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From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, Talcott Parsons was the single most inﬂuential social theorist in the world. A developer of what is now popularly called ‘action theory,’ ‘functionalism,’ and ‘structural-functionalism,’ Parsons spent his entire career at Harvard University, which helped considerably in institutionalizing his ideas and also in providing him access to talented graduate students. By the 1950s, his publications became a major part of what was literally a ‘common curriculum’ for graduate students in all major sociology departments—as well as in many of the best political science departments. By being institutionalized in this way, Parsons’ publications elevated the rigor of American graduate training in sociology in particular. More than anyone else, he also deﬁned the ‘classic’ theoretical tradition for sociology as a discipline and then added a more abstract, arguably more conceptually sophisticated contemporary rival to it. With this, he raised the bar for social theory worldwide, from Germany, France, and Great Britain to Japan and even the former Soviet Union. A strong case can be made today that every major social theory since the mid-1960s has been developed in direct or indirect dialogue with Parsons’ functionalism (see Habermas 1981 for a related statement).
Having become literally an icon in the discipline in the ﬁrst three decades of his career, in the last two decades he attracted a considerable share of the iconoclasm that more generally characterized the student movement and academia of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Parsons was subject across two decades to far greater criticism than that directed to any other theorist of his generation or since. Given the tenor of the times, most criticisms were rhetorical, often personal. Today, they leave a strong impression that few critics had bothered to read his works with the care typically aﬀorded to basic empirical studies, let alone with the rigor and dispassion that any complicated social theory demands. Yet, the cumulative eﬀect of the broadsides he received in the late 1960s and early 1970s was to leave the collective memory of the discipline with an understanding of Parsonian functionalism that is diﬃcult to reconcile with often repeated, explicitly-stated positions in his publications. What Parsons endeavored to accomplish in his day, providing the social sciences with a common language, and how he went about accomplishing it, developing a ‘conceptual framework’ comprising analytical distinctions, now eludes the discipline’s collective memory.
Talcott Parsons was born on December 13, 1902 in Colorado Springs, the youngest of six children of Edward vs. Parsons, a Congregational minister and college administrator, and Mary Augusta Ingersoll Parsons, a housewife and active suﬀragist (on biographical details, I rely primarily on Nielsen 1991). Both parents were New England WASPs who traced their ancestry to mid-eighteenth century settlers, Mary to theologian Jonathan Edwards. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, Edward Parsons holds fundamentalist views of Christianity but leftist views in politics, particularly regarding the issue of economic inequality. He is an active participant in the Social Gospel movement that supported organized labor. Both parents inculcate into Talcott and his older siblings the importance of ﬁnding a mission in life and then pursuing it assiduously. Many observers comment later on the mature Talcott’s remarkable energy and perseverance—including on the ﬁnal two days of his life in Munich in 1979. He published over 150 soleauthored articles and 14 books or collections.
In 1917 the Trustees of Colorado College force Edward to resign as Dean after he supports two women who charged the College’s President with sexual harassment. The family then moves to New York City where Talcott enters Horace Mann High School, a laboratory school for boys operated by Teacher’s College of Columbia University. Talcott earns an undergraduate degree at Amherst College (as had his father and two older brothers) from 1920–4. At the time Amherst was also an experimental, progressive school. Parsons at ﬁrst focuses on biology and chemistry but in his junior year becomes ‘converted’ to the social sciences under the inﬂuence of an unorthodox institutional economist, Walton Hamilton.
Parsons’ graduate training was remarkably brief: one academic year (1924–5) at the London School of Economics as a nondegree candidate, then another (1925–6) as a degree candidate at Heidelberg University. At LSE, Parsons was inﬂuenced by Morris Ginsberg, L. T. Hobhouse, and the methodological functionalism of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski—as well as by fellow-student E. E. EvansPritchard. Parsons also met his future wife and mother of three children, Helen Banerott Walker, a Bryn Mawr College student studying banking. Her family of conservative white and blue-collar workers consider Talcott a leftist, a ‘pinky.’ At Heidelberg, Parsons ﬁrst learnt of the recently deceased German social theorist Max Weber and discussed his work with his wife Marianne, his younger brother Alfred, and Alexander von Schelting. Taking coursework from Edgar Salin and Emil Lederer (on economics), Karl Mannheim (a friend of Georg Lukacs) and Karl Jaspers (on Kant), Parsons selected how sociology and economics diﬀer in portraying ‘capitalism’ as his dissertation topic.
