Parsons, Talcott

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Parsons, Talcott,

1902–79, American sociologist, b. Colorado Springs, Colo., educated at Amherst College (B.A., 1924), London School of Economics, and Univ. of Heidelberg (Ph.D., 1927). He was on the faculty at Harvard from 1927 until his retirement in 1974. He is known for his attempt to construct a single theoretical framework within which general and specific characteristics of societies could be systematically classified; it is known as structural-functional theory. Parsons was also interested in medical sociology and the professions in general. In recent years he has been criticized for understating the importance of social conflict. Among his writings are The Structure of Social Action (1937), The Social System (1951), Structure and Process in Modern Societies (1960), Social Structure and Personality (1964), Societies (1966), Sociological Theory and Modern Society (1967), and Politics and Social Structure (1969).


See studies by W. C. Mitchell (1967), H. Turk and R. L. Simpson, ed. (1971), and J. Alexander (1984).

Parsons, Talcott


Born Dec. 13, 1902, in Colorado Springs, Colo. American theoretical sociologist; one of the major representatives of the structural-functional school of sociology. President of the American Sociological Association (1949).

Parsons has worked at Harvard University since 1927. From 1946 to 1956 he was chairman of the department of social relations.

Parsons has drawn upon the work of M. Weber, E. Durkheim, A. Marshall, and V. Pareto, as well as upon modern systems analysis, cybernetics, and the semiotics of symbols. He supports the construction of a general analytic, deductive theory of human action as the basis for solving particular empirical problems. According to Parsons, human action is a self-organizing system. The distinctiveness of this system, in contrast to the systems of physical or biological action, consists in the use of symbols, that is, in the presence of such symbolic regulatory mechanisms as language and values. Also distinctive is the normative quality of human behavior, that is, the dependence of an individual action on generally accepted values and norms. Finally the system of human action is distinguished by voluntariness, that is, a certain irrationality and independence from the cognizable conditions of the environment and at the same time a dependence on subjective situational determinants. On this basis, Parsons has constructed an abstract formalized model of a system of action that places the cultural, social, personality, and organism subsystems in relationships of mutual exchange. One of Parsons’ main ideas is the invariability of the set of functional problems, which always involves adaptation, goal attainment, integration, pattern-maintenance, and tension-management. The solutions to these functional problems is provided by specialized subsystems. Thus, within a social system the function of adaptation is carried out by the economic subsystem; that of goal attainment, by the political subsystem; that of integration, by legal institutions and customs; and that of pattern-maintenance by the system of beliefs, by morals, and by such agents of socialization as the family and educational institutions.

Parsonian concepts have significantly influenced American sociology, including empirical research. At the same time, Parsons’ theory has been criticized by empirically oriented or radical bourgeois sociologists, such as C. Wright Mills, for its excessive intellectual complexity and its conservatism. Marxist sociologists have criticized Parsons’ theory for its formalism, ahistoricism, idealism, undervaluation of the significance of social conflicts and contradictions, and apologetic aims. Marxist thought has demonstrated the insubstantiality of structural functionalism’s claim to be an all-encompassing sociological and anthropological theory; at the same time, however, Marxist thought does not deny the validity of a systemic approach to the analysis of social phenomena and processes.


Family Socialization and Interaction Process. London, 1956. (With J. Olds and others.)
Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, Mass., 1959. (Edited by Parsons and E. A. Shils.)
The Social System, 2nd ed. Glencoe, Ill., 1959.
The Structure of Social Action, 2nd ed. New York, 1961.
Economy and Society. London, 1964. (With N. Smelser.)
Social Structure and Personality. New York, 1964.
Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966.
Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York, 1967.
”Some Problems of General Theory in Sociology.” In J. McKinney and E. Tiryakian, eds., Theoretical Sociology. New York, 1970.
In Russian translation:
”Obshcheteoreticheskie problemy sotsiologii.” In Sotsiologiia segodnia. Moscow, 1965.
Informatsionnyi biulleten’ Nauchnogo soveta po problemam konkretnykh sotsial’nykh issledovanii AN SSSR, no. 6, issues 1–2. Moscow, 1968. No. 38: Moscow, 1969.


Zdravomyslov, A. G. Problema interesa v sotsiologicheskoi teorii. Leningrad, 1964.
Novikov, N. V. Kritika sovremennoi burzhuaznoi “nauki o sotsial’nom povedenii.” Moscow, 1966.
The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons: A Critical Examination. Edited by M. Black. New York, 1961.
Gouldner, A. W. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. London, 1970.


Parsons, Talcott

(1902–79) sociologist, educator; born in Colorado Springs, Colo. Educated at Amherst College, the London School of Economics, and the University of Heidelberg, he spent his long academic career at Harvard (1927–73), where he founded the department of social relations (1946) and trained three generations of students. His first book, The Structure of Social Action (1937), launched a lifelong effort to supplant traditional empirical sociology with a theoretical approach that synthesized existing theories from all the social sciences. Further developed in such works as The Social System (1951) and Toward a General Theory of Action (with E. A. Shils, 1951), this general theory of human action and social systems was abstract, complex, and controversial; few claimed to understand it fully, but his interdisciplinary theoretical approach exerted a strong influence on academic sociology.