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On the Origin of Facts

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)

Social System and Social Action

The major theoretical line of the order tradition now passes from the Europeans to the American sociologist Talcott Parsons. Born in Colorado at the turn of the century, Parsons graduated from Amherst College with a major in biology. He was a graduate student at the London School of Economics, where his sociology was well complemented by his study under the renowned functionalist anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Later, while at Heidelberg, Parsons came to be influenced by the thought of Max Weber. Here he took his Ph.D. in sociology and economics, defending his dissertation on the treatment of capitalism in the theoretical systems of Max Weber and Werner Sombart. After a year as instructor of economics at Amherst, Parsons joined the faculty of sociology at Harvard University in 1927.

History and Biography

Talcott Parsons returned from study abroad during the Roaring Twenties. For many, it appeared to be a time of growing prosperity, an era of limitless opportunity. However, in important ways this was a decade of the bizarre and the banal. The postwar problems of unemployment and inflation were superimposed on a social order suffering from runaway urbanization, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the rise of Al Capone. Herbert Hoover had declared in 1922 that American business enterprise was no longer plagued by the win at any price philosophy. Bruce Barton's popular book The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus was published in 1925 and praised the Nazarene as the founder of modern free enterprise. Shares of stock could be bought for 10 percent cash and the buyer's good credit (Baritz, 1970).

During the twenties, a pair of courtroom dramas electrified the nation and came to symbolize the politics of the times. One focused on a trial for murder and banditry of two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. However, the criminal charges were transformed by the prosecution (Frankfurter, 1927: 409-432). The defendants were required to testify concerning their political beliefs (they were socialist and pacifist), and the real charge appeared to be their flight to Mexico to avoid the draft. With the "red scare" raging, a verdict of guilty was reached on July 14,1921. Despite a six-year attempt by civil libertarians to secure a new trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the summer of 1927.

In that same summer, in the small and sleepy town of Dayton, Tennessee, the "Scopes Monkey Trial" was the stage on which the deep conflict between science, and fundamentalist religion was joined. Clarence Darrow, as defense attorney, and William Jennings Bryan, as prosecutor, played out their roles in a clash of the sacred and the secular, urbanism and folk society. Scopes, the erstwhile teacher of evolutionary theory, lost and was fined $100. But the symbolic victory went to Darrow and the changing times (Allen, 1925). Then two years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes Trial, and the move of Talcott Parsons to Harvard, the show business newspaper Variety signaled the beginning of a long economic nightmare for the United States with a headline: "Wall Street Lays an Egg!"

On October 24, 1929, a financial collapse began on the New York Stock Exchange. As reported by the New York Times the next day, "the most disastrous decline in the biggest and broadest stock market in history" was temporarily repelled by "five of the country's most influential bankers." However, the reprieve was short-lived. On October 29, the crash became irrevocable. The loss on issues of the exchange was estimated at between eight and nine billion dollars.

When dramatic shock wave of the crash had subsided somewhat, the more pervasive gyrations of an economic system gone out of control became apparent. Unemployment began a terrifying upward spiral. In March 1929, the estimates of joblessness ranged from 3.25 to 4 Million. A year later, some four or five months after the Wall Street debacle, those estimates had doubled. By March 1932, the range was reported at 11.25 to 12.5 million people unemployed, and a year later the Congress of Industrial Organization estimated that the number had grown to 16 million. In 1931 the Soviet Union, in need of skilled workers for industrial development, advertised for 6,000 American workers to move to the Soviet Union and accept pay in rubles. Over 100,000 applications were received (Business Week, October 7,1931).

The circles of tragedy rippled throughout much of the society. Hoovervilles, as the shanty towns for the homeless were called, blighted the urban landscape. Farmers, who had begun to suffer earlier in the twenties, saw the total collapse of the marketplace and the ruin of crops and livestock. Forced migration and widespread starvation stalked the land.

The roads of the West and Southwest teem with hungry hitchhikers. The campfires of the homeless are seen along every railroad track. I saw men, women, and children walking over hard roads. Most of them were tenant farmers who had lost their all in the late slump in wheat and cotton. Between Clarksville and Russellville, Arkansas, I picked up a family. The woman was hugging a dead chicken under a ragged coat. When I asked her where she procured the fowl, first she told me she had found it dead in the road, and then added in grim humor, "They promised me a chicken in the pot, and now I got mine." (Ameringer, cited in Perdue, 1974: 53)

It was within this context that the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power. The programs of the New Deal were subsequently conceived and implemented to restore the economic order. It was also during the Great Depression, when the very core of society faced disintegration, that Talcott Parsons developed and published his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1937).


