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Parsons, Talcott

A Dictionary of Sociology
John ScottJohn Scott

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. Parsonian 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 criterion 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 built up an elaborate model of systems and subsystems. In order to survive, each system must meet four ‘functional prerequisites’: four basic 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. Its level of abstraction meant that it is not surprising that C. Wright Mills's labelling of the approach as grand theory has stuck, though the language and style is no more complex than that used in many more recent theoretical approaches. 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.

Parsonian 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, Action and its Environments: Towards a New Synthesis (1988), and R. Munch, Theory of Action: Towards a New Synthesis Going Beyond Parsons (trans. 1987). These approaches generally go under the name neo-functionalism or, sometimes, system theory. However, American and German neo-functionalism are markedly more open than the original. See also action theory; consensus; equilibrium; evolutionary universals; normative order; school class; sick role; system integration and social integration; structural differentiation. A review of recent reassessments of Parsons's work, by David Sciulli and Dean Gerstein: ‘Social Theory and Talcott Parsons in the 1980s’. (Subscription)

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