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The social thought of talcott parsons

The Social Thought of
Talcott Parsons
Methodology and American Ethos

Uta Gerhardt

The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

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The Social Thought of
Talcott Parsons
Methodology and American Ethos

Uta Gerhardt
University of Heidelberg, Germany

© Uta Gerhardt 2011
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Gerhardt, Uta, 1938The social thought of Talcott Parsons : methodology and
American ethos. -- (Rethinking classical sociology)
1. Parsons, Talcott, 1902-1979. 2. Sociology.
I. Title II. Series
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gerhardt, Uta, 1938The social thought of Talcott Parsons : methodology and American ethos / by Uta
p. cm. -- (Rethinking classical sociology)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4094-2767-4 (hbk) -- ISBN 978-1-4094-2768-1 (ebook)
1. Parsons, Talcott, 1902-1979. 2. Sociology--United States--History.
3. Sociology--United States--Methodology. I. Title.
HM477.U6P374 2011


ISBN9781409427674 (hbk)
ISBN9781409427681 (ebk)

Printed and bound in Great Britain by
TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall.

Prefaceâ•… â•…


PART Iâ•… Themes

Positioning the Parsons Projectâ•…â•…


PART IIâ•… Tenets

A Product of Modern European Civilization: Translating
into English Max Weber’s Die protestantische Ethik und
der Geist des Kapitalismusâ•… â•… 57


A Charter for Modern Sociology: The Social System and
the Ethos of American Democracyâ•…â•…


PART IIIâ•… Dialogs

Encounters with the Frankfurt School: A Story of Exile,
Estrangement, and Epistemologyâ•…â•…



Beyond Sociological Imagination: The Controversy with
C. Wright Mills over Power and Knowledge â•…â•…



“… will not down:” The Clash with Utilitarianism in the
Name of the American Societal Communityâ•…â•…


Part IVâ•… Positions

The Parsons Project Today: Social Thought for the
Twenty-first Century â•…â•…

Epilogueâ•… â•…
Bibliographyâ•… â•…
Name Indexâ•… â•…
Subject Indexâ•… â•…


Democracy wishes to raise up mankind,
to give it freedom;
and its greatest strength lies
in its deep spiritual and moral self-consciousness.
Thomas Mann
“I am an American” (1940)

The Disobedient Generation,1 a collection of autobiographical accounts of
American, British, French, German, and Italian sociologists, documenting how
some dismissed their intellectual mentors in the 1960s, makes Parsons a bygone
thinker of yesteryear. In that fateful-cum-fruitful decade, says Jeffrey Alexander,
“Talcott Parsons saw the other side of the pattern variables, and the strain
modernity placed on men, but believed that balance could be preserved by hearth
and home.”2 John Hall remembers how in these formative years, “the spirit of
the time and a background in history made me critical of the consensual theories
of Talcott Parsons,”3 when he himself, he recollects, was “much concerned with
forces of social change.”
It seems odd that Parsons, arguably the greatest English-speaking sociologist
of the twentieth century, should have been disowned by his students among The
Disobedient Generation, considering that he himself, Parsons, the doyen of the
discipline in the 1950s, had rebelled against the sociology well established in the
United States only decades earlier. His foremost achievement as a young scholar,
as has been maintained elsewhere and will be argued again in this book, was that
he rejected Social Darwinism which was the dominant creed well into the 1930s.4
Indeed, he used a quote from Crane Brinton’s English Political Thought in the
Nineteenth Century5 dismissing the theory of Herbert Spencer, then a towering
authority in social science in America, in the very first passage of The Structure of
Social Action:6 “Who now reads Spencer? … His God has betrayed him. We have
evolved beyond Spencer.”7
1â•… Alan Sica and Stephen Turner (eds) (2005), The Disobedient Generation: Social
Theorists in the Sixties (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
2â•… Jeffrey C. Alexander (2005b), “The Sixties and Me: From Cultural Revolution to
Cultural Theory,” in Sica and Turner (eds), The Disobedient Generation, 37–47, p. 38.
3â•… John A. Hall (2005), “Life in the Cold,” in Sica and Turner (eds), The Disobedient
Generation, 129–40, p. 134; the next quote is from the same page.
4â•… Uta Gerhardt (2002), Talcott Parsons: An Intellectual Biography (New York:
Cambridge University Press), Chapter 1: “Understanding The Structure of Social Action”
discusses “The Long Shadow of Darwinism,” 22–32.
5â•… Crane Brinton (1933), English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century
(London: Benn).
6â•… Talcott Parsons (1968), The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory
With Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers (New York: McGraw Hill
1937; 3rd edition, New York: The Free Press).
7â•… Ibid., 3.


