Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902 – May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist of the classical tradition, best known for his social action theory and structural functionalism. Parsons is considered one of the most influential figures in the development of sociology in the 20th century. After earning a PhD in economics, he served on the faculty at Harvard University from 1927 to 1979, and in 1930, was among the first professors in its newly created sociology department.
Based on empirical data, Parsons' social action theory was the first broad, systematic, and generalizable theory of social systems developed in the United States. Some of Parsons's largest contributions to sociology in the English-speaking world were his translations of Max Weber's work and his analyses of works by Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto. Their work heavily influenced Parsons' view, and was the foundation for his social action theory, in which he viewed voluntaristic action through the lens of the cultural values and social structures that constrain choices and ultimately determine all social actions, as opposed to actions that are determined based on internal psychological processes. Although Parsons is generally considered a structural functionalist, towards the end of his career in 1975, he published an article in which he stated the terms "functional" and "structural functionalist" were inappropriate ways to describe the character of his theory.
Beginning in the 1970s, a new generation of sociologists criticized Parsons' theories, viewing his work as socially conservative and his prose as unnecessarily complex. Since that time, sociology classrooms have placed less emphasis on his theories relative to the peak of his popularity between the 1940s and 1970s. However, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his ideas.
Talcott Parsons was born December 13, 1902 in Colorado Springs. He was the son of Edward Smith Parsons (1863–1943) and Mary Augusta Ingersoll (1863–1949). His father had attended Yale Divinity School and was ordained as a Congregationalist minister, serving first as a minister for a pioneer community in Greeley, Colorado. At the time of Parsons' birth Edward S. Parsons was a professor in English at Colorado College and vice-president of the college.
During his Congregational ministry in Greeley, Edward S. Parsons had become sympathetic to the social gospel movement; yet, at the same time, he tended to view this question from a higher theological position and he was hostile to socialism as a sheer ideology. Also both Edward S. Parsons and his son Talcott would be familiar with the theology of Jonathan Edwards. The father would later become the president of Marietta College in Ohio. Parsons' family is one of the oldest families in American history; his ancestors were some of the first to arrive from England in the first half of the 17th century. The family's heritage consisted of two separate and independently developed Parsons lines, which both went back to the early days of America and indeed deeper into British history. On the father's side the family could be traced back to the Parsons of York, Maine. On the mother's side, the Ingersoll line was connected with Jonathan Edwards and from Edwards on there would be a new independent Parsons line because his eldest daughter Sarah married Elihu Parsons on June 11, 1750.
Studies: Amherst College
As an undergraduate, Parsons studied biology, sociology and philosophy at Amherst College and received his B.A. in 1924. Amherst College had become the Parsons' family college by tradition; his father and his uncle Frank had attended it, as had his older brother. Initially Parsons was attracted to a career in medicine, inspired in this direction by his older brother Charles Edward Parsons, so he studied a great deal of biology and spent a summer working at the Oceanographic Institution at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Parsons' biology teachers while at Amherst were Otto C. Glaser and Henry Plough. Gently mocked as "Little Talcott, the gilded cherub", Parsons became one of the student leaders at Amherst. Parsons also took courses with Walton Hamilton and the philosopher Clarence Edwin Ayres, both known as "institutional economists". They exposed him to literature by Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, and William Graham Sumner, among others. Parsons also took a course with George Brown in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and a course in modern German philosophy with Otto Manthey-Zorn, who was a great Kant interpreter. Parsons showed from early on a great interest in the topic of philosophy, which most likely was an echo of his father's great interest in theology in the tradition of which he had been profoundly socialized, a position that contrasted with his teachers' view.
Two term papers Parsons wrote as a student for Clarence E. Ayres' class in Philosophy III at Amherst have survived. These are referred to as the Amherst Papers and have been of strong interest to Parsons scholars. The first is written on December 19, 1922, and is called "The Theory of Human Behavior in its Individual and Social Aspects." The second term paper is written on March 27, 1923, and is called "A Behavioristic Conception of the Nature of Morals." The papers reveal in part Parsons' early interest in social evolutionary questions. The Amherst Papers also reveal that Parsons did not agree with his institutionalist teachers, since he writes in the Amherst papers that technological development and moral progress are two structurally independent empirical processes.
Studies: London School of Economics
After Amherst, he studied at the London School of Economics for a year, where he was exposed to the work of R. H. Tawney, Bronisław Malinowski, and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse. During his days at LSE he made friends with E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes and Raymonth Firth, who all participated in the Malinowski seminar and in addition, he made a close personal friendship with Arthur and Eveline Burns.
While studying at LSE he met a young American girl in the students common room by the name of Helen Bancroft Walker whom he married on April 30, 1927. The couple had three children, Anne, Charles and Susan and eventually four grandchildren. Walker's father was born in Canada but had moved to the Boston area and had become a naturalized American citizen.
Studies: University of Heidelberg
Parsons went on to the University of Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology and economics in 1927. During his time in Heidelberg, he worked with Alfred Weber (Max Weber's brother), Edgar Salin (who was his dissertation adviser) Emil Lederer, and Karl Mannheim and in addition he was examined in Immanuel Kant's "Critique of pure Reason" by the philosopher Karl Jaspers. At Heidelberg Parsons was also examed by Willy Andreas in the French Revolution. Parsons wrote his Dr. phil. thesis on The Concept of Capitalism in the Recent German Literature with his main focus on the work of Werner Sombart and Max Weber. It was clear from his discussion that he rejected Sombart's quasi-idealistic views and was in favor of Weber's attempt to strike a balance between "historicism", "idealism" and a Neo-Kantian approach.
The most crucial encounter for Parsons at Heidelberg was his encounter with the work of Max Weber, who he never had heard about before he arrived. Weber became tremendously important for Parsons because given his upbringing with a liberal yet strongly religious father, the question of the role of culture and religion in the basic processes of world history had been a persistent puzzle in his mind. Weber was the first scholar who truly provided Parsons with a compelling theoretical "answer" to this question and Parsons became absorbed in the reading of Weber to the utmost extent.
Parsons decided among other things that he would like to translate Weber's work into English and approached Marianne Weber, Max Weber's wife in this regard and he would eventually translate several of Weber's works into English. During his time in Heidelberg Parsons was invited by Marianne Weber to "sociological teas," which were study group meetings Marianne held in the library room of her and Max Weber's old apartment. One scholar Parsons met at Heidelberg who shared his enthusiasm for Weber was Alexander von Schelting. Parsons later wrote a review article on von Schelting's book on Weber. Generally, Parsons read extensively in religious literature, especially works focusing on the sociology of religion. One scholar who became especially important for Parsons in this regard was Ernst D. Troeltsch (1865–1923). Parsons also read widely on the topic of Calvinism. His reading included the work of Emile Doumerque, Eugéne Choisy and Henri Hauser.
Instructor at Harvard Department of Economics, 1927
In 1927, after a year teaching at Amherst (1926–27), Parsons entered Harvard as an instructor in the Department of Economics, where he followed F.W. Taussig's lectures on Alfred Marshall and became friends with the economist historian Edwin Gay, who was the founder of Harvard Business School. Parsons also became a close associate of Joseph Schumpeter and followed his course on "General Economics". Parsons was generally at odds with some of the trends in Harvard's Economics department which in those days went in a highly technical, mathematical direction, and Parsons looked for other options at Harvard and gave courses in "Social Ethics" and in the "Sociology of Religion." Although Parsons entered Harvard through the Economics Department, he never aimed at becoming an economist; all his activities and his basic intellectual interest propelled him toward Sociology, although no Sociology Department existed in the first years at the time at Harvard. However, Harvard was in these years working toward establishing a Sociology Department and Parsons positioned himself in various ways through writing and teaching obligations so he was ready to join a Sociology Department, when it finally was established. In contrast to legend, Parsons was never "forced" out of the Economics Department, his exit was voluntary and a deliberate decision.
Harvard's first Sociology Department, 1930
The chance for a shift to sociology came in 1930, when Harvard's first Sociology Department was created under the Russian scholar Pitirim Sorokin. Sorokin, who had fled the Russian Revolution and had emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1923, was given the opportunity to establish the department. Parsons became one of the new department's two instructors, along with Carl Joslyn. During this period Parsons established close ties with biochemist and sociologist Lawrence Joseph Henderson, who took personal interest in Parsons' career at Harvard. Parsons became part of L.J. Henderson's famous Vilfredo Pareto study group in which some of the most important intellectuals at Harvard participated, including Crane Brinton, George C. Homans, and Charles P. Curtis. Parsons wrote an article on Pareto's theory and later explained that he had adopted the concept of "social system" from his reading of Pareto. Parsons also made strong connections with two other influential intellectuals with whom he corresponded for years; one was economist Frank H. Knight and the other was Chester I. Barnard, one of US's most dynamic business-men at the time. The relationship between Parsons and Sorokin quickly ran sour. A pattern of personal tensions was aggravated by Sorokin's deep dislike for American civilization, which he regarded as a sensate culture in decline. Sorokin's writings became increasingly anti-scientistic in his later years, widening the gulf between his work and Parsons', and turning the increasingly positivisitic American sociology community against him. Sorokin also tended to belittle all other sociology tendencies than his own writings and by 1934 the perception of Sorokin at Harvard had already turned quite negative.
Some of Parsons' students in the first years of the new department of Sociology were people like Robin Williams, Jr., Robert Merton, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore, Edward C. Devereux, Logan Wilson, Nicholas Demereth, John Riley, Jr. and Mathilda White Riley. Later cohorts of students, included among others Harry Johnson, Bernard Barber, Marion Levy and Jesse R. Pitts. Parsons established, at the students' request, a little informal study group which met year after year in Adams house. Toward the end of Parsons' career, the German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann also attended his lectures.
In 1932 Parsons bought his famous farmhouse in New Hampshire for $2.500. The farmhouse was located in a wooded area near the small town of Acworth, although Parsons often in his writing referred to it as "the farmhouse in Alstead." The farmhouse was not big and impressive; indeed, it was a very humble structure with almost no modern utilities. The farmhouse became central to Parsons' life, and many of his most important works were written in the peace and quiet at the farmhouse.
In the spring of 1933, Susan Kingsbury, a pioneer of women's rights in America, wrote to Parsons and offered him a position at Bryn Mawr College; however, Parsons declined the offer because, as he wrote to Kingsbury, "neither salary nor rank is really definitely above what I enjoy here."
In the academic year of 1939-40 Talcott Parsons and Joseph Schumpeter conducted an informal faculty seminar at Harvard, which met in Emerson Hall and discussed the concept of rationality. Among the participants in the seminary were D.V. McGranahan, Abram Bergson, Wassily Leontief, Gottfried Haberler, and Paul Sweezy. Schumpeter contributed with the essay "Rationality in Economics" to the seminar, while Parsons submitted the paper "The Role of Rationality in Social Action" for a general discussion. Schumpeter suggested that he and Parsons write or edit a book together on the topic of rationality but the project never materialized.
