Talcott Parsons

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Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist and professor of sociology at Harvard University, known for the development of a general theory for the study of society, called action theory.


  • Every social system is a functioning entity. That is, it is a system of interdependent structures and processes such that it tends to maintain a relative stability and distinctiveness of pattern and behavior as an entity by contrast with its - social or other - environment, and with it a relative independence from environmental forces. It "responds", to be sure, to the environmental stimuli, but is not completely assimilated to its environment, maintaining rather an element of distinctiveness in the face of variations in environmental conditions. To this extent it is analogous to an organism
  • As a formal analytical point of reference, primacy of orientation to the attainment of a specific goal is used as the defining characteristic of an organization which distinguishes it from other types of social systems.
    • Talcott Parsons (1956: 64); Partly cited in: Chiara Demartini (2013). Performance Management Systems: Design, Diagnosis and Use. p. 17
  • The functions of the family in a highly differentiated society are not to be interpreted as functions directly on behalf of the society, but on behalf of personality.
  • 'System' is the concept that refers both to a complex of interdependencies between parts, components, and processes, that involves discernible regularities of relationships, and to a similar type of interdependency between such a complex and its surrounding environment.
    • Talcott Parsons (1968) "Systems Analysis: Social Systems" in: David L. Sills ed. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. p. 458; Cited in: Ida R. Hoos (1972) Systems Analysis in Public Policy: A Critique.
  • The social system is, thus, a very complex entity. As an organization of human interests, activities and commitments, it must be viewed as a system and in functional perspective. This is the key to its lines of organization, its modes of differentiation, and its integration. Such a system may be considered as both structure and process, in different aspects and for different scientific purposes. Structurally, we have suggested that there is a double basis for systematizing differentiation and variation : that internal to the primary social system itself and that involved in its relations to its primary environments, as analyzed with reference to the general system of action. Processually, the categories of analysis must follow from and integrate with those of structure. I suggest that, given the central position language as definitive of human society, the more differentiated and specialized symbolic media of interchange constitute the master scheme for the systematic analysis of social system processes.
    • Talcott Parsons (1968) "Systems Analysis: Social Systems" in: David L. Sills ed. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. p. 472

The structure of social action (1937)

Talcott Parsons (1937) The structure of social action: a study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers. Reprint 1949, 1968
  • In a sense the present work is to be regarded as a secondary-study of the work of a group of writers in the field of social theory. But the genus "secondary study" comprises several species; of these an example of only one, and that perhaps not the best known, is to be found in these pages.
The primary aim of the study is not to determine and state in summary form what these writers said or believed about the subjects they wrote about. Nor is it to inquire directly with reference to each proposition of their "theories" whether what they have said is tenable in the light of present sociological and related knowledge. Both these questions must be asked repeatedly, but what is important is not so much the fact that they are asked, or even answered, but the context in which this takes place.
  • p. v; Preface first edition
  • The most promising lines of development of theory in the sociological and most immediately related fields, particularly the psychological and cultural, therefore, seem to be two-fold. One major direction is the theoretical elaboration and refinement of structural-functional analysis of social systems, including the relevant problems of motivation and their relation to cultural patterns. In this process, the structure of social action provides a basic frame of reference, and aspects of it become of direct substantive importance at many specific points. The main theoretical task, however, is more than a refinement of the conceptual scheme of the presently reprinted book — it involves transition and translation to a different level and focus of theoretical systematization.
    • Preface second edition, 1949
  • A theoretical system does not merely state facts which have been observed and that logically deducible relations to other facts which have also been observed. In so far as such a theory is empirically correct it will also tell us what empirical facts it should be possible to observe in a given set.
    • p. 8
  • The structure of a theoretical system tells us what alternatives are open in the possible answers to a given question. If observed facts of undoubted accuracy will not fit any of the alternatives it leaves open, the system itself is in need of reconstruction.
    • p. 9
  • suggest that we think of theories as spotlight. this imagery is useful. a spotlight will only illuminate so much. with any theory there will always be the things that are left in darkness, still unexamined and unexplained. parsons referred to these as 'residual categories'.
    • p. 17

The social system (1951)

Talcott Parsons (1951) The social system. Glencoe, Ill. : Free Press.
  • A social system consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the "optimization of gratification" and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols.
    • p. 5-6
  • The most elementary communication is not possible without some degree of conformity to the “conventions” of the symbolic system.
    • p. 6
  • A social system is a mode of organization of action elements relative to the persistence or ordered processes of change of the interactive patterns of a plurality of individual actors.
    • p. 15
  • Without deliberate planning on anyone's part, there have developed in our type of social system, and correspondingly in others, mechanisms which, within limits, are capable of forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase which puts it beyond the control of ordinary approval-disapproval and reward-punishment sanctions.
  • Ideology is a system of beliefs, held in common by the members of a collectivity.
    • p. 349

Toward a general theory of action (1951)