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

Little did the believers in human diversity and social change among the
contributors to The Disobedient Generation realize that Parsons in the 1960s was
neither a conservative, nor did he deny the forces of social change. On the contrary,
his pledge for America meant that he advocated, for one, “full citizenship” for
Black Americans.8 This should have convinced his students of yesteryear, instead
of giving them cause for distancing themselves from his groundbreaking work.
In other words, the vision of the social thought of Parsons that the sociological
canon entertains, needs revision and repair urgently. The folklore that he promoted
outdated structural-functionalism, nothing else, should be abandoned.
My book makes one determined effort to set the record straight. Parsons, I
argue, was a classic whose work followed Max Weber, the doyen of the twentieth
century. The 17 books (including seven volumes of collected essays) and nearly
200 scholarly articles that he published in his lifetime, were all meant to follow
in the footsteps of Weber, the giant on whose shoulders he stood. In my view,
Parsons set an agenda for sociology, applying as he did the conceptual approach
of Weber, suitably amended by the philosophy of Alfred N. Whitehead, an eyeopener for our discipline until today. No mere exegesis of Weber’s writings was on
his mind, but he used the social thought of Weber together with work of American
as well as British scholars, among them George Herbert Mead and John Maynard
Keynes, to mention but two, to set up a panorama of modern industrial society in
its undeniable humanity. It seems vital to understand this intellectual project.
In regard of Weber, this book puts Parsons’s first major opus, The Structure
of Social Action, in line with his translation into English, published in 1930, of
Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.9 The analytical focus
of his world-famous The Social System, published in 1951, is also Weberian. And
Weber is still on his mind in the 1960s—now supplemented by the other towering
classic, Émile Durkheim10—right until his last, unfinished, book manuscript of the
1970s, The American Societal Community (published recently under the title of
American Society).11
One vantage point of both Parsons and Weber, which this book dwells on, is
that methodology, the use of heuristic constructs in conceptual schemes, is the
guarantor of systematic social science. That is to say, Weber as well as Parsons
8â•… Parsons, “Full Citizenship for the Negro American? A Sociological View,”
Daedalus, vol. 94, 1965, 1009–54; see also Chapters 6 and 7 below.
9â•… Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott
Parsons (1930) (London: Allen and Unwin, New York: Scribner’s Sons); see also Chapter€2
10â•… See especially: Émile Durkheim, La division du travail social (originally, 1893),
2nd Edition, 1902 (Paris: Félix Alcan); translated 1933: Émile Durkheim on the Division of
Labor in Society, being a translation of his De la division du travail social (New York: The
Macmillan Company).
11â•… Talcott Parsons (2007), American Society: A Theory on the American Societal
Community, edited and with an introduction by Guiseppe Sciortino (Boulder, CO:



opposed positivism that had been established originally in the theories of, notably
Spencer in the 19th century who emulated Charles Darwin. First in his Dr. phil.
dissertation on the theory of capitalism of Weber, Parsons realized how important
methodological grounding is for concept formation, the endeavor that was first
introduced into modern sociology in Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money (first
published in 1900).12 Parsons honored the European tradition, if only in the subtitle
of The Structure of Social Action, namely A Study in Social Theory with Special
Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers.
Weber’s principles of “Objektivität” and “Wertfreiheit,” the hub of Weberian
Wissenschaftslehre,13 became a must for Parsons’s social thought, suitably
adapted to the American philosophical tradition. “Objectivity,” for Weber, meant
that conceptual schemes are neither realist nor idealist, but explanation hinges
on analytical schemes.14 “Value freedom,” for Weber, meant that no ideology
should interfere with sociological thought: When his friend Robert Michels joined
syndicalism in Italy and soon became a follower of Mussolini, Weber discontinued
their relationship (he could not tolerate such “ethics of conviction,” even in a
friend), and Marxism was another credo that had nothing to do with scientific
thought.15 Parsons followed Weber on both these counts. The modern sociology
that he explicated, from The Structure of Social Action to The American Societal
Community, followed the methodological program of Weber. How much the
conceptual frame of reference matters in modern sociology, this book documents
in extensive detail. Nevertheless, I should add, both Weber and Parsons when
they opposed weltanschauung in social thought, felt inclined, even urged, to
have a standpoint and take sides in the political debates of the day. Parsons, as it
happened, became an ardent enemy of Nazism as he joined the Harvard Defense
Group in the 1940s, opposed McCarthyism in the 1950s, and in 1968, as President
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, helped Russian dissident Andrej
Sacharov to publish a sensational peace plan in the New York Times, to mention
but some of Parsons’s politics—though all his life he was as loath as Weber had
been to compromise his scholarship.
12â•… Georg Simmel (1900), Philosophie des Geldes (Munich and Leipzig: Duncker
und Humblot; 2nd Edition, 1907). Translated, 2004: The Philosophy of Money, by Tom
Bottomore and Davis Frisby from a first draft by Kaethe Mengelberg (London: Routledge).
13â•… Max Weber (1922b), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, edited by
Johannes Winckelmann (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr; 3rd edition, 1968). A partial translation
of rather doubtful quality is: The Methodology of the Social Sciences – Max Weber (1949),
translated and edited by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch, with a foreword by Edward
A. Shils (New York: The Free Press).
14â•…Max Weber (1904), “Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und
sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, 3rd Edition,
15â•… Max Weber (1917a), “Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und
ökonomischen Wissenschaften,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, 489–540.


