Parsons, Talcott

views updated May 14 2018

Parsons, Talcott 1902-1979


American sociologist Talcott Parsons, the youngest of five children, was born in Colorado Springs in 1902. His father was a Congregational minister, professor, and university president, and his mother was a progressive and a suffragist. Parsons completed his undergraduate studies in biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He also attended the London School of Economics, where he studied with Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942), inheriting his view of society as a system of interrelated parts. In 1926 Parsons attended the University of Heidelberg, where he studied the theories of Max Weber (18641920). He translated Webers The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (19041905) into English in 1930. Parsons was initially an instructor of economics at Harvard University, where he was mentored by Pitirim Sorokin (18891968), then became an inaugural member of the sociology department. In 1945 Parsons established Harvards Department of Psychology and Social Relations, an interdisciplinary collaboration in the behavioral sciences and economics. He served as chair of the department until its dissolution in 1972. He continued teaching as a visiting professor upon his retirement in 1973 from Harvard. Parsons died in May 1979.

Parsons was the major American social theorist until about 1969, and some claim that social theory since then has been in conversation with Parsons. Parsons attempted to develop a grand theory of society that explains all social behavior, everywhere, throughout history, and in all contexts, with a single model called structural functionalism. This approach considers values to be the core of culture, because values give meaning to what people do, direct peoples lives, and bind people together. These cultural traits thus function for the operation of society (Parsons 1966). Parsons believed that all lasting social systems strive for stability or equilibrium with a strong sense of social order and institutional interdependence. Influenced by Sigmund Freud (18561939), he was interested in how actors choose goals and means in relation to internalized norms and values, and argued for an objective external world that is understood empirically with concepts created by the ideas, beliefs, and actions of those under study. This is a modernist approach because it assumes an absolute developmental process.

Parsons early theorizing on social action, influenced by Weber, focused on active, creative mental processes that have an important subjective component. In The Structure of Social Action (1937), Parsons developed his empirical approach of analysis based on observation, reasoning, and verification, and explored the difference between the concepts of behavior (a mechanical response to stimuli) and action (an inventive process and analysis of the subjective aspect of human activity) (Ritzer 2000). For Parsons, the basic unit of study is the unit act, which involves the following criteria: an actor/agent motivated to action; an end toward which action is oriented and means to reach this end; a situation where the action takes place; and norms and values that shape the choice of means to ends. Actions consist of the structures and processes from which humans are motivated to form meaningful intentions (through available goal-attaining means) that are put into practice within the social system (Parsons 1966). Parsonian action is considered from all of the following perspectives: culture (values), society (norms), personality (source of motivation), and organism (source of energy). For Parsons, people cannot choose goals and means without society in the background, and they cannot make sense of agency or action without enforced or expected social norms. This means people must have an intention and awareness of societys norms, and they cannot escape these norms. Parsons is sometimes criticized for this position because he cannot account for social change.

Parsons was concerned with the integration of structure and process, and defined a social system as comprised of the interactions of many individuals within a situation, where the system itself includes commonly understood cultural norms. These cultural norms are within a system of generalized symbols and their associated meanings (Parsons 1951). These social systems have parts, or subsystems of varying complexity, that represent organizational structures. Additionally, social structures have social functions, which are the consequences of any social pattern for the operation of society as a whole. For Parsons, society is a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability (they strive for equilibrium), and hence he defines the social structure as any relatively stable pattern of social behavior. An analysis of the social system is thus a consideration of ordered processes of change in the interactive patterns of actors within a structure (the norms behind the goals and means). Actors have status roles or positions within the structure itself, and in relation to other actors via interactions. However, these statuses and roles are units of the social system, and are not qualities of the actors themselves.

Parsons and Robert F. Bales (19162004) apply this analysis of status based on hierarchy and power to the family (a small social unit) with Parsons notions of feminine-expressive and masculine-instrumental leadership roles. For Parsons, men assume through socialization a more technical, executive, and judicial role, and women a more supportive, integrative and tension-managing role (Parsons and Bales 1955). These stereotypical views result in a narrow and limited view of gender.

Parsons later developed pattern variables that categorize expectations and relationship structures that allow for understanding universal social action. These are: how much emotion to invest into any social phenomena (affectivity-affective neutrality); whether to orient oneself to part or all of a social phenomena (specificity-diffuseness); how to judge a social phenomena, either in terms of emotional or general standards (universalism-particularism); whether to judge a social action by its intentions or results (ascription-achievement); and whether to pursue self-interest or the interest of the collectivity (self-collectivity).

Additionally, Parsons claimed that for any given system of action, there were four functional components that were necessary for a system to exist, function, and maintain equilibrium: a social system must adapt and be able to exist in a changing environment; must have clearly stated goals; must involve actors within a subsystem of a greater organizational system; and must define and maintain a set of norms and values, which in turn legitimates action within the system itself.

