Parsons Talcott

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Parsons Talcott

(1902-79) American sociologist, who was arguably the most influential American sociologist of the 20th century, and the leading modern exponent of FUNCTIONALISM. Because his concerns ranged so widely, it is difficult to summarize even Parsons’ main ideas briefly

Amongst his earliest work was a translation of Max WEBER's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which did much to introduce Weber's work to US sociologists. His first major volume in his own right, The Structure of Social Action (1937), involved an assessment of the theoretical legacy of PARETO, DURKHEIM and Weber – as usual in Parsons‘ work, Marx was a conspicuous omission. All three of these thinkers were presented as attempting to provide a solution to what Parsons called ‘the problem of social order’: why is it that society is not characterized by a ‘Hobbesian’ war of all against all?

In this first stage of his thinking, Parsons saw himself as working within an ‘action frame of reference’, viewing social action as ‘voluntaristic’. All three of his chosen theorists were presented as contributing to the repudiation of a merely ‘positivistic theory of social action’. Based on their work, he saw himself as working towards the achievement of a single, coherent, ‘analytical’ sociological theory of voluntaristic social action. This involved a repudiation of all theories which represented social action merely as an automatic response to external stimuli, or sought to account for social order simply in terms of ‘coercion’ or ‘self interest’.

For Parsons, in The Structure of Social Action and subsequently, the answer to the ‘Hobbesian question’ was that social action is engendered, although not simply determined, by shared NORMS and VALUES. These ideas were developed in the direction of functionalism and SYSTEMS THEORY, especially in The Social System (1951), and Towards a General Theory of Action (1951) (the latter written with Edward Shils). Three main aspects of Parsons’ thinking in this period can be identified:

  1. the notion of FUNCTIONAL PREREQUISITES of society;
  2. a conception of social order which presents societies as internally interrelated and ‘self-sustaining’ SOCIAL SYSTEMS, operating in an ‘external environment’;
  3. the general theory of‘action systems’, developed from the work of Robert Bales (e.g. Working Papers in the Theory of Action, Parsons, Bales and Shils, 1953) – see SUBSYSTEMS MODEL.

In a final phase of his work, Parsons also added to these a neoevolutionary model of social development (Societies; Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives, 1966) (see EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSALS, NEOEVOLUTIONARY THEORY). All these elements of Parsons’ work were enormously influential at the time. Parsons‘ books became virtual bibles for a generation of functionalist sociologists. However, an increasing emphasis on the primacy of norms and values in his work, allied with his systems perspective (see CYBERNETIC HIERARCHY), also led to much criticism. For example, as well as the many general criticisms increasingly directed at functionalism and evolutionary theory (see FUNCTIONALIST EXPLANATION), the suspicion grew that Parsons’ thinking (e.g. Parsons, 1964b; Parsons and Bales, 1955) involved an oversocialized conception of social action and fostered conservatism. The result of this was that in the 1970s and 80s, when the general dominance of functionalism within US sociology also declined, interest in Parsons’ work waned although it has enjoyed a minor revival of late.

As well as his contributions to general theory, some of Parsons‘ briefer, more empirical, applications of his theory have also been significant and can be said to have stood the test of time rather better than his overall functionalist framework, e.g. essays on the SICK ROLE, on POWER, on education and on racial integration. In these Parsons displays a sharp analytical flair in the application of general conceptions to particular cases. Research inspired by the Parsonian conceptual legacy has also been extensive, especially research based on his conception of PATTERN VARIABLES. At its peak, Parsons’ influence on American sociology was immense. In the UK, his role as a bête noire has tended to overshadow his considerable contribution to questions of how to theorize about society. See also SOCIAL INTEGRATION AND SYSTEM INTEGRATION, MILLS, MERTON, THEORIES OF THE MIDDLE RANGE, GOULDNER.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000