Neoclassical economics versus institutionalists
In the prevailing discussion between neoclassical economics and the institutionalists, which was one of the conflicts that prevailed within the field of economics in the 1920s and early 1930s, Parsons attempted to walk a very fine line. Put briefly, he was very critical about neo-classical theory and this was an attitude that prevailed all the way through his life and is reflected in his critique of Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. He was opposed to the utilitarian bias within the neo-classical approach, not in the sense that he discredited everything the neoclassical economists said, but to the effect that he could not embrace them fully. However, he agreed generally (or at least up to a point) on their theoretical and methodological style of approach (which should be discriminated from its substance). For the same reasons (and for several other reasons in addition) he was unable to accept the institutionalist solution. In an interview late in life Parsons recalled his conversation with Joseph Schumpeter about the institutionalist methodological position, the following way: "An economist like Schumpeter, by contrast, would absolutely have none of that. I remember talking to him about the problem and ... I think Schumpeter was right. If economics had gone that way [like the institutionalists] it would have had to become a primarily empirical discipline, largely descriptive, and without theoretical focus. That's the way the 'institutionalists' went, and of course Mitchell (Wesley Mitchell) was affiliated with that movement."
Second period in Germany and the fight against Nazism
Parsons revisited Germany in the summer of 1930 and became a direct eye-witness to the feverish atmosphere in Weimar Germany during which the Nazi Party rose to power. In the following period Parsons received constant reports about the rise of Nazism through his friend Edward Y. Hartshorne who was travelling in Germany. Parsons began in the late 1930s to warn the American public about the Nazi threat; this was not an easy task since US in those days was predominantly isolationist.
One of the first articles Parsons wrote in this regard was entitled: "New Dark Age Seen If Nazis Should Win." Parsons became one of the key initiators of the Harvard Defense Committee, an organization aimed at rallying the American public against the Nazis. Parsons' voice would sound again and again over Boston's local radio-stations as a part of this campaign. Parsons also spoke against Nazism during a dramatic meeting at Harvard campus which was disturbed by isolationist activists. To fight isolationism early in World War II was a very difficult task since polls showed that 91 percent of the population was unwilling to go to war for the allied cause. Together with graduate student Charles O. Porter, Parsons would rally graduate students at Harvard for the war effort. (Porter would later become a US Congressman for Oregon elected on a Democratic ticket.) During the War Parsons conducted a special study group at Harvard, which analyzed what its members considered the causes of Nazism and where leading experts on the topic participated.
1940s: The Second World War and the Harvard School of Overseas Administration
In the spring of 1941 a discussion group on Japan began to meet at Harvard. The group's five core members were Talcott Parsons, John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, William M. McGovern and Marion Levy, Jr.. A few others would also occasionally join the group including Ai-Li Sung (Ai-Li Sung Chin) and Edward Y. Hartshorne. The group rose out of a strong desire to understand Japan whose power in the East had grown tremendously (while at the same time allied with Nazi Germany since November 1936) but as Levy frankly admit "Reischauer was the only one who knew anything about Japan." Parsons, however, was eager to learn more about Japan and was "concerned with general implications." Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Parsons wrote in a letter to Arthur Upham Pope (1881–1969) that the importance of studies of Japan certainly had intensified. During 1942 Parsons worked on arranging a major study of occupied countries together with Bartholomew Landheer of the Netherland Information Office (located in New York). Parsons had mobilized Georges Gurvitch, Conrad Arnsberg, Dr. Safranek and Theodore Abel to participate in these studies but this initiative never materialized because of lack of funding. In early 1942 Parsons approached Hartshorne, who had joined the Psychology Division of the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) in Washington, DC to interest his agency in the research project but without result. In February 1943, Parsons became the deputy director of Harvard School of Overseas administration, a school which educated administrators to "run" the occupied territories in Germany and the Pacific. The task of finding relevant literature on both Europe and Asia for the Harvard School of Oversea administration (ASOA) was mind-boggling and occupied a fair amount of Parsons' time. One scholar Parsons came to know in his period was Karl August Wittfogel with whom he discussed Max Weber and whom he asked to lecture at the ASOA. On the issue of China, which also was taught at the school, Parsons received fundamental information from Chinese scholar Ai-Li Sung Chin and her husband Robert Chin. Another Chinese scholar Parsons worked closely with during the ASOA period was Hsiao-Tung Fei (also written: Fei Xiaotong) (1910–2005) who had studied at the London School of Economics and who was an expert on the social structure of the Chinese village.
1940s: Intellectual exchange with Schutz, Voegelin, Dodd and other debates
Parsons met Alfred Schutz (Schütz) during the rationality seminar, which he conducted jointly together with Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard in the spring of 1940. Schutz has been close to Edmund Husserl and was deeply embedded in his phenomenological philosophy. Schutz who had been born in Vienna and had moved to the US in 1939, had for years worked on the project of developing a phenomenological sociology primarily based on an attempt to find some fixpoint between Husserl's method and Weber's sociology. Parsons had asked Schutz to give a presentation at the rationality seminar, which he did on April 13, 1940, and Parsons and Schutz had lunched together afterward. Schutz was fascinated with Parsons' theory, which he regarded as the state-of-the-art of social theory and he had written an evaluation of Parsons' theory which he kindly asked Parsons to comment on. This led to a short but intensive correspondence, which generally revealed that the gap between Schutz's sociologized phenomenology and Parsons concept of voluntaristic action was far too great. From Parsons' point of view Schutz's position was too speculative and subjectivist of nature and he felt that Schutz was essentially a philosopher, who tended to reduce social processes to the articulation of a Lebenswelt consciousness, while for Parsons the defining edge of human life was action as a catalyst for historical change. For Parsons it was essential that sociology as a science should pay strong attention to the subjective element of action but it should never become completely absorbed in it, since the purpose of a science was to explain causal relationships, whether by covering laws or by other types of explanatory devices. Schutz's basic argument was that sociology cannot ground itself and that epistemology was not a luxury but a necessity for the social scientist. Parsons agreed but stressed the pragmatic need to demarcate science and philosophy and insisted moreover that the grounding of a conceptual scheme for empirical theory construction cannot aim at absolute solutions but need to take a sensible stock-taking of the epistemological balance at each point in time. However, there is no doubt that the two men shared many basic assumptions about the nature of social theory, which has kept the debate simmering ever since. By request from Mrs. Ilse Schutz, after her husband's death, Parsons gave on July 23, 1971, permission to the publication of the correspondence between him and Schutz. Parsons also wrote "A 1974 Retrospective Perspective" to the correspondence, where he characterized his own position as a "Kantian point of view" and still found that Schutz's strong dependence on Husserl's "phenomenological reduction" would make it very difficult to reach the kind of "conceptual scheme," which Parsons found essential for theory building in the social sciences.
Between 1940 and 1944, Parsons and Eric Voegelin (Vögelin) (1901–1985) exchanged their intellectual views through correspondence. Parsons had probably met Voegelin during 1938-39 when Voegelin held a temporary instructor appointment at Harvard. The bouncing point for their conversation was Parsons´' manuscript on anti-Semitism and other materials Parsons had sent to Voegelin. The discussion touched on the nature of capitalism, the rise of the West and the origin of Nazism. The key to this discussion was the implication of Max Weber's interpretation of the Protestant ethics and the impact of Calvinism on modern history. Although the two scholars agreed on many fundamental characteristics about Calvinism, their understanding of its historical impact was quite different. Generally, Voegelin regarded Calvinism as essentially a dangerous totalitarian ideology; Parsons argued that these features of Calvinism was temporary and that the functional implications of its long-term, emerging value-system had revolutionary and by no means simply "negative" impact on the general rise of the institutions of modernity. The two scholars also discussed Parsons' debate with Alfred Schutz (Schütz) and especially why Parsons had ended his encounter with Schutz. Parsons found that Schutz rather than attempting to build social science theory tended to get consumed in philosophical detours. In this regard Parsons wrote to Voegelin: "Possibly one of my troubles in my discussion with Schuetz lies in the fact that by cultural heritage I am a Calvinist. I do not want to be a philosopher – I shy away from the philosophical problems underlying my scientific work. By the same token I don't think he wants to be a scientist as I understand the term until he has settled all the underlying philosophical difficulties. If the physicists of the 17th century had been Schuetzes there might well have been no Newtonian system."
In 1942, Stuart C. Dodd published a major work called Dimensions of society, which attempted to build a general theory of society on the foundation of a mathematical and quantitative systematization of the Social Sciences. Especially, Dodd advanced a particular approach known as a "S-theory." Parsons discussed Dodd's theoretical outline in a review article the same year. Parsons acknowledge Dodd's contribution to be an exceedingly formidable work but at the same time he argued against its premises as a general paradigm for the social sciences. Parsons generally argued that Dodd's "S-theory," which included the so-called "social distance" scheme of Bogardus, was unable to construct a sufficiently sensitive and systematized theoretical matrix, compared with the "traditional" approach, which has developed around the lines of Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, William Isaac Thomas, and other important agents of an action-system approach with a more clear dialogue with the cultural and motivational dimensions of human interaction.
In April 1944, Parsons participated in the conference "On Germany after the war," which was a conference of psychoanalytical oriented psychiatrists and a few social scientists with the aim of analyzing the causes of Nazism and to discuss the principles for the coming occupation. During the conference Parsons opposed what he found to be Lawrence S. Kubie's reductionism. Lawrence S. Kubie was a psychoanalyst who strongly argued that the German national character was completely "destructive" and that it would be necessary for a special agency of the United Nation to control the German educational system directly. Parsons and many others at the conference were strongly opposed to Kubie's idea. Parsons argued that such an enterprise certainly would fail and he suggested that Kubie was viewing the question of German's reorientation "too exclusively in psychiatric terms." Parsons was also against the Morgenthau plan, which was aired in September 1944. After the conference Parsons wrote an article called, "The Problem of Controlled Institutional Change," which was designed as an argument against the Morgenthau plan. Parsons participated as part-time adviser to the Foreign Economic Administration Agency between March and October 1945, where he participated in discussions about reparations and deindustrialization practices after the war. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1945.
Parsons takes charge at Harvard
Parsons' situation at Harvard University changed significantly in early 1944 when he received a good offer from Northwestern University. Harvard reacted to the offer from Northwestern by appointing Parsons as the chairman of the department, promoting him to the rank of full professor and accepting the process of reorganization, which could lead to the establishment of the new department of Social Relations. Parsons' letter to Dean Paul Buck of April 3, 1944, reveals the high point of this moment. Because of the new development at Harvard, Parsons chose to decline an offer from William Langer to join the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services). The assignment Langer proposed for Parsons was that Parsons should follow the American army in its march into Germany and function as a political adviser to the administration of the occupied territories. Late in 1944, under the auspices of the Cambridge Community Council, Parsons directed a project together with Elizabeth Schlesinger. They investigated ethnic and racial tensions in the Boston area between students from Radcliffe College and Wellesley College. This study was a reaction to the upsurge of antisemitism in the Boston area, which began in late 1943 and continued into 1944. At the end of November 1946, the Social Research Council (SSRC) asked Parsons to write a comprehensive report of the topic of how the social sciences could contribute to the understanding of the modern world. The background was a controversy over whether the social sciences should be incorporated into the National Science Foundation. Parsons' report in form of a large memorandum called "Social Science: A Basic National Resource" became available in July 1948 and remains a powerful historical statement about how Talcott Parsons saw the role of the modern Social Sciences.