C. Wright Mills (19161962) mocked Parsonian theory in his book The Sociological Imagination (1959), and postmodernists disagree paradigmatically with Parsons and his grand theory approach to understanding an ordered society.

SEE ALSO Culture; Family; Femininity; Functionalism; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Masculinity; Mills, C. Wright; Norms; Postmodernism; Psychology; Sociology; Sociology, Parsonian; Structuralism; Values; Weber, Max


Parsons, Talcott. [1937] 1949. The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. 2nd ed. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1954. Essays in Sociological Theory. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1960. Structure and Process in Modern Societies. New York: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1964. Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1966. Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Parsons, Talcott. 1969. Politics and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1971. The System of Modern Societies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Parsons, Talcott, and Robert F. Bales. 1955. Family, Socialization, and Interaction Process. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott, Robert F. Bales, and Edward Shils. 1953. Working Papers in the Theory of Action. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Ritzer, George. 2000. Classical Sociological Theory. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Ryan Ashley Caldwell

Parsons, Talcott

views updated Jun 27 2018

Parsons, Talcott (1902–79) For some twenty to thirty years after the Second World War, Talcott Parsons was the major theoretical figure in English-speaking sociology, if not in world sociology. An American who worked all his life in the United States, apart from a brief period of postgraduate study in Europe, his sociological theory (most often labelled structural-functionalism or normative functionalism) was commonly seen as a product of modern, affluent American society, where structural social conflicts had been largely eliminated or were of a transient nature, and where there appeared to be a general social cohesion and shared adherence to democratic values. Parsonsian theory came under increasing criticism as the post-war consensus itself showed signs of dissolving, particularly under the impact of the Vietnam War.

From the beginning, Parsons set out to provide an integrated, totalizing theory for sociology, bringing together into a unified whole the diverse insights of the major founders of sociology. In particular this involved an attempt to integrate Weber's individualism and Durkheim's holism. His focus was on ideas, values, norms, and the integration of individual actions oriented to norms and values into overarching social systems.

For Parsons, the prime task was to develop a set of abstract, generalizing concepts describing the social system. The main criteria by which we can judge such a set of concepts is their rational coherence, and they can then be used to derive propositions about the world. In his first book, The Structure of Social Action (1937), he argued that the classical sociological theorists could be seen as moving towards a voluntaristic theory of action, conceiving of human beings as making choices between means and ends, in a physical and social environment that limited choices. A central aspect of the social environment is the norms and values by which we make our choices. Within this context, actors aim at maximum gratification, and behaviour and relationships that achieve this goal become institutionalized into a system of status roles. This is the social system and it presupposes three other systems: a personality system (the actor himself or herself); a cultural system (or wider values giving coherence to the norms attached to status roles); and a physical environment to which the society must adjust.

Parsons then builds up an elaborate model of systems and subsystems. In order to survive, each system must meet four functional prerequisites, or four requirements that must be fulfilled. These are adaptation (to the physical environment); goal attainment (a means of organizing its resources to achieve its goals and obtain gratification); integration (forms of internal co-ordination and ways of dealing with differences); and latency or pattern-maintenance (means of achieving comparative stability). Each system, therefore, develops four specialist subsystems in the process of meeting these requirements. This is one of Parsons's most famous taxonomic devices—the so-called AGIL schema.

This was then developed into an evolutionary view of history as moving from the simple to the complex, societies developing rather as amoeba, through a process of splitting and then reintegration. Systems and subsystems are organized into a cybernetic hierarchy, those systems which have a high level of information (such as the cultural system, including norms and values), controlling systems which have a high level of energy (such as the human biological system).

The four systems mentioned above—cultural, social, personality and biological— form what Parsons calls the general system of action. Each system corresponds to a functional prerequisite. Similarly, the social system itself has four subsystems, these being (in hierarchical order) the socialization system (pattern maintenance); the societal community or institutions of social control (integration); the political system (goal attainment); and the economic system (adaptation). Each of these can, itself, be seen in terms of further, more specialized, subsystems.

We can also analyse actions, social relationships, and whole systems according to what Parsons calls pattern variables—or choices between pairs of alternatives. For example, in any relationship we may treat its object as unique, or as an example of a general class (this is the dilemma between particularism and universalism); may draw on or ignore emotional commitments (affectivity versus affective neutrality); may value something or someone for their own sake or for what can be done with it or them (quality versus performance); and may relate to all aspects of an object or to one only (diffuseness versus specificity). Institutions tend to cluster round opposing poles: in the family, for example, relationships are particularistic, affective, quality-oriented, and diffuse; in a factory they are typically universalistic, affectively neutral, performance-oriented, and specific.