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

My other vantage point where Parsons and Weber are close, is that they take
account of history. That is, society has a history that the sociologist should take
note of, when conceptual analysis targets empirical society that invokes history.
Weber’s posthumously published classic Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy
and Society), given its title by its editor Marianne Weber when the original working
title had been Die Wirtschaft und die gesellschaftlichen Ordnungen und Mächte
(The Economy and the Social Orders and Powers), established the historical nature
of society through the use of analytical types. For instance, there are, as Weber
stipulated, three “pure” types and a further eight types of legitimate authority,
and Weber uses these types as he makes sense using this typology of historical
society (societies). In The Structure of Social Action, Parsons merges Weber’s
“pure” types so that two comprehensive structures of social action emerge—one
anomie standing for dictatorship, named after lawlessness originally explained by
Émile Durkheim,16 combining the types of traditional and charismatic authority,
the other integration emulating Weber’s type of rational-legal authority denoting
modern society. Weber had taken the contemporary world of his day, the German
and British Empires plus America at the turn of the centuries, additional to the vast
range of historical societies he had studied, as he set out to explicate variations
in the relationship between the economy and the structures of order and power.
Parsons likewise took for the grounding of his theory the society as experienced,
the empirical world of the day, from the 1930s when National Socialism reigned
in Germany and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States, to the 1960s and
beyond when in the United States the Civil Rights Movement set the agenda for
modernization of that modern society. In the preface of The Structure of Social
Action, he saw as his subject matter “the main features of the modern economic
order, … ‘capitalism’, ‘free enterprise’, ‘economic individualism’, as it has been
variously called.”17 In the introduction to The Negro American, a book for which
President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a foreword, Parsons addressed as the subject
matter in the book, in his “Introduction: Why ‘Freedom Now’, Not Yesterday:”—
“the type of social change now occurring.”18
History mattered for Weber in his times of fierce competition between
nation states, often monarchies, rarely democracies, in the era culminating
in World War€I, with its aftermath of revolution and transformation mainly in
Europe. History matters for Parsons in the 1930s and 1940s when mostly fascist
dictatorships reigned in most of Europe and democracy prevailed at any rate in the
United States, where liberalism withstood the Great Depression and sustained the
16â•… Émile Durkheim (originally in French, 1893), The Division of Labor in Society
(re-edition, New York: The Free Press, 1964); Durkheim (originally in French, 1897), The
Suicide: A Study in Sociology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952).
17â•…Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, xxii.
18â•… Parsons, “Introduction: Why ‘Freedom Now’, Not Yesterday”? in: Parsons and
Kenneth B. Clark (eds), The American Negro (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin 1966),



war effort. History in the 1960s, for Parsons, meant equality in America, though
it had not been realized fully in two centuries of its history, but a real perspective
of social change was being opened up at last. In Parsons’s work, as this book
documents, the United States play the role of the society capable of historical
change, when the society of the day fosters the empirical basis for the concept
formation that sociological thought stands for.
In the tradition of Weber who made conceptual schemes imperative for modern
sociology, Parsons envisages the “American ethos.”19 The term is central in his
second major work, The Social System, the masterpiece still noteworthy worldwide
until today—though somewhat notorious with some of its all too outspoken
critics. The idea of democracy is the model that Parsons sets, to follow wherever
dictatorship gives way to constitutionalism, replacing constraint by consensus—
this major baseline of Parsons’s social thought should be brought out clearly.
Parsons’s sociology, I venture in this book, explores the merits and achievements
of democracy, the most advanced type of society in the history of mankind. For
him, the United States are the model to emulate worldwide—in the sense that
the most advanced industrial society and also the oldest modern democracy can
help sociology focus its conceptual perspective. He chooses America—though a
society far from perfect—for the model that emulates his conceptual perspective,
because historically the United States had been a democracy, in his lifetime, for
nearly 200 years. That there was vast scope for further improvement, he is the
first to acknowledge. It is in this vein that he speaks of “American ethos” in The
Social System,20 explicating the value-orientation pattern that signals democracy
and stands for modernity. The mental image to follow is not the American dream,
but the “American ethos.” Such orientation combines “ethos” with “American;”
it is not only the image American society tends to cultivate for itself—ethos that
means the real-life pattern—but it also stands in social science for the knowledge
interest that Weber related to “Objectivity”-cum-“Value freedom,” the principles
of adequate methodology.
The four parts of this book are symmetrically organized though unequal
in length and number of chapters. Part 1 which consists of Chapter 1, outlines
Parsons’s sociological project, detailing four main themes in the three phases of
his intellectual biography. Part 2 focuses in two chapters, 2 and 3, on the early work
and “middle phase,” with special reference to the translation of Weber’s essay on
Protestantism and modern capitalism, and The Social System, the classic work that
encompassed structural-functionalism, when it was soon amended and eventually
replaced by a different approach altogether. Part 3 traces the debates that Parsons
was involved in, as they gave rise to and accompanied constant revision of his
conceptual framework, during the time when his late oeuvre took shape. Chapters
4–6 recapitulate the controversies with the Frankfurt School, C. Wright Mills, and
utilitarianism that resurfaces in the economism of, for one, Gary Becker. Part Four,
19â•… See especially, Chapter 3 below.
20â•… Talcott Parsons (1951), The Social System (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press), 108.