Toward a general theory of action
  • Theory in the social sciences should have three major functions. First, it should aid in the codification of our existing concrete knowledge. It can do so by providing generalized hypotheses for the systematic reformulation of existing facts and insights, by extending the range of implication of particular hypotheses, and by unifying discrete observations under general concepts. Through codification, general theory in the social sciences will help to promote the process of cumulative growth of our knowledge. In making us more aware of the interconnections among items of existing knowledge which are now available in a scattered, fragmentary form, it will help us fix our attention on the points where further work must be done.
    Second, general theory in the social sciences should be a guide to research. By codification it enables us to locate and define more precisely the boundaries of our knowledge and of our ignorance. Codification facilitates the selection of problems, although it is not, of course, the only useful technique for the selection of problems for fruitful research. Further than this, general theory should provide hypotheses to be applied and tested by the investigation of these problems...
    Third, general theory as a point of departure for specialized work in the social sciences will facilitate the control of the biases of observation and interpretation which are at present fostered by the departmentalization of education and research in the social sciences.
    • p. 3
  • Culture has been distinguished from the other elements of action by the fact that it is intrinsically transmissible from one action system to another from personality to personality by learning and from social system to social system by diffusion. This is because culture is constituted by "ways of orienting and acting," these ways being "embodied in" meaningful symbols.
    • p. 159

Quotes about Talcott Parsons

  • I regarded (and regard) Parsons’s work as mostly quite empty of serious content.
    • Kenneth Arrow, "Reflections on the Reflections", Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law (2001)
  • Talcott Parsons, the "incurable theorist" in his own words,... brought together, in a systematic and generalized form, the main outlines of a conceptual scheme of social action and social systems (e.g. 1951). His frame of reference focused on the description of the system of institutionalized roles, motivational process, economic exchange, political power and other Issues that according to his view should be included in a general sociological theory.
    • Bela H. Banathy (1985) Proceedings, Society for General Systems Research international. Vol 1. p. xxv
  • Sociology did have a period of core theory consolidation, in the person of Talcott Parsons, whose contributions in the three decades starting in 1937 were systematically geared towards synthesizing the greats of traditional sociology (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto), as well as indicating precisely how the sister disciplines of psychology, economics, and political science might articulate with core sociological theory. There is no doubt but that Parsons' body of theory is seriously flawed, but there was much more than enough to build on in forging a core sociological theory. Parsons correctly started with the division of social life into roles occupied by actors who internalize the norms and values associated with these roles. However, he made the mistake of identifying the rational actor model of economic theory with Homo economicus, the socially isolated selfish material maximizer. It is true that this is how the rational actor model was depicted in economic theory, but only by happenstance, not intrinsic logicality. Extending the rational actor model to include moral elements as well as material elements, self-regard as well as other-regard, would have given Parsons exactly the tool he needed to create a core sociological theory. However, he did not take this step, probably because (a) Pareto had convinced him that the economics/sociology split was just the norms and values/material self-interest split, and (b) he was a poor mathematician can couldn't handle the sophistication of the rational actor model. So he moved on to structural-functionalism, which is useful and insightful, but quite incapable of supporting an analytically cogent sociology.
  • My analysis of Parson's failure, however, was not the reaction of other leading sociologists of the time. Rather, Parsons was bitterly criticized and rejected whole cloth. The offenders---and I here choose my words carefully---were mostly crusading left-wing sociologists who considered sociology an instrument of social change first, and a science only second. They include Alvin Gouldner, Theda Skocpol, George Homans, Lewis Coser, Ralf Dahrendorf, C. Wright Mills, Tom Bottomore, and many others. These pseudo-theorists in fact had no idea what social theory should look like, and railed against Parsons because he did not directly deal with social oppression and his language was not inherently emancipatory. To my mind, this is like criticizing da Vinci's studies of human anatomy because they don't deal with cancer and the plague---infinitely shortsighted and even risible. Habermas and others criticized Parsons on the grounds that systems theory is inherently hostile to action theory. This too is just a terrible mistake, since Parsons' theory of action was from the very first a pillar of his social theory. And what have these critics given us in place of Parsons' core theory? Some entertaining stories and a little credible philosophy, but nothing in the form of social theory.
  • Parsons, who published his first synthesizing works in economics journals, had always seen himself as a synthesizer who might do for sociology what Samuelson did for economics. Why did he fail?

    Part of the problem was undoubtedly the mind-set of sociologists of his time (and ours), which was to attach political messages to rather pedestrian observational and statistical material, and to reject any notion that there might be a "general theory" of sociology. But part of the problem was also Parsons' failure to articulate the close affinities of biological and economic theory with sociology.

  • As an intellectual enterprise, what came to be called ‘‘modernization theory’’ has many of the same positivist traits as Marxism, with which it self-consciously draws a comparison. Indeed, it could be argued that both constitute a form of ‘‘high modernism’’ that emphasize, in a deterministic form, the unity of all modern development, centered on industry and technology. The Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose 1937 book The Structure of Social Action inspired most of the postwar modernization theorists, had claimed that an integrated and stable transition to industrial society could only be achieved through changes in political and cultural values. But, unlike Marx, Parsons believed that it was the opportunities for the individual to fit into the structures of society that determined the course of history, not economic developments alone. For Parsons, for MIT’s Daniel Lerner, and for Walt Whitman Rostow – the Harvard professor whose 1960 The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto later became a key text for modernization theory – the form of transition that they described had already taken place, in America. But there were enough ‘‘unsuccessful modernizations’’ – Germany, the Soviet Union, China – to necessitate the search for a grand theory of the road from ‘‘tradition’’ to ‘‘modernity.’’
    • Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of Our Times (2012), p. 33
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