During his year at Heidelberg Parsons was oﬀered a one-year teaching appointment at Amherst in the Economics Department which also allowed him to teach an independent course in sociology. In 1927 Parsons was oﬀered an instructorship in economics at Harvard, thus beginning a life-long career there. Harvard’s Department of Sociology was a relative late-comer in the discipline, beginning in the fall 1931 under the chairmanship of Pitrim Sorokin, a 42-year old emigre from Russia recruited from University of Minnesota. Parsons, then 29, was appointed as an instructor. Disagreements and misunderstanding between the two theorists became common knowledge in the Department and across the University. Yet, throughout Parsons’ career, both critics and proponents often commented on his low-key demeanor when grappling with ideas and interacting with colleagues and students. It is diﬃcult to ﬁnd accounts of him being particularly eﬀusive, let alone dominating. A short, stocky, already balding young man who sports a moustache and always smokes cigarettes, critics also comment often on his charm when interacting with other major national and international academicians at Harvard, in the American government, and overseas.
During his earliest years at Harvard, Parsons was impressed with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and his notion of the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness.’ Consistent with Kant, Whitehead held that scientists apprehend ‘reality’ or scientiﬁc ‘truth’ only through analytical distinctions, not more immediately—whether experientially or directly through empirical ﬁndings. A few years later in correspondence with phenomenologist Alfred Schutz from 1940–1, Parsons defended the notion of ‘analytical realism’—as opposed to ontological realism or empirical realism—against Schutz’s position that social scientists can somehow gain more direct access to the ‘life-world’ of their subjects of study (Grathoﬀ 1978).
By contrast to Schutz and then also to ethnographers at University of Chicago and American empirical researchers more generally, Parsons endeavored across his 50-year career to identify the most irreducible analytical distinctions unique to sociology, the scientiﬁc study of social life. In pursuing this project, Parsons arrived at three successive ‘theoretical syntheses’ and along the way trains four remarkably talented and productive cohorts of graduate students. All three of Parsons’ theories, which he called ‘frameworks of concepts,’ involve a ‘functionalist’ approach to the study of social life. This is an approach much maligned today, and yet a basic premise of functionalism is hardly controversial. Any social scientist who poses the following question is operating within a functionalist approach: What is the relationship, if any, between the substantive area of social life I am studying and the direction of social change? Here, then, is a common ground shared by critical theorists and Parsonian functionalists but not by more historicist researchers, those who study particular events or periods in isolation and are loathe to identify any direction of social change.
While exceedingly abstract and complex, there are two ways to grasp the signiﬁcance of Parsons’ publications across his career. In general, he endeavored to account for the place and purpose of norms in maintaining social order both historically and cross nationally. More particularly, he endeavored to account for the place and larger signiﬁcance of professions, a unique set of occupations, in contemporary societies. Professions are a pivotal subject for sociological inquiry because they are important nongovernmental bodies in all modern societies. Yet, their prestige or status in any society hinges as much on whether they are valued culturally, supported by generally recognized social norms, and centrally situated in a social structure as on whether practicing professionals compete eﬀectively in self-regulating markets. In all modern societies, professionals are simultaneously driven by economic pressures to maximize proﬁts, like other workers, and also by normative pressures to conform to certain extra-economic standards of conduct that typically do not bind most other workers. Parsons was interested in accounting at a theoretical level for the rise, evolution, and institutionalization of these extraeconomic restraints on self-interested behavior, and then also to explore whether and how they contribute to social order.