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

one long chapter, Chapter 7, the longest in the book, delineates three realms where
Parsonian social thought may still be an eye-opener today—the study of social
inequality, civil society, and globalization, respectively. The Epilogue goes back
to methodology and the “American ethos,” connecting them with Weberian social
This book has many fathers and mothers, the colleagues and friends who
encouraged my going back to Parsons again and again: I felt that I could argue
a novel understanding of Parsons’s social thought. My special thank-you goes to
Bernard Barber, devoted good friend, who never tired of reminding me that my
prose should be analytic, never too narrative—though I am afraid that he might
have found this book a bit too much on the narrative side nevertheless. I also
thank Anne Rawls who has supported my scholarship on Parsons throughout. Our
debates on American sociology were an idea-giver and a reminder that not all has
been said about social theory. That American ethos and methodology are the foci
of Parsonian social thought, is the theme of this book. My profound thanks go to
all who helped me clarify this view. Needless to say, all shortcomings are entirely
my own.
Two last comments: throughout, I use the male mode of speaking when I refer
to both men and women as actors, authors, thinkers. As a female, I hope to be
granted the liberty of speaking of men when the reference is to both men and
The chapters are organized as if they were essays, to make it possible to read
each on its own, though their order is roughly chronological. The reader may
choose which chapter to read at a time, as he goes along. The literature in the
various chapters is documented fully in each of them, in footnotes placed at the
bottom of the pages. A full bibliography plus a name and subject index are added
at the end of the book.


This page has been left blank intentionally

Chapter 1

Positioning the Parsons Project
In volume IV of Theoretical Logic in Sociology, The Modern Reconstruction
of Classical Thought: Talcott Parsons, published in 1983 and influential until
today, Jeffrey Alexander honored Parsons as a classic whose work he respected,
but could not help rejecting his accomplishments.1
Alexander charged Parsons with a two-fold methodological error: mistaking
formalized social theory for empirical reality,2 and also embracing neopositivism through the systems approach with its four-cell action schemas,3 was
methodologically erroneous.
Also, supposedly a two-fold presuppositional error needed mention. In
his early work Parsons apparently endorsed idealism as he shunned from a
multidimensional model that would have been viable empirically,4 and in his late
oeuvre allegedly perceived the social (societal) community unduly harmonious
when empirical evidence showed how highly ambivalent cultural structures are.5
More than 25 years later, Alexander still targets Parsons for presumed
idealism.6 In 2002, in his presentation at the Russell Sage Foundation Conference
1â•… Jeffrey C. Alexander (1983), The Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought:
Talcott Parsons, vol. IV in Theoretical Logic of Sociology (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press).
2â•… Parsons supposedly claimed empirical status for his theoretical argument,
and substantiated this claim with the convergence between, for one, the theories of
Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, in The Structure of Social Action, says Alexander:
“‘Convergence,’ for Parsons, is equivalent to empirical verification.” Ibid., 155.
3â•… Parsons allegedly mistook the “elements in the interchange analysis” for “the nature
of systems,” warned Alexander, such that reality was lost sight of when systems and their
elements were the only theme: “Interchange would allow him to ‘deduce,’ formally, every
segment of institutional life.” Ibid., 174.
4â•… “On scrutinizing the densely argued pages of The Structure of Social Action,
one cannot avoid the conclusion that Parsons is not sure whether he is arguing for a
multidimensional theory or simply against an instrumentalist one.” Ibid., 213.
5â•… “By conducting a series of powerfully multidimensional arguments which are
distinctly sociological – which consider norms only as they interact with political, economic,
and value exigencies – Parsons himself demonstrates the absurdity of his claims.” Ibid.,
6â•…In The Civil Sphere, Alexander stresses against Parsons the dynamic, that is, conflictprone, side of social life, which he, Alexander, in Modern Reconstruction of Classical
Thought (241–54) had dealt with in the subchapter entitled “The Tilt Toward Pattern
Maintenance and Integration: Interchange and the Distortion of Parsons’ Generalized


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

commemorating the centenary of Parsons’s birth, Alexander specifies for the
societal community “The Promise and Disappointment of Parsons’s Concept,”7
considering “the dialectics of modernity.”8 Parsons should have exposed the
contradictory rather than consensual forces, Alexander charges:
To reconstruct a more satisfactory theory of the societal community, one
would have to look closely at how processes of anti-universalism, which have
often led to destruction rather than progress, were (and are) built into the
processes and definitions of modernity itself. … If the endemic and dangerous
persistence of particularism and exclusion is theorized, then one must dispense
with the utopian idea that value consensus will produce social integration,
much less justice.

To disagree with Alexander as he lectures Parsons for utopianism, means to raise
doubts in defense of Parsons. Alexander seems to adopt the criticism voiced
since the 1950s. However, Parsons’s merits have been rediscovered gradually
since the 1980s.
The new beginnings took a decade. It became obvious from authentic sources
that Parsons had conceptualized the economy as he analyzed society,9 had focused
on modernity,10 and had analyzed National Socialism.11 No longer could Alvin
Gouldner’s 1970 strictures hold sway, which had made the Harvard department
responsible for The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology.12 No longer was the urge

Concept.” Jeffrey C. Alexander (2006), The Civil Sphere (New York: Oxford University
Press), 568. See also below, Chapter 7.
7â•… Jeffrey C. Alexander, “Contradictions in the Societal Community: The Promise and
Disappointment of Parsons’s Concept,” in Renée Fox, Victor Lidz, and Harold Bershady
(eds) (2005), After Parsons: A Theory of Social Action for the Twenty-First Century (New
York: Russell Sage Foundation), 93–110.
8â•… Ibid., 106; the next quote is from the same page.
9â•… Robert J. Holton and Bryan S. Turner (1986), Talcott Parsons on Economy and
Society (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul).
10â•… Roland Robertson and Bryan S. Turner (eds) (1991), Talcott Parsons – Theorist of
Modernity (London: Sage).
11â•… Talcott Parsons on National Socialism (1993), edited and with an introduction by
Uta Gerhardt (New York: Aldine de Gruyter).
12â•… Alvin Gouldner (1970), The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (New York: Basic
Books). It should be mentioned that Gouldner’s criticism was also directed against Harold
Garfinkel and Erving Goffman, both deemed authors of morally reprehensive theory.

