Sociology Talcott Parsons
Uta Gerhardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0177


Talcott Parsons (b. 1902–d. 1979) was born into the family of a New England Congregational clergyman. His father, Edward Smith Parsons (b. 1863–d. 1943), became the president of Marietta College in Ohio in 1902. As a student at Amherst College, Parsons had witnessed the president of the college, Alexander Meiklejohn, being unjustly accused of wrongdoing and had seen the inspiring intellectual atmosphere collapse there. Which in turn contributed to, in the early 1920s, his becoming an avowed leftist, one who was watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Through his studies at the London School of Economics and at Heidelberg University (1925–1927) he became a scholar in social science who applied his thinking to society and to the world around him, a lifelong disciple of Max Weber but also a man who became involved in the politics of the day frequently. He taught at Harvard from 1927 and served as a professor there from 1936 to his retirement, where he focused on social theory that is empirically based but has a methodological credo that reaches beyond empiricism. In the course of five decades, from the 1920s to the 1970s, he developed social theory when he revised his approach twice—the “structural functionalism” of his “middle” phase (early 1940s to early 1960s) garnered international recognition in the 1950s, but the early work and late oeuvre should be recognized as well. Starting in the 1960s and resonating well into the 21st century, critics judged his theory conservative, even abstract. Through the decades he continued to work on his systems theory—that he meant to expose one last time in the 1970s—the unfinished magnum opus, unpublished in his lifetime, explains American society as a societal community in the making. He died in Munich, Germany, on 8 May 1979, the day that marked the thirty-fourth anniversary of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, a date of special relevance to him in that he had helped to set up reeducation for postwar Germany after World War II.

General Overview

Parsons’s oeuvre consists of seventeen books and more than two hundred scholarly articles. His theme throughout is modern industrial society in which democracy serves as a theoretical as well as an empirical agenda for sociology as a social science. Six of his books consist of collections of articles, often on some contemporary societal problem or current world situation posited from a conceptual angle. His contributions also deal with the family, medicine, religion, law, the economy, race relations, and politics, to name but some themes. His Early Essays (Parsons 1991) concern mostly capitalism, his first opus magnum, The Structure of Social Action (Parsons 1937), draws on theories from four European thinkers to account for the kind of social action (as in force and fraud, anomie, as well as charisma and ritual) that reigns supreme in fascism, when his own frame of reference is voluntarism as the harbinger for humanism. His work on National Socialism (Parsons 1993) testifies to his political acumen. In his second opus magnum, The Social System (Parsons 1951), he argues that modern industrial society in its structure and workings is superior to other forms of society; a tableau of five two-prong variables juxtaposes value-orientations in democratic and nondemocratic regimes. In the wake of The Social System, the AGIL and LIGA schemes plus the four-function matrix of societal structure(s) (with Neil Smelser) are analytical devices, the latter envisaging the social system through functions—adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance, respectively. The approach was revised at the beginning of the 1960s, structural functionalism being replaced by an analysis of media of interaction—money, political power, influence, and value commitments—not only in their interrelation, but also as arenas of institutionalization, the economy, the polity, the societal community, and culture/education (see Parsons 1969). Another theme, “evolutionary universals,” elucidates societal development in Western democracy (Parsons 1971), the origin of which lies in classic cultures such as ancient Greece. In this third phase of his oeuvre, Parsons is concerned with issues surrounding the educational revolution, including how the American university serves as a repository of humanism (Parsons and Platt 1973), together with civil liberties and civil rights, the Vietnam War and postcolonialism, the Watergate affair, and apartheid in South Africa. On his death, he left behind a major unfinished manuscript, “The American Societal Community” (Parsons 2007).

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The structure of social action: A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    To counteract the social theory then dominant in the United States, when social Darwinism reigned supreme in understanding social life, the book stands in opposition to utilitarianism as well as behaviorism and positivism. The methodological concern is that the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Whitehead) must be avoided when acknowledging that facts need a conceptual framework (Henderson). The works of four European thinkers—Alfred Marshall, Vilfredo Pareto, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber—serve as the material basis on which he argues for a two-pronged structure of social action, in which sociology has explanations that neither economics nor political science can offer. His efforts culminate in a recognition of the contribution of Max Weber, the German sociologist who was relatively unknown in American sociology at the time.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The social system. Glencoe, IL: Free Press of Glencoe.