In his earliest publications, from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, Parsons approached professions by ﬁrst distinguishing their behavior from that of economic enterprises, on one side, and religious organizations, on the other. Corporate managers and shareholders tend to act in strictly utilitarian or market-mimicking ways as they endeavor to maximize either growth or proﬁt, a quantitative end that can be recognized interpersonally. Clerics and religious believers, however, tend to exhibit ritualistic ﬁdelity to norms as they—presumably—seek spiritual salvation. This is a qualitative end that is transcendental or metaphysical; as such, its attainment is a matter of faith, not something that can be recognized interpersonally. Professionals, Parsons held, also exhibit ﬁdelity to norms, but more ‘voluntaristically.’ They do not act in strictly market-mimicking ways, but they also do not conform to norms ritualistically with any transcendental end in view. Rather, they exhibit ﬁdelity to norms as a means to attain qualitative ends that are worldly or empirical, and thus capable of being recognized interpersonally—such as their patients’ physical or mental health, or their clients’ legal innocence, or scientiﬁc truth.
Parsons came to appreciate the signiﬁcance of ‘voluntaristic action’ after a careful reading of two economic theorists, Alfred Marshall and Vilfredo Pareto, and two social theorists, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. This reading forms the core of The Structure of Social Action (1937) which, along with Parsons’s 1930 translation of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, established Weber and Durkheim as two of the new discipline’s ‘classic’ theorists. During the 1930s, Parsons trained a ﬁrst cohort of graduate students in the classics and his own theory of ‘voluntaristic action,’ including: Robert Merton, Kingsley Davis, John and Mathilda Riley, Edward Devereuw, Marion Levy, Wilbert Moore, and Florence Kluckhohn (along with Edward Hartshorne who was killed by a sniper while on active service in postwar Germany).
In spring 1944 Parsons was promoted to full professor and the chairmanship. By January 1946, he transformed the Department of Sociology into the Department of Social Relations, with the explicit aim of linking structural and social psychological approaches in the scientiﬁc study of social life. In the same year, Parsons also began formal training in psychoanalysis as a Class C candidate at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. He had been lecturing informally on Freud since fall 1938.
As Parsons assumed his leadership role in Harvard’s Department, his theory went through a brief midcareer change from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s as he considered ﬁndings from Robert Bales’s study of small groups. Parsons began thinking about professions (and how to identify norms in social life more generally) in terms of six basic decisions that people performing any role or task either make explicitly or have imposed on them by cultural values, institutionalized norms, or social structures. For example, certain roles (including those performed by professionals) mandate treating others (clients or patients) in universalistic ways. By contrast, other roles (including those performed by parents) encourage more particularistic treatment of others (children). Parsons called these decisions and requirements ‘pattern variables.’ By his account, researchers can use six such variable-pairs (a) to distinguish professions from other occupations and (b) to identify changes in the behavior of professions both historically and cross-nationally. Parsons’ major publications during this period are a collection, Essays in Sociological Theory Pure and Applied (1949), and three monographs: The Social System (1951), Towards a General Theory of Action (1951, with Shils), and Working Papers in the Theory of Action (1953, with Robert Bales and Edward Shils).
During this period Parsons trained a second cohort of graduate students in the pattern variables, including: Bernard Barber, Harry Johnson, Robin Williams, Jr., Jesse Pitts, Harold Garﬁnkel, Francis Sutton, and Robert Bales. More generally, as part of the buoyancy and optimism that pervaded the US after the war, many sociology departments re-evaluate their curricula. The discipline is open collectively to receiving a new theoretical synthesis, and Parsons’ notion of pattern variables, while preliminary and as it turned out ﬂeeting, is a prime candidate. Another is Robert Merton’s notion of ‘middle range theory,’ an idea he ﬁrst proposed at the annual meeting of the then American Sociological Society in 1947 in opposition to Parsons’ ‘general theory.’
Finally, beginning slowly in the mid-1950s and then with more rapid developments from the early 1960s to the end of his career, Parsons approached professions within what he called the ‘AGIL schema.’ This is Parsons’ single most signiﬁcant contribution to social theory. During his transition from the pattern variables to the AGIL schema, Parsons’ publications, lectures, and presentations create an unusually kinetic intellectual excitement among collaborators and graduate students. Everyone working in his circle operated with a palpable sense that social theory is in the midst of a fundamental breakthrough, a sense that American sociology has not witnessed since.
