Parsons t. essays in sociological theory


Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)

Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, , esp. This excludes behavior which varies at random, relative to structural patterns, from being treated as sociologically significant. In essence this is what Max Weber did on a high level in his construction of ideal types of motivation.

New York: Oxford University Press, Mead, Margaret: Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow 8c Co. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, This is also true of the classical mechanics, e. Skip to Main Content. Search in: This Journal Anywhere. Second, it can be considered the sociological counterpart of many economic models of inequality. In particular, it fits well with the human capital model of education and the economy.

It can also be considered to the counterpart of some models of liberalism in the political sphere. For example, the notion of equality of opportunity should be a basic part of this model. Third, even though it may provide and inadequate model of explanation, it may be useful as a model for description. Much of the quantitative information concerning the structure of society has been developed by sociologists working in the functionalist perspective.

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While the exact connection of these quantitative studies to the structural functional approach may not be clear, much quantitative analysis makes many of the same assumptions as do functionalists. Some of these have provided very useful data for understanding society and examination of the nature of social inequality. Social Order. Much like Durkheim, Parsons was concerned with the problem of social order, "how, if individuals were really separate entities pursuing their self-interest, there could be any order at all: How could there be anything but disorder?

In practice, people do cooperate, and there is a degree of social integration.

Talcott Parsons' Systems Levels

For Parsons this comes from the values of society and of social actors — the basis of social action can be termed voluntarism. The importance of values can be seen by looking at how social actors view ends and means within the context of values. Parsons noted that while individuals pursue their self-interest and their own satisfaction, that is not the sole concern of individuals. Rather, there is a strong measure of agreement among people, people do get along with each other, they cooperate with and help each other. The wants and desires of people are not randomly distributed Cuff, p.

The ends that people pursue are based on shared values and norms, and these are "internalized in the motivational systems of individuals" Johnson, p.

The manner in which particular ends are pursued is usually not the technically most efficient manner. Rather, the means that people use are socially and morally regulated, with views of right and wrong, proper and improper, and appropriate and not. In the view of the structural functionalists, "without the normative regulation of means, society would be afflicted by chaos, anomie, and apathy Note also that these are carried out within a system of constraints, or there are various conditions placed on individual action.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Parsons' and the structural functional model is attaching function to the various social processes and social institutions that are part of society. Parsons took the idea of function from anthropology "as a way of talking about the consequences of any given pattern of patterns of social interaction for the stability and ongoingness of systems of interaction" Johnson, p.

In general, Parsons tended to view these patterns as contributing to the relatively smooth functioning of society. The shared values and norms, the institution of the family, and the generally agreed upon means for accomplishing ends were viewed by Parsons as being functional for the operation of society as a system. Critics argue that this is not really social analysis but description and justification, because it makes the institutions appear to be necessary and the only ones that could exist. As a result, there appear to be strong conservative and consensus assumptions built into this approach.

While the degree of consensus can be overestimated, people make attempts to get along with each other, they do not have random sets of ends, and there is a range of appropriate means in any given society. There is a degree of social integration in society, and it comes not only from powerful groups with interests imposing their wills against the interests of the mass of the population. Wealth and power determine some aspects of societal structure, but at both the micro and macro level there are many commonly shared norms and values that contribute to social stability and social integration.

As will be seen, there are different possible views of function, and functionalism is not necessarily inherently conservative. The sociology of Parsons was primarily theoretical, with little empirical content. Rather, Parsons wrote several long theoretical treatises, integrating concepts and theories from the classical sociologists with his own ideas and interpretation.

Unlike Marx, Weber, or Durkheim, Parsons does not lay out a methodology for the study of sociology or the social sciences. Instead, he attempted to build large theoretical framworks which dealt with concepts from all the social sciences. Talcott Parsons , United States was the most important figure in the structural functionalist school of sociological thought. He dominated sociology in the United States for many years, coming into disfavour in the and s. In sociology today, his approach is generally treated as outmoded, although some of his ideas are now being viewed more favourably, and perhaps in a less conservative context than they were originally presented.


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Parsons was born in Colorado, studied in the eastern Unitied States, and then did graduate work at the London School of Economics and then in Heidelberg, Germany. Weber's influence was still strong in Heidelberg, and part of Parsons' doctoral thesis concerned the views of Weber.

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Parsons became a professor at Harvard in and stayed there until his death in In he published his major work The Structure of Social Action. This book introduced Weber to the United States, and laid the groundwork for Parsons' later work. These works remained dominant within American sociology through the s. The contribution of Durkheim to Parsons' theory will be clear. Concepts such as order, solidarity, and integration, as well as some aspects of the family and sex roles are similar to what is found in Durkheim.

