Picture by Lois Lord
|Born||(1902-12-13)December 13, 1902|
Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
|Died||May 8, 1979(1979-05-08) (aged 76)|
Munich, West Germany
|Alma mater||Amherst CollegeLondon School of EconomicsUniversity of Heidelberg|
|Notable students||Robert Bellah, Joseph Berger, Harold Garfinkel, Clifford Geertz, Edward Laumann, Niklas Luhmann, Robert Merton, Neil Smelser, Morris Zelditch|
|Influences||Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto|
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 1929. In 1930, he was among the first professors in its new 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' 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; Parsons 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 that stated that "functional" and "structural functionalist" were inappropriate ways to describe the character of his theory.
From the 1970s, a new generation of sociologists criticized Parsons' theories as socially conservative and his writings as unnecessarily complex. Sociology classrooms have placed less emphasis on his theories than at the peak of his popularity, from the 1940s to the 1970s. However, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his ideas.
Parsons was a strong advocate for the professionalization of sociology and its expansion in American academia. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as its secretary from 1960 to 1965.
He was born on 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, was ordained as a Congregationalist minister, and served first as a minister for a pioneer community in Greeley, Colorado. At the time of Parsons' birth, his father was a professor in English and vice-president at Colorado College. During his Congregational ministry in Greeley, Edward had become sympathetic to the Social Gospel movement but tended to view it from a higher theological position and was hostile to the ideology of socialism. Also, both he and 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 former half of the 17th century. The family's heritage had two separate and independently-developed Parsons lines, both to the early days of American history deeper into British history. On his father's side, the family could be traced back to the Parsons of York, Maine.
On his mother's side, the Ingersoll line was connected with Edwards and from Edwards on would be a new, independent Parsons line because Edwards' eldest daughter, Sarah, married Elihu Parsons on June 11, 1750.
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 elder brother, Charles Edward. Initially, Parsons was attracted to a career in medicine, as he was inspired by his elder brother so he studied a great deal of biology and spent a summer working at the Oceanographic Institution at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Parsons' biology professors 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 authors such as Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, and William Graham Sumner. 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 interpreter of Kant. 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 which tradition he had been profoundly socialized, a position unlike with his professors'.
Two term papers that Parsons wrote as a student for Clarence E. Ayres's class in Philosophy III at Amherst have survived. They are referred to as the Amherst Papers and have been of strong interest to Parsons scholars. The first was written on December 19, 1922, "The Theory of Human Behavior in its Individual and Social Aspects." The second was written on March 27, 1923, "A Behavioristic Conception of the Nature of Morals." The papers reveal Parsons' early interest in social evolution. The Amherst Papers also reveal that Parsons did not agree with his professors since he wrote in his Amherst papers that technological development and moral progress are two structurally-independent empirical processes.
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 Raymond Firth, who all participated in the Malinowski seminar. Also, he made a close personal friendship with Arthur and Eveline M. Burns.
At LSE he met a young American girl in the students' common room called 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 later become an American citizen.
University of Heidelberg
Parsons went on to the University of Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology and economics in 1927. At Heidelberg, he worked with Alfred Weber, Max Weber's brother; Edgar Salin, his dissertation adviser; Emil Lederer; and Karl Mannheim. He was examined on Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" by the philosopher Karl Jaspers. At Heidelberg, Parsons was also examed by Willy Andreas on 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 Weber. It was clear from his discussion that he rejected Sombart's quasi-idealistic views and was supported Weber's attempt to strike a balance between historicism, idealism and Neo-Kantism.
The most crucial encounter for Parsons at Heidelberg was his encounter with the work of Max Weber about whom he had never heard before. Weber became tremendously important for Parsons because his upbringing with a liberal but strongly-religious father had made the question of the role of culture and religion in the basic processes of world history a persistent puzzle in his mind. Weber was the first scholar who truly provided Parsons with a compelling theoretical "answer" to the question so Parsons became totally absorbed in reading of Weber.
Parsons decided to translate Weber's work into English and approached Marianne Weber, Weber's widow. Parsons would eventually translate several of Weber's works to English. His time in Heidelberg had him invited by Marianne Weber to "sociological teas," which were study group meetings that she held in the library room of her and Max's old apartment. One scholar that 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 was Ernst D. Troeltsch (1865–1923). Parsons also read widely on Calvinism. His reading included the work of Emile Doumerque, Eugéne Choisy, and Henri Hauser.
