Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons was one of the most important American sociologists of the 20th century. He is the father of structuralist-functionalism, and he is credited for introducing European sociology to the US by translating important texts of European scholars. 

Talcott Parsons Talcott Parsons

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Table of contents

    In this explanation, we will look at the life and work of Talcott Parsons.

    • We will start by briefly looking at his life and career.
    • Then we will discuss Parsons's contribution to sociology.
    • We will look at his involvement with functionalism.
    • We will discuss his views on stratification, the family, education, and religion in more details.
    • Finally, we will include some of his most essential quotes.

    The life of Talcott Parsons

    Talcott Parsons was born in 1902 in Colorado, United States. He studied at Amherst College and at the London School of Economics. Initially, he was interested in biology and economics, and only later did he turn towards the social sciences.

    He got his PhD from University of Heidelberg. While studying there, he translated the works of Max Weber (including The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), thus introducing European sociology to American scholars.

    He started teaching economics and, later, sociology at Harvard University. Parsons got to know the works of Émile Durkheim and Vilfredo Pareto during his time at Harvard as economics instructor. They had a great influence on him. Including their work in his book, The Structure of Social Action (1937), drove Parsons closer and closer to the sociological perspective he became most associated with; functionalism.

    He became a professor in 1944 and, two years later, the chairman of the new social studies department. Parsons served as the president of the American Sociological Society in 1949.

    He remained a professor at Harvard until he retired in 1973. He died in 1979.

    Let's now go over some of his theories and works.

    Talcott Parsons' contributions to sociology

    Alongside functionalist theory (discussed below), Parsons is famous for creating a whole school of thought within sociology by connecting the discipline to clinical psychology and social anthropology. We will go briefly look at some of his most important works.

    The Structure of Social Action (1937)

    • This was Parsons’ first book.

    • It deals with the Hobbesian problem of how social order was possible.

    • It is mainly based on the works of Weber, Pareto and Durkheim.

    • Its conclusion is that social action was shaped by shared norms and values rather than on individual personalities (as argued by Freud and Weber).

    Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966)

    • In this work, he switches from the voluntary social action theory to an evolutionary approach and is said to revive macroscopic and comparative sociology in general.

    • Parsons breaks down evolution into three rather broad stages: primitive, intermediate and modern. The primitive and intermediate stages are broken into further substages and are described by Parsons through specific examples of societies.

      • Most primitive: Australian aborigines

      • Advanced primitive: Shilluk

      • Archaic intermediate: Ancient Egypt

      • Advanced intermediate: China

      • He discussed Ancient Israel and Greece as 'seed-bed' societies for, so origins of modern societies.

    Talcott Parsons and functionalism

    Talcott Parsons was one of the most important scholars of functionalism. He focused on how society achieves social stability, which he referred to as ‘dynamic equilibrium’.

    According to functionalists, all institutions and individuals serve a certain function in society, thus making sure of the smooth working of the whole social system.

    Parsons identified four functional sub-systems and their purposes in society. These sub-systems are:

    • economic sub-system,

    • political sub-system,

    • family sub-system, and

    • cultural sub-system.

    These sub-systems work not only in and of themselves but also for the other sub-systems to be able to function properly.

    Families can only perform their role of socialisation well if the economic sub-system provides work for the family members to earn their living. At the same time, the families are responsible for socialising children well and raise suitable workers for the economic sub-system of society.

    Talcott Parsons' theories of functionalism

    Parsons’ sociology is based on a general theoretical system rather than on smaller, empirical studies. He was known as a functionalist theorist; as such, his influential work spans many areas within sociology, including stratification, the family, education and religion. Let's go through Parsons' ideas now.

    Talcott Parsons on stratification

    According to Parsons, stratification is an inevitable and necessary part of society.

    He believed in effective role allocation, which meant that all individuals in society get roles that were best suited to their abilities, work ethic and qualifications. They were also rewarded for their work according to the importance of their jobs.

    Parsons believed that people competed on equal grounds, and they could achieve high status and high rewards if they worked hard and had talent, no matter where they came from. As such, he believed that society was meritocratic.

    His ideas on role allocation and stratification were later criticised by many sociologists, who argued that individuals do not compete on equal grounds and socio-economic status determines one’s status in society much more than their work ethic and abilities.