We need not speculate about the thought that influenced Parsons, either in his assumptions about human nature, society, and science or in his theoretical orientation. He identified them early (1937: v). They included three Europeans who played crucial roles in the early development of sociology: Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber. The remaining figure was British economist Alfred Marshall.

From Pareto and Durkheim came the inspiration for Parsons' theoretical structure that presents an overarching and unified social system. Society thus becomes a holistic entity driven toward an equilibrium of parts. Societal elements are interdependent and adjustive, meeting always the needs of the system. From Weber, Parsons drew the concept of social action to develop his own framework for explaining how actors come to interpret their situation. However, it was Pareto's conception of the mutual interpenetration of human action and other systemic elements that most clearly informed Parsons' efforts to construct a macrosociological theory of systems in the positivist tradition.

Finally, Parsons used the work of Marshall to develop his model of the demand economy and the necessary equilibrium of the free market. He was then to relate the economic system to the solidarity of the broader societal order. In Parsonian theory, the free economic system adds to the cohesion of society by means of contracts, the definition of property rights, and the establishment of relationships between employers and employees.

Theoretical Content

Throughout his long career, Talcott Parsons was a prolific contributor to the sociological literature. His interests ranged far and wide. Within the general framework of his grand theory of society, he dealt with subsystems, roles, the normative order, and the interpretation of situations by social actors. At differing times, he explored the issues of medical sociology, the social development of personality, political extremism, the university, and kinship. However, we shall be concerned here only with the broader sweep of Parsons' theory. Such can be distilled from his seminal works: The Structure of Social Action (1937), The Social System (1951), Towards a General Theory of Action (with Edward Shils, 1951), Social Structure and Personality (1964), and The System of Modem Societies (1971).

Overall, Parsons developed a theoretical system centered conceptually in equilibrium, evolutionary universalities, and the identification of properties that are common to all societies. In his theory, societal evolution parallels biological evolution, with modem societies evidencing greater "generalized adaptive capacity" than earlier ones (1971: 2-3). Thus, society is no less a system than are its biological and natural counterparts. For Parsons, social systems have moved historically toward greater adaptation (adjustments that maintain the systemic order), differentiation (the specialization of social institutions and the division of labor), upgrading (greater freedom from want), inclusion (normative diversity), and value generalization (values that are more reflective of the needs of an increasingly complex system).

Parsons entertained the Weberian focus on social action. (See Chapter 10.) However, his theory rejects the essentially voluntaristic image of the actor advanced by Weber in favor of the more systemic and deterministic view of Pareto.

The fundamental starting point is the concept of social systems of action. The interaction of individual actors, that is, takes place under such conditions that it is possible to treat such a process of interaction as a system in the scientific sense and subject it to the same order of theoretical analysis which has been successfully applied to other types of systems in other sciences. (1951: 3)

Hence, Parsonian theory abandons the Weberian view of minded actors seeking to define their social universe. Instead, as for Pareto, social action or interaction is a system that responds to other interdependent conditions. Here the systemic focus on stability and order is extended into various analyses of roles and their contribution to social control. A good part of The Social System, as well as other of Parsons' contributions to the literature, deals with this central puzzle (see especially pages 301-306).

The heart of this theoretical attempt is its dual conceptualization of system. At the highest level, Parsons developed a general system of action that features four divisions, including the general social system. At a lower level, he divided the social system into four distinctive subsystems. Beginning with the general system, we find its four components to include the behavioral-organic, personality, cultural, and social systems (Parsons and Shils, 1951: 4-29). Each of these four component systems meets one of the functional prerequisites that must be satisfied for any living system to survive.

The functional prerequisite for the behavioral-organic system is adaptation. Action for this system involves the means by which living beings process information via the central nervous system and interact behaviorally with the physical environment. The functional prerequisite for the personality system is goal attainment. Action for this component system is conceptualized as the motivation behind gratification. (This view of personality bears a strong similarity to the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, Parsons' systemic conceptions of personality made him a frequent contributor to psychiatric and psychological journals.)

Moving on, the functional prerequisite for the cultural system is pattern maintenance. Action here refers to the decoding of the symbolic meanings that constitute human traditions, customs, and the learned ways of life. Culturally influenced action ensures systemic continuity over time. And finally, the functional prerequisite of the social system is integration. Action for this component system includes the coordination of individuals and groups and the bonding of members of society by means of normative constraints.

If we focus specifically on the fourth component of the social system (repetitiously called the social system), we find that Parsons identified the following subsystems (1971: 10-28). First is the societal community, the core subsystem that is composed structurally of norms that "define the obligations of loyalty" to the society for its actors (1971: 12). Matters of loyalty, however, are not matters of law. Second, we find the pattern maintenance or fiduciary subsystem composed of values that legitimate the culture and impose moral obligations on actors. Next comes the polity subsystem made up of powerful collectivities that interpret the sanctioned norms that are binding on society (such as the courts) or that enforce the sanctions for violations of norms (such as the police). Finally, Parsons presents the economy subsystem of the social system, composed of the practical, rational, and technological roles that allow the actor to effectively adapt to the environment. Practical and rational role action is regulated by the institutions of the contract (binding agreements upheld by the power of the state) and property (both definitions and rights).

It logically follows that the component systems that make up the general system of action are interrelated. They do not exist in isolation; rather, the general system reflects interpenetration. For example, the personality reflects the internalization of social norms and cultural values. And the memory of the biological organism stores the rules and expectations, the customs and moral standards of these systems (1971: 5-6). Furthermore, the component systems that make up the general system of action share zones of overlapping effect. For Parsons, the Freudian superego has much in common with Durkheim's collective conscience. Both, he argued, refer to a common ground between the personality, social, and cultural systems (1964: 17-33).

In response to the frequent criticism that his systems were grand abstractions devoid of content, Parsons sought to historically ground his conception of societal evolution. In The System of Modem Societies, he identified the stages of systemic development in Western history. (Ironically, "the" system referred to here is Western civilization.)

In his "premodern foundations of modem societies," Parsons explored early Christianity, drawing the conclusion that the Christian church was the first crucible for Western culture. The next evolutionary step of consequence he discovered in Rome, most notably in its highly developed system of law. Medieval society gave witness to the decline of tribalism and the rise of feudalism, to be followed by the differentiated and interdependent division of labor that marked the European system. During this process, feudal institutions came to be replaced by early capitalism with some growing centralization of political power. Then came the Renaissance and the development of secular culture within the framework of a still vibrant religious order. And finally, Parsons held that the last premodern stage was the Reformation. During this period, the priesthood began to lose its exclusive entitlement to the keys to the kingdom, an event that signaled the advent of individualism (1971: 29-49).

Parsons termed the next major era the "first crystallization of the modem system." It was centered in the European northwest (England, France, and Holland), which saw the centralization of a form of state power and the establishment of mercantile capitalism. One noteworthy development here was the coming of a pluralist political system in England (1971: 50-70).

The next evolutionary era, for Parsons, is the Age of Revolutions. During this time, the industrial revolution featured the expansion of financial markets, while the democratic revolution saw the spreading of the differentiation of rule by the people throughout Western Europe. Its values, for Parsons, were symbolized in the watchwords of the French Revolution: Liberte, Egalite, Fratenite.

The final evolutionary era, for Parsons, is founded in the emergence of what he termed the "new lead society." He argued that the promise of the industrial and democratic revolutions could not be realized in Europe because of its aristocratic, stratified, and monarchal traditions. Primarily because of the lack of such restrictions, together with its educational revolution and political pluralism, the "new lead society" is for Parsons none other than the Untied States. It is here in his native land that Parsons located the highest form of general adaptation, the embodiment of the evolutionary principle that drives systems and systemic theories (1971: 71-85)


It might be argued that the prodigious, sometimes controversial, and always mind-boggling nature of Parsons' theoretical efforts has earned him his standing as a major contemporary American theorist. He discerned in all of its variety, human life as an interconnected whole. He sought to match this system with a theory constructed in like manner. If nothing else, his efforts have been heuristic, forcing even his critics to impart a rigor to their own social analysis. Indeed, Parsons served as antagonist for both C. Wright Mills (see Chapter 16) and Alvin Gouldner (Chapter 18), among a multitude of others. Although there is some polemic among his critics, Parsons' theory does evidence serious problems.

Parsons' theory of society is plagued by an absence of clarity. His work abounds with ambiguities in both semantics and syntax. As regards semantics, he was inconsistent or at least imprecise in the definitions of core terms. For example, pattern maintenance is variously defined as the primary function of the cultural subsystem of the general system of action, a subsystem of the social system, and a primary function of that same subsystem (1971: 6, 11). As to syntax, the folklore of sociology is replete with tales of erstwhile professors of English trying to figure out the unique sequencing of Parsons' words.