Early academic career
In 1927, after a year of teaching at Amherst (1926–1927), Parsons entered Harvard, as an instructor in the Economics Department, where he followed F.W. Taussig's lectures on tags economist Alfred Marshall and became friends with the economist historian Edwin Gay, the founder of Harvard Business School. Parsons also became a close associate of Joseph Schumpeter and followed his course General Economics. Parsons was generally at odds with some of the trends in Harvard's department which then went in a highly-technical and a mathematical direction. 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 wanted to be an economist. All of his activities and his basic intellectual interest propelled him toward sociology, but no Sociology Department existed in his first years at Harvard. However, Harvard was working toward establishing one and Parsons prepared in various ways in writing and teaching obligations so he was ready to join it when it was finally established. Despite oral tradition, Parsons was never "forced" out of the Economics Department, but his exit was voluntary and deliberate.
Harvard Sociology Department
The chance for a shift to sociology came in 1930, when Harvard's first Sociology Department was created under Russian scholar Pitirim Sorokin. Sorokin, who had fled the Russian Revolution 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. 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 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 reading Pareto. Parsons also made strong connections with two other influential intellectuals with whom he corresponded for years: economist Frank H. Knight and Chester I. Barnard, one of the most dynamic businessmen of the US. The relationship between Parsons and Sorokin quickly ran sour. A pattern of personal tensions was aggravated by Sorokin's deep dislike for American civilisation, which he regarded as a sensate culture that was 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 sociology tendencies that differed from his own writings, and by 1934, Sorokin was quite unpopular at Harvard.
Some of Parsons' students in the first years of the new department of Sociology were people like Robin Williams, Jr., Robert K. Merton, Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore, Edward C. Devereux, Logan Wilson, Nicholas Demereth, John Riley, Jr., and Mathilda White Riley. Later cohorts of students had with 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, German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann also attended his lectures.
In 1932, Parsons bought his famous farmhouse in New Hampshire for $2500 in a wooded area near the small town of Acworth, but 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 still became central to Parsons' life, and many of his most important works were written in its peace and quiet.
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 1939-1940 Parsons and 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, and Parsons submitted the paper "The Role of Rationality in Social Action" for a general discussion. Schumpeter suggested to Parsons that they should write or edit a book together on rationality, but the project never materialized.
Neoclassical economics vs. 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. He was very critical about neoclassical theory, 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 neoclassical approach and do could not embrace them fully. However, he agreed partly on their theoretical and methodological style of approach, which should be discriminated from its substance. He was thus unable to accept the institutionalist solution. In an interview in 1975, Parsons would recall a conversation with Schumpeter on the institutionalist methodological position: "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 was affiliated with that movement."
Parsons returned to Germany in the summer of 1930 and became a direct eyewitness to the feverish atmosphere in Weimar Germany during which the Nazi Party rose to power. Parsons would receive constant reports about the rise of Nazism through his friend, Edward Y. Hartshorne, who was travelling there. Parsons began, in the late 1930s, to warn the American public about the Nazi threat, but he had little success, as a poll showed that 91% of the country opposed the Second World War.
Most of the US thought also that the country should have stayed out of the First World War and that the Nazis were, regardless of what they did in Germany or even Europe, no threat to the US. Many Americans even sympathized with Germany, as many had ancestry from there, and the latter both was strongly anticommunist and had gotten itself out of the Great Depression while the US was still suffering from it.
One of the first articles that Parsons wrote was "New Dark Age Seen If Nazis Should Win." Parsons became one of the key initiators of the Harvard Defense Committee, aimed at rallying the American public against the Nazis. Parsons' voice would sound again and again over Boston's local radio stations, and he also spoke against Nazism during a dramatic meeting at Harvard, which disturbed by antiwar activists. Together with graduate student Charles O. Porter, Parsons would rally graduate students at Harvard for the war effort. (Porter would later become a Democratic US Representative for Oregon.) During the war, Parsons conducted a special study group at Harvard, which analyzed what its members considered the causes of Nazism, and the topic's leading experts participated.
Second World War
In the spring of 1941, a discussion group on Japan began to meet at Harvard. The group's five core members were 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 (also known as Ai-Li Sung Chin) and Edward Y. Hartshorne. The group rose out of a strong desire to understand the country whose power in the East had grown tremendously and had allied itself with Germany), but as Levy frankly admitted, "Reischauer was the only one who knew anything about Japan." Parsons, however, was eager to learn more about it 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.