Positioning the Parsons Project


felt as in the 1970s, to “de-Parsonize Weber,”13 but rather the need arose to reestablish the Weberian Parsons.14
Vigorous debate in the last two decades has yielded criticism15 but also
praise, the latter sometimes fraught with pedagogic effort.16
Nevertheless, things have improved considerably over the last decade. The
2005 special issue of the Journal of Classical Sociology has no unduly critical
overtones,17 and the American Journal of Economics and Sociology of 2006
stages a comeback for Parsons the economist, acknowledging that he emphasized
the social aspects of the economy.18 At any rate, no longer is he judged an ardent
supporter of the capitalist nation-state,19 neither is he said to have chosen his
13â•… Jere Cohen, Lawrence E. Hazelrigg, and Whitney Pope (1975a), “De-Parsonizing
Weber: A Critique of Parsons’s Interpretation of Weber’s Sociology,” American Sociological
Review, vol. 40, 229–41; Talcott Parsons (1975c), “Comment on De-Parsonizing Weber,”
American Sociological Review, vol. 40, 666–70; Jere Cohen, Lawrence E. Hazelrigg, and
Whitney Pope (1975b), “Reply to Parsons,” American Sociological Review, vol. 40, 670–
14â•… Uta Gerhardt (2005b), “The Weberian Talcott Parsons: Sociological Theory in
Three Decades of American History,” in Renée Fox et al. (eds), After Parsons (New York:
Russell Sage Foundation), 208–39.
15â•… Two criticisms: Bruce Wearne (1989), The Theory and Scholarship of Talcott
Parsons To 1951: A Critical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), and
Gabriele Pollini and Guiseppe Sciortino (eds) (2001), Parsons’ The Structure of Social
Action and Contemporary Debates (Milan: Franco Angeli).
16â•… Two pedagogic efforts: In the 1970s, Jackson Toby rewrote Parsons’s two
companion volumes Societies and The System of Modern Society, uniting them into one
book under the title The Evolution of Societies, to make Parsons’s prose better readable—
an endeavor that Parsons, curiously, seems to have welcomed personally. More recently,
Victor Lidz means to explain Parsons’s interaction media, taking the motives of a dean in
a hypothetical case of a faculty decision about tenure to be explicable in Parsonian terms
of power, influence, etc., invoking money, power, influence, and value-commitments, the
media of interaction—as if Parsons had not conceptualized these media as so-called “non
zero-sum” phenomena in terms that are not what everyday language makes them out to be.
See, Talcott Parsons (1977b), The Evolution of Societies, edited and with an introduction
by Jackson Toby (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall); Victor Lidz, “Language and the
‘Family’ of Generalized Symbolic Media,” in Xavier Trevino (ed.) (2001), Talcott Parsons
Today: His Theory and Legacy in Contemporary Sociology (Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Littlefield), 141–76.
17â•… The special issue: The Journal of Classical Theory, vol. 5, no. 3, November 2005.
The articles focus on the sociology of the economy, sociology of religion, etc.
18â•… The special issue: The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 65,
no. 1, January 2006. Additional to printing a transcript from a Seminar that Parsons gave
at Brown University in 1973, the special issue’s articles appreciate his contribution to
economic themes cogently.
19â•… See, William Buxton (1986), Talcott Parsons and the Capitalist Nation-State:
Political Sociology as a Strategic Vocation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

intellectual predecessors on the grounds that he wished to promote his career at
In 2007, Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council
since 1999, on behalf of the American Sociological Association, edited an
authoritative history entitled Sociology in America.21 This book has not taken
notice of Parsons as the icon of American social thought, however. Some authors
in this collection see him even following in the footsteps of Herbert Spencer,
the theorist whose work he declared “dead” in The Structure of Social Action,22
merely because, on the occasion of the re-edition of Spencers The Study of
Sociology in 1961,23 Parsons wrote an introduction to that book. The charge is
that he returned to Spencer in the 1960s with no apparent apprehension.24
Others in Sociology in America claim that Parsons returned to positivism
in the 1950s.25 Calhoun criticizes such endeavor: “Parsons’ functionalist theory
would by the 1960s provide one of the dominant images of a disciplinary
mainstream (in all senses of the term disciplinary),”26 when he endorses the
criticism of C. Wright Mills who, in The Sociological Imagination in 1959, had
“satirized” Parsons’s functionalism as “grand theory” behind which allegedly
lurked a “lack of critical attention to public problems.” Calhoun applauds Mills:
“In a range of books through the 1950s he had pursued intellectual analyses that
could also reach broad publics, with Power Elite most prominent.”27
My interpretation makes a fresh start. This chapter places Parsons in the
middle of modern theory. My first theme is “The Quest for Methodology” that
puts him into the historical perspective of the cultural sciences, for one, and
looks at “The Politics of Theory” in defense of democracy. My second theme
20â•… See, Charles Camic (1992), “Reputation and Predecessor Selection: Parsons and
the Institutionalists,” American Sociological Review, vol. 57, 421–45.
21â•… Craig Calhoun (ed.) (2007), Sociology in America: A History (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press).
22â•… Craig Calhoun and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (2007), “Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and
Hierarchy: ‘Mainstream’ Sociology and Its Challenges,” in Calhoun (ed.), Sociology in
America, 367–410, especially p. 379.
23â•… Parsons, “Introduction” (1961d), in the reprint of: Herbert Spencer, The Study of
Sociology (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press).
24â•… Daniel Breslau: “Years after declaring Spencer’s death, Parsons elaborated a
structural functionalism that may have owed more to Spencer than Durkheim and Weber.”
Daniel Breslau (2007), “The American Spencerians: Theorizing a New Science,” in
Calhoun (ed.), Sociology in America, 39–62, p. 61. Breslau’s reference: Jonathan Turner
(1985), Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage).
25â•… See, for example, George Steinmetz (2007), “American Sociology Before and
After World War II: The (Temporary) Settling of a Disciplinary Field,” in Calhoun (ed.),
Sociology in America, 314–66, especially p. 350.
26â•… Craig Calhoun (2007), “Sociology in America: An Introduction,” in Calhoun (ed.),
Sociology in America, 1–38, p. 35; the next three quotes are from the same page.
27â•… For more discussion on Parsons and Mills, see Chapter 5 below.