The Russian Research Center at Harvard
Parsons became a member of the Executive Committee of the newly established Russian Research Center at Harvard in 1948, which had Parsons' close friend and colleague, Clyde Kluckhohn, as its director. Parsons went to Allied-occupied Germany in the summer of 1948 where he functioned as a contact person on behalf of RRC who was interested in the Russian refugees who had been stranded in Germany. Among the people Parsons happened to interview while in Germany were a few members of the Vlasov Army, which was an anti-Sovietic Russian Liberation Army who had collaborated with the Germans during the war. The movement was named after Andrey Vlasov who was a Soviet general captured by the Germans in June 1942. The Vlasov movement's ideology was a hybrid of elements but has been called "communism without Stalin" although in the Prague Manifesto (1944) the Vlasovs moved toward the framework of a constitutional liberal state. While in Germany that summer of 1948 Parsons wrote several letters to Kluckhohn reporting on his intelligence-investigations.
Parsons' fight against Communism was a natural extension of his fight against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. For Parsons, communism and fascism were two aspects of the same problem; they both represented what Parsons in his discussion in his article "A Tentative Outline of American Values" (posthum, 1989) called collectivistic types of "empirical finalism," which he believed was a secular "mirror" of religious types of "salvationalism." In contrast, Parsons highlighted that American values generally were based on the principle of "instrumental activism," which he believed was the outcome of Puritanism as a historical process. It representing what Parsons called "worldly asceticism" and in that capacity, it represented the absolute opposite principle of empirical finalism. It is also in this light one shall understand Parsons' statement late in life that the greatest threat to Mankind was that of "fundamentalism" in whatever form. By the term "empirical finalism" Parsons implied the type of claim assessed by cultural and ideological actors about the correct or "final" ends of particular patterns of value-orientation in the actual historical world (such as the notion of "a truly just society") which was absolutist and "indisputable" in its manner of declaration and in its function as a belief system. For example, the Jacobins behavior during the French Revolution would be a typical example of "empirical finalism." Parsons' rejection of communist and fascist totalitarianism was both theoretically and intellectually an integral part of his theory of world history, where Parsons tended to regard the European Reformation as the most crucial event in "modern" world history and where he like Max Weber tended to highlight the crucial impact of Calvinist religiosity in the socio-political and socio-economic processes, which followed; this development Parsons maintained reached its most radical form in England during the 17th century and gave in effect birth to the special cultural mode, which has characterized the American (United States) value-system and history ever since. Although it was not intended, the Calvinist faith-system, though authoritarian in the beginning, released in its long-term institutional effects a fundamental democratic revolution in the world; a revolution Parsons maintained was steadily unfolding as a part of the interpenetration of Puritan values in the world at large.
Parsons defended the notion of American exceptionalism, and argued that because of a variety of historical circumstances, the impact of the Reformation had reached a certain intensity in the history of Great Britain. Puritan, essentially Calvinist, value-patterns had become institutionalized within the internal situation there. The outcome was that Puritan radicalism was reflected in the religious radicalism of the Puritan sects, in the poetry of John Milton, in the English Civil War and in the process coming to a head in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was the radical fling of Puritan revolution that provided settlers in early seventeenth-century colonial America, and the Puritans who settled in America represented the radical wing with regard to ideals of individuality, egalitarianism, skepticism toward state power and the zeal of the religious calling. These settlers established something unique in the world, under the religious zeal of Calvinist values.
Therefore, a new kind of nation was born, the character of which became clear by the time of the American Revolution and in the American constitution of 1787, and the dynamics of which later was studied by Alexis de Tocqueville. The French Revolution was an attempt to copy the American model, but it was essentially a process that failed. Although America has changed in its social composition since 1787, it preserves, Parsons maintained, the basic revolutionary Calvinist value-pattern. This development has been further revealed in the pluralist and highly individualized America with its thick, network-oriented civil society, which is of crucial importance to America's success, and these factors have provided the United States with its historical lead in the industrialized process.
This momentum, Parsons maintained, has continued to place the United States in the leading position in the world, but as a historical process and not in "the nature of things". Parsons viewed the "highly special feature of the modern Western social world" as "dependent on the peculiar circumstances of its history, and not the necessary universal result of social development as a whole."
Defender of modernity
In contrast to some "radicals," Parsons was a defender of modernity. He believed that modern civilization with its technology and its constantly evolving institutions was ultimately strong, vibrant and essentially progressive. He acknowledged that the future of Mankind had no inherent guarantees. Yet at the same time, as sociologists Robert Holton and Bryan Turner have said, Parsons was not nostalgic and that he did not believe in the past as a lost "golden age," but rather maintained that modernity generally had improved the conditions of Man, admittedly often in troublesome and painful ways, yet in sum mankind's condition has generally progressed. In this way he had faith in Man, not naively but still believing in human beings' potentials. When asked at the Brown seminary in 1973, whether he was optimistic about the future, he answered, "Oh, I think I'm basically optimistic about the human prospects in the long run." Parsons pointed out that he was student at Heidelberg at the height of the vogue of Oswald Spengler, the author of Der Untergang des Abenlandes "and he didn't give the West more than 50 years of continuing vitality after the time he wrote ... Well, its more than 50 years later now, and I don't think the West has just simply declined. He was wrong in thinking it was the end."
Harvard Department of Social Relations, 1946
At Harvard, Parsons was instrumental in forming the Department of Social Relations, an interdisciplinary venture among sociology, anthropology, and psychology. The new department was officially created in January 1946 with Talcott Parsons as the chairman and with prominent figures at the faculty such as Samuel Stouffer, Clyde Kluckhohn, Henry Murray and Gordon Allport. An appointment for Hartshorne was considered but came to a bloody end, when Hartshorne was killed in Germany by an unknown gunman while driving on the highway. His position went instead to George C. Homans. The new department was galvanized by Parsons' idea of creating a theoretical and institutional base for a unified social science. During this period Parsons also became strongly interested in systems theory and cybernetics and began to adopt their basic ideas and concepts to the realm of social science, especially the work of Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) had his attention.
Some of the students who arrived at the Department of Social Relations in the years after the Second World War were: David Aberle, Gardner Lindzey, Harold Garfinkel, David G. Hays, Benton Johnson, Marian Johnson, Kaspar Naegele, James Olds, Albert Cohen, Norman Birnbaum, Jackson Toby, Robert Bellah, Joseph Kahl, Joseph Berger, Morris Zelditch, Renee Fox, Tom O'Dea, Ezra Vogel, Clifford Geertz, Joseph Elder, Theodore Mills, Mark Field and Francis Sutton. Renee Fox, who arrived at Harvard in 1949, would become a very close, personal friend of the Parsons family. Joseph Berger, who also arrived at Harvard in 1949, after finishing his B.A. from Brooklyn College, would become Parsons' research assistant in the year 1952-53 and would get involved in Parsons' research projects with Robert F. Bales.
According to Parsons' own account, it was during his conversations with Elton Mayo (1880–1949) that he realized it was necessary for him to take a serious look at the work of Freud. In the fall of 1938 Parsons began to offer a series of non-credit evening courses on Sigmund Freud. As time passed, Parsons developed a strong interest in psychoanalysis. He volunteered to participate in non-therapeutic training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, where he began a didactic analysis with Dr. Grete Bibring in September 1946. Insight into psychoanalysis is significantly reflected in his later work, especially reflected in The Social System and in his general writing on psychological issues and on the theory of socialization. This influence was also to some extent apparent in his empirical analysis of fascism during the war. Beside the work of Freud, also Wolfgang Köhler's study of the mentality of apes and Kurt Koffka's ideas of Gestalt Psychology had Parsons attention.
The Social System and Toward a General Theory of Action
During the late 1940s and early 1950s Parsons worked very hard on producing some major theoretical statements. In 1951 Parsons published two major theoretical works, The Social System and Toward a General Theory of Action. The latter work which was coauthored with Edward Tolman, Edward Shils and several others, was the outcome of the so-called Carnegie Seminar, which had taken place in the period of September 1949 and January 1950. The Social System represented Parsons first major attempt to present his basic outline of a general theory of society, since The Structure of Social Action (1937) can be regarded as the work, where he discussed the basic methodological and meta-theoretical principles for such a theory. The Social system attempted to present a general social system theory build systematically from it most basic premises and hence, it featured the idea of an interaction situation based on need-dispositions and facilitated through the basic concepts of cognitive, cathectic and evaluative orientation. By the same token the work also became known for the place, where Parsons introduced his famous pattern variables, which in reality represented choices distributed along a Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft axis. However, the way Parsons' thought about the outline of the social system went through a rapid series of re-editing processes in the following years although the basic core remained. During the early 1950s the idea of the AGIL model took stepwise place in Parsons mind. According to Parsons the key idea to the AGIL scheme was sparked during Parsons' work with Robert F. Bales on the study of motivational processes in small groups. Parsons carried this idea into the major work he coauthored with his student Neil Smelser, which was published in 1956 with the title Economy and Society, where the first rudimentary model of the AGIL scheme was presented. The AGIL scheme reorganized the basic concepts of the pattern variables in a new way and presented the solution within a system-theoretical approach using the idea of a cybernetic hierarchy as an organizing principle. The real innovation in the AGIL model was the concept of the "latent function" or the pattern maintenance function, which became the crucial key to the whole cybernetic hierarchy.
During this theoretical development Parsons showed a persistent interest in symbolism. An important statement in this regard was Parsons' article "The theory of symbolism in relation to action." This article was stimulated by a series of informal discussion group meetings, which Parsons and several other colleagues in the spring of 1951 had conducted with philosopher and semiotician Charles W. Morris. Parsons interest in symbolism went hand in hand with his interest in Freud's theory and the paper "The Superego and the Theory of Social Systems," written in May 1951, for the meeting of the American Psychiatric Association can be regarded as a main statement of his own Freud interpretation but also as a statement how Parsons tried to use Freud's pattern of symbolization as a way to structure the theory of social system and eventually a way in which to codify the cybernetic hierarchy of the AGIL system within the parameter of a system of symbolic differentiation. His discussion of Sigmund Freud also contains several layers of criticism, which reveal that Parsons use of Freud is selective rather than orthodox. Especially he highlights in his critique of Freud that "Freud introduced an unreal separation between the superego and the ego."
Subscriber to system-theory, early 1950s
Parsons was an early subscriber to system-theory. Parsons had from early on been fascinated by the writing of Walter B. Cannon and his concept of homeostasis, as well as of the writings of French physiologist Claude Bernard. His interest in system-theory had been further stimulated through his contract with L.J. Henderson. Parsons called the concept of "system" for an indispensable master concept in the work of building theoretical paradigms for the social sciences. From 1952 to 1957 Parsons participated in an ongoing Conference on System Theory under the chairmanship of Dr. Roy Grinker in Chicago. During these conferences Parsons came into contact with several prominent intellectuals of the time and he was particularly impressed by the ideas of social insect biologist Alfred Emerson. Parsons was especially compelled by Emerson's idea that in the sociocultural world, the functional equivalent of the gene was that of the "symbol." Parsons also participated in two of the meetings of the famous Macy conferences on system theory (and on issues which today is classified as cognitive science), which took place in New York in the period from 1946–1953 and include scientists like John von Neumann. Parsons read widely in system theory at the time and read especially some of the works by Norbert Wiener and William Ross Ashby who also were part of the core participants in the Macy Conferences. Around the same time Parsons also benefited from conversations with political scientist Karl Deutsch over the concept of system theory. In one conference, the Fourth Conference of the problems of consciousness, taking place in March 1953 at Princeton and sponsored by the Macy Foundation, Parsons would give a presentation on "Conscious and Symbolic Processes" and embark in an intensive group discussion which included exchange with child psychologist Jean Piaget. Among the other participants in the Conference were Mary A.B. Brazier, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Nathaniel Kleitman, Margaret Mead and Gregory Zilboorg. During the Conference Parsons would defend the thesis that consciousness was essentially a social action phenomenon and not primarily a "biological" one. During the conference Parsons criticized Jean Piaget for not sufficiently separating cultural factors from a physiologistic concept of "energy."
