Pattern variables are five dichotomies, developed by Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), to draw out the contrasting values to which individuals orient themselves in social interaction. One side of the dichotomies reflects the value patterns dominant in traditional society (Gemeinschaft), the other reflects the dominant values of modern society (Gesellschaft).
The variables, listed with the traditional side of the dichotomy first, are: affectivity - affective neutrality; diffuseness - specificity; particularism - universalism; ascription - achievement; collectivity orientation - self orientation.
Pattern variables are ''the principle tools of structural analysis outlining the derivation of these categories from the intrinsic logic of social action -- the inherent dilemmas of choice facing actors''.
Parsons argues that there are a strictly limited and defined set of alternatives or choices that can be made, and the relative primacies given to choices constitute the ''patterning of relational institutions.'' These choices or alternatives are called orientation-selection.
There are five pattern variables of role-definition that Parsons discusses, although he says that there are many more possibilities.
The first is the gratification-discipline dilemma: affectivity vs. affective-neutrality. The dilemma here is in deciding whether one expresses their orientation in terms of immediate gratification (affectivity) or whether they renounce immediate gratification in favor of moral interests (affective-neutrality). parsons says, ''no actor can subsist without gratifications, while at the same time no action system can be organized or integrated without the renunciation of some gratifications which are available in the given situation''.
The second set of pattern variables of role-definition are the private vs. collective interest dilemma: self-orientation vs. collectivity orientation. In this case, one's role orientation is either in terms of her private interests or in terms of the interests of the collectivity.
Parsons explains, ''a role, then, may define certain areas of pursuit of private interests as legitimate, and in other areas obligate the actor to pursuit of the common interests of the collectivity. The primacy of the former alternative may be called ''self-orientation,'' that of the latter, ''collectivity-orientation''.
The third pair of pattern variables are the choice between types of value-orientation standard: universalism vs. particularism. Simply put, ''in the former case the standard is derived from the validity of a set of existential ideas, or the generality of a normative rule, in the latter from the particularity of ... an object or of the status of the object in a relational system'' (109). Example: the obligation to fulfill contractual agreements vs. helping someone because she is your friend.
The fourth pair of pattern variables are achievement vs. ascriptive role behavior: the choice between modalities of the social object. Achievement-orientation roles are those which place an emphasis on the performances of the people, whereas ascribed roles, the qualities or attributes of people are emphasized independently of specific expected performances.
The fifth pair of pattern variables are specificity vs. diffuseness: the definition of scope of interest in the object. If one adopts an orientation of specificity towards an object, it means that the definition of the role as orienting to the social object in specific terms. In contrast, in a diffuse orientation, the mode of orientation is outside the range of obligations defined by the role-expectation.