Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Talcott Parsons

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Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Talcott Parsons

 Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was a dominant figure in American sociology from the late 1930s until the mid-1960s. He became a lightning-rod for criticism by a younger, more radical generation of sociologists who were just coming into their own against the backdrop of the anti-nuclear and peace campaigns of the late fifties and early sixties, the civil rights movement of the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, the student movement during the sixties and the rise of feminism, and the growing opposition to the War in Vietnam from the mid-sixties. This diverse group included C. Wright Mills, Alvin Gouldner, Tom Bottomore, David Lockwood, Theda Skocpol and Jürgen Habermas among the best known. Parsons was portrayed by the New Left activists as a conservative apologist for “the System” completely blind to the poverty, racism and militarism of Western societies in general and American society in particular.

 But Parsons was no conservative. During the 1950s and early 1960s he was an Adlai Stevenson Democrat and supported JFK’s presidential bid in 1960. He had been accused, (erroneously to be sure), by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI of having been a member of the Communist Party of the USA. Nevertheless, the target of the New Left in the sixties were not Goldwater conservatives but liberal democrats who were, as research confirmed, the parents of the same student radicals by and large.

 Parsons was born into a religious, Protestant family in New England, which was influenced by the social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His father was a Congregationalist minister and a professor of literature and the family can trace its roots back to the Mayflower. Having graduated from Amherst College with a B.A. he went on to study at both the London School of Economics and the University of Heidelberg. In Heidelberg he studied with Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim and Alexander von Schelting, the brother of Max Weber and two of the leading figures in Wissenssoziologie – the sociology of knowledge, respectively. Parsons became interested in translating some of the writings of Max Weber – who died before his arrival in Heidelberg – into English. His translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was the first English edition of Weber’s famous work.

Parsons joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1927 in the department of economics; in 1931 he joined the department of sociology which was founded in that year by the Russian émigré Pitrim Sorokin who was later to become one of the Parsons’ bitter critics. Parsons had cordial intellectual exchanges with Alfred Schütz and Eric Vögelin although he maintained his differences with both, with Schütz over his emphasis on the Lebenswelt of Husserl and with Vögelin over the question of the degree of Calvinism’s progressive or authoritarian role in history, especially in the United States.

But Parsons became best known for his writings on The Structure of Social Action (1937). He was interested in developing a general theory of social action and integrated aspects of Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim and Weber in relation to the relationship between individual and society, the question of motive and purpose in social action, the problem of order as posed by Hobbes, Marx on class antagonisms, subjective and objective categories in social action, among other issues. Parsons was not only working out a theory to account for the structure of social action but to integrate the major attempts to do so by the most gifted of earlier sociologists. Parsons might be compared in this way to the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who considered all previous philosophy as partial forerunners to his own integrated system expressed in his big book on logic, his Phenomenology of Mind, and the History of Philosophy.

Parsons second major work, The Social System, appeared in 1951 and it represented in itself and in later iterations of the theory, an attempt to develop a general theory of the social system employing aspects of cybernetics, personality theory (including especially the psychoanalytic), human development (Piaget), evolutionary theory, among others. The social system (not to be confused with culture – a distinction which Parsons stressed and wrote a paper with the esteemed anthropologist Alfred Kroeber precisely on this distinction) was considered analytically as an open system existing in larger environments with a need to maintain internal and external boundaries. The social system contained within it a number of sub-systems which were to be structurally and functionally integrated in so far as possible. Parsons recognized that values, motives, purposes, etc. played an important role in the character and maintenance of the social system which meant that internal conflict among conflicting values, etc. could not be seamlessly or smoothly integrated.

In this and subsequent works, Parsons developed his notions of pattern maintenance of the social system of which he enumerated 5 dyadic categories: affectivity versus affective neutrality, self-orientation versus collectivity orientation, universalism versus particularism,ascription versus achievement orientatioin, specificity versus diffuseness. At the most general level there are four imperatives that every living system must follow in order to survive. They are: adaptation to their environment, goal attainment, integration and latent function (pattern maintenance) or A-G-I-L. There are other imperatives necessary for the functioning of the various sub-systems.

One of the problems in both understanding Parsons and in criticizing his work is related to the constant revisions, additions, expansions that his theory underwent at his own hand over the course of his intellectual life. It can be said of him that he was a grand integrator of the previous work in sociological theory and perhaps that he shoe-horned the work of some of his illustrious predecessors to fit his grand synthesis. There was hardly an area of sociology to which he did not contribute and the number of his students who went on to become leaders in the discipline is legion.

Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1937
Talcott Parsons, The Social System. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press. 1951


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