This transition period to Parsons’ mature social theory is marked in particular by Economy and Society (1956, with Neil Smelser), and Parsons’ training of a third cohort of graduate students, including: Albert Cohen, Renee Fox, Joseph Berger, Norman Birnbaum, Neil Smelser, James Olds, Jackson Toby, and Miriam Johnson. In addition, many earlier graduate students whose training had been interrupted by wartime service returned to Harvard. Talented undergraduates who come into contact with Parsons during this period include Robert Bellah and Charles Tilly. Also in transition during this period is the leadership of sociology at Harvard. Parsons resigns as chair of the Department of Social Relations in 1956, and within the next two years learns that he has diabetes. Sorokin retires in 1959.
From 1956 to 1961, Lewis Coser and Dennis Wrong in the US, David Lockwood in Great Britain, and Ralf Dahrendorf in Germany challenged Parsons’ functionalism in relatively measured tones, but with uneven rigor. They were also shooting at a moving target in that Parsons was developing his mature social theory. The high-point of scholarly criticism during this period comes with a collection of essays by philosophers and sociologists edited by Max Black, to which Parsons responded with a long concluding chapter. In April 1964, Parsons was a central ﬁgure at a famous session of the German Sociology Association in Heidelberg devoted to reconsidering Max Weber’s contributions. He found himself at odds with Frankfurt School critical theorists, most notably the young Jurgen Habermas and the more established Max Horkeimer and Herbert Marcuse (see Stammer 1965/1972 for a collection of these exchanges).
From this point forward, criticisms of Parsons become harsher, more personal and ideological than analytical and scholarly. Parsons was attacked, particularly in the US, for: his religious background, his WASP ethnic and cultural heritage, his writing style, his amazing productivity, his putatively strategic rather than scholarly decision to make sociology as rigorous conceptually as economics, his putative mistranslation of Weber, the putative conservative nature of his own family life including his putative responsibility for his daughter’s suicide (in June 1964, two weeks after the Heidelberg debate), his putative political conservatism, and his putative general obeisance to ‘American capitalism’ or ‘the establishment.’
Parsons unveiled the AGIL schema explicitly in 1963, with major articles on the concepts of power and inﬂuence, and then in 1964, with his ﬁrst statement about ‘evolutionary universals’ (see the Turner 1999 collection for the 1964 article and references to the others). As fully developed, the AGIL schema isolates analytically those aspects of behavior in any role or position that contribute, respectively, to each of four general social ‘functions’: economic eﬃciency (‘adaptation’), administrative eﬀectiveness (‘goal-attainment’), ﬁdelity to social norms (‘integration’), and ﬁdelity to cultural values or a society’s most basic institutional arrangements (‘latency’). Parsons also proposed that four ‘media of interchange’ circulate between these analytical subsystems—money, power, inﬂuence, and value commitments—thereby bringing a certain orderliness or predictability to the whole. He added notions of ‘systems-theory,’ ‘pattern maintenance,’ and ‘hierarchy of control’ to this basic four- function breakdown of social life.
