Sociology, Post-Parsonian American
Sociology, Post-Parsonian American
Talcott Parson’s functionalism became the dominant paradigm in American sociology after Word War II. Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) envisioned society as a coherent and auto-regulating social system separated from its environment by boundaries. A social system itself consisted of relatively autonomous but also interdependent subsystems responsible for the general functional imperatives of adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency. Functionalism held that social systems tended toward equilibrium, change being slow and evolutionary, oriented toward increasing complexity and differentiation. Robert Merton had already criticized his mentor’s penchant for grand theorizing and assumption of systemic unity and integration in Social Theory and Social Structure (1949). This book distinguished between latent and manifest functions in social systems and stressed the unintended consequences of action. But Merton himself, in many respects, operated within the functionalist paradigm, which lost its hegemony only in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. While functionalism had for at least two decades unified sociology with an overarching theoretical framework, competing paradigms emerged as both a cause and a result of its decline. American sociology became much more heterogeneous, pluralistic, and contentious. The main strands of post-Parsonian sociology are reviewed below. Research that is either theory driven or has theoretical implications for the discipline as a whole are privileged in this survey.
A significant group of American sociologists attacked the integration and consensus premises of functionalism and made conflict and domination in society their focus. Inequality and its social reproduction have also become crucial issues. The politically charged environment of the 1960s undergirded this paradigm shift, and many sociologists took their cues from Karl Marx and Max Weber. Eric Olin Wright rejuvenated the classical Marxian theory of exploitation and class by taking into account not only control over the means of production but also control over how things are produced and control over labor power. Other Marxists, such as Michael Burawoy, studied accumulation processes and class conflict on the shop floor. Alvin Gouldner pointed to the ascent of a new social class formed by the cognitive elite. William Julius Wilson elucidated the logics of economic and racial inequality in the United States, and Douglas Massey dissected the segregation patterns in American cities.
In addition to class and race, gender also became a central research area. Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (1978) combined psychoanalysis with sociology to examine gender dynamics in the nuclear family. Arlie Hochschild studied the feminine nature of emotional work in contemporary society, and Christine Williams undertook ethnographies of gender relations in the workplace. Domination and conflict also stimulated sophisticated theoretical work, such as Steven Lukes’s influential treatise on power. The most ambitious theoretical form of conflict sociology has been provided by Randall Collins, who developed over the decades a potent model to study (among many other things) credentialism, geopolitical strife, and intellectual transformation. It is a testament to the empirical soundness of his general conflict model that Collins successfully predicted in the 1980s the breakdown of the Soviet empire.
Another strand in the post-Parsonian period focused on wide-scale historical transformations. In contrast with the evolutionary and integrative assumptions of functionalism, the burgeoning field of historical-comparative sociology mostly centered on dynamic political and economic structures and underlined the role of revolution, violence, and contention in social change. Barrington Moore’s seminal book The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) outlined the three routes to the modern world (the liberal, the fascist, and the communist) and the mechanisms through which preindustrial agrarian social structures and the course of industrialization mixed to determine regime outcomes. His student Theda Skocpol fashioned a robust theory of social revolution based on state structures, international forces, and class relations.
Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system theory pushed the capitalist division of labor to the global level and examined how the countries in the periphery are exploited by those at the core. Daniel Bell hailed the rise of postindustrial society. He also pointed to the contradictions between the economic and the cultural logics of late capitalism. Charles Tilly created models of contentious politics and state formation; his argument about the positive feedback between state making and war making has attained classic status. In the last decade of the twentieth century he also put forth relational theories of violence and inequality. Michael Mann has been fleshing out since the mid-1980s the interconnections between economic, political, ideological, and military power throughout history, and Jack Goldstone has significantly improved the understanding of revolutions by stressing demographic pressures on states and the role of intra-elite conflict. It is important to note, however, that not all cuttingedge historical-comparative sociology has been about politics. William J. Goode’s World Changes in Divorce Patterns (1993), for instance, constructed an ambitious theory to cross-culturally analyze and predict divorce.
Formal properties of social structures and organizations constituted the main research objects for the third sociological strand in the post-Parsonian era. The Simmelian geometry of social forms was an inspiration to many scholars. In the 1970s Donald Black developed a general social control approach, which he subsequently applied to behavior of law, formation of norms, coalition building, economic consolidation, and deviance. Harrison White’s famous study of vacancy chains made a momentous contribution to the literature on organizational forms and mobility. Mark Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak ties was decisive in making network analysis a major methodology in sociology. Network analysis has been successfully operationalized since the 1970s to depict and explain phenomena as disparate as collective action, organizational behavior, cultural and scientific diffusion, sexual behavior, and crime. Among the most brilliant practitioners in sociology are Peter Bearman, Ronald Burt, Roger Gould, Edward Laumann, and John Padgett.