The McCarthy era, 1952
During the McCarthy era, on April 1, 1952, J. Edgar Hoover received a personal letter from an informant who reported on Communist activities at Harvard. During a later interview the informant claimed that "Professor Talcott Parsons ... was probably the leader of an inner group" of Communist sympathizers at Harvard. The informant reported that the old department under Sorokin had been conservative and consisted of "loyal Americans of good character," but that the new department of Social Relation had turned into a decisive left wing place as a result of "Parsons' manipulations and machinations." Based on this evidence Hoover granted on October 27, 1952, Boston FBI authorization to initiate a security-type investigation on Parsons. In February 1954, Parsons' colleague Samuel Stouffer wrote to Parsons, who was located in England and informed him that he, Stouffer, had been denied access to classified documents and a part of the stated reason was that Stouffer knew Communists, including Talcott Parsons "who was a member of the Communist Party." Parsons immediately wrote an affidavit in defense of Stouffer, where he also defended himself against the charges. In the affidavit Parsons wrote, "This allegation is so preposterous that I cannot understand how any reasonable person could come to the conclusion that I was a member of the Communist Party or ever had been." In a personal letter to Stouffer, Parsons wrote, "I will fight for you against this evil with everything there is in me: I am in it with you to the death." The charges against Parsons resulted in Parsons being unable to participate in a UNESCO conference and it was not until January 1955 that he was acquitted of the charges.
Since the late 1930s Parsons had continued to show great interest in psychology and in psychoanalysis. In the academic year of 1955-56, he taught a seminar at Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute entitled "Sociology and Psychoanalysis." In 1956, he published a major work entitled Family, Socialization and Interaction Process which explored the way in which psychology (and psychoanalysis) bounce into the theories of motivation and socialization, as well into the question of kinship, which for Parsons established the fundamental axis for that subsystem he later would call "the social community." This work contained articles written by Parsons alone as well as articles written in collaboration with Robert F. Bales, James Olds, Morris Zelditch, Jr., and Philip E. Slater. The work included a theory of personality as well as studies of role-differentiation. The strongest intellectual stimuli in this period, Parsons most likely got from brain-researcher James Olds, who was one of the founders of neuroscience and Olds' book from 1955 on the question of learning and motivation is strongly influenced from his conversations with Parsons. Some of the ideas in the book Parsons had submitted in an intellectual brain-storm in an informal "work group," which he had organized which consisted in part of Joseph Berger, William Caudill, Frank E. Jones, Kaspar D. Naegele, Theodore M. Mills and Bengt G. Rundblad. In addition professor Albert J. Reiss from the Vanderbilt University had submitted his critical commentary. During the mid-1950s, Parsons also had extensive discussions with Olds about the motivational structure of psychosomatic problems and Parsons' concept of psychosomatic problems at the time was strongly influence by readings and direct conversations with Franz Alexander (a psychoanalyst (originally associated with Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute) who was a pioneer of psychosomatic medicine), Roy Grinker and John Spiegel.
In 1955, Francois Bourricaud was preparing a reader of some of Parsons work for a French audience and Parsons who wrote a preface for the book called "Au lecteur francais", also went over Bourricaud's introduction very carefully. In his correspondence with Bourricaud, Parsons insisted that he did not necessarily treat values as the only let alone "the primary empirical reference point" of the action system, since so many other factors was involved in the actual historical pattern of an action situation.
Center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1957-58
Parsons spent the year 1957-58 at the center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California where he, for the first time in his life, met Kenneth Burke whose flamboyant, explosive temperament made a great impression on Parsons. The two men became close friends. Parsons explained in a letter the impression Burke had left on him: "The big thing to me is that Burke more than anyone else has helped me to fill a major gap in my own theoretical interests, in the field of the analysis of expressive symbolism."
Another scholar Parsons met while at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto was Alfred L. Kroeber who at the time was the "dean of American anthropologists." Kroeber who had received his Ph.D. at Columbia and who had worked with the Arapaho Indians, was about 81 years old when he met Parsons. Parsons had the greatest admiration of Kroeber and called him "my favorite elder statesman." While in Palo Alto, Kroeber suggested to Parsons that they wrote a joint statement together, which purpose it was to clarify the distinction between cultural and social systems, which in those day was the subject of endless debates. In October 1958, Parsons and Kroeber published their joint statement in a small article, which became highly influential. Parsons and Kroeber declared in the article that it was important to keep a clear distinction between the two concepts and to avoid a methodology by which the one would be reduced to the other.
Discussion of Parsons' writings, late 1950s
During the academic year of 1955-56, a group of faculty members at Cornell University met regularly and discussed Parsons' writings. In the next academic year a series of seven widely attended public seminars followed culminating in a session at which Parsons himself answered his critics. The discussions in these seminars was summed up in a joined publication edited by Max Black entitled The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons: A Critical Examination and included an essay by Parsons called "The point of view of the author." The scholars included in the volume were Edward C. Devereux, Jr., Robin M. Williams, Jr., Chandler Morse, Alfred L. Baldwin, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Henry A. Landsberger, William Foote Whyte, Max Black and Andrew Hacker. The contributions converted many angles including personality theory, organizational theory and various methodological discussions. Parsons' essay is particularly notable because it, together with another essay published in 1960 and called "Pattern Variables Revisited," represents one of the most full-scale account of the basic elements of his theoretical strategy and the general principles behind his approach to theory building. The essay also included although in meta-theoretical terms a criticism of the theoretical foundations for the so-called "conflict theory".
Starting from the late 1950s and culminating during the student rebellion in the 1960s and its aftermath, Parsons' theory was criticized by some scholars and intellectuals of the left, claiming that Parsons' theory was:
- inherently conservative, if not reactionary. Gouldner went so far as claiming that Parsons had been an opponent of the New Deal. Parsons' theory was further regarded as
- unable to reflect social change, human suffering, poverty, deprivation and conflict. Theda Skocpol was of the belief that Apartheid system in South Africa was the ultimate proof that Parsons' theory was "wrong." At the same time,
- Parsons' idea of the individual was seen as "oversocialized," "repressive," or subjugated in normative "conformity".
- In addition, Jürgen Habermas and countless others were of the belief that Parsons' system-theory and his action-theory was inherently opposed, indeed, hostile to each other and that Parsons' system theory was especially "mechanical," "positivistic," "anti-individualistic," "anti-voluntaristic" "de-humanizing" by the sheer nature of its intrinsic theoretical context. By the same token,
- Parsons' evolutionary theory was regarded as "uni-linear," "mechanical," "biologistic," and nothing but an ode to world-system status-qua or simply an ill-concealed instruction manual for "the capitalist nation-state."
The first manifestations of this branch of criticism would be intellectuals like Lewis Coser, Ralf Dahrendorf, David Lockwood, John Rex, C.W. Mills, Tom Bottomore and Alvin Gouldner among other.
Parsons voted for John F. Kennedy on November 8, 1960; since 1923 with one exception Parsons would vote for Democrats all his life. He discussed the Kennedy election widely in his correspondence at the time. Parsons was especially interested in the symbolic implications involved in the fact of Kennedy's Catholic background for the implications for United States as an integral community. (It was the first and so far only time a Catholic became President of the United States.) In a letter to Robert Bellah, he wrote: "I am sure you have been greatly intrigued by the involvement of the religious issue in our election." Parsons who described himself as a "Stevenson Democrat," was especially enthusiastic about that his favored politician Adlai Stevenson had been appointed United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Parsons had persistently voted for Stevenson in both of the years he had run for election and was greatly disappointed that Stevenson twice was rejected by the American voters.
In the early 1960s it became obvious that Parsons' ideas had a great impact on much of the theories of modernization at the time. His influence was very extensive yet at the same time the concrete adoption of his theory was often quite selective, half-hearted, superficial and at times utterly confused. In this way, many of the modernization theorists never used the full power of Parsons theory but concentrated on some formalist formula, which often was taken out of context with the deeper meaning by which Parsons originally had introduced them. Nonetheless, works such as Gabriel A. Almond and James S. Coleman, The Politics of the Developing Areas, as well as works by Karl W. Deutsch, S.N. Eisenstadt, Seymour Martin Lipset, Samuel P. Huntington, David E. Apter, Lucian W. Pye, Sidney Verba and Chalmers Johnson among others were importantly influenced by Talcott Parsons in some way or another. Indeed, it was the intensive influence of Parsons ideas in Political sociology, which originally made a scholar like William Buxton interested in Parsons work. In addition, David Easton would claim that in the history of Political Science, the two scholars who had made any serious attempt to construct a general theory for Political Science on the issue of political support were himself and Talcott Parsons.
One of the scholars Parsons corresponded extensively with during his lifetime and whose opinion he highly valued was Robert N. Bellah. Parsons' discussion with Bellah would cover a wide range of topics including the theology of Paul Tillich. The correspondence would continue when Bellah in the early fall of 1960 went to Japan in order to study Japanese religion and ideology. In August 1960, Parsons sent Bellah a draft of his paper on "The Religious Background of the American Value System" and ask for his commentary. In a letter to Bellah of September 30, 1960, Parsons discussed his reading of Perry Miller's An Errand into the Wilderness. Parsons wrote that Miller's discussion of the role of Calvinism "in the early New England theology ... is a first rate and fit beautifully with the broad position I have taken." Perry Miller (1905–1963) was a literary Harvard historian whose books such as The New England Mind established new standards for the writing of American cultural and religious history. Miller remain one of Parsons most favoured historians throughout his life. Indeed, religion had always a special place in Parsons heart, although his son in an interview maintained that he didn't really think that his father was "religious." Throughout his life Parsons interacted with a broad range of intellectuals and others who took a deep interest in religious belief systems, doctrines and institutions. One notable person among these people whom Parsons interacted with in this regard was Maria Augusta Neal who was a Catholic sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who would send Parsons countless of her manuscripts and invite him to Conferences and intellectual events in the Catholic Church. Maria Augusta Neal received her Ph.D. from Harvard under Parsons supervision in 1963 and would eventually become professor (then Chair) of sociology at Emmanuel College in Boston. Maria Augusta Neal was very enthusiastic about the Second Vatican Council and became known for the National Sisters Survey, which aimed at improving women's position in the Catholic Church.
Parsons and Winston White wrote together an article called "The Link Between Character and Society," which was published in 1961. Parsons and White's article was a critical discussion of David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, which had been published a decade earlier and which had turned into an unexpected bestseller reaching 1 million sold copies in 1977. Riesman was a prominent member of the American academic left influenced by Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School. In reality, Riesman's book was an academic attempt to give credit to the concept of "mass society" and especially to the idea of an America suffocated in social conformity. Riesman had essentially argued that at the emerging of highly advanced capitalism, the America basic value-system and its socializing roles had change from an "inner-directed" toward an "other-directed" pattern of value-orientation. Parsons and White challenged Riesman's idea and argued that there had been no change away from an inner-directed personality structure. While noticing that Riesman's "other-directness" look like a caricature of Cooley's looking-glass self, they argued that the framework of "institutional individualism" as the basic code-structure of America's normative system had essentially not changed. What had happen, however, was that the industrialized process and its increased pattern of societal differentiation had changed the family's generalized symbolic function in society and had allowed for a greater permissiveness in the way the child related to his parents. This, however, Parsons and White argued, was not the prelude to greater "otherdirectness" but a more complicated way by which inner-directed pattern situated itself in the social environment.
Political power and the concept of Influence, 1963
1963 became a notable year in Parsons's theoretical development because it was the year when he published two important articles; one on political power and one on the concept of influence. The two articles represented Parsons's first published attempt to work out the idea of Generalized Symbolic Media as an integral part of the exchange processes within the AGIL system. This was a theoretical development, which Parsons had worked on ever since the publication of Economy and Society (1956). The prime model for the generalized symbolic media was money and Parsons was reflecting on the question whether the functional characteristics of money represented an exclusive uniqueness of the economic system or whether it was possible to identify other generalized symbolic media in other subsystems as well. Although each medium had unique characteristics, Parsons claimed that power (for the political system) and influence (for the societal community) had institutional functions, which essentially was structurally similar to the general systemic function of money. Utilizing Roman Jakobson's idea of "code" and "message," Parsons divided the components of the media into a question of value-principle versus coordination standards for the "code-structure" and the question of factor versus product control within those social process which carried the "message" components. In this way, while "utility" could be regarded as the value-principle for the economy (medium: money), "effectiveness" was the value-principle for the political system (medium: political power) and solidarity for the societal community (medium: influence). Parsons would eventually chose the concept of value-commitment as the generalized symbolic medium for the fiduciary system with integrity as the value-principle.
In August 1963 Parsons got a new research assistant, Victor Lidz, who would become an important collaborator and colleague. In 1964 Parsons flew to Heidelberg in Germany in order to celebrate the 100th birthday of Max Weber and discuss Weber's work with Jürgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse and others. Parsons delivered his paper "Evaluation and Objectivity in Social Science: An Interpretation of Max Weber's Contribution." The meeting became in reality a clash between pro-Weberian scholars and the representatives for the Frankfurther School. Before leaving for Germany Parsons discussed the upcoming meeting with Reinhard Bendix and commented that "I am afraid I will be something of a Daniel in the Lion's den." Bendix wrote back and told Parsons that Marcuse in his ears sounded very much like Christoph Steding (who was a Nazi philosopher).
Parsons conducted a persistent correspondence with noted scholar Benjamin Nelson, with whom he shared a common interest in the rise and destiny of civilizations, a correspondence which only ceased with Nelson's death in 1977. The two scholars also shared a common enthusiasm for the work of Max Weber and the two scholars would generally agree on the main interpretative approach to the study of Weber. Benjamin Nelson had participated in the Weber Centennial in Heidelberg and during the conference Nelson had got into a violent argument with Herbert Marcuse, whom he accused to tarnish Weber's name. In reading the written version of Nelson' s contribution to the Weber Centennial, Parsons wrote, "I cannot let the occasion pass without a word of congratulations which is strong enough so that if it were concert I should shout bravo." In several letters Nelson would keep Parsons informed of the often turbulent leftist environment of Herbert Marcuse. In the letter of September 1967, Nelson would tell Parsons how much he enjoyed reading Parsons' essay on "Kinship and the associational Aspect of Social Structure." Also, among the scholars on whom Parsons and Nelson would share internal commentaries was the work of Jürgen Habermas.
Mark Gould was educated at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, at the time a center for political radicalism. At Reed, Gould's theoretical interest was sparked by Professor Howard Jolly's exegesis of Parsons. Gould decided that he wanted to study with Parsons and arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1967 and entered Parsons' office, at their first meeting, with hair down to his shoulders, with a wild beard and dressed in the colorful manners of the late sixties. Gould would become Parsons' research assistant by the summer of 1968. Parsons was opposed to the Vietnam War, yet he was disturbed by what he considered the anti-intellectual tendency in the student rebellion, where serious debate often was substituted by handy slogans by Marx, Mao and Fidel Castro. Gould, who was thrown out by the state police from University Hall (at Harvard) early in the morning on April 10, 1969, often had heated discussions with Parsons about politics and society in Parsons' office, yet as Gould insisted these dialogues were always theoretically fruitful.
1960s: Toward a concept of the societal community: Ethnicity, kinship and diffuse solidarity
Talcott Parsons had for years corresponded with his former graduate student David M. Schneider who had taught at the University of California Berkeley before he in 1960 accepted a position as professor in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Schneider had received his Ph.D. at Harvard in Social Anthropology in 1949 and had become a leading expert in the American kinship system. Schneider had in 1968 published American Kinship: A cultural account, which became a classic within the field and he had sent Parsons a copy of the copy-edited manuscript before publication. Parsons was highly appreciative of Schneider's work and Schneider became in many ways a crucial bouncing-point for Parsons' own attempt to understand the fundamental elements of the American kinship system, which for him was a key to understand the factor of ethnicity and especially to build up the theoretical foundation of his concept of the societal community, which by the beginning of the early 1970s had begun to become a strong priority in the number of theoretical projects, which occupied his intellectual life. Among other things Parsons borrowed the term "diffuse enduring solidarity" from Schneider as a major concept for his own considerations regarding the theoretical construction of the concept of the societal community. In the spring of 1968 Parsons and Schneider discussed Clifford Geertz's article on religion as a cultural system in regard to which Parsons wrote a review article. Parsons, who was a close friend of Geertz, was puzzled over Geertz's article. In a letter to David Schneider, Parsons spoke about "the rather sharp strictures on what he (Geertz) calls the extremely narrow intellectual tradition with special reference to Weber, but also to Durkheim. My basic point is in this respect, he greatly overstated his case seeming to argue that this intellectual tradition was by now irrelevant." David Schneider wrote back to Parsons, "So much, so often, as I read Cliff's stuff I cannot get a clear consistent picture of just what the religious system consist in instead only how it is said to work."
In a letter of July 1968 to Gene Tanke of the University of California Press, Parsons offers a critical note on the state of psychoanalytical theory and writes: "The use of psychoanalytical theory in interpretation of social and historical subject matter is somewhat hazardous enterprise, and a good deal of nonsense has been written in the name of such attempts." Around 1969, Parsons was approached by the prestigious Encyclopedia of the History of Idea about writing an entrance in the encyclopedia on the topic of the "Sociology of Knowledge." Parsons accepted and wrote one of his most powerful essays entitled "The Sociology of Knowledge and the History of Ideas" during the period of 1969–1970. In this essay Parsons discussed how the Sociology of knowledge as a modern intellectual discipline had emerged from the dynamics of European intellectual history reaching a kind of cutting point in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and further explored by Hegel yet reaching its first "classical" formulation in the writing of Karl Mannheim, whose brilliance Parsons acknowledged yet also found himself in opposition to, since Mannheim never betrayed German historicism, whose antipositivistic epistemology was largely rejected in the more positivistic world of American social science. For various reasons the editors of the encyclopedia turned down Parsons essay since it didn't fit the general format of their volume, so Parsons essay was not published before 2006. Parsons had several conversations with Daniel Bell on a "Post-industrial society", some of which were conducted over lunch at William James Hall. After reading an early version of Bell's magnum opus, "The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society", Parsons wrote a letter to Daniel Bell dated November 30, 1971, where he offered his criticism. Among his many critical points, Parsons stressed especially that Bell's discussion of technology tended to "separate off culture" and treat these two categories "as what I would call culture minus the cognitive component."
Parsons's interest in the role of ethnicity and religion in the genesis of social solidarity within the local community heavily influenced another of his early 1960s graduate students, Edward Laumann. As a student, Laumann was interested in the role of social network structure in shaping community-level solidarity. Combining Parsons's interest in the role of ethnicity in shaping local community solidarity with W. Lloyd Warner's structural approach to social class, Laumann argued that ethnicity, religion, and perceived social class together play a large role in structuring community social networks. Laumann's work found that community networks are highly partitioned along lines of ethnicity, religion, and occupational social status. It also highlighted the tension individuals experience between their preference to associate with people who are like them (homophily) and the simultaneous desire to affiliate with higher-status others. Later, at the beginning of his career at the University of Chicago, Laumann would argue that how these impulses are resolved by individuals forms the basis of corporate or competitive class consciousness within a given community. In addition to demonstrating how community solidarity can be conceptualized as a social network, and the role of ethnicity, religion, and class in shaping such networks, Laumann's dissertation became one of the first examples of the use of population-based surveys in the collection of social network data, and thus a precursor to decades of egocentric social network analysis. Parsons thus played an important role in shaping social network analysis's early interest in homophily, and the use of egocentric network data to assess group- and community-level social network structures.
In his later years Parsons became increasingly interested in working out the higher conceptual parameters of the human condition, which in part led him toward rethinking questions of cultural and social evolution and the "nature" of telic systems, the latter which he especially discussed with Robert Bellah, Victor Lidz, Reene Fox, Willy de Craemer and others. As a part of this pattern, Parsons became increasingly interested in clarifying the relationship between biological and social theory. Parsons was the initiator of the first Daedalus conference on "Some Relations between biological and social theory" sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Science. Parsons wrote a memorandum dated September 16, 1971, where he spelled out the intellectual framework for the conference. As Parsons explained in the memo, the basic goal of the conference was to establish a conceptual fundament for a theory of living systems. The first conference was held on January 7, 1972. Among the participants beside Parsons and Victor Lidz were Ernst Mayr, Seymour Kety, Gerald Holton, A. Hunter Dupree, and William Wimsatt. A second Daedalus Conference on Living Systems was held on March 1–2, 1974, and included Edward O. Wilson, who at the time was about to publish his famous work on sociobiology. Other new participants were John T. Bonner, Karl H. Pribram, Eric Lennenberg and Stephen J. Gould.
Parsons began in the fall of 1972 to conduct a seminar on "Law and Sociology" with Lon L. Fuller who was well known for his work The Morality of Law (1964). The seminar and his conversations with Fuller stimulated Parsons to write one of this most influential articles "Law as an Intellectual Stepchild." In this article Parsons discusses among other things Roberto Mangabeira Unger's Law in Modern Society (1976). Another indication of Parsons interest in law is reflected in his students, hence Parsons' student John Akula writes his dissertation in Sociology on the topic Law and the Development of Citizenship (1973). In September 1972 Parsons participates in a Conference in Salzburg on "The Social Consequences of Modernization in Socialist Countries." Among the other participants in this conference is Alex Inkeles, Ezra Vogel, and Ralf Dahrendorf.