These ideas were developed over some 40 years, Parsons's other main works being The Social System (1951), Towards a General Theory of Action (with Edward Shils, 1951), Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966), and The System of Modern Societies (1971). His structural-functionalism is perhaps best understood as a vast classificatory scheme, enabling us to categorize any level of social life, at any level of analysis. It is not surprising that C. Wright Mills's labelling of the approach as grand theory has stuck. The explanations that it offers are of a functionalist nature and many of the criticisms directed at Parsons's work have been criticisms of functionalist explanations as such. It has also been criticized for its abstraction and lack of connection with empirical research; for its social determinism (although it is a theory of social action it seems that, ultimately, systems prescribe the activities of each actor); for its implicit conservatism; and its inability to take account of action oriented to material rather than normative interests.

Parsonsian theory seemed to disappear in the 1970s, with rising interest in a wide range of other theories, but in recent years there has been a renewal of interest (see, for example, J. Alexander , ‘The Parsons Revival in German Sociology’, in R. Collins ( ed.) , Sociological Theory 1984, 1984, and R. Munch , ‘Parsonsian Theory Today; In Search of a New Synthesis’, in A. Giddens and and J. Turner ( eds.) , Social Theory Today, 1987

Parsons, Talcott

views updated May 21 2018


The leading anglophone social theorist between about 1940 and 1965, Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), who was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on December 13, was a tireless synthesizer of ideas from classical social and economic theory, functionalist anthropology, psychoanalysis (in which he was trained), and psychology. Though he did not create pathbreaking scientific concepts or procedures, nor contribute formally to ethical reasoning, he did succeed in grafting a robust affection for scientific method (as his generation understood and venerated it) onto the massive edifice of classical social theory in a way that no one else had managed.

Parsons was the youngest child of an early feminist mother (who could trace her ancestry to Jonathan Edwards [1703–1758], the American "divine") and a Congregational minister who became president of Marietta College. Parsons first studied biology at Amherst College, then shifted to political economy of the German-historical type. After a year at the London School of Economics (1924–1925), he moved to the University of Heidelberg, receiving his doctorate there with a dissertation on "'Capitalism' in Recent German Literature: Sombart and Weber." After teaching one year at Amherst he became an economics instructor at Harvard University, where he became a full professor in 1944 and where he remained until his retirement in 1974. He married Helen Bancroft Walker on April 30, 1927, and with her produced three children, Anne (an anthropologist of Italian culture), Charles (an economist), and Susan. Diabetic since the age of fifty-six, he died at seventy-six while on a trip to Heidelberg, on May 8, 1979, while celebrating his formative academic experience in that town fifty-three years earlier.

In 1946 Parsons helped form a new department, Social Relations, which brought together anthropology, political science, social psychology, and sociology. His keen attention to the claims of progressive, liberalizing science, coupled with an ever-present desire to understand the ethical meaning of social action (individually and collectively) were provoked by his parentage and upbringing, plus the special context of Harvard between 1927 and 1974, where he worked closely with a galaxy of gifted students and colleagues. His fascination with the proper role for "the professions," and how groupings of professionals could serve as a bulwark against the deadening routine of bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the self-serving market scramble of the capitalist on the other, was a theme adopted straight from Émile Durkheim's 1892 book, Division of Social Labor. It dovetailed perfectly with the strict Protestant morality, left-leaning in its politics, that he had absorbed while a boy. Parsons was also president of the American Sociological Association in 1949.

At Harvard, Parsons educated four self-aware generations of enterprising sociologists who carried his structural-functionalist scheme around the country and the world, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s (with a small renaissance in the early 1980s). His leadership of the theory wing of American sociology began to wane with C. Wright Mills's (1916–1962) famous attack on "grand theory" in The Sociological Imagination (1959) and was ended by Alvin Gouldner's (1920–1980) rhetorical masterpiece, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970).

Of Parsons' fourteen books, his first one, The Structure of Social Action (1937), remains of paramount interest. In this large study of Max Weber (1864–1920), Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), and the English economist Alfred Marshall (1842–1924), Parsons claimed to have discovered a "convergence" of ideas among four geniuses that culminated in Parsons's own ideas about the nature of normatively ordered social action. He was especially interested in how societies deal with the "Hobbesian problem of order," which is understandable given the history of the twentieth century to that point. But he was equally dedicated to updating the perennial question first systematically presented by Durkheim in 1892: What is the proper balance between the rights of individuals to express their uniqueness and the needs of the larger society to constrain these egocentric rights through normative controls? Fascinated with normative "consensus" and the avoidance of costly societal conflict, Parsons created his own sociological glossary, including such terms and concepts as voluntarism, pattern variables, the AGIL scheme of action (1963), and universalistic versus particularistic norms, as well as a large assortment of two-by-two tables that illustrated the personality/social structure dialectic in terms that seemed to validate his way of seeing the world.