    Meant as a compendium on modern industrial society, the book’s conceptual frame of reference draws on Max Weber (“inter-action”), to discuss, first, the structure(s) of social action that make up system(s) of society, whose culmination is universalism—achievement denoting “American ethos”; second, personality that flanks or undergirds the structural setup whose explanation invokes socialization and deviance; third, culture as ideas that may be ideological or can be cognitive, as in religion or science, plus emotional orientation(s). To prove how fruitful the approach is, a chapter pictures the doctor-patient relationship as a social system that means reciprocal action—an inspiring endeavor. The closing chapters discuss social change as well as systems theory in general.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1969. Politics and social structure. New York: Free Press.

    This work aims to document where system theory stands at the end of the 1960s. To prove how politics and social structure have long been his themes, Parsons reprints some of his earlier and recent work—on National Socialism, McCarthyism, the problem of citizenship for black Americans, and international politics in the Cold War and with regard to the forum of the United Nations. He documents where the discussion stands in reproducing the media theory of interaction with essays on political power, influence, and value commitments. The concluding chapter on “Polity and Society” focuses on some newly developing polity, an arena for social integration in the differentiated society into which the United States is evolving.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1971. The system of modern societies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Parsons’s Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966) focused on “evolutionary universals” in the development of Western civilization in which the United States is now “the new lead society.” This is the theme that marks “Pattern Maintenance and Societal Community.” The idea is that modernization dominates the world, ensuring civil rights and fair living conditions as a viable prospect: Systems theory (revised format) is an adequate conceptual framework to understand this. The baseline is interaction media theory, with influence replacing power as a “non-zero sum” resource: The societal community becomes the bearer of civility, and social change in America may be paradigmatic.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1991. The early essays. Edited and with an introduction by Charles Camic. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    In addition to a well-researched biographical introduction by Camic, the book contains twenty early texts that cover the three themes that Parsons addresses during the years before and while he works on The Structure of Social Action, between 1928–1929 and 1937. The collection includes these essays in the sections “Capitalist Society and Its Origin,” “Studies in the Development of the Theory of Action,” and “The Foundations of Analytical Sociology,” respectively.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1993. Talcott Parsons on National Socialism. Edited and with an introduction by Uta Gerhardt. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Previously published as well as unpublished sources document how Parsons analyzes German (and Italian) fascism as he also takes part in the “war effort” at Harvard and is concerned with postwar Germany plus a conflict-ridden postwar world that might follow in the wake of development of the atom bomb. An introductory essay places Parsons’s activities and writings in the context of the events between 1938 and 1947.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 2007. American society: A theory of the societal community. Edited and with an introduction by Giuseppe Sciortino. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    This work is based on an unfinished manuscript, preserved in the Harvard University archives, titled “The American Societal Community,” which was completed from 1971 to 1979. Although the editor of the posthumous publication has inserted subtitles that supposedly make the chapters with their lengthy arguments more readable, enough remains of the original text to mark this work as the culmination of Parsons’s late oeuvre. Starting with the Watergate crisis and student unrest, the book aims to document how the societal community functions in the contemporary United States. The idea is that major social change is underway in the 1960s, and answers need to be given to newly urgent questions: How can a historically unprecedented equality in society be squared with the new forms of inequality? In what way can solidarity and integration match identification so as to sustain pluralism? How do social class and the new professionalism in the “labor market” go together? What gemeinschaft is found in kinship, religion, style of life, and, undoubtedly, education with its ongoing “educational revolution”? The chapter “Individuality and ‘Institutionalized Individualism’” eulogizes the Rechtsstaat and shows how rationality and morality in social thought are being reconciled in the theories of both Durkheim and Freud.

  • Parsons, Talcott, and Gerald M. Platt. 1973. The American university. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674423626

    Action theory incorporates the organism, the personality, social life, and the cultural world, respectively. A cognitive complex represents the heritage of Western culture in modern higher education—its anchors are professionalism and humanism. The book makes the American university a model for how empirical research can color the picture drawn by social theory. Some evidence stems from the committee work on university reforms that Parsons as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences initiated nationwide (1967–1971). Note the chapters “General Education and Studentry Socialization: The Undergraduate College,” “The University and the Applied Professions: The Professional Schools,” and “The University and the ‘Intellectuals.’”

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