In 1972 Parsons wrote two review articles, where he discussed the work of Reinhard Bendix, which provides a clear statement on Parsons' approach to the study of Max Weber. Bendix was an emigrant scholar who had become well known for his Weber-interpretations. In the first review article, Parsons analyzed Bendix's work entitled Embattled Reason. Parsons basically praised the work's attempt to defend the basic values of cognitive rationality, a defense Parsons unconditionally shared and he agree with Bendix that the question of cognitive rationality was primarily a cultural issue and not a category, which could be reduced from biologial, economic and social factors. However, Parsons did have problems with the way Bendix had proceed with his task and he especially felt that Bendix had misrepresented the work of Freud and Durkheim. Parsons found that the real reason behind this case of misrepresentation lied in the way Bendix tended to conceive the question of systematic theorizing under the concept of "reductionism." Parsons further found that Bendix approach suffered from a "conspicuous hostility" toward the idea of evolution. It was true Parsons assessed that Max Weber rejected the one-linear evolutionary approaches of Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer but it didn't follow that Weber rejected the question of evolution as a generalized question. In his second review article, which was a commentary of Reinhard Bendix and Guenther Roth, Scholarship and Partisanship: Essays on Max Weber, Parsons continued his line of criticism. Parsons was especially concerned with a statement by Bendix, where Bendix claimed that Weber was a subscriber to Karl Marx's notion that ideas were "the epiphenomena of the organization of production." Parsons strongly rejected this assessment. As he said: "I should contend that certainly the intellectual "mature" Weber never was an "hypothetical" Marxist." Somewhere behind these attitudes of Bendix, Parsons detected a discomport on Bendix behalf to move out of an "idiographic" mode of theorizing.
In 1973 Parsons published The American University, which he had coauthored together with Gerald M. Platt. The idea had originally emerged then Martin Meyerson and Stephen Graubard of the American Academy of the Art and Sciences in 1969 asked Parsons to undertake a monographic study of the American University System. The work on the book went on for years and was first finished in June 1972. From the theoretical point of view the book had several functions, one important one was to substantiate Parsons' concept of the educational revolution, which was a crucial component in his theory of the rise of the modern world. What was equally intellectually compelling, however, was undoubtedly Parsons' discussion of "the cognitive complex", which aimed at explaining how cognitive rationality and learning operated as an interpenetrative zone on the level of the general action-system in society. In retrospect the categories of "the cognitive complex" serve as a theoretical foundation for an understanding of what has been called the modern knowledge-based society.
Retired from Harvard, 1973
He retired from Harvard in 1973, but continued his writing, teaching and other activities in the same rapid pace as before. Parsons also continued his extensive correspondence with a wide group of colleagues and intellectuals. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley. At Parsons' retirement banquet held on May 18, 1973, Robert K. Merton was asked to preside, while John Riley, Bernard Barber, Jesse Pitts, Neil J. Smelser and John Akula were asked to share their experiences of the man with the audience.
One scholar who became important in Parsons' later years was professor Martin U. Martel of Brown University. Martel and Parsons made contact in the early 1970s, the occasion was a discussion of an article, which Martel had written about Talcott Parsons' work. Martel arranged a series of seminars at Brown University in 1973-74, where Parsons spoke about his life and work and answered question from students and faculty. Among the participants at the seminars were Martin U. Martel, Robert M. Marsh, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, C. Parker Wolf, Albert F. Wessen, A. Hunter Dupree, Philip L. Quinn, Adrian Hayes and Mark A. Shields. In February–May 1974, Parsons also gave the Culver lectures at Brown and spoke on the issue "The Evolution of Society." These lectures as well as the seminars were videotaped.
Late in life Parsons began to work out a new level of the AGIL model, which he called "A Paradigm of the Human Condition." This new level of the AGIL model crystallized in the summer of 1974 and the ideas of the new paradigm he worked out with a variety of people but especially with Victor Lidz, Renee Fox and Harold Bershady. The new meta-paradigm featured the environment of the general action system, which include the physical system, the biological system and what Parsons called the telic system; the latter system represented the sphere of ultimate values in a sheer metaphysical sense. Parsons also worked toward a more comprehensive understanding of the code-structure of social systems and on the logic of the cybernetic pattern of control facilitating the AGIL model, where he among many things worked out a bulk of notes, he called "Thoughts on the linking of systems" and another memo he called "money and time." He had also extensive discussions with Larry Brownstein and Adrian Hayes concerning the possibility of a mathematical formalization of Parsons' theory.
Parsons had during his lifetime worked intensively with questions of medical sociology, the medical profession, psychiatry, psychosomatic problems and related issues with the questions of health and illness. Most of all Parsons had become known for his concept of "the Sick role." This field of social research was an issue, which Parsons constantly developed through elaboration and self-criticism. Parsons participated at the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto in August 1974, where he presented a paper called "The sick role revisited: a response to critics and an updating in terms of the theory of action," which was published under a slightly different title in 1975. In his essay Parsons highlighted that his concept of "sick role" never was meant to confine this category to "deviant behavior," although as he stated it: "its negative valuation should not be forgotten." It was also important to keep a certain focus on the "motivatedness" of illness, since there always is a factor of unconscious motivation in the therapeutic aspects of the sick role.
In 1975 Robert N. Bellah published his book called The Broken Covenant. "The Covenant" Bellah refers to the sermon delivered by John Winthrop (1587–1649) to this flock on board his ship 'Arbella' on the evening of the landing in Massachusetts Bay in the year 1630. In his sermon Winthrop declared that the Puritan colonists emigrating to the New World was part of a special pact (Covenant) with God to create a holy community. Winthrop used the phrases: "For we must consider that we shall be a city on the hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." Parsons disagreed strongly with Bellah's analysis in The Broken Covenant and insisted that "the covenant" was not broken. Parsons later used a major part of his influential article, "Law as an Intellectual Stepchild" to discuss Bellah's position in The Broken Covenant. Parsons found that Bellah unduly trivialized the discussion of the tension and problems involved in questions of individual interests and collective interests on the level of total society by reducing them to the concept of "capitalism." Parsons find that Bellah in his characterization of the negative aspects of American society is compelled by a charismatic-based optimalism and he declared that Bellah's position in The Broken Covenant is that of moral absolutism.
In 1975 Parsons responded to an article by Jonathan H. Turner called "Parsons as a symbolic interactionist." In his response Parsons acknowledged that action theory and symbolic interactionism should not be regarded as two separate, antagonistic positions; in contrast they have overlapping structures of conceptualization. Parsons regarded symbolic interactionism and the theory of George Herbert Mead as valuable contributions to action theory specifying certain aspects of the theory of the personality of the individual. Parsons, however, criticized the symbolic interactionism of Herbert Blumer, since in Blumer's theory there is no end to the openness of action. Parsons regarded Blumer as the mirror image of Claude Lévi-Strauss who tended to stress the quasi-determined nature of macro-structural systems. Action theory, Parsons maintained, represented a middle ground between these two extremes.
In 1976 Parsons was asked to contribute to a volume celebrating the eightieth years birthday of Jean Piaget. Parsons contributed with an essay called "A few considerations on the place of rationality in Modern Culture and Society." Parsons characterized Piaget as the most eminent contributor to cognitive theory in the 20th century. However, in his article, he also argued that the future study of cognition had to go beyond its narrow encounter with psychology and aim at a higher understanding of how cognition as a human intellectual force was entangled in the processes of social and cultural institutionalization.
In 1978, when James Grier Miller published his famous work Living Systems, Parsons was approached by Contemporary Sociology who asked him to write a review article on Miller's work. Parsons had already complained in a letter to A. Hunter Dupree that American intellectual life suffered from a deep-seated tradition of empiricism and he saw Miller's book the latest confirmation of that tradition. In his review article called "Concrete and "Abstracted" systems, he generally praised the herculean task behind Miller's work but he criticized Miller for getting caught in the effort of hierarchize concrete systems while underplaying the importance of structural categories in theory building. Parsons was also concerned about Miller's lack of any clear-cut discrimination between cultural and non-cultural systems.
In Japan, 1978
Japan was a country where from early on there was a keen interest in Talcott Parsons' work. As early as 1958 a Japanese translation of Economy and Society appeared. Also The Structure of Social Action was translated into Japanese. In the same way, The Social System was translated into Japanese by Tsutomu Sato in 1974. Indeed, already Ryozo Takeda had in 1952 in his Shakaigaku no Kozo (The Framework of Sociology) introduced Japanese scholars to some of Parsons' ideas. Parsons visited Japan for the first time in 1972, where he gave a lecture on November 25 to the Japanese Sociological Association entitled "Some Reflections on Post-Industrial Society." The lecture was published in The Japanese Sociological Review. At the same time Parsons participated in an international symposium on "New Problems of Advanced Societies," that was held in Tokyo and two short articles written by Parsons appeared in the proceedings of the symposium in 1973. Ken'ichi Tominaga (born, 1931), a leading figure in Japanese Sociology and professor at the University of Tokyo was asked by Victor Lidz to contribute to a two-volume collection of Essays in honor of Talcott Parsons. Ken'ichi Tominaga wrote an essays on the industrial growth model of Japan using Parsons' AGIL Model.
In 1977, professor Washio Kurata, who just had been elected Dean of the Faculty of Sociology of Kwansei Gakuin University wrote to Parsons and invited him to visit Japan during the 1978-79 academic year. In the early spring Parsons accepted Kurata's invitation and on October 20, 1978 Parsons arrived in airport of Osaka, accompanied by his wife and was greeted royally by a large entourage.
Parsons began weekly lectures at Kwansei Gakuin's sociology department from October 23 to December 15. Parsons gave his first public lecture to a huge mass of undergraduates speaking on the issue of "The Development of Contemporary Sociology," while professor Hideichiro Nakano served as an interpreter. On November 17–18, when the Sengari Seminar House was opened, Parsons was invited as the key speaker at the event and gave two lectures, one entitled "On the Crisis of Modern Society" and the other on "Modern Society and Religion." Among those present at this event were Ken'ichi Tominaga, Mutsundo Atarashi, Kazuo Muto and Hideichiro Nakano.
On November 25 Parsons lectured at Kobe University. This lecture was organized by Hiroshi Mannari and Parsons lectured on the topic of organization theory to faculty and graduate students from the department of economics, management and sociology. Also faculty members from Kyoto and Osaka Universities were present. The lecture was published the following year. On November 30 – December 1, Parsons participated in the Tsukuba (University) Conference in Tokyo, where Parsons spoke on "Enter the New Society: The Problem of the Relationship of Work and Leisure in Relation to Economic and Cultural Values." On December 5, Parsons gave a lecture at Kyoto University on the topic "A Sociologist Looks at Contemporary U.S. Society."
At a special lecture at Osaka on December 12, Parsons spoke at the suggestion of Tominaga on the topic "Social System Theory and Organization Theory" to the Japanese Sociological Association. Earlier the same day Parsons had a discussion with Professor Ken'ichi Tominaga at Iwanami Shoten, which was published in the journal SHISO.
On December 14, Kwansei Gakuin University granted Parsons an honorary doctor degree. A number of his lectures was collected into a volume by Dean Kurata and published in 1983. The Parsons` flew back to the US in mid-December 1978. As a sign of friendship Hideichiro Nakano sent Parsons a Buddha mask. Parsons had especially been captivated by certain aspects of Zen Buddhism. He told his friends that after his experience in Japan he was going to reconsider certain aspects of his interpretation of the origins of modern civilizations.