In a related sense, the societal theory of Parsons demonstrates an absence of empirical referents. There are simply few, if any, clearly defined terms that allow for measurement and verification (Zetterberg, 1966: 21-29). This is ironic because Parsons committed to the image of science advanced by Zetterberg, that of a deductive and testable science. However, he failed to deliver. In more esoteric terms, Parsons split off positivism from functionalism and embraced the latter.

As with other theorists who address the puzzle of order, Parsons was infatuated with the biological analogy. As we have demonstrated, he did not distance his work from that of the earlier organicists and functionalists. Although he replaced the organic metaphor with a mechanical-cybernetics one, an analogy remains an analogy. In his attempt to marshal evidence for his systemic theory of society, Parsons, like his predecessors, conceptualized change as a form of societally based natural selection. He held that modern societies (like modern species) exist because they represent the ability to adapt. History is thus a glorious march to the present.

This conception of unilinear and selective development can be questioned on several grounds. First of all, there is a serious tautological error in Parsons' reasoning. The existence of modem societies is explained in terms of their evolutionary adaptation, while the evidence for the adaptation is found in their existence. A second flaw is the selectivity of the historical support gathered to explain the evolution of society. If modern societies develop in unilinear fashion, what are we to make of the widespread regression during the so-called dark ages? Parsons did not show how and why one society evolves, becomes complex, and survives while another fails to adapt and declines. To the contrary, his evolving civilization conveniently jumps around geographically from one European nation to another and finally crosses the Atlantic.

Parsons claimed to have developed a universal theory of action. Accordingly, his conception of development supposedly applies to all modern orders. Quite aside from the ethnocentric (if not imperialist) use of the value-laden term modern, his theory remains ideologically rooted in a Western sense of civilization, the U.S. model of a nation-state, and the capitalist form of economic system. Such are clearly evident in his views on institutional structure, the nature of the market, and especially stratification. For example:

1. "...modern society requires a differentiation of individual statuses from diffuse background solidarities" (1971: 14). (Translation: Social class doesn't matter much any more in Western societies. A meritocracy has taken shape in which it's not who you know but what you know.)

2. "With no presumption that every individual or collective unit that participates will be equally productive, special rewards for the economically more productive units thus become necessary" (1971: 119).

3. "By our definition, a citizen exercises power when he casts his vote because the aggregate of votes bindingly determines the electoral outcome" (1971: 17).

4. "Hence, practical rationality is regulated mainly by institutional norms, above all the institutions of property and contract which have other bases of sanction" (1971: 18). (Parsons' analysis is heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim's views of property and contract in The Division of Labor in Society.)

Those sensitive to the ideological infrastructure of theoretical systems further criticize Parsons' Depression-era Structure of Social Action (1937) as sin apology for capitalism at its darkest hour.

Parsons shortcoming, therefore, was not that he failed to engage problems of contemporary relevance but that he continued to view them from the standpoint of an American optimism. Because he saw them from this optimistic standpoint, he one-sidedly emphasized the adaptability of the status quo, considering the ways in which it was open to change rather than the manner in which its own characteristics were inducing the disorder and resisting adaptation to it. (Gouldner, 1970: 147)

Finally, today's pluralists who more studiously follow Max Weber's voluntaristic concept of human nature will find Parsons' systems overly deterministic. Conflict thinkers on the other hand will note the theoretical absence of coercion both within and between societies. Both camps would tend to agree with Oberschall's observation (1973) that serious social change within Parsonian theory can only be conceptualized as a form of deviance, as a breakdown of social control.

(Turner 1998:30-42)

Turner, Jonathan H. 1998. The Structure of Sociological Theory. 6th ed. Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth.

Talcott Parsons' Analytical Approach

Talcott Parsons was probably the most prominent theorist of his time, and it is unlikely that any one theoretical approach will so dominate sociological theory again. In the years between 1950 and the late 1970s, Parsonian functionalism was clearly the focal point around which theoretical controversy raged. Even those who despised Parsons; functional approach could not ignore it. Even now, years after his death and more than two decades since its period of dominance, Parsonian functionalism is still the subject of controversy. To appreciate Parsons' achievement in bringing functionalism to the second half of the twentieth century, it is best to start at the beginning, in 1937, when he published his first major work, The Structure of Social Action.

The Structure of Social Action

In The Structure of Social Action, Parsons advocated using an "analytical realism" to build sociological theory. Theory in sociology must use a limited number of important concepts that "adequately 'grasp' aspects of the external world...These concepts do not correspond to concrete phenomena, but to elements in them that are analytically separable from other elements." Thus, first, theory must involve the development of concepts that abstract from empirical reality, in all its diversity and confusion, common analytical elements. In this way, concepts will isolate phenomena from their embeddedness in the complex relations that constitute social reality.

