Talcott Parsons: Critique
It might be argued that the prodigious, sometimes controversial, and always mind-boggling nature of Parsons' theoretical efforts has earned him his standing as a major contemporary American theorist. He discerned in all of its variety, human life as an interconnected whole. He sought to match this system with a theory constructed in like manner. If nothing else, his efforts have been heuristic, forcing even his critics to impart a rigor to their own social analysis. Indeed, Parsons served as antagonist for both C. Wright Mills and Alvin Gouldner, among a multitude of others. Although there is some polemic among his critics, Parsons' theory does evidence serious problems.
Parsons' theory of society is plagued by an absence of clarity. His work abounds with ambiguities in both semantics and syntax. As regards semantics, he was inconsistent or at least imprecise in the definitions of core terms. For example, pattern maintenance is variously defined as the primary function of the cultural subsystem of the general system of action, a subsystem of the social system, and a primary function of that same subsystem (1971: 6, 11). As to syntax, the folklore of sociology is replete with tales of erstwhile professors of English trying to figure out the unique sequencing of Parsons' words.
In a related sense, the societal theory of Parsons demonstrates an absence of empirical referents. There are simply few, if any, clearly defined terms that allow for measurement and verification (Zetterberg, 1966: 21-29). This is ironic because Parsons committed to the image of science advanced by Zetterberg, that of a deductive and testable science. However, he failed to deliver. In more esoteric terms, Parsons split off positivism from functionalism and embraced the latter.
As with other theorists who address the puzzle of order, Parsons was infatuated with the biological analogy. As we have demonstrated, he did not distance his work from that of the earlier organicists and functionalists. Although he replaced the organic metaphor with a mechanical-cybernetics one, an analogy remains an analogy. In his attempt to marshal evidence for his systemic theory of society, Parsons, like his predecessors, conceptualized change as a form of societally based natural selection. He held that modern societies (like modern species) exist because they represent the ability to adapt. History is thus a glorious march to the present.
This conception of unilinear and selective development can be questioned on several grounds. First of all, there is a serious tautological error in Parsons' reasoning. The existence of modem societies is explