Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist whose work dominated English-speaking social theory from the end of World War II (1939–1945) until the mid- to late 1960s. Parsons elaborated a general theory of society believing that it would give sociology a distinctive subject matter of its own, while also securing a scientific status for the discipline alongside those other social sciences concerned with the activities of the individual as a member of a group. Parsons’s work focused attention on the power of the social system to influence the social behavior of individuals.
In Parsons’s view, the primary task of sociology is to develop a set of abstract generalizing concepts capable of describing the social system. This provides all investigators with a common conceptual framework for empirical work in order to enable cumulative inquiry. These generalizing concepts are to be judged through their rational coherence as a basis for then making propositions about the world. Parsons’s first major publication, The Structure of Social Action (1937), reviewed the work of some European theorists, namely Max Weber (1864–1920), Émile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Alfred Marshall, whose works, Parsons claimed, converged around basically “the same system of generalized social theory … the voluntaristic theory of action” (p. 720). This theory views human beings as making choices between ends (or goals) and means (or ways) of achieving particular ends. These choices, Parsons argued, are limited by shared values contained within the social environment. It is because individuals embrace values concerning the sacredness of human life and the family that tendencies towards pure self-interest are curbed and the need for external sanctions including legal punishments are reduced, though never totally eliminated. These values are expressed through concrete norms, or rules of behavior, which limit the lengths to which individuals will go when pursuing their chosen ends or goals.
Parsons’s early critical investigation of the work of classical European sociologists provided a foundation for his later work, The Social System (1951), which asked, “how is order possible?” Parsons argued that values and normative expectations provide the context in which actors seek to maximize their personal desires. Behavior and relationships that facilitate the achievement of individual needs and desires become institutionalized into a system of status roles and sanctions that are articulated through the social system. The social system, in turn, includes a personality system (the individual actor) and a cultural system (broader values that make sense of the norms linked to status roles). These three systems form the general theory of action. Each system is linked to a functional prerequisite or set of needs that must be met in order for the system as a whole to continue working. Pattern variables are also closely bound up with this general theory of action. They refer to the choices that actors must make between alternative options as a necessary condition for meaningful action in any given situation. Pattern variables are important because they classify actors’ modes of orientation in the personality, social, and cultural systems. This theory also provided the foundation for Parsons’s concept of structural functionalism, which attempted to categorize any level of social life at any level of analysis.
Parsons’s major works have influenced the development of sociological theory in a number of ways. The Structure of Social Action introduced American sociologists to the work of Durkheim and Weber as general theorists, which not only established a common vocabulary for modern sociologists but also provided them with an important frame of reference. Parsons’s analysis of convergence in the works of certain European theorists also set a precedent for other sociologists, for example Anthony Giddens, to make links between oppositions such as conflict/consensus, action/structure, and micro/macro in contemporary social theory. The Social System helped develop and further a systems analysis, or large-scale macro, approach in sociology in place of one that stressed the importance of individual or micro elements.
The dominance of Parsons’s ideas in sociology declined around the mid- to late 1960s. A resurgence of interest in Parsons’s work took place, however, in the 1980s. Jeffrey Alexander in the United States and Richard Münch in Germany, for example, attempted to build upon and resolve certain problems implicit in Parsons’s original systems theory through their own distinctive works on neofunctionalism. The theory of neofunctionalism stresses the need to bring together action theory and systems theory while also emphasizing the key importance of collective or macro phenomena in establishing the conditions within which social action takes place.
Critics of Parsonian sociology have focused on its failure to engage with practical reality and empirical social problems. Parsons’s work has been stigmatized as merely grand theory. Parsons’s excessive concern with the power of the social system also led certain critics to argue that he saw human beings as oversocialized conformists whose individual behavior was largely determined by system constraints. Other commentators have suggested that Parsons’s emphasis on social integration, conformity, and harmony disregarded inequalities and those material interests, power, and ideological elements that supported them.
SEE ALSO Parsons, Talcott; Social System; Sociology, Macro-
Alexander, Jeffrey C., ed. 1985. Neofunctionalism. London: Sage.
Münch, Richard. 1987. Theory of Action: Towards a New Synthesis Going Beyond Parsons. London: Routledge.
Parsons, Talcott.  1949. The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of European Writers. New York: Free Press.
Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. New York: Free Press.
Jonathan S. Fish