In 1942, Parsons worked on arranging a major study of occupied countries with Bartholomew Landheer of the Netherlands Information Office in New York. Parsons had mobilized Georges Gurvitch, Conrad Arnsberg, Dr. Safranek and Theodore Abel to participate, but it never materialized for lack of funding. In early 1942, Parsons unsuccessfully approached Hartshorne, who had joined the Psychology Division of the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) in Washington to interest his agency in the research project. In February 1943, Parsons became the deputy director of Harvard School of Overseas Administration, which educated administrators to "run" the occupied territories in Germany and the Pacific Ocean. The task of finding relevant literature on both Europe and Asia was mindboggling and occupied a fair amount of Parsons' time. One scholar Parsons came to know was Karl August Wittfogel and discussed Weber. On China, Parsons received fundamental information from Chinese scholar Ai-Li Sung Chin and her husband, Robert Chin. Another Chinese scholar Parsons worked closely with there period was Hsiao-Tung Fei (or Fei Xiaotong) (1910–2005), who had studied at the London School of Economics and was an expert on the social structure of the Chinese village.
Parsons met Alfred Schutz (or Schütz) during the rationality seminar, which he conducted, together with Schumpeter, at Harvard in the spring of 1940. Schutz has been close to Edmund Husserl and was deeply embedded in his phenomenological philosophy. Schutz was born in Vienna but moved to the US in 1939, and for years, he worked on the project of developing a phenomenological sociology, primarily based on an attempt to find some point 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 social theory, and wrote an evaluation of Parsons' theory that he kindly asked Parsons to comment. That 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 that tended to reduce social processes to the articulation of a Lebenswelt consciousness. For Parsons, the defining edge of human life was action as a catalyst for historical change, and it was essential for sociology, as a science, to 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, 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, the two men shared many basic assumptions about the nature of social theory, which has kept the debate simmering ever since. By request from Ilse Schutz, after her husband's death, Parsons gave, on July 23, 1971, permission to publish the correspondence between him and Schutz. Parsons also wrote "A 1974 Retrospective Perspective" to the correspondence, which characterized his position as a "Kantian point of view" and 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 social sciences.
Between 1940 and 1944, Parsons and Eric Voegelin (or Vögelin) (1901–1985) exchanged their intellectual views through correspondence. Parsons had probably met Voegelin in 1938 and 1939, when Voegelin held a temporary instructor appointment at Harvard. The bouncing point for their conversation was Parsons' manuscript on anti-Semitism and other materials that he had sent to Voegelin. Discussion touched on the nature of capitalism, the rise of the West, and the origin of Nazism. The key to the discussion was the implication of Weber's interpretation of 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 its current features were temporary and that the functional implications of its long-term, emerging value-l system had revolutionary and not only "negative" impact on the general rise of the institutions of modernity.
The two scholars also discussed Parsons' debate with 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. 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, Dimensions of society, which attempted to build a general theory of society on the foundation of a mathematical and quantitative systematization of social sciences. Dodd advanced a particular approach, known as a "S-theory." Parsons discussed Dodd's theoretical outline in a review article the same year. Parsons acknowledged Dodd's contribution to be an exceedingly formidable work but 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 Weber, 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 a conference, "On Germany after the War," of psychoanalytical oriented psychiatrists and a few social scientists analyze 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. 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 Nations to control the German educational system directly. Parsons and many others at the conference were strongly opposed to Kubie's idea. Parsons argued that it would fail and suggested that Kubie was viewing the question of German's reorientation "too exclusively in psychiatric terms." Parsons was also against the extremely harsh Morgenthau Plan, published in September 1944. After the conference, Parsons wrote an article, "The Problem of Controlled Institutional Change," against the plan.
Parsons participated as part-time adviser to the Foreign Economic Administration Agency between March and October 1945 to discuss postwar reparations and deindustrialization.
Parsons was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1945.
Taking 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, on 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 Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Langer proposed for Parsons to follow the American army in its march into Germany and to 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 anti-Semicism 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 was in form of a large memorandum, "Social Science: A Basic National Resource," became available in July 1948 and remains a powerful historical statement about how he saw the role of modern social sciences.
Russian Research Center
Parsons became a member of the Executive Committee of the new 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, was a contact person for the RRC, and was interested in the Russian refugees who were stranded in Germany. He happened to interview in Germany a few members of the Vlasov Army, a Russian Liberation Army that had collaborated with the Germans during the war. The movement was named after Andrey Vlasov, a Soviet general captured by the Germans in June 1942. The Vlasov movement's ideology was a hybrid of elements and has been called "communism without Stalin," but in the Prague Manifesto (1944), it had moved toward the framework of a constitutional liberal state.
