The existence of an elite does not prove its universal necessity. Also of crucial importance is the fact that such assertions do not allow us to assess the differential degree of elite dominance among systems.
It is also true that Pareto’s “circulation of the elite” (in true Machiavellian style) assigns little importance to the role of mass movements in history. Instead, the system, ultimately rooted in nonlogical action, stands as an immutable order. Because it is founded on changeless instincts, Pareto’s conservative society lies beyond the pale of revolution or planned intervention. For this sociologist, the vision of humanistic change was merely an illusion by which the cycles of elite domination may be disguised for a brief historical moment.
Pareto, as noted, was quite sensitive to the ideological implications of alternative theories. However, there is no evidence that he understood the political nature of his own thought. Turning the language of this theory against him, Pareto’s social system is perhaps a derivation (ideology). As we have seen, the ideological content of his work was not lost on the architects of Mussolini’s new order (Perdue, 1986, pp. 102-103).