In 1973, Parsons and Platt published what is arguably his most important single work since 1937, The American University. In this work Parsons re- thinks his approach to professions by incorporating two major points into his social theory. First, he proposes that professions and sites of professional practice (such as universities, hospitals, and research institutes) are organized in a ‘collegial form,’ not in a bureaucratic form or a democratic form. Second, he proposes that professions are distinguished from other occupations by their members’ willingness to bear ‘ﬁduciary responsibilities’ to clients and the larger society. These two points provide the foundations for an account of the place and purpose of professions in contemporary societies that diﬀers radically from any eﬀort, whether by rational choice theorists or social critics on the left, to treat the professions analytically as interchangeable with other occupations or other corporate entities. By 1973, however, the collective memory of the discipline is so dominated by criticisms of the AGIL schema that this major work, arguably Parsons’ single most important substantive contribution to social theory, goes largely unread by critics and proponents alike.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Parsons trained a fourth and ﬁnal cohort of graduate students in the AGIL schema and related theoretical developments, including: Victor Lidz, Jan Loubser, Leon Mayhew, Rainer Baum, Dean Gerstein, John Akula, and Willy DeCramer. Parsons also inﬂuences undergraduate Jeﬀrey Alexander. Only in the mid-1970s, a few years before his death, did Parsons begin methodically to respond to at least a few criticisms of his work, most notably the informed analyses of Bershady (1973) and Warner (1978). Bershady’s Ideology and Social Knowledge in particular marks a major sea change in commentary on Parsons’ works. Bershady is the ﬁrst to draw attention to Parsons’ eﬀort to ground the social sciences against relativism with analytical concepts. More than anyone else Bershady appreciates that Parsons pitched his social theory at an unusually abstract level of analysis because he sought literally a common language for the social sciences. Prior to Bershady both proponents and critics generally failed to convey the power and sweep of Parsons’ social theory in form, its aspiration to unite the social sciences. Parsons’ project was essentially to give structuralists and symbolic interactionists the means, the common language, by which to demonstrate to each other the central import of their respective ﬁndings.
Parsons demonstrated his capacity to ‘translate’ others’ ﬁndings and ideas in his own scholarship. He co-authored, team-taught, or otherwise collaborated closely with a remarkable range of theorists and researchers across disciplines, including: Edward Shils, Joseph Schumpeter, Samuel Stouﬀer, Florence Kluckhohn, Robert F. Bales, James Olds, Morris Zelditch, Philip Slater, Neil Smelser, Lon Fuller, Kaspar Naegele, Jesse Pitts, Winston White, vs. N. Eisenstadt, Robert Bellah, Victor Lidz, Gerald Platt, Edward Laumann, Erwin Scheuch, Andrew Eﬀrat, Mark Gould, and Dean Gerstein. In addition, he engaged in private and public correspondence and debates with Frank Knight, Crane Brinton, Robert Bierstedt, Albert Blumenthal, Alfred Schutz, Chester Barnard, Philip Selznick, Eric Voegelin, Robert Merton, Kenneth Boulding, C. Wright Mills, Robert Bellah, Bennett Berger, David Riesman, Jurgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Ernest Mayr. Finally, an impressive set of scholars was inﬂuenced heavily by Parsons himself, his students, or his theory (some of whom also inﬂuence Parsons and his students): Niklas Luhmann, Seymour Martin Lipset, Amitai Etzioni, Robert Marsh, Daniel Bell, Joseph Ben-David, Benjamin Nelson, Gabriel Almond, James vs. Coleman, Karl Deutsch, David Apter, Lucian Pye, Sidney Verba, Chalmers Johnson, vs. N. Eisenstadt, Ken’ichi Tominaga (Japan’s leading postwar sociologist), Lawrence Brownstein, Martin Martel, Adrian Hayes, and Frank Lechner.
Parsons and Helen travelled frequently in the 1970s, including three separate trips to Japan. In early May 1979 they returned to Heidelberg, then proceeded to Munich, on the occasion of the ﬁftieth anniversary of Talcott’s degree from Heidelberg. After Parsons’ typical full day of presentations and scholarly exchanges, including a lecture on ‘The Declining Signiﬁcance of Social Class’ attended by host Horst Helle as well as Jurgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, Richard Munch, and Wolfgang Schluchter, Parsons died of a stroke in the early hours of May 8. At a memorial service 10 days later in Harvard Chapel, Victor Lidz notes in eulogy: ‘No sociologist of recent times has had to endure more bitter criticism than Talcott. Although a passionate man, Talcott bore criticism with equanimity as well as courage. Not daunted by even sweeping attack, he held to his own program of research and writing. Moreover, adhering to principles of value-freedom, he declined to reciprocate ideological criticism. He dealt with criticisms, always, as technical matters within the domain of social scientiﬁc theory’ (Nielsen 1991).