The unique feature of Parsons' analytical realism is the insistence about how these abstract concepts are to be employed in sociological analysis. Parsons did not advocate the immediate incorporation of these concepts into theoretical statements but rather advocated their use to develop a "generalized system of concepts." This use of abstract concepts would involve their ordering into a coherent whole that would reflect the important features of the "real world." What is sought is an organization of concepts into analytical systems that grasp the salient and systemic features of the universe without being overwhelmed by empirical details. This emphasis application of Max Weber's ideal-type strategy for analytically accentuating salient features of the world. Thus, much like Weber, Parsons believed that theory should initially resemble an elaborate classification and categorization of social phenomena that reflects significant features in the organization of these social phenomena. This strategy was evident in Parsons' first major work, where he developed the "voluntaristic theory of action."

Parsons believed that the "voluntaristic theory of action" represented a synthesis of the useful assumptions and concepts of utilitarianism, positivism, and idealism. In reviewing the thought of classical economists, Parsons noted the excessiveness of their utilitarianism: unregulated and atomistic actors in a free and competitive marketplace rationally attempting to choose those behaviors that will maximize their profits in their transactions with others. Parsons believed such a formulation of the social order presented several critical problems: Do humans always behave rationally? Are they indeed free and unregulated? How is order possible in an unregulated and competitive system? Yet Parsons saw as fruitful several features of utilitarian thought, especially the concern with actors as seeking goals and the emphasis on the choice-making capacities of human beings who weigh alternative lines of action. Stated in this minimal form, Parsons felt that the utilitarian heritage could indeed continue to inform sociological theorizing. In a similar critical stance, Parsons rejected the extreme formulations of radical positivists, who tended to view the social world in terms of observable cause-and-effect relationships among physical phenomena. In so doing, he felt, they ignored the complex symbolic functionings of the human mind. Furthermore, Parsons saw the emphasis on observable cause-and-effect relationships as too easily encouraging a sequence of infinite reductionism: groups were reduced to the causal relationships of their individual members; individuals were reducible to the cause-and-effect relationships of their physiological processes; these were reducible to physico-chemical relationships, and so on, down to the most basic cause-and-effect connections among particles of physical matter. Nevertheless, despite these extremes, radical positivism draws attention to the physical parameters of social life and to the deterministic impact of these parameters on much--but of course not all--social organization. Finally, in assessing idealism, Parsons saw the conceptions of "ideas" to circumscribe both individual and social processes as useful, although all too frequently these ideas are seen as detached from the ongoing social life they are supposed to regulate.

The depth of scholarship in Parsons' analysis of these traditions is impossible to communicate. More important than the details of his analysis is the weaving of selected concepts from each of these traditions into a voluntaristic theory of action. At this starting point, in accordance with his theory-building strategy, Parsons began to construct a functional theory of social organization. In this initial formulation, he conceptualized voluntarism as the subjective decision-making process of individual actors, but he viewed such decisions as the partial outcome of certain kinds of constraints, both normative and situational. Voluntaristic action therefore involves these basic elements: (1) Actors, at this point in Parsons' thinking, are individual persons. (2) Actors are viewed as goal seeking. (3) Actors also process alternative means to achieve the goals. (4) Actors are confronted with a variety of situational conditions, such as their own biological makeup and heredity as well as various external ecological constraints that influence the selection of goals and means. (5) Actors are governed by values, norms, and other ideas such that these ideas influence what is considered a goal and what means are selected to achieve it. (6) Action involves actors making subjective decisions about the means to achieve goals, all of which are constrained by ideas and situational conditions.

Figure 4-1 represents this conceptualization of voluntarism. The process diagrammed are often termed the unit act, with social action involving a succession of such unit acts by one or more actors. Parsons chose to focus on such basic units of action for at least two reasons. First, he felt it necessary to synthesize the historical legacy of social thought about the most basic social process and to dissect it into its most elementary components. Second, given his position on what theory should be, the first analytical task in the development of sociological theory is to isolate conceptually the systemic features of the most basic unit from which more complex processes and structures are built.

Once these basic tasks were completed, Parsons began to ask: How are unit acts connected to each other, and how can this connectedness be conceptually represented? Indeed, near the end of The Structure of Social Action, he recognized that "any atomistic system that deals only with properties identifiable in the unit act...will of necessity fail to treat these latter elements adequately and be indeterminate as applied to complex systems." However, only the barest hints of what was to come were evident in those closing pages.

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