The end, 1979
Parsons died of a stroke on May 8, 1979, in Munich while on a trip to Germany, where he was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Heidelberg degree. The day before he died he gave a lecture on the declining significance of social class for an audience of German intellectuals, including Jürgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann and Wolfgang Schluchter.
Parsons was a strong advocate for the professionalization of sociology and its expansion within American academia. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as secretary from 1960–1965.
His son Charles Parsons is a distinguished figure in philosophy of mathematics and an expert in Immanuel Kant.
Parsons produced a general theoretical system for the analysis of society, which he called 'theory of action' based on the methodological and epistemological principle of "analytical realism" and on the ontological assumption of "voluntaristic action." Parsons concept of analytical realism can be regarded as a kind of compromise between nominalist and realist views on the nature of reality and human knowledge. Parsons assesses that we (as scientists and humans) relate to objective reality but only through a particular encounter of such reality, and that our general intellectual understanding is only feasible through conceptual schemes and theories. Our interaction with objective reality on an intellectual level should always be understood as an approach. Parsons often explicated the meaning of analytical realism by quoting a statement by L.J. Henderson: "A fact is a statement about experience in terms of a conceptual scheme."
Generally, Parsons maintained that his inspiration regarding analytical realism had been Lawrence Joseph Henderson and Alfred North Whitehead although it is possible the idea originated much earlier. It is important in this regard that Parsons' "analytical realism" insist on the reference to an objective reality since Parsons at several occasions highlighted that his concept of "analytical realism" was importantly different from the "fictionalism" of Hans Vaihiger (Hans Vaihinger). As Parsons specifies this: "We must start with the assertion that all knowledge which purports to be valid in anything like the scientific sense presumes both the reality of object known and of a knower. I think we can go beyond that and say that there must be a community of knowers who are able to communicate with each other. Without such a presupposition it would seem difficult to avoid the pitfall of solipsism. The so-called natural sciences do not, however, impute the "status of knowing subjects" to the objects with which they deal."
The Structure of Social Action
The Structure of Social Action (SSA), Parsons' most famous work, took form piece by piece. Its central figure was Weber, and the other key figures in the discussion were added little by little as the central idea took form. One important work that helped Parsons' central argument in SSA was when in 1932 he unexpectedly found Élie Halévy, La Formation du Radicalisme Philosophique, (1901–1904) a three-volume work, which he read in French. About Halévy work, Parsons explained, "Well, Halévy was just a different world ... and helped me to really get in to many clarifications of the assumptions distinctive to the main line of British utilitarian thought; assumptions about the 'natural identity of interest', and so on. I still think it is one of the true masterpieces in intellectual history." Parsons first achieved significant recognition with the publication of The Structure of Social Action (1937), his first grand synthesis, combining the ideas of Durkheim, Max Weber, and Pareto, among others.
Parsons' action theory
Parsons' action theory can be characterized as an attempt to maintain the scientific rigour of positivism, while acknowledging the necessity of the "subjective dimension" of human action incorporated in hermeneutic types of sociological theories. It is cardinal in Parsons' general theoretical and methodological view that human action must be understood in conjunction with the motivational component of the human act. In this way social science must consider the question of ends, purpose and ideals in its analysis of human action. Parsons' strong reaction to behavioristic theory as well as to sheer materialistic approaches derives from the attempt of these theoretical positions to eliminate ends, purpose and ideals as factors of analysis. Parsons already in his college student term-papers at Amherst criticized attempts to reduce human life to psychological, biological or materialist forces. What was essential in human life, Parsons maintained, was how the factor of culture was codified. Culture, however, was to Parsons an independent variable in that it could not be "deducted" from any other factor of the social system. This methodological intention is given the most elaborate presentation in The Structure of Social Action, which was Parsons' first basic discussion of the methodological foundation of the social sciences. Some of the themes reaching a high point in The Structure of Social Action were presented in a compelling essay published two years earlier with the title: "The Place of Ultimate Values in Sociological Theory."
Relations to cybernetics and system theory
Parsons developed his ideas during a period when systems theory and cybernetics were very much on the front burner of social and behavioral science. In using systems thinking, he postulated that the relevant systems treated in social and behavioral science were "open," meaning that they were embedded in an environment consisting of other systems. For social and behavioral science, the largest system is "the action system," consisting of interrelated behaviors of human beings, embedded in a physical-organic environment.
As Parsons developed his theory it became increasingly bound to the fields of cybernetics and system theory, but also to Alfred E. Emerson's concept of "homeostasis" and Ernst Mayr's concept of "teleonomic processes." On the meta-theoretical level Parson attempted to balance psychologist phenomenology and idealism on the one hand and pure types of what Parsons called the utilitarian-positivistic complex, on the other hand. The theory includes a general theory of social evolution and a concrete interpretation of the major drives of world-history. In Parsons' theory of history and evolution, the constitutive-cognitive symbolization of the cybernetic hierarchy of action-systemic levels has in principle the same function as genetic information in DNA's control of biological evolution, except this factor of meta-systemic control does not "determine" any outcome, but rather defines the orientational boundaries of the real pathfinder, which is action itself. Parsons compares also the constitutive level of society with Noam Chomsky's concept of "deep structure." As Parsons writes, "The deep structures do not as such articulate any sentences which could convey coherent meaning. The surface structures constitute the level at which this occurs. The connecting link between them is a set of rules of transformation, to use Chomsky's own phase." These transformative processes and entities are generally (at least on one level of empirical analysis) performed or actualized by myths and religions but also philosophies, art-systems, or even semiotic consumer behavior might in principle perform this function.
Parsons' theory reflects a vision of a unified concept of social science and indeed, of living systems in general. Parsons' approach differs in essence from Niklas Luhmann's theory because Parsons rejects the idea that systems can be autopoietic short of the actual action-system of individual actors. Systems have immanent capacities but only as an outcome of the institutionalized processes of action-systems, which in the final analysis consists of the historical effort of individual actors. While Niklas Luhmann became caught up in sheer systemic immanence, Parsons insisted that the question of autocatalytic and homeostatic processes on the one hand, and the question about the actor as the ultimate "first mover" on the other, was not mutually exclusive. Homeostatic processes might be necessary if and when they occur but action is necessitating.
It is only within this perspective of the ultimate reference in action that Parsons' dictum that higher order cybernetic systems during the course of history will tend to control social forms organized on the lower levels of the cybernetic hierarchy, should be understood. For Parsons the highest levels of the cybernetic hierarchy as far as the general action level is concerned is what Parsons calls the constitutive part of the Cultural system (the L of the L). However, within the interactional processes of the system specially attention should be made to the cultural-expressivistic axis (the L-G line in the AGIL). By the term "constitutive," Parsons generally referred to very highly codified cultural values especially religious elements (but other interpretation of the term "constitutive" is possible). Cultural systems Parsons maintained had an independent status from that of the normative and orientational pattern of the social system; the one system cannot be reduced to the other. For example, the question of the "cultural capital" of a social system as a sheer historical entity (that is, in its function as a "fiduciary system"), is not identical with the higher cultural values of that system; that is, the cultural system is embodied with a meta-structural logic there cannot be reduced to any given social system or cannot be viewed as a materialist (or behavioralist) deduction from the "necessities" of the social system (or from the "necessities" of its economy). Within this context, culture would have an independent power of transition, not only as factors of actual socio-cultural units (like Western civilization or China) but also in the way original cultural bases would tend to "universalize" through interpenetration and spread over large numbers of social systems as with classical Greece and Israel, where the original social bases had died but where the cultural system survived as an independently "working" cultural pattern, as in the case of Greek philosophy or in the case of Christianity as a modified derivation from its original seed-bed in ancient Israel.
Parsons and Habermas
The difference between Parsons and Jürgen Habermas lies essentially in how Habermas uses Parsons' theory to establish the basic propositions of his own. Habermas takes the division between Parsons' separation between the "outer" and the "inner" dimensions of the social system and labels them "system" (outer dimension (A-G)) and "lifeworld" (inner dimension (I-L)). The problem with this model from Parsons' point of view is a) that conflict within the social system can in reality emerge from any relational point and not simply from the system-lifeworld dichotomy, and b) by relating the system-lifeworld model to some kind of "liberation"-epic, Habermas produces the Utopian notion that the potentiality of conflict within the social system has some kind of "final solution," which produces a misleading concept of the nature of systemic conflict.
It is important to highlight that Parsons discriminates between two "meanings" or modes of the term "general theory." For some purposes he speaks about general theory as those aspects of theoretical concerns for the field of the social sciences, where the focus is on the most "constitutive" elements of cognitive concern for the basic theoretical systematization of a given field. Within these concerns Parsons would include the basic conceptual scheme for the given field, including its highest order of theoretical relations and naturally also the necessary specification of this system's axiomatic, epistemological and methodological foundations from the point of view of logical implications. All these elements would signify the quest for a general theory on the highest level of theoretical concern. However, the term general theory also referred to a more fully operational system, which was a system, where the implications of the conceptual scheme was "spelled out" on lower levels of cognitive structuralization, that is, levels standing closer to a perceived "empirical object." In his speech to the American Sociological Society in 1947, he spoke of five of such levels. These levels were the following:
- The General Theory level, which primarily took form as a theory of social systems.
- The theory of motivation of social behavior, which especially addressed questions of the dynamics of the social system and which naturally presupposed theories of motivation, personality and socialization.
- The theoretical bases of systematic comparative analysis of social structure, which for example would involve a study of concrete cultures in concrete systems on various levels of generalization.
- Special theories around particular empirical problem areas.
- The "fitting" of these theories to specific empirical research techniques, such as statistics, survey techniques and so on.
During his life Parsons would work on developing all five fields of theoretical concerns but he would pay special attention to the development on the highest "constitutive" level, since the rest of the building would stand or fall on the solidity of the highest level.
Contrary to prevailing myths Parsons never thought that modern societies exist in some kind of perfect harmony with their norms or that most modern societies necessary were characterized by some high level of consensus or a "happy" institutional integration. Parsons highlighted two things in this regard. a) It is almost logically impossible that there can be any "perfect fit" or perfect consensus situation in the basic normative structure of complex modern societies because the basic value-pattern of modern societies are generally differentiated in such a way so some of the basic normative categories will exist in inherent conflict with each other if not actually, then at least potentially. For example, both freedom and equality is generally viewed as fundamental and in a sense non-negotiable values of modern societies. Each represents a kind of ultimate imperative about what the higher values of humanity is all about. However, as Parsons emphasizes there does not exist any simple answer to the priority of freedom versus equality or any simple solution to how they possibly can be mediated if at all. Therefore, all modern societies are faced with the inherent conflict prevailing between these two values of which there is no "eternal solution" as such. For this reason alone, there cannot exist any perfect match between motivational pattern, normative solutions and the prevailing value-pattern in any modern society. Parsons would also maintain that the never-ending "dispute" between "left" and "right" had something to do with the fact that they both defend ultimately "justified" human values (or ideals), which each on their own terms are indispensable as values but these fundamental values will always exist in an endless conflictual position to each other. b) As a general token Parsons always maintained that the integration of normative pattern in society always is problematic and the level of integration reached are in principle always far from harmonious and perfect. If some "harmonious pattern" does emerge, then it is related to specific historical circumstances, it is not a general law of the social systems.
