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Talcott Parsons

[pahr-suhnz]

Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902 - May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist, who served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927–1973. He produced a general theoretical system for the analysis of society, that came to be called structural functionalism. This was created by Parsons to reflect his vision of an integrated social science.

For many years Parsons was the best-known sociologist in the United States, and indeed one of the best-known in the world. His work was very influential through the 1950s and well into the 1960s, particularly in the United States, but fell gradually out of favour afterward. The most prominent attempt to revive Parsonian thinking, under the rubric neofunctionalism, has been made by the sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, now at Yale University.

Biography

Talcott Parsons was born December 13 1902 in Colorado Springs. His father was a Congregationalist minister and later president of Marietta College in Ohio. As an undergraduate, Parsons studied biology and philosophy at Amherst College and received his B.A. in 1924. After Amherst, he studied at the London School of Economics for a year, where he was exposed to the work of Harold Laski, R. H. Tawney, Bronisław Malinowski, and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse. He then moved to the University of Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology and economics. It was at Heidelberg that he became familiar with the works of Max Weber, then relatively unknown to American social theorists; he later translated several of Weber's works into English.

After a year teaching at Amherst (1926–27), he obtained a position at Harvard, first in economics and then in sociology. He first achieved significant recognition with the publication of The Structure of Social Action (1937), his first grand synthesis, combining the ideas of Durkheim, Weber, and Pareto, among others.

At Harvard, he was instrumental in forming the Department of Social Relations, an interdisciplinary venture among sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Nationally, he was a strong advocate for the professionalization of sociology and its expansion within American academia. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as secretary from 1960–1965.

He retired from Harvard in 1973, but continued teaching (at a number of other universities as a visiting professor) and writing until his death in 1979, while on a trip to Germany.

His son Charles Parsons is a distinguished figure in philosophy of mathematics.

Work

Parsons was an advocate of "grand theory," an attempt to integrate all the social sciences (except anthropology) into an overarching theoretical framework.

His early work on the Structure of Social Action, he reviewed the output of his great predecessors, especially Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and Émile Durkheim. Parsons attempted to derive from them a single "action theory" based on the assumptions that human action is voluntary, intentional, and symbolic.

Later, he became intrigued with, and involved in, an astonishing range of fields: from medical sociology (where he developed the concept of the sick role, to psychoanalysis—personally undergoing full training as a lay analyst), to anthropology, to small group dynamics, working extensively with Robert Freed Bales, to race relations and then economics and education.

Systems theory and cybernetics

Parsons developed his ideas during a period when systems theory and cybernetics were very much on the front burner of social and behavioral science. In using systems thinking, he postulated that the relevant systems treated in social and behavioral science were "open," meaning that they were embedded in an environment consisting of other systems. For social and behavioral science, the largest system is "the action system," consisting of interrelated behaviors of human beings, embedded in a physical-organic environment.

Parsons had a seminal influence and early mentorship of Niklas Luhmann, pre-eminent German sociologist, originator of autopietic systems theory.

AGIL paradigm

The procedure he adopted to analyze this system and its subsystems is called the "AGIL Paradigm" or "AGIL scheme". To survive or maintain equilibrium with respect to its environment, any system must to some degree adapt to that environment (Adaptation), attain its goals (Goal attainment), integrate its components (Integration), and maintain its latent pattern (Latency pattern maintenance), a cultural template of some sort. These are called the system's functional imperatives.

In the case of the analysis of a societal action system, the AGIL Paradigm, according to Parsons, yields four interrelated and interpenetrating subsystems: the behavioral systems of its members (A), the personality systems of those members (G), the society as a system of social organization (I) and the cultural system of that society (L). To analyze a society as a social system (the I subsystem of action), people are posited to enact roles associated with positions. These positions and roles become differentiated to some extent and in a modern society are associated with such things as occupational, political, judicial and educational roles.

Considering the interrelation of these specialized roles as well as functionally differentiated collectivities (e.g., firms, political parties), the society can be analyzed as a complex system of interrelated functional subsystems, namely:

  • The economy -- societal adaptation to its action and non-action environmental systems
  • The polity -- societal goal attainment
  • The societal community -- the integration of its diverse social components
  • The fiduciary system -- processes and units that function to reproduce societal culture

Parsons elaborated upon the idea that each of these systems also developed some specialized symbolic mechanisms of interaction analogous to money in the economy, e.g.., influence in the societal community. Various processes of "interchange" among the subsystems of the societal system were postulated.

The most elaborate of Parsons's use of functional systems analysis with the AGIL scheme appear in two collaborative books, Economy and Society (with N. Smelser, 1956) and The American University (with G. Platt, 1973).

Social evolutionism

Parsons contributed to the field of social evolutionism and neoevolutionism. He divided evolution into four subprocesses:

  1. differentiation, which creates functional subsystems of the main system, as discussed above;
  2. adaptation, where those systems evolve into more efficient versions;
  3. inclusion of elements previously excluded from the given systems; and
  4. generalization of values, increasing the legitimization of the ever-more complex system.

Furthermore, Parsons explored these subprocesses within three stages of evolution:

  1. primitive,
  2. archaic and
  3. modern (where archaic societies have the knowledge of writing, while modern have the knowledge of law).

Parsons viewed Western civilisation as the pinnacle of modern societies, and out of all western cultures he declared the United States as the most dynamically developed. For this, he was attacked as an ethnocentrist.

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 enable communication across them. His attempt to structure the world of action according to a mere four concepts was too much for many American sociologists, who were at that time retreating from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical, grounded approach. Parsons' influence waned rapidly in the U.S. after 1970.

Pattern variables

Parsons asserted that there were two dimensions to societies: instrumental and expressive. By this he meant that there are qualitative differences between kinds of social interaction.

He observed that people can have personalized and formally detached relationships based on the roles that they play. The characteristics that were associated with each kind of interaction he called the pattern variables.

Some examples of expressive societies would include families, churches, clubs, crowds, and smaller social settings. Examples of instrumental societies would include bureaucracies, aggregates, and markets.

Publications

Parsons' analysis was largely developed within his major published works. Like many other sociologists he attempted to combine human agency and structure in one theory and was not confined to functionalism.

  • 1937, The Structure of Social Action
  • 1951, The Social System
  • 1951, Toward a General Theory of Action - with Shils and Kluckhohn
  • 1956, Economy and Society - with N. Smelser
  • 1960, Structure and Process in Modern Societies
  • 1961, Theories of Society - with Edward Shils, Kaspar D. Naegele and Jesse R. Pitts
  • 1966, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives
  • 1967, Sociological Theory and Modern Society
  • 1969, Politics and Social Structure
  • 1973, The American University - with G. Platt
  • 1977, Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory
  • 1978, Action Theory and the Human Condition
  • 2007, American Society: Toward a Theory of Societal Community. Edited by Giuseppe Sciortino. Paradigm ISBN 978-1-59451-227-8.

Notes and references

External links

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