Parsons's statements about science and technology now seem banal because he uncritically echoed the great enthusiasm for Big Science that so much infected the post–World War II period. A comment from his 1971 book, The System of Modern Societies, is typical:

Applied science did not begin to have a serious impact upon technology until the late nineteenth century. But technology has now become highly dependent upon research "payoffs," involving ever-wider ranges of the natural sciences, from nuclear physics to genetics, and also the social or "behavioral" sciences, perhaps most obviously economics and some branches of psychology. The social sciences share with the natural sciences the benefits of some striking innovations in the technology of research. (p. 96)

His most important work in this regard is a little-known empirical study he conducted with many collaborators between 1946 and 1948, "Social Science: A Basic National Resource." Here he argued that the new National Science Foundation ought to support the social sciences (contrary to the desires of President Franklin Roosevelt), because of its "scientifically based" contribution to the war effort. He wrote op-ed pieces for the New York Times making the same point, and led the fight for equal funding for social science because of its basic importance to national security, as well as its pivotal role in the general acquisition of knowledge.

Parsons was rediscovered briefly in the 1980s by a new generation of theorists, both in the United States and in Europe, but the "neofunctionalism" that briefly carried his banner has since become moribund. His future importance will probably turn around his first book, and he will be remembered as a great systematizer in an era that no longer cared for the presentation of knowledge in such "grand" synthetic gestures.


SEE ALSO Durkheim, Émile.


Gouldner, Alvin W. (1970). The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books.

Mills, C. Wright. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parsons, Talcott. (1937). The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Parsons, Talcott. (1986 [1948]). "Social Science: A Basic National Resource." In The Nationalization of the Social Sciences, ed. Samuel Z. Klausner and Victor M. Lidz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Parsons, Talcott. (1971). The System of Modern Societies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Talcott Parsons

views updated Jun 11 2018

Talcott Parsons

American sociologist, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), analyzed the socialization process to show the relationship between personality and social structure. His work led to the development of a pioneering social theory.

Talcott Parsons was born on Dec. 13, 1902, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He graduated from Amherst College in 1924, where he majored in biology, but decided to do graduate work in economics. In 1924-25 he attended the London School of Economics. He took his doctorate at Heidelberg University in Germany in 1927. While at Heidelberg, he translated Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which exercised a great influence upon young American sociologists.

Parsons was an instructor in the department of economics at Harvard University from 1927 to 1931. During this period he studied the works of Alfred Marshall, the great classical theorist and codiscoverer of the principle of marginal utility; émile Durkheim, the French sociologist; and Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian sociologist. Parsons' The Structure of Social Action (1937) fuses the theories of Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber into a single new body of theory and shows their relationship to Marshall's type of economic theory. Parsons became a full professor of sociology at Harvard in 1944. He held that position until his retirement in 1973.

The pioneering social theory developed by Parsons is abstract and complex. As a frame of reference for his system, he adopted the social action theory and stressed the structural-functional approach as the only way for sociology to achieve systematic theory. He stated that personality formation develops out of action organized around individuals, while action organized around relations of actors leads to a social system which consists of a network of roles. A third system which is indispensable to the personality system and the social system is the cultural system, which constitutes the standards and channels for guiding action. These three systems interpenetrate one another, and Parsons focused on the analysis of the socialization process to show the relationship between personality and the social structure.

The areas in which Parsons made contributions included the classification of the role of theory in research; the analysis of institutions; the outline of systematic theory in sociology; the voluntaristic theory of action; the analysis of specific structure and roles, kinship, occupations, and professions; and the analysis of certain modern problems of aggression, fascism, and anti-Semitism. He also made significant scholarly and practical contributions in his writings on the academic profession and on racial and intercultural relations. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as secretary from 1960 to 1965.

Parsons died of a stroke on May 8, 1979, while giving a series of lectures in Munich, Germany. The obituary in the New York Times the next day described Parsons as "A towering figure in the social sciences," who was responsible for "the education of three generations of sociologists."

Further Reading

Parsons' work is examined in M. Black, ed., The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons: A Critical Examination (1961); William C. Mitchell, Sociological Analysis and Politics: The Theories of Talcott Parsons (1967); Peter Hamilton, ed., Readings from Talcott Parsons (1985); and Roland Robertson and Bryan S. Turner, ed., Talcott Parsons: Theorist of Modernity (1991). There is also a brief discussion of Parsons' importance in Manuel Conrad Elmer, Contemporary Social Thought: Contributors and Trends (1956). □