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Talcott Parsons, sociological theorist and Harvard University professor, developed a ”general theory of action,” a conceptual scheme designed to apply to all aspects of human social organization in all times and places. Books and essays published over fifty years brought the theory to an unparalleled level of analytic complexity and detail.
Parsons’ thought was shaped by many influences, including Kant and Whitehead in philosophy, Freud in psychoanalysis, Vilfredo Pareto’s system theory, and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics. However, the greatest influences were Max Weber, whose works he encountered as a student at the University of Heidelberg, and Emile Durkheim, whose writings he studied intensively from the 1930s.
The Structure of Social Action (1937) presented Parsons’s first formulation of his conceptual framework. It analyzed the ”unit act,” a conception of any instance of meaningful human conduct, into four essential elements, ends, means, norms, and conditions, and in some statements a fifth element, effort to implement action. Parsons argued that action is not possible unless an instance of each element is involved; conversely, all human action can be understood as combinations of these elements.
Parsons maintained that a sound conceptual framework is the logical starting point for a science, hence, sociological theories that do not recognize each of the basic elements of action are in principle flawed. He criticized utilitarian and behaviorist theories for overlooking the importance of norms, and idealist theories for overemphasizing ends and norms but under-emphasizing conditions and means. Contemporary structuralism assimilates norms and conditions into its notion of structure, denying their independence, while underemphasizing ends and means.
In The Social System (1951), Parsons made systems of interaction and social relationships, social systems, his central concept, replacing the unit act. He then related social systems to cultural and personality systems, proposing that the three kinds of systems are integrated normatively. Norms gain moral authority from contexts of evaluative culture, are institutionalized in social systems, and are internalized in the superegos of personalities. In chapters on socialization and social control, The Social System explored the dynamics through which norms are institutionalized in social relationships. A chapter on medical practice analyzed the processes of social control embedded in the sick role and physician-patient relationship.
The revised conceptual scheme raised questions of how social systems sustain themselves over time. Parsons’ eventual answer was the ”four function paradigm.” This was not an open-ended list of functional requisites, as in previous functional theories, but an analysis of the concept of action system into four general dimensions that can be identified in any empirical system. The four functions are:
- Pattern maintenance: the processes of generating attachment to basic principles that distinguish a system from its environment — in societies, through religion, education, family life, and socialization to common values.
- Integration: the processes of reciprocal adjustment among a system’s units, promoting their interdependence — in societies, through civil and criminal law, community institutions, and strata formation.
- Goal attainment: the processes of changing a system’s relations with its environments to align them with shared ends — in societies, through political institutions that set collective ends and mobilize resources for reaching them.
- Adaptation: the processes of developing generalized control over the environment by the creation and allocation of diverse resources — in societies, through economic production and market exchange.
Application of the four function paradigm yielded a theory of four functionally specialized subsystems of society: (1) the economy for the adaptive function, (2) the polity for the goal attainment function, (3) the societal community for the integrative function, and (4) the fiduciary system for the pattern maintenance function. In Economy and Society (1956), Parsons and Smelser integrated the sociology of economic institutions with Keynesian theory in economics. In Politics and Social Structure (1969) Parsons reviewed theories of power and authority and studies of electoral, executive, and administrative institutions to develop the idea of the polity. His writings on the fiduciary system codified previous research on religion, family, and socialization, while his conception of the societal community synthesized studies of reference groups, status and class systems, and legal institutions.
Parsons portrayed the societal subsystems as complex entities, organized in terms of differentiated institutions and as dynamically interdependent, exchanging resources at open boundaries. The idea of the boundary exchanges was a generalization of economists’ treatment of the exchanges of wages for labor and consumer spending for goods and services between business firms and households. Noting that money mediates the boundary exchanges of economies, Parsons then sought to identify comparable ”symbolic media” for the boundary exchanges of the other societal subsystems. Innovative essays followed on power as political medium, influence as medium of the societal community, and value-commitments as fiduciary medium.
Parsons wrote over one hundred essays that used theoretical ideas to illuminate specific empirical problems — the rise of Nazism, social stratification, the Joseph McCarthy movement, order in international relations, universities, and American religion and values. Often caricatured as a Grand Theorist advocating a closed system, Parsons was actually a pragmatic critic who sought to refine basic sociological concepts to enhance their empirical implications.
- Bourricaud, F. (1981) The Sociology of Talcott Parsons. University of Chicago Pess, Chicago, IL.
- Fox, C. (1997) Talcott Parsons, my teacher. American Scholar 66 (3): 395—H0.
- Parsons, T. (1949)  The Structure of Social Action. Free Press, New York.
- Parsons, T. (1951) The Social System. Free Press, New York.
- Parsons, (1969) Politics and Social Structure. Free Press, New York.
- Parsons, T. & Smelser, N. J. (1956) Economy and Society. Free Press, New York.