Positioning the Parsons Project


is that he entered into and was targeted by fierce controversy, sketched in the
section “The Torment of Debate.” My third theme is the legacy of his approach,
30 years after his death, for sociology today, carrying the torch of Weber, in the
section “The Imprint of Time.”
The Quest for Methodology
Spencerian Positivism and Its Enemy, German Philosophy
Unquestionably, Spencer did not invent positivism, neither did he coin the name
sociology. Both, to be sure, were accomplishments of Auguste Comte, the selftaught apostle of social thought who proposed that society be planned under the
maxime, savoir pour prévoir, prévoir pour règler. Obviously, the Comtean analysis
lacked any semblance to what Max Weber was to call “value freedom:” Comte had
no use for the distinction between Sociological Inquiry, on the one hand, and social
engineering, on the other.
Spencer’s earliest treatise, entitled Social Statics: Or The Conditions Essential
to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed, first appeared
in 1851.28 The book was a treatise in moral philosophy, intent on proving that the
governing principle of social life was human nature expressed in faculties on which
depended the advance of civilization. This principle, Spencer stated, underlay the
“laws of social existence,”29 the most important of which was what he called “the
law of equal freedom.” This law entailed that human happiness was greatest when
and if individuals acted in conjunction with the conditions of society that were most
congenial to the perfection of humankind. On that note, the principle of society was,
he asserted, “the law of the perfect man—the law in obedience to which perfection
consists.”30 Social statics, the structure that fitted progress best, guaranteed that
everybody be free to “exercise his faculties”31 to the full. Otherwise, one would
be punished through, notably, falling into poverty or suffering from physical or
mental deficiencies. Therefore, the more imperfect men were being allowed to
exist, Spencer opined, the more the continuous improvement of civilization was
being threatened. As to individuals, inferior social status or any other stigmatized
condition was punishment in Spencer’s eyes, due to the person’s failure to use his
faculties to the full:

28â•… Herbert Spencer (1851), Social Statics: Or the Conditions Essential to Human
Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (London: John Chapman),
republished 1970 by Gregg International Publishers Ltd., Farnborough, UK.
29â•… Ibid., 11; the next quote is from the same page.
30â•… Ibid., 55.
31â•… Ibid., 76; the next quote is from the same page, emphasis original.


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons
Now if God wills man’s happiness, and man’s happiness can be obtained only by
the exercise of his faculties, then God wills that man should exercise his faculties;
that is, it is man’s duty to exercise his faculties; for duty means fulfilment of the
Divine will. That it is man’s duty to exercise his faculties is further proved by the
fact, that what we call punishment attaches to the neglect of that exercise.

Progress, in particular, came through the law of equal freedom. This was evident
because the most prosperous societies were also the most advanced culturally,
Spencer maintained. The dynamics of evolution meant perfection, that is, those
nearer perfection were also the more civilized races or classes. They had every right
to defend their prerogatives against those less civilized or privileged. From this
understanding of history as guarantor of progress, Spencer condemned the poorlaws as well as general education. These modern institutions presumably posed
undue constraints upon the most successful (who were also the most civilized)
in societies where the government made the rich pay for the welfare of the less
affluent. The modern welfare state was seen to hinder rather than facilitate progress
toward the perfection and the utmost happiness of humankind, respectively.32
This was the philosophical doctrine for which Spencer claimed objectivity as
moral thought. He maintained that he looked at the facts and could thereby arrive
at substantiated insights. What, then, were these facts? They lay, he suggested, in
evolution as it entailed progress toward the best possible purpose of history, the
perfection of mankind. However, if mankind did not learn the lessons of history,
he warned, suffering would continue to take its toll in the world. He explained
that the primordial heritage had to be honored by mankind. This meant that the
present unsatisfactory state of facts would not change unless the most cultivated
enjoyed the fullest liberty, and the less cultivated or less able would die early and,
if possible, childless:
[T]he manifold evils which have filled the world for these thousands of years—
the murders, enslavings, and robberies—the tyrannies of rulers, the oppressions
of class, the persecutions of sect and party, the multiform embodiments of
selfishness in unjust laws, barbarous customs, dishonest dealings, exclusive
manners, and the like—are simply instances of the disastrous working of this
original and once needful constitution, now that mankind have grown into
conditions for which it is not fitted – are nothing but symptoms of the suffering
attendant upon the adaptation of humanity to its new circumstances.33

The justification for these assumptions, for Spencer, lay in historical determinism:
32â•… For this theme in Spencer’s social thought, see Chapter 25, 311–29, in Social Statics
where he warned against the poor-laws, and Chapter 26, 330–56, where he denounced
national education, that is, general schooling that supposedly impeded the natural sense of
self-preservation in the élite.
33â•… Social Statics, 413.

Positioning the Parsons Project


Derived, therefore, as it is, directly from the Divine will, and underlying as it
does the right organization of society, the law of equal freedom is of higher
authority than all other laws. The creative purpose demands that everything shall
be subordinated to it. Institutions and social forms must just marshal themselves
as it commands.34

Spencer, apparently, stated these “facts” from what he deemed a strictly logical
standpoint. He took logic as the proof that his theory was historically objective.
He considered logical precision, which he attempted in his works, the necessary
and sufficient condition for truth in sociological explanation. His basic assumption
was that the laws of nature, especially that most important law of equal freedom,
governed social life. Nature rather than nurture ruled supreme in the social world,
he stated. The following passage made this plain:
If a sentiment responds to some necessity of our condition, its dictates must be
respected. If otherwise—if opposed to a necessity, instead of in harmony with
one, we must regard that sentiment as the product of circumstances, of education,
of habit, and consequently without weight. However much, therefore, the giving
of political power to women may disagree with our notions of propriety, we must
conclude that, being required by the first pre-requisite to greatest happiness—the
law of equal freedom—such a concession is unquestionably right and good.35

Spencer’s earliest work, no doubt, contained in nuce the doctrine of natural
selection. This doctrine dominated the discussion on the progress of civilization
during the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.
To be sure, it was Spencer from whom Charles Darwin in the late 1850s borrowed
as he did the idea of natural selection.36
Although Darwin, it seems, invented the terms “survival of the fittest” and
“struggle for existence,” it was Spencer, in 1852, who first discussed these themes
in his A New Theory of Population: Deduced from the General Law of Animal
Fertility.37 The booklet was directed against then contemporary hopes that new
developments in agriculture plus a certain “procreative inability” caused by
“excessive alimentation,” as the introduction to the American reprint of 1852
phrased it, could prevent overpopulation.38 Spencer squashed such hopes: fertility
in humans, he maintained, followed the same laws as in subhumans, even non34â•… Ibid., 195–6.
35â•… Ibid., 179–80.
36â•… See, for further discussion: Gerhardt (2001c), “Darwinismus und Soziologie. Zur
Frühgeschichte eines langen Abschieds,” Heidelberger Jahrbücher, vol. 45, 183–214.
37â•… Spencer (1852), A New Theory of Population: Deduced from the General Law
of Animal Fertility. Republished from the Westminster Review, for April 1852. With an
Intoduction by R.T. Trall, M.D. (New York: Fowlers & Wells).
38â•… Ibid., 6.

The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons


vertebrae organisms. An all-pervasive “self-adjusting law,”39 he stated, aimed at the
perfection of the race and, consequently, fitness was the condition for survival, that
is, existence. He reasoned:
Everywhere vigorous life is the strength, activity, and sagacity whereby life is
maintained; and equally in descending the scale of being, or in watching the
decline of the invalid, we see that the ebbing away of life is the ebbing away of
the ability to preserve life.40

The highest organic life, men, particularly those who embodied the highest
evolutionary state of the species, above all modern Englishmen, arguably the most
civilized, Spencer asserted, commanded superior intelligence, a sure condition for
That which we call rationality is the power to combine or co-ordinate a great
number and a great variety of complex actions for the achievement of a desired
result. … [B]y choosing right modes, right times, right quantities, right qualities,
and performing his acts in the right order, [the husbandman, Spencer’s example]
attains his end. But if he have done too little of this, or too much of that, or have
done one thing when he should have done another—if his proceedings have been
badly coordinated; that is, if he have lacked intelligence, he fails.41

Improvements in agriculture could not guarantee life for the rapidly increasing
population in the modern world, Spencer asserted, because the laws of nature were
being broken. That is, those who survived, according to natural law, were and should
be the fittest. They should be the least weak, the most cunning, in one word: the
better race. Those who could not survive the hardships of life, he believed, should
not have the right to live. They should not be sustained through the help given them
from modern medicine or the support offered them in the modern welfare state, he
To substantiate this postulate, he claimed that the famine in Ireland, in the
1840s, had served the purpose of eliminating the weakest, those least fit for survival
in the struggle for existence:
This truth we have recently seen exemplified in Ireland. … For as those
prematurely carried off must, in the average of cases, be those in whom the power
of self-preservation is the least, it unavoidably follows, that those left behind
to continue the race are those in whom the power of self-preservation is the
greatest—are the select of their generation.42

Ibid., 7.
Ibid., 13.
Ibid., 11.
Ibid., 42.

Positioning the Parsons Project


Spencer in his later works—they were widely influential for decades—elaborated
further on these ideas. Among his other books were the four-volume Principles of
Psychology, the six-volume Principles of Ethics, and the three-volume Principles
of Sociology, additional to the vastly successful The Study of Sociology, first
published in 1873 and in its 11th edition in 1884.43
Spencer’s sociology did not go unchallenged, however. Against Spencer’s
sociology-cum-philosophy of history—but also John Stuart Mill in The Logic of the
Moral Sciences, the Sixth Book of A System of Logic ratiocinative and inductive,
being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific
investigation,44—German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey directed fierce criticism.
Dilthey’s strictures against Spencer but equally Comte and Mill became the
vantage point from which Georg Simmel, in the early 1890s, launched a sociology
that differed completely from that of Spencer, the beginning of modern sociology
as we know it today.
Dilthey’s influential classic Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften was first
published in 1883.45 Dilthey dedicated his book to Paul Yorck von Wartenburg
with whom, as a student, he had discussed the feasibility of a critique of historical
reason. The idea had been to supplement Immanuel Kant’s critique of pure reason,
which dealt mainly with the natural sciences, with a critique of historical reason
suited for the social (cultural) sciences. In the introductory chapter of Einleitung in
die Geisteswissenschaften, Dilthey spelled out his knowledge interest: he wished
not only to analyze society in its multifaceted reality in the modern world, but also
make it clear that science concerning society together with history was different
from knowledge about nature. The issue was, he explained, that the human mind
was special. Society as a subject area, therefore, was different from nature. The
mind in society and history did not function on laws that governed nature. To
pinpoint the sciences purporting to society and history, Dilthey coined the term
Geisteswissenschaften—a term in the plural, literally meaning the sciences of the
43â•… Spencer (1870–1872), The Principles of Psychology, 4 volumes (London: Williams
& Norgate); (1899) The Principles of Ethics, 6 volumes (originally, 1879) (New York:
Appleton & Co.); (1876–1896) The Principles of Sociology, 3 volumes (London: Williams
and Norgate); (1873) The Study of Sociology, 11th Edition (London: Kegan, 1884).
44â•… John Stuart Mill (1843), The Logic of the Moral Sciences, Book VI. A System of
Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence
and the Methods of Scientific Investigation, 8th Edition (London: Longmans, Green,
Reader, and Dyer, 1872), reprinted (1988) (Peru, IL: Open Court).
45â•… Wilhelm Dilthey (1883), Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. Versuch einer
Grundlegung für das Studium der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte. Erster Band, 9th
Edition, 1990 (Stuttgart: B.G. Teubner, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht). The book
has been translated into English twice: Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt
to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society (1988), translated and with an introductory
essay by Ramon J. Betanzos (Detroit: Wayne State University Press); Introduction to the
Human Sciences (1989), with an introduction by Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (eds)
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).


The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

mind.46 These Geisteswissenschaften analyzed intellectual processes constituting
cultural phenomena.47 These in turn were analyzed in their contexts, either a
particular society or historical epoch. Geisteswissenschaften, therefore, constituted
a new type of cultural science, one analyzing socio-cultural phenomena in their
setting that involves the human mind. Society, conceptualized in the terms that
invoke history, requires a special analytical approach, Dilthey felt. He therefore
introduced a special method, one suitable only for Geisteswissenschaften. The
method was systematic understanding, Verstehen. It was the method to analyze
meaning structures that explain experienced reality—a method clearly different
from what Mill and Spencer had proposed. Dilthey hastened to clarify that such
Verstehen was a cultural-science accomplishment, a method of scientific explanation
in its own right:48
Such method is in opposition to what recently the so-called positivists suggest as
they ground their conceptualizations in the natural sciences and derive the idea
of science from the latters’ view of nature, thereby assuming that they know from
their vantage point which intellectual endeavors deserve the name and rank of

Chapters 14–17 in Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften took Spencer as
well as Comte and Mill to task. Dilthey charged them with an obvious failure to
conceptualize their subject matter adequately, when he judged that their method
was not suitable for the purpose of explanation of social life as they presumed.
Chapter 14 criticized not only sociology but also the then current philosophy
of history—the latter including Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. Such
contemporary approaches, Dilthey felt, mistook historical life for the outcome of laws
that presumably were general as well as deterministic. But Geisteswissenschaften
focused on empirical phenomena that belonged into socio-historical contexts, a fact
that made them different from the knowledge derived from deterministic laws. The
46â•…Dilthey’s Geisteswissenschaften were to replace Mill’s moral sciences, dismissing
the idea that the sciences should merely extend their realm to society and history, but
retaining the idea that the moral dimension was crucial.
47â•… The translation into English of Geisteswissenschaften is often Human
Sciences, which catches Dilthey’s tenet that the human mind matters most, an arena for
intersubjectivity, the foundation for society and history.
48â•… Rather than comparing the various translations of Dilthey’s books that are on the
market as to how they render into English the German original, I use my own translations
into English, accompanied by the German original in footnotes.
49â•…Dilthey, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, 5. In the original: “Eine solche
Methode steht in Gegensatz zu einer neuerdings nur zu häufig gerade von den sogenannten
Positivisten geübten, welche aus einer meist in naturwissenschaftlichen Beschäftigungen
erwachsenen Begriffsbestimmung des Wissens den Inhalt des Begriffs Wissenschaft
ableitet und von ihm aus darüber entscheidet, welchen intellektuellen Beschäftigungen der
Name und Rang einer Wissenschaft zukomme.”

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