«rom the 1930s to the mid-1960s, Talcott Parsons was the leading contributor to the develF opment of sociological theory, in the United States and ...»
Renée C. Fox, Victor M. Lidz, and Harold J. Bershady
rom the 1930s to the mid-1960s, Talcott Parsons was the leading contributor to the develF opment of sociological theory, in the United States and internationally. More than any other
contemporary ﬁgure, he shaped the conceptual schemes used in research, the bodies of theory
taught to students, and thinking about the issues requiring investigation at the frontiers of sociological knowledge. In some dozen books and hundreds of essays, he elaborated an unfolding theoretical system that not only had a far-reaching, formative inﬂuence on sociological thought and research but also extended to other social sciences, including economics, political science, anthropology, psychology, and psychoanalysis. His writings were studied, discussed, critiqued, and applied in empirical research throughout the world. Parsons also had a pervasive inﬂuence as the teacher of several generations of students from an array of countries and disciplines, many of whom became notable in ﬁelds not conﬁned to sociology or the social sciences. As Leon Mayhew wrote in his introduction to a volume of Parsons’s selected writings, “Talcott Parsons is regarded, by admirers and critics alike, as a major creator of the sociological thought of our time” (Mayhew 1982, 1). In the view of Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher and social theorist, Parsons’s work is “without parallel in its level of abstraction and differentiation, its social theoretical scope and systematic quality.... [N]o theory of society can be taken seriously today if it does not at least situate itself with respect to Parsons” (Habermas 1987, 199).
During the past four decades, interest in and acknowledgment of Parsons’s enormous contributions to the framework of social-scientiﬁc thought and to programs of social inquiry has greatly diminished. In part, this development has been a consequence of ideological confrontations between radical and liberal thinkers that affected the social sciences during the 1960s and 1970s, and the polemical spin-offs from them in which Parsons has frequently been labeled, contrary to his own self-understanding, a conservative thinker, an apologist for American culture, institutions, and national power, and a defender of gender relationships as they existed before the emergence of the feminist movement in the 1970s. It has also been associated with the resurgence of positivistic or scientistic conceptions of sociological research, with the emergence of increasing numbers of topically deﬁned areas of specialization as the foci of sociologists’ interests and efforts, and with the fragmentation of the discipline into competing schools of thought that have been preoccupied more with what separates them than with what might bridge their conceptual and empirical differences, or integrate their understandings. The sheer complexity and
quality of Parsons’s thought as well as the density of his writing are without doubt off-putting to many sociologists, especially now that he is no longer a personal presence in the leadership of the profession. As a result of these converging forces, sociology has largely turned 2 After Parsons away from the conviction, basic to Parsons’s theoretical efforts, that the development of a shared conceptual framework is not only a viable endeavor, but one essential to progress in sociology as in other intellectual disciplines.
Even before these developments, but more frequently in recent decades, Parsons has been labeled a “grand theorist” and compared to such methodologically outdated builders of comprehensive theories as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. However, such an interpretation mischaracterizes his undertaking as a theorist. He consistently sought to develop conceptual schemes or frames of reference to facilitate empirical investigation. Following the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1925), he viewed the establishment of frames of reference as a logically preliminary task for orienting empirical research, including the phase of empirical research that involves generating hypotheses to be tested (Parsons 1937). He saw his own distinctive contribution as clarifying frames of reference and explicating their implications for generating hypotheses and propositional theories to guide research, as well as interpreting empirical ﬁndings of research. Although he participated directly in only a small number of empirical studies himself, many of his most creative essays involved theory-based reinterpretations of the empirical studies of other social scientists, ranging from Max Weber to Paul Lazarsfeld (Parsons 1949, 1953, 1967, 1969, 1977, 1978). Moreover, many of his students and protégés, including authors of chapters in this volume, conducted important empirical studies framed by his concepts and propositions—studies that he read, acknowledged, and drew on.
Throughout his career, Parsons’s central concern was to develop a comprehensive and coherent conceptual scheme for sociology that could be applied to every society and historical epoch, and address every aspect of human social organization. This concern provides unity to his extraordinarily diverse theoretical and empirical writings. Writings on speciﬁc empirical situations were also, for Parsons, means of applying, testing, and reﬁning basic concepts. Whatever his substantive topic, his underlying interest was in the basic conceptual scheme that he called the “theory of social action.” Parsons’s conceptual scheme was designed to be open and supple—to be progressively reﬁned in response to advancing empirical knowledge. Parsons revised many of his formulations on the basis of insights gained from the empirical and theoretical reports of others. Even his most abstract theorizing was basically related to empirical situations and empirical studies.
Parsons was also uniquely committed to technical elaboration of his conceptual scheme and to precision in formulating his ideas. However, this commitment to progressive development of theory has created difﬁculties for scholars who wish to understand, interpret, and critique his theories. The changes he made in major formulations at certain points in his career and the frequency with which he altered subordinate concepts have made mastery of his large body of work difﬁcult.
Before introducing the chapters, written by social scientists who gathered to mark the centennial of Parsons’s birth, we want to provide intellectual context for them by presenting an overview of Parsons’s chief theoretical ideas and the major metamorphoses they underwent. Our focus is on ideas that we believe carry enduring importance for sociology and thus remain fundamental to the discipline, with a special emphasis on concepts that were utilized by the authors of the chapters in this volume.1
the inﬂuence of Alfred North Whitehead (1925), whose philosophy of science he encountered during his early years on the Harvard faculty.