Parsons’ critics inadvertently encouraged the fragmentation of research and theory in sociology and the social sciences that Parsons endeavored to prevent. Today, in the absence of any shared framework of analytical concepts, social scientists routinely talk past each other, as opposed to revealing to each other the general importance of their research ﬁndings and theoretical developments. Parsons’s ‘general theory’ has given way not to a ﬁnite set of readily identiﬁable theories of the ‘middle range,’ as Robert Merton anticipated in 1949, but rather to an ever more ﬁnely grained cacophony of research specialties. This trend is then recapitulated, and accelerated, by ongoing changes in graduate training. Graduate students are trained more and more narrowly, and their required survey courses in social theory hardly encourage them to move beyond any research specialty. If there is any ‘common language’ in the social sciences today, it is that of research methods. But even here there is more internal division among methodologists than they often wish to acknowledge.
In support of Habermas’ point that we can expect any new theoretical development in the social sciences to respond directly or indirectly to Parsons’ functionalism, French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu in many regards today recapitulates Parsons’ AGIL schema. He identiﬁes two poles within what he calls ‘ﬁelds of power’—the economic ﬁeld and the ﬁeld of cultural production—and then distinguishes four ﬁelds in between: politics, the higher civil service, the professions, and the university (Bourdieu 1989 1996). The major diﬀerence with Parsons is that the French theorist’s categories are more directly descriptive, less analytically rigorous. As a result, it is not clear on what basis he is distinguishing ﬁelds, why there are six ﬁelds of power rather than four or eight, or on what basis researchers may categorize particular groups or activities as components of one ﬁeld or another.
By the early 1980s, a new generation of social theorists, including members of Parsons’ last cohort of graduate and undergraduate students at Harvard, initiated the eﬀort to have Parsons’ publications reconsidered on scholarly grounds. Led initially by Munch (1981) in Germany and Alexander (1983, 1985) in the US, today’s ‘neofunctionalism’ ﬁnds support from theorists whose political positions range from radical left to liberal reformist to conservative republican (see the collections edited by Hamilton 1992 and Colomy 1990). What they share, with Parsons himself, are two general principles (which Alexander 1988 now explicitly rejects). One is that it is vitally important to the social sciences to continue Parsons’ eﬀort to ground social theory on the basic analytical distinctions of the AGIL schema rather than to rely more directly on descriptive concepts (whether empirical generalizations or ideal types). The other principle is that it is incumbent today to demonstrate the empirical potential of Parsonian functionalism, to identify lines of empirical inquiry that this social theory uniquely presents to view (Sciulli 1992). A strong case can be made that Parsons’ social theory has been mined only superﬁcially (Takagi in press). An equally strong case can be made that theorists and researchers today can draw fruitfully on Parsons’ basic AGIL schema, and then the ﬁrst set of subdivisions he drew within each ‘function,’ but that they need not follow Parsons’ eﬀort to draw further distinctions within each subdivision (Mouzelis 1995).
Social theorists outside the US today who support the Parsonian tradition, even if critical of certain parts of it, include: Munch, Hans Joas, Uta Gerhardt, Horst Helle, and Harald Wenzel in Germany; Helmut Staubmann in Austria; Jens Kaalhauge Nielsen in Denmark; Pierpaolo Donati, Andrea Maccarini, Matteo Bortolini, and Riccardo Prandini in Italy; Ken’ichi Tominaga, Kiyomitsu Yui, and Kazuyoshi Takagi in Japan; and Nicos Mouzelis, Bryan Turner, and Jeremy Tanner in Great Britain.
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- Alexander J C (ed.) 1985 Neofunctionalism. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA
- Alexander J C 1988 Neofunctionalism and After. Blackwell, Malden, MA
- Bershady H J 1973 Ideology and Social Knowledge. Wiley, New York
- Black M (ed.) 1961 The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliﬀs, NJ
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- Nielsen J K 1991 Talcott Parsons’ Life, Theory and Political Orientation. Unpublished Manuscript, 5 vols.
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- Turner B S (ed.) 1999 The Talcott Parsons Reader. Blackwell, Malden, MA
- Warner R S 1978 Toward a redeﬁnition of action theory: Paying the cognitive element its due. American Journal of Sociology 83: 1317–49