Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (December 13,1902, Colorado Springs, USA - May 8, 1979, Munich, Germany) was the best-known sociologist in the United States, and one of the best-known in the world for many years. His work was enormously influential through the 1950s and well into the 1960s, particularly in America, but fell gradually out of favour from that time on. The most prominent attempt to revive Parsonian thinking, under the rubric "neofunctionalism," has been made by the sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, now at Yale University.

Parsons worked at the faculty of Harvard University from 1927-1973. His major work was a general theoretical system for the analysis of society: this came to be called structural functionalism. It was , which he developed in his major publications:

  • The Structure of Social Action (1937),
  • The Social System (1952),
  • Structure and Process in Modern Societies (1960),
  • Sociological Theory and Modern Society (1968),
  • Politics and Social Structure (1969).

Parsons was an advocate of "grand theory," an attempt to integrate all the social sciences into an overarching theoretical framework. His early work (The Structure of Social Action) reviewed the output of his great predecessors, especially Weber, Pareto, and Durkheim, and attempted to derive from them a single "action theory" based on the assumptions that human action is voluntary, intentional, and symbolic. Later he ranged over an astonishing range of fields, from medical sociology (where he develeoped the concept of the sick role) to psychoanalysis (he underwent full training as a lay analyst) to anthropology to small group dynamics (working extensively with Freed Bales), to race relations to economics and education.

Parsons is also well known for his interpretation of the "functional imperatives of society", which consist in four parts. The first is adaptation, which assumes that society adaps to its physical and sociopolitical environment. The second is goal attainment, which deals with the need of a society to define primary goals and enlist individuals in accepting and striving to attain said goals. The third is integration, or the ways in which society is coordinated into a cohesive whole. The last is latency, which deals with the structures that maintain and reviatlie the motivation of individuals to perform their roles according to social expectations.

Parsons' late work focused on a new theoretical synthesis around four functions common (he claimed) to all systems of action, from the behavioral to the cultural, and a set of symbolic media that enabled communication across them. This attempt to span the world with four concepts was too much even for American sociology, which was then undergoing a retreat from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical, grounded focus; Parsons' influence waned rapidly in the US after 1970. Nevertheless, many of his students, including Robert Merton, Neil Smelser, and Clifford Geertz, remain among the most important figures in the social sciences.

Parsons wrote President Dwight Eisenhower's bon mot that freedom meant the freedom to fail as well as to succeed.




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