Post-Parsonian sociology took an interest in both the formal and the symbolic structures of organizations. Prominent representatives of the neo-institutionalist perspective, Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell analyzed organizational isomorphism, John Meyer and Brian Rowan considered the mythical and ceremonial dimensions of formal structures in organizations, and Frank Dobbin showed the effects of cultural meanings on industrial policy. There has also been considerable theoretical progress in research on social systems. Andrew Abbott, for instance, proposed an ecological model for studying professions in The System of Professions (1988). Abbott viewed ecology, in the Chicago tradition of urban sociology, as an interacting system, and he empirically showed how jurisdictional battles between professions have molded their individual trajectories. Abbott has also laid out an innovative research agenda with a stress on the radical temporality of all social phenomena, and he has created a fractal model to explain social change and even the development of sociology itself. Finally, functionalism itself underwent an overhaul after Parsons. The neo-functionalism of Jeffrey Alexander insisted on open-ended, pluralistic, and creative interactions between subsystems in society and added a conflict orientation to the Parsonian paradigm.
The fourth sociological strand after Parsons was spurred by the linguistic turn in the social sciences. Culture became a key concept, especially in the 1980s and the 1990s. Ann Swidler has claimed that, rather than being preferences or values, culture involves strategies of action incorporated in dispositions, styles, and skills. Bill Sewell worked out a semiotic model of action and a theory of social structure integrating both resources and transposable schemes. His theoretical work explores temporality and underscores the importance of events in the transformational social structures. Viviana Zelizer showed how social meanings govern economic interactions and how people use money to create and maintain intimate ties. Michelle Lamont emphasized the role of symbolic boundaries and moral vocabularies in social stratification. Alexander’s cultural sociology highlighted the centrality of meaning systems and performative practices in civil society.
Finally, concomitant with the studies of large-scale structures, institutions, and processes, the post-Parsonian era also witnessed a growing interest in micro-sociology. Two distinct micro paradigms challenged functionalism’s vision of the “oversocialized concept of man,” to use the words of Dennis H. Wrong (1961). The first of these is interactionism. The symbolic interactionism of Herbert Blumer argued that meaning is construed through social interaction and that individuals are interpretative beings with reflexivity. Howard Becker’s labeling theory as well as his later groundbreaking work on art worlds followed, in many respects, the symbolic interactionist research program. In his work resisting all facile theoretical labels, Erving Goffman was probably the most important student of social interaction in the second half of the twentieth century. From the late fifties to his untimely death in 1982, he analyzed social interaction in all kinds of settings using a wide array of dramaturgical, game-theoretic, etological, and cognitive concepts. His studies of impression management, stigma, role distance, embarrassment, and total institutions have all become classics.
Again within the interactionist paradigm, Harold Garfinkel deployed ethnomethodology to uncover the practical and often unconscious rationality that guides quotidian routines, with a particular attention to how people give accounts. Conversation analysts have devised sophisticated tools to capture the logic of verbal interaction. Among signal work in the interactionist tradition are Jack Katz’s subtle phenomenological analyses of violence and emotions and Randall Collins’s theory of interaction rituals, which is exceptionally promising as it bridges the individual and institutional levels.
Utilitarianism has been the other major micro-paradigm in the post-Parsonian era. This paradigm itself consists of two interacting streams: exchange theory and rational choice theory. George Homans had already done behaviorist work in the 1950s on social exchange. Peter Blau later extended Homans’s model by exploring the structural implications of exchange, and Goode built on this paradigm to examine the production and distribution of prestige in society. The ways power relationships affect social exchange have been extensively investigated by Richard Emerson and Karen Cook. Parallel to these developments in exchange theory, an increasing number of researchers (usually referred to as rational-choice sociologists) were drawn to the promise of explaining social interaction and institutions from the assumptions of utility-maximizing actors and methodological individualism. These scholars were influenced by the work of economists such as Mancur Olson, who studied in the 1960s and the 1970s the collective action problems that groups face. In this vein Michael Hechter attempted to account for group solidarity from rational choice premises. James S. Coleman’s magnum opus Foundations of Social Theory (1990) strived to erect a parsimonious rational choice foundation to explain all kinds of phenomena, including social capital, trust, collective action, and revolutions. Coleman applied his model also to the asymmetry between natural and corporate actors in contemporary societies.
As noted, the post-Parsonian period has been characterized by a multiplicity of theoretical orientations. While some have seen this as a cause for concern, there is reason to think that it is the absence of a hegemonic paradigm like the Parsonian functionalism that has allowed for the immense dynamism in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century and that both the productive exchanges and the contentious struggles between the different strands sketched above have vastly enriched American sociology.
SEE ALSO Blau, Peter M.; Critical Theory; Duncan, Otis Dudley; Functionalism; Merton, Robert K; Mills, C. Wright; Parsons, Talcott; Sociology; Sociology, Parsonian; Structuralism
Abbott, Andrew D. 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merton, Robert King. 1949. Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Moore, Barrington, Jr. 1966. The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon.
Wrong, Dennis. 1961. The Oversocialization Conception of Man in Modern Sociology. American Sociological Review 26 (2): 183–196.