The contribution of Weber may be less clear, but is apparent in several ways. First, Weber was concerned with i analysis of social structures as a whole, and ii social action. Parsons referred to his own theory as action theory and argued that social phenomena must be understood in terms of individual meaning, but also must be examined at the "level of collective action among groupings of actors. As with many functionalists, Parsons was concerned with the same issues as Weber, "how do the subjective states of actors influence emergent patterns of social organization, and vice versa?

He referred to his theoretical approach as a general theory of action systems. Parsons developed many concepts and elaborate conceptual schemes that could be considered ideal types of the Weberian type. These emphasized important features of social systems, and of the type that Parsons considered important for purposes of his analysis of social integration. They were regarded as useful in different contexts, and a means of comparing concrete situations, to see the extent to which they conform or deviate from these ideal types. Paragraph based on Turner, pp. Parsons attempted to develop an analysis of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, and all social science, although much of this was never completed.

For Parsons, there are many systems or action systems. A system is something that has a boundary, so that there is an inside and an outside to the environment comprising the system. Examples of systems are the social, cultural, and personality systems Wallace and Wolf, p.

Systems have interdependent parts, order or equilibrium, and a tendency to maintain the boundaries and relations of the parts to the whole. These could be the society as a whole, structures or institutions within society economy, legal system, religious institutions , or smaller subsystems family or individual that form part of society.

These are action systems in the sense that they involve social action, and each system has certain needs or conditions that are necessary for the survival and continued operation of the system. Systems also have goals that may be created as a result of needs and desires of members of these systems. A physical analogy to the systems of Parsons is a heating or cooling system for a building.

The building has boundaries, an outside and an inside, and the boundaries are generally fixed or maintained over time. There are interdependent parts to the system which function together to maintain a certain level of temperature in the building.

Thermostats and furnaces or air conditioners are used to heat or cool the building, and these are self-regulating, maintaining a certain equilibrium temperature. Parsons was primarily interested in the social system, viewing it as the preserve of sociology, and examining social interaction and the relationships among individuals. A personality system, concerning human motivation and orientation, underlies the social system. Individuals might be motivated by culture and social factors, looking for approval in social relationships.

Individual personality was considered to be a combination of biological drives and culture, with actors being relatively passive. Drives may come from the behavioral or biological organism, with its "organization Above the social system is the cultural system, the system of patterned and ordered symbols. While it is created by humans, this is the "social stock of knowledge, symbols, and ideas" Ritzer, p. This includes language and other forms of communication, systems of morality, and all of the shared knowledge of people. Parsons refers to this as the cultural tradition, and argues that elementary communication is not possible without "some degree of conformity to the 'conventions' of the symbolic system.

Symbols are interpreted by individuals and individual actors in different situations so that they may react somewhat differently to them.

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Talcott Parsons and the Sociology of Science: An Essay in Appreciation and Remembrance

For social interaction to occur, it is important that there be a stability in the symbol system, "a stability which must extend between individuals and over time, [and] could probably not be maintained unless it functioned in a communication process in the interaction of a plurality of actors. Because it is composed of symbols, the cultural system can move easily between systems, and strongly affects other systems.

Note that it is a separate system, and one that cannot be reduced to aspects of the social system. It affects the social system, creating norms and values that guide social behaviour, and the personality system through socialization and learning. Given the power of the cultural system to influence and control other systems, "Parsons came to view himself as a cultural determinist" Ritzer, p.

Social System.

Essays in sociological theory

The social system was Parsons' main concern. This is society as a whole, or the various institutions such as the family within society. Parsons' definition of the social system is:. A social system consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the "optimization of gratification" and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols The Social System , pp.

The basic unit of the system for Parsons was the status-role bundle or complex. These are structural elements, and are not characteristics of the individual or of interaction. Rather they are like the positions within the stratification model. A status is a structural position within the social system, and a role is what the individual who has that status does.

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For example, brother or sister could refer to a status, and there are certain roles that are generally associated with these statuses. Note that these statuses need not be hierarchical as in the stratification model. Within this social system, Parsons considered the needs of the system as important, and individuals fulfilled certain system functions by taking on various roles as means of carrying out the function of their statuses.


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Individuals are discussed by Parsons as carrying out actions that maintain order in the system. Socialization, education and learning in the child, and continued socialization throughout life are the means by which the norms and values of society are learned by individuals. This is what binds the individual to the social system as a whole. If successful, this socialization process means that the norms and values become internalized by individuals, and when people pursue their own interests, they also serve the needs of the society as a whole. In modern society there are many roles, statuses and opportunities for individuals to express their different personalities.

Talcott Parsons was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At the time, his father was a professor of English at Colorado College and vice-president of the college. He then studied at the London School of Economics and later earned his Ph. Parsons taught at Amherst College for one year during After that, he became an instructor at Harvard University in the Department of Economics.

At the time, no sociology department existed at Harvard. He later became a full professor. In , Parsons was instrumental in forming the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, which was an interdisciplinary department of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Parsons served as the chairman of that new department. He retired from Harvard in

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