In Germany in the summer of 1948 Parsons wrote several letters to Kluckhohn to report on his investigations.
Parsons' fight against communism was a natural extension of his fight against fascism in the 1930s and the 1940s. For Parsons, communism and fascism were two aspects of the same problem; his posthumous article "A Tentative Outline of American Values" was published in 1989 and called both collectivistic types "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 represented the absolute opposite principle of empirical finalism. One can thus understand Parsons' statement late in life that the greatest threat to humanity every type of "fundamentalism." By the term "empirical finalism," he 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. Parsons' rejection of communist and fascist totalitarianism was theoretically and intellectually an integral part of his theory of world history, and he tended to regard the European Reformation as the most crucial event in "modern" world history. Like Weber, he tended to highlight the crucial impact of Calvinist religiosity in the socio-political and socio-economic processes that followed. He maintained it reached its most radical form in England in the 17th century and gave in effect birth to the special cultural mode, which has characterized the American value system and history ever since. The Calvinist faith system, authoritarian in the beginning, eventually released in its accidental long-term institutional effects a fundamental democratic revolution in the world. Parsons maintained that the revolution was steadily unfolding, as part of his interpenetration of Puritan values in the world at large.
Parsons defended American exceptionalism and argued that because of a variety of historical circumstances, the impact of the Reformation had reached a certain intensity in British history. Puritan, essentially Calvinist, value patterns had become institutionalized in the Britain's internal situation. 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 leading to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was the radical fling of the Puritan Revolution that provided settlers in early 17th-century Colonial America, and the Puritans who settled in America represented radical views on individuality, egalitarianism, skepticism to state power, and the zeal of the religious calling. The settlers established something unique in the world that was 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 US constitution, And its dynamics later were studied by Alexis de Tocqueville. The French Revolution was failed attempt to copy the American model. Although America has changed in its social composition since 1787, Parsons maintained that it preserves the basic revolutionary Calvinist value pattern. That has been further revealed in the pluralist and highly individualized America, with its thick, network-oriented civil society, which is of crucial importance to its success and the factors have provided it with its historical lead in the industrialized process.
Parsons maintained has continued to place it in the leading position in the world but as a historical process and not in "the nature of thing." 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 had no inherent guarantees, but as sociologists Robert Holton and Bryan Turner said that Parsons was not nostalgic and that he did not believe in the past as a lost "golden age" but that he maintained that modernity generally had improved conditions, admittedly often in troublesome and painful ways but usually positively. He had faith in humanity's potential but not naïvely. When asked at the Brown Seminary in 1973 if 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 The Decline of the West, "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
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 him as the chairman and with prominent figures at the faculty, such as Stouffer, Kluckhohn, Henry Murray and Gordon Allport. An appointment for Hartshorne was considered but he was killed in Germany by an unknown gunman as he 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. 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 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 from 1952 to 1953 and would get involved in his 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 Freud. As time passed, Parsons developed a strong interest in psychoanalysis. He volunteered to participate in nontherapeutic 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 his general writing on psychological issues and on the theory of socialization. That influence was also to some extent apparent in his empirical analysis of fascism during the war. Also, Wolfgang Köhler's study of the mentality of apes and Kurt Koffka's ideas of Gestalt psychology had Parsons's attention as well.
The Social System and Toward a General Theory of Action
During the late 1940s and the early 1950s, he 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 former work was Parsons' first major attempt to present his basic outline of a general theory of society since The Structure of Social Action (1937). He discusses the basic methodological and metatheoretical principles for such a theory. He attempts to present a general social system theory that is built systematically from most basic premises and so he featured the idea of an interaction situation based on need-dispositions and facilitated through the basic concepts of cognitive, cathectic, and evaluative orientation. The work also became known for introducing his famous pattern variables, which in reality represented choices distributed along a Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft axis.
However, the details of how Parsons thought about the outline of the social system went through a rapid series of changes in the following years but the basics remained. During the early 1950s, the idea of the AGIL model took place in Parsons's mind gradually. According to Parsons, its key idea was sparked during his work with Bales on motivational processes in small groups.