    Talcott Parsons on the nuclear family

    According to Parsons, nuclear families are responsible for teaching children the common values and norms of society and for providing adults with emotional support. In his famous study of families, he mainly focused on the idealised, middle-class, nuclear family, which was later criticised by sociologists.

    Talcott Parsons, family with children and grandparents, StudySmarter

    Parsons argues that families are agents of primary socialisation

    Parsons argued that the family has two significant functions in society: the primary socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Let us look at his findings in more detail.

    The nuclear family’s role in primary socialisation:

    Parsons claims that human personalities are made and not born. They are created through the process of socialisation. The main agent of primary socialisation is the family. There are two separate elements to this: the primary socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities.

    The primary socialisation of children refers to the process of teaching kids about society’s norms, rules and values, thus making them aware of what is right and wrong, and what is allowed and not allowed. They are also taught to work hard so that they can contribute to the labour force and the overall progress of society most effectively. This is how primary socialisation contributes to the stabilisation of society.

    The stabilisation of adult personalities refers to the process of families providing emotional support to their members. Life outside the home can be stressful, and one needs help to alleviate that stress and maintain their psychological well-being. Families help individuals keep stable, so society too, can remain stable.

    Loss of family functions

    G. P Murdock, another functionalist sociologist, claimed that the family performs four key functions. However, Parsons (1956) claimed that the nuclear family has gradually lost some functions over time. For example, the educational and economic functions are now fulfilled by other social institutions such as schools.

    According to Parsons, the nuclear family has become almost functionless for wider society.

    Criticism of Parsons' views on the functions of family:

    Parsons was criticised for focusing his research on the middle-class family, ignoring all types of family diversity. He makes no mention of other forms of family, such as communes, which fulfil all of the roles that he claimed families did not fulfil.

    Furthermore, Parsons was criticised for idealizing the nuclear family, ignoring dysfunction such as domestic abuse, child abuse and gender inequality.

    Talcott Parsons on education

    Parsons is a crucial theorist within the sociology of education. He further developed Durkheim’s functionalist theory of education, and argued that schools are agents of secondary socialisation and their responsibility is to prepare kids for adult life.

    According to Parsons, society is meritocratic, which means that all people have the same chances and opportunities open to them, and they can achieve status in society based on their abilities and qualifications rather than their socio-economic background. He claimed that schools are meritocratic too, thus resembling wider society.

    Talcott Parsons, library ceiling, StudySmarter

    According to Parsons, schools and universities were agents of secondary socialisation

    Universalistic standards

    Parsons argued that children have an ascribed status in the family, which they were given at birth. They are treated and judged in accordance with their parents' personal values. These are called particularistic standards. In the education system, children are treated according to the same universalistic standards rather than by the particularistic standards of the family. This prepares their entry into wider society.

    In wider society, people have achieved statuses, which they gain through their hard work or educational achievements. Schools play a crucial role in not only teaching children about this system but also in helping children transition from particularistic to universalistic standards.

    Value consensus

    According to Parsons, educational institutions focus on the transmission of two key values to their pupils: the importance of achievement and the value of equality of opportunity.

    • Students are encouraged to value educational achievement and strive for it through hard work and through maximising their potential.

    • Pupils are encouraged to believe that they compete on equal terms in the classroom.

    Meritocracy

    Parsons claimed that the education system was meritocratic. By this, he meant, that pupils’ education achievement and success were the result of their abilities and mentality to work and were not influenced by the students’ social class, gender or ethnicity.

    Role allocation

    Role allocation means that people are directed towards the jobs and positions in society which suit their abilities and work ethic the most, thus making sure that everyone has a role in wider society in which they can perform the best.

    Parsons saw education to be the place where children and young adults get the chance to gain qualifications for their specific roles in wider society.

    Criticism of Parsons' views on education

    Parsons is criticised for not realising that the values of the ruling class are the ones transmitted through education.

    Many sociologists have opposed the idea that the education system is meritocratic. Feminists argued that gender can play a crucial role in educational achievement and subject choice. They claim that the education system does not provide equal opportunity for boys and girls.

    Sociologists have also opposed the idea of role allocation by stating that often those with the best qualifications and abilities do not get the top positions. Many of the wealthiest individuals in the world have little educational and professional qualifications.