Calling his methodology “analytical realism,” he attributed its key ideas to Whitehead. In analytical realism, the frame of reference is the crucial theoretical element for the creation of knowledge. A frame of reference is the set of master categories, or concepts, that deﬁne the characteristics of a ﬁeld of objects to be studied. In Parsons’s theory, the “action frame of reference” is a set of concepts that deﬁnes meaningful human behavior (or action) as a domain for methodical investigation and accumulation of knowledge (Parsons 1937). Parsons emphasized the logical priority of a frame of reference to empirical observation and procedures for validating factual knowledge, because the frame of reference sets the terms for integrating an understanding of objects and events. Without a well-deﬁned conceptual scheme, empirical knowledge cannot integrate the reality it seeks to represent, but leaves that reality fragmented. The progress of a science toward more penetrating and comprehensive empirical understanding thus depends on methodical elaboration of a central frame of reference.
Parsons ﬁrst proposed a general conceptual scheme for the analysis of social action in an early masterwork, The Structure of Social Action (Parsons 1937), which presented a comprehensive, well-integrated, and yet elementary frame of reference that departed radically from the empiricist and positivist approaches that predominated in American sociology. He introduced his conceptual scheme by a critique of leading European economists and sociologists of the generation that bridged the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Alfred Marshall. The “action frame of reference” was proposed as a synthesis of core premises and categories that, Parsons argued, are fundamental to all sociological understanding. He did not suggest that the frame of reference was complete or that it constituted a precise theory. Rather, he justiﬁed it as a well-balanced framework of basic concepts essential to the future development of more technical theory. His bold claims for the action frame of reference and each of its categories were supported empirically by a methodical review of the evidence amassed in Weber’s studies in comparative civilization and religion, and in Durkheim’s major works.
The action frame of reference centered on the idea of the “unit act” as a hypothetical entity representing any and all instances of meaningful human social behavior. Parsons deﬁned the essential elements of the unit act as ends, means, norms, and conditions. In his view, these four categories of elements (and in some statements a less clearly explained ﬁfth element, a “principle” of effort) are essential to all social action, regardless of time, place, or socio-cultural context (Parsons 1937). Every instance of social action contains exemplars of each element.
In developing the notion of the unit act, Parsons emphasized treating the normative element (meaning the rules of conduct and underlying values that regulate human behavior) of social action with the same conceptual weight as the more familiar elements of ends and means. An emphasis on studying the normative elements of social action, and on understanding the ways in which values and norms, when institutionalized, become structural to society, characterized Parsons’s work throughout his career. Among the theorists of his own time, Parsons is distinctive in the degree to which he placed normative elements at the center of sociological phenomena.
Parsons limited the scheme of The Structure of Social Action to fundamental concepts in order to concentrate on justifying its underlying premises and each of its elements. The justification involved detailed critiques of the complete works, as then available, of Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim, and Weber, with a focus on implications for social-scientiﬁc premises and concepts. Parsons (1937) argued that his discussions of the four turn-of-the-century figures demonstrated that though each had written from a different intellectual background, they had “converged” on common concepts—concepts that coincide with the action frame of reference.
4 After Parsons In particular, he demonstrated that each had emphasized normative elements as well as means, ends, and conditions.
Parsons’s treatments of these four ﬁgures became touchstones for critical literature in the social sciences. Nearly seventy years later, they remain starting points for assessment of these theorists. The lengthy discussions of Weber and Durkheim remain particularly inﬂuential because of their analytical depth and rigor, even though much more is known today than was then about the two men’s biographies, connections with other scholars, and ideological outlooks.
The critical discussions of The Structure of Social Action have also played a major role in deﬁning the core of the sociological tradition. The pairing of Weber and Durkheim as the predominant ﬁgures in the founding of modern sociological thought derives from the inﬂuence of The Structure of Social Action more than any other source.
Parsons argued that normative elements made it possible for ongoing social relationships to achieve a degree of social order. Social values (ideals for relationships and institutions) and norms (rules of conduct), insofar as they are shared by actors in speciﬁc institutions, serve to regulate their selections of goals and means to pursue goals. Values and norms thus constrain actors in their conduct in a sense not true of ends or means. His focus on shared elements of normative order enabled Parsons to probe the integration of social institutions in a manner not open to utilitarians, behaviorists, and other positivists who emphasize ends, means, and conditioning factors as the sole determinants of human behavior.
In 1951, Parsons published two major works, the essay “Values, Motives, and the Theory of Action,” with Edward A. Shils (Parsons and Shils 1951), and The Social System (Parsons 1951) which together were revolutionary developments in his theory of action. The revolution began with a shift in the principal focus of the frame of reference from the unit act to interactive social relationships among actors and to the institutions that stabilize such relationships over space and time. With this conceptual shift, Parsons centered his sociological thought on the idea of social systems, where a social system is deﬁned, simply, as a set of connected relationships maintained by social actors. At the same time Parsons sharpened his focus on the connections between social systems and other elements of human action. He placed the concept of social system in a broader context of two crosscutting dimensions for analyzing patterns of differentiation among processes of action. The ﬁrst dimension pertains to the tendency of ongoing systems of social action to differentiate into three independent but interdependent subsystems: culture, social systems, and personality. The idea of a threefold differentiation of action systems (later changed to a fourfold differentiation) became one of the most inﬂuential elements of Parsons’s theory. The second dimension concerns a differentiation of elements of action among moral-normative, affective or cathectic, and cognitive gradients.