Parsons carried the idea into the major work that he coauthored with a student, Neil Smelser, which was published in 1956 as Economy and Society. It presented the first rudimentary model of the AGIL scheme was presented. It reorganized the basic concepts of the pattern variables in a new way and presented the solution within a system-theoretical approach by using the idea of a cybernetic hierarchy as an organizing principle. The real innovation in the model was the concept of the "latent function" or the pattern maintenance function, which became the crucial key to the whole cybernetic hierarchy.
During its theoretical development, Parsons showed a persistent interest in symbolism. An important statement is Parsons' "The theory of symbolism in relation to action." The 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. His interest in symbolism went hand in hand with his interest in Freud's theory and "The Superego and the Theory of Social Systems," written in May 1951 for a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. The paper can be regarded as the main statement of his own interpretation of Freud but also as a statement of how Parsons tried to use Freud's pattern of symbolization to structure the theory of social system and eventually to codify the cybernetic hierarchy of the AGIL system within the parameter of a system of symbolic differentiation. His discussion of Freud also contains several layers of criticism that reveal that Parsons's use of Freud was selective, rather than orthodox. In particular, he claimed that Freud that "introduced an unreal separation between the superego and the ego."
Subscriber to systems theory
Parsons was an early subscriber to systems theory. Parsons had early 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 systems theory had been further stimulated by his contract with LJ Henderson. Parsons called the concept of "system" for an indispensable master concept in the work of building theoretical paradigms for social sciences. From 1952 to 1957, Parsons participated in an ongoing Conference on System Theory under the chairmanship of Roy R. Grinker, Sr., in Chicago.
Parsons came into contact with several prominent intellectuals of the time and 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 systems theory and on issues that are now classified as cognitive science, which took place in New York from 1946 to 1953 and included scientists like John von Neumann. Parsons read widely on systems theory at the time, especially works of Norbert Wiener and William Ross Ashby who also were part of the core participants in the conferences. Around the same time, Parsons also benefited from conversations with political scientist Karl Deutsch on systems theory. In one conference, the Fourth Conference of the problems of consciousness 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 were Mary A.B. Brazier, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Nathaniel Kleitman, Margaret Mead and Gregory Zilboorg. Parsons would defend the thesis that consciousness was essentially a social action phenomenon, not primarily a "biological" one. During the conference, Parsons criticized Piaget for not sufficiently separating cultural factors from a physiologistic concept of "energy."
During the McCarthy era, on April 1, 1952, J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, received a personal letter from an informant who reported on communist activities at Harvard. During a later interview, the informant claimed that "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 had "loyal Americans of good character" but that the new Department of Social Relations had turned into a decisive left-wing place as a result of "Parsons's manipulations and machinations." Hoover granted, on October 27, 1952 authorization to the Boston FBI to initiate a security-type investigation on Parsons. In February 1954, a colleague, Stouffer, wrote to Parsons, in England to inform him that Stouffer had been denied access to classified documents and that part of the stated reason was that Stouffer knew Communists, including Parsons, "who was a member of the Communist Party."
Parsons immediately wrote an affidavit in defense of Stouffer, and he also defended himself against the charges that were in the affidavit: "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.
Family, Socialization and Interaction Process
Since the late 1930s, Parsons had continued to show great interest in psychology and in psychoanalysis. In the academic year of 1955-1956, he taught a seminar at Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute entitled "Sociology and Psychoanalysis." In 1956, he published a major work, 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."
It contained articles written by Parsons and 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 that Parsons most likely got then was from brain researcher James Olds, one of the founders of neuroscience and whose 1955 book learning and motivation was strongly influenced from his conversations with Parsons. Some of the ideas in the book had been submitted by Parsons in an intellectual brainstorm in an informal "work group," which he had organized with part of Joseph Berger, William Caudill, Frank E. Jones, Kaspar D. Naegele, Theodore M. Mills, Bengt G. Rundblad, and others. Albert J. Reiss from Vanderbilt University had submitted his critical commentary.
In the mid-1950s, Parsons also had extensive discussions with Olds about the motivational structure of psychosomatic problems, and Parsons's 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), Grinker and John Spiegel.
In 1955, François Bourricaud was preparing a reader of some of Parsons' work for a French audience, and Parsons who wrote a preface for the book "Au lecteur français" (To the French Reader); it 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 were also involved in the actual historical pattern of an action situation.
Center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
Parsons spent 1957 to 1958 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; his flamboyant, explosive temperament made a great impression on Parsons, and they 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 whom Parsons met at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto was Alfred L. Kroeber, the "dean of American anthropologists." Kroeber, who had received his Ph.D. at Columbia and who worked with the Arapaho Indians, was about 81 when he met Parsons. Parsons had the greatest admiration of Kroeber and called him "my favorite elder statesman."
