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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 idea that every group or society tends to fulfill four "functional imperatives." The first of these is adaptation, adaptation to the physical and social environment. The second is goal attainment, which is the need to define primary goals and enlist individuals to strive to attain these goals. The third is integration, the coordination of the society or group as a cohesive whole. The last is latency, maintaining 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 enable communication across them. This attempt to span the world with four concepts was too much for many American sociologists, who were then undergoing a retreat from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical, grounded approach. Parsons' influence waned rapidly in the US after 1970. Nevertheless, many of his students, including Robert K. Merton, Neil Smelser , and Clifford Geertz, remain among the most important figures in the social sciences.

Perhaps the most noteworthy theoretical contributions from Parsons were the formulations of pattern variables, the AGIL Paradigm , and the Unit Act .

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

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

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. Essentially, 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, as illustrated on the following chart:

Dimension Expressive Instrumental
Status identity Ascription Achievement
Functions of relations Diffuse - Many functions Specific functions
Interaction Style Particular - Actors, Situations Universal - Norms, Values
Quality of relations Affective Instrumental
Priorities Group Self

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.

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Pattern Variables

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45