The heuristic scheme Parsons used to analyze systems and subsystems is called the "AGIL Paradigm", "AGIL scheme". To survive or maintain equilibrium with respect to its environment, any system must to some degree adapt to that environment (Adaptation), attain its goals (Goal Attainment), integrate its components (Integration), and maintain its latent pattern (Latency Pattern Maintenance), a sort of cultural template. These concepts can be abbreviated as AGIL. These are called the system's functional imperatives. It is important to understand that Parsons AGIL model is an analytical scheme for the sake of theoretical "production," it is not any simple "copy" or any direct historical "summary" of empirical reality. Also the scheme itself doesn't explain "anything" as little as the periodical table in the natural sciences explains anything in and by itself. The AGIL scheme is a tool for explanations and no better than the quality of those theories and explanation by which it is processed.
In the case of the analysis of a social action system, the AGIL Paradigm, according to Parsons, yields four interrelated and interpenetrating subsystems: the behavioral systems of its members (A), the personality systems of those members (G), the social system (as such) (I) and the cultural system of that society (L). To analyze a society as a social system (the I subsystem of action), people are posited to enact roles associated with positions. These positions and roles become differentiated to some extent and in a modern society are associated with things such as occupational, political, judicial and educational roles.
Considering the interrelation of these specialized roles, as well as functionally differentiated collectivities (e.g., firms, political parties), the society can be analyzed as a complex system of interrelated functional subsystems, namely:
The pure AGIL model for all living systems:
- (A) Adaptation.
- (G) Goal Attainment.
- (I) Integration.
- (L) Pattern maintenance. (L stand for "Latency").
The Social system level:
- The economy — social adaptation to its action and non-action environmental systems
- The polity — collective goal attainment
- The societal community — the integration of its diverse social components
- The fiduciary system — processes that function to reproduce historical culture in its "direct" social embeddedness.
The General Action Level:
- The behavioral organism (or system). (In later version, the foci for generalized "intelligence.").
- The personality system.
- The social system.
- The cultural system. (See cultural level).
The cultural level:
- Cognitive symbolization.
- Expressive symbolization.
- Evaluative symbolization. (Sometimes called: moral-evaluative symbolization).
- Constitutive symbolization.
The Generalized Symbolic media:
Social System level:
- (A) Economic system: Money.
- (G) Political system: Political power.
- (I) The Societal Community: Influence.
- (L) The Fiduciary system (cultural tradition): Value-commitment.
Parsons elaborated upon the idea that each of these systems also developed some specialized symbolic mechanisms of interaction analogous to money in the economy, e.g.., influence in the social community. Various processes of "interchange" among the subsystems of the social system were postulated.
Parsons' use of social systems analysis based on the AGIL scheme was established in his work Economy and Society (with N. Smelser, 1956) and has prevailed in all his work ever since. However, the AGIL system does only exist in a "rudimentary" form in the beginning and is then gradually elaborated and expanded in the decades which followed. A brief introduction to Parsons' AGIL scheme can be found in chapter 2 of The American University (with G. Platt, 1973). There is, however, no single place in Parsons writing where the total AGIL system is visually displayed or explained—the complete system have to be reconstructed from multiple places in his writing. The system displayed in "The American University" is only the most basic elements and should not be mistaken for the whole system.
Parsons contributed to the field of social evolutionism and neoevolutionism. He divided evolution into four sub-processes:
- differentiation, which creates functional subsystems of the main system, as discussed above;
- adaptation, where those systems evolve into more efficient versions;
- inclusion of elements previously excluded from the given systems;
- generalization of values, increasing the legitimization of the increasingly complex system.
Furthermore, Parsons explored these sub-processes within three stages of evolution:
- archaic and
Parsons viewed Western civilisation as the pinnacle of modern societies, and out of all western cultures he declared the United States as the most dynamically developed.
Parsons' late work focused on a new theoretical synthesis around four functions common (he claimed) to all systems of action—from the behavioral to the cultural, and a set of symbolic media that enable communication across them. His attempt to structure the world of action according to a scheme that focused on order was unacceptable for American sociologists, who were at that time retreating from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical, grounded approach.
Parsons asserted that there were not two dimensions to societies: instrumental and expressive. By this he meant that there are qualitative differences between kinds of social interaction.
He observed that people can have personalized and formally detached relationships based on the roles that they play. The characteristics that were associated with each kind of interaction he called the pattern variables.
An interaction can be characterized by one identifier of each contrastive pair:
- affectivity - affective neutrality
- self-orientation - collectivity-orientation
- universalism - particularism
- ascription - achievement
- specificity - diffusity
- Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937.
- Rainer C. Baum and Victor Lidz, "Introduction to Meta-Theory" in Jan J. Loubser et al. (eds.) Explorations in General Theory in Social Science: Essays in Honor of Talcott Parsons. Volume One. New York: The Free Press, 1976. p. 27.
- Talcott Parsons, "On Building Social System Theory: A Personal History" in Talcott Parsons, Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory. New York: The Free Press, 1977. p. 27.
- For the complex relationship between Parsons' action theory and Whitehead's philosophy see Thomas J. Fararo, "On the Foundations of the Theory of Action in Whitehead and Parsons" in Jan J. Loubser et al. (ed.) Explorations in General Theory in Social Science. New York: The Free Press, 1976. Chapter 5.
- Hans Vaihiger, The Philosophy of "As If." trans. C.K. Cohen. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952.
- Talcott Parsons, "On theory and metatheory." Humboldt Journal of Social Relations. 7:1 - Fall/Winter 1979–1980. p. 52.
- Talcott Parsons, "The Place of Ultimate Values in Sociological Theory." In Talcott Parsons, The Early Essays. Edited by Charles Camic. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago, 1991. (The essay is originally published in 1935).
- A good summary of the "action frame of reference" as it developed over time is found in Leonard Mayhew's introduction to his anthology of Parsons' major essays: Mayhew, Leonard (1982) "Introduction" in Talcott Parsons, Talcott Parsons on institutions and social evolution, pp: 1–62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Alfred E. Emerson, "Homeostasis and comparison of systems" in Roy R. Grinker (ed.) Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior: An Introduction to General Systems Theory.New York: Basic Books, 1956.
- Ernst Mayr, "Teleological and teleonomic: A New Analysis." pp. 78–104 in Marx Wartofsky (ed.) Method and Metaphysics: Methodological and Historical Essays in the Natural and Social Sciences. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974
- Talcott Parsons, "Action, Symbol, and Cybernetic Control." In Ino Rossi (ed.) Structural Sociology New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. p. 53.
- Roland Robertson, "The Central Significance of 'religion' in Social Theory: Parsons as an epical theorist." In Roland Robertson and Bryan S. Turner (ed.) Talcott Parsons: Theorist of Modernity London: Sage Publications, 1991.
- Victor Lidz, "Religion and Cybernetic Concepts in the Theory of Action." Sociological Analysis. vol.43.no.4.1982. pp. 287–306.
- Parsons discusses the concept of living systems many places in the last phase of his life both in publications as well in his correspondence with Hunter A. Dupree, Victor Lidz, Martin U. Martel and others. One important discussion of Living System is in the following: Talcott Parsons, "Concrete Systems and "Abstracted" Systems: Review article of Living Systems by James Grier Miller." Contemporary Sociology Vol.8. no.5. Sep. 1979. pp. 696–705.
- The complete structure of Parsons AGIL system was scattered around in dozen of his works and not presented in any handy form anywhere. However, the most elementary key elements was presented in chapter 2 in Talcott Parsons and Gerald M. Platt, The American University Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973. In order to understand the AGIL system one needs to understand that it functions (in a sense) on three major levels: The highest level is the paradigm of the human condition, the next mediative level is what he calls the general action-system and the third level is the social system. (All three levels are active in any empirical social object at any time). Another important point is that Parsons in a sense operates with two cultural systems; since there is the cultural system of the general action level and there is the so-called fiduciary system as the L-function of the social system. Common sense associates both systems with the idea of "culture." However, Parsons' separation of "culture" into these two distinct levels of conceptual analysis is fundamental.
- Helmuth Staubmann, "Culture as a Subsystem of Action: Talcott Parsons and Cultural Sociology." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, 2003.
- Talcott Parsons, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1966.
- Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 2. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon, 1987. (Original, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1981).
- These issues was generally those issues Parsons would discuss in his first major work: Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937.
- For another discussion of these questions, see, Rainer C. Baum and Victor Lidz, "Introduction to Meta-Theory" In Jan Loubser et al. (eds.) Explorations in General Theory in the Social Science: Essays in Honor of Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press, 1976
- Talcott Parsons, "The Prospects of Sociological Theory." (1948). In Talcott Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory. New York: The Free Press, 1954.
- For one discussion of these effort see Jan J. Loubser, "General Introduction" in Jan Loubser et al. (eds.) Explorations in General Theory in the Social Science: Essays in Honor of Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press, 1976.
- P. McNeill, C. Townley, Fundamentals of Sociology, (Hutchinson Educational, 1981)
Influence and legacy
From the 1940s to the 1970s, Parsons was one of the best-known and most influential sociologists in the world, particularly in the U.S., and he also became one of the most controversial. His later works met with criticism, and were generally dismissed in the 1970s, with the view that Parsons' theories were too abstract, inaccessible, and socially conservative.
Recently, interest has increased in Parsons' ideas, especially those in his often overlooked later works. Attempts to revive his thinking have been made by Parsonsian sociologists and social scientists like Jeffrey Alexander, Bryan Turner, Richard Münch, and Roland Robertson. While Uta Gerhardt has written about Parsons from a biographical and historical perspective. In addition to the United States, the key centers of interest in Parsons today are Germany, Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Parsons had a seminal influence and early mentorship of many American and international scholars, such as Ralf Dahrendorf, Alain Touraine, Niklas Luhmann, and Jürgen Habermas. His best known pupil was Robert Merton.
- Schutz and Talcott Parsons Edited by R. Gatthoff.
- 1983. The Structure and Change of the Social System Edited by Washio Kurata (lectures from Parsons' second visit to Japan).
- 1986, Social Science: A Basic National Resource Edited by S.Z. Klausner & Victor Lidz. (Written around 1948).
- 1991, The Early Essays (Essays from the late 1920s and the 1930s). Edited by Charles Camic.
- 1993, On National Socialism (Essays from the late 1930s and the 1940s). Edited by Uta Gerhardt.
- 2007, American Society: Toward a Theory of Societal Community Edited by Giuseppe Sciortino. Paradigm ISBN 978-1-59451-227-8.
- Talcott Parsons and Kenneth B. Clark (eds.) The Negro American. Beacon Press, 1967.
- Talcott Parsons (ed.) Knowledge and Society - American Sociology. New York: Basic Books, 1968. (A collection of essays with an introduction by Talcott Parsons).
- Talcott Parsons and Victor M. Lidz (eds:) Readings in Premodern Societies. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Translations by Parsons
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (1905) Translated by Parsons in 1930. (It was the first English translation of Weber's "main" work ever).
- Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. (1921–22) Translated by Parsons together with Alexander Morell Henderson in 1947.