In Palo Alto, Kroeber suggested to Parsons to write a joint statement together to clarify the distinction between cultural and social systems, then was the subject of endless debates. In October 1958, Parsons and Kroeber published their joint statement in a short article, "The Concept of Culture and the Social System," which became highly influential.
Parsons and Kroeber declared that it is important both to keep a clear distinction between the two concepts and to avoid a methodology by which either would be reduced to the other.
In 1955 to 1956, a group of faculty members at Cornell University met regularly and discussed Parsons' writings. The next academic year, a series of seven widely attended public seminars followed and culminated in a session at which he answered his critics. The discussions in the seminars were summed up in a book edited by Max Black, The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons: A Critical Examination. It included an essay by Parsons, "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, 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 and another essay, "Pattern Variables Revisited," both represented he most full-scale accounts of the basic elements of his theoretical strategy and the general principles behind his approach to theory-building when they were published in 1960.
One essay also included, in metatheoretical terms, a criticism of the theoretical foundations for the so-called conflict theory, however.
Criticism of theories
From the late 1950s to the student rebellion in the 1960s and its aftermath, Parsons's theory was criticized by some scholars and intellectuals of the left, who claimed that Parsons's theory was inherently conservative, if not reactionary. Gouldner even claimed that Parsons had been an opponent of the New Deal.
Parsons's theory was further regarded as unable to reflect social change, human suffering, poverty, deprivation, and conflict. Theda Skocpol thought that the apartheid system in South Africa was the ultimate proof that Parsons's theory was "wrong."
At the same time, Parsons's 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' systems theory and his action theory were inherently opposed and mutually hostile and that Parsons's system theory was especially "mechanical," "positivistic," "anti-individualistic," "anti-voluntaristic," and "de-humanizing" by the sheer nature of its intrinsic theoretical context.
By the same token, his evolutionary theory was regarded as "uni-linear," "mechanical," "biologistic," an ode to world system status quo, or simply an ill-concealed instruction manual for "the capitalist nation-state."
The first manifestations of that 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 supported John F. Kennedy on November 8, 1960; from 1923, with one exception, Parsons voted 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 the United States as an integral community. (It was the 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 that his favored politician, Adlai Stevenson II, had been appointed United States Ambassador to the United Nations
Talcott Parsons served as the 39th President of the American Sociological Society. His Presidential Address, "The Prospects of Sociological Theory," was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in New York City in December 1949. Parsons professional papers are housed at Harvard University Archives; a finding aid is available online. The Harvard Archives collection includes the following brief biographical sketch of Parsons:
Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an educator and scholar of sociology. He contributed to the field of sociological theory, particularly through his development of a "general theory of action." Parsons spent most of his professional career at Harvard University, where he was affiliated with the various incarnations of the sociology department for thirty-two years.
Parsons graduated from Amherst College in 1924, having majored in philosophy and biology. In 1925 he redirected his intellectual focus and entered the London School of Economics, studying with Bronislaw Malinowski, L.T. Hobhouse and Morris Ginsberg. The following year he received a fellowship at the University of Heidelberg, where he first encountered the work of Weber. Parsons completed his doctoral dissertation, on the concept of capitalism in recent German scholarship, in 1927 while teaching economics at Amherst. The following year he joined the Harvard faculty as an instructor in economics. He continued to teach at the University until his retirement in 1973.
Parsons' career is entwined with the development of sociology as an academic discipline at Harvard. In 1931 he joined Carle Zimmerman and Pitirim Sorokin as inaugural faculty in the Department of Sociology. Gordon Allport and Henry Murray, of the Psychology Department, and Clyde Kluckhohn, of the Anthropology Department, joined with Parsons in 1945 to establish the Department of Social Relations. This department became a landmark of interdisciplinary collaboration in the behavioral sciences and served as a model for similar departments at other institutions. Parsons served as chairman for the first ten years and continued to work enthusiastically in the Department until its dissolution in 1972.
Parsons' scholarship is unified by his effort to draft a set of concepts of the determinants of human behavior. He began to develop his "general theory of action" in Structure of Social Action (1937). He refined this theory in Social System and Towards a General Theory of Action (both published in 1951). Parsons spent the later years of his career further modifying his theory and eventually applying it to discrete social situations.