    Nurses are paid less than footballers, even though nurses are more qualified and have greater abilities.

    Parsons on religion

    Parsons believed that religion is closely connected to a society’s culture and its norms and values. As such, religion is a vital part of every society. It determines shared norms and rules, and it provides a widely accepted meaning for all human life.

    Religion can also help to make sense of unexpected and unwanted events and experiences that will inevitably occur in humans’ lives. Religion is therefore a necessary element for social order.

    What are some Talcott Parsons quotes?

    Parsons dominated American sociology up to the 60s. Afterwards, he was largely ignored because he was rather conservative and traditionalist. He saw man as an overly socialised being, which was challenged by many sociologists in the second half of the 20th century.

    Nevertheless, he remained one of the most important reference points for later scholars, especially due to his studies on the topics of family, women’s place in society, race relations, sickness and role allocation and authoritarianism in politics.

    • On building a system in sociology:

    The main concern of the study is with the outline of a theoretical system. Its minor variations from writer to writer are not a matter of concern to this analysis." (The Structure of Social Action, 1937)

    • On theory:

    Theory not only formulates what we know but also tells us what we want to know, that is, the questions to which an answer is needed." (Sociological Theory and Modern Society, 1967)

    • On the functions of the family:

    The functions of the family in a highly differentiated society are not to be interpreted as functions directly on behalf of the society, but on behalf of personality." (Family: Socialization and Interaction Process, 1956)

    • On science and society:

    Science is intimately integrated with the whole social structure and cultural tradition. They mutually support one other-only in certain types of society can science flourish, and conversely, without a continuous and healthy development and application of science such a society cannot function properly." (The Social System, 1951)

    Talcott Parsons - Key takeaways

    • Talcott Parsons was one of the most important American sociologists of the 20th century.
    • He is the father of structuralist-functionalism, and he is credited for introducing European sociology to the US by translating important texts of European scholars.
    • Parsons is famous for creating a whole school of thought within sociology, by connecting the discipline to clinical psychology and social anthropology.
    • Parsons’ sociology is based on a general theoretical system rather than on smaller, empirical studies. He created influential work in many areas within sociology, including studies on stratification, the family, education and religion.
    • Parsons dominated American sociology up to the 60s. Afterwards, he was largely ignored because he was rather conservative and traditionalist. He saw man as an overly socialised being, which was challenged by many sociologists in the second half of the 20th century.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Talcott Parsons

    What is Talcott Parsons' theory?

    Talcott Parsons was one of the most important American sociologists of the 20th century, who has created influential theories in several areas. Parsons’ sociology is based on a general theoretical system rather than on smaller, empirical studies. He was known as a functionalist theorist; as such, his influential work spans many areas within sociology, including stratification, the family, education and religion. 

    What was Talcott Parsons' contribution to sociology?

    Talcott Parsons was one of the most important American sociologists of the 20th century. He is the father of structuralist-functionalism, and he is credited for introducing European sociology to the US by translating important texts of European scholars. Alongside functionalist theory, Parsons is famous for creating a whole school of thought within sociology by connecting the discipline to clinical psychology and social anthropology.

    What did Parsons argue?

    Talcott Parsons was one of the most important scholars of functionalism. He focused on how society achieves social stability, which he referred to as ‘dynamic equilibrium’.

    According to functionalists, all institutions and individuals serve a certain function in society, thus making sure of the smooth working of the whole social system. 

    What is Talcott Parsons' action theory?

    Parsons established his action theory in his first book, The Structure of Social Action. It dealt with the Hobbesian problem of how social order was possible. Its conclusion is that social action was shaped by shared norms and values rather than on individual personalities (as argued by Freud and Weber).

    What are the four components of Parsons' action system?

    According to functionalists, all institutions and individuals serve a certain function in society, thus making sure of the smooth working of the whole social system. 

    Parsons identified four functional sub-systems and their purposes in society. These sub-systems are:

    • economic sub-system,

    • political sub-system,

    • family sub-system, and

    • cultural sub-system.

    These sub-systems work not only in and of themselves, but also for the other sub-systems to be able to function properly.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which sociological perspective was Talcott Parsons associated with?

    Which of these was Parsons' first book?

    According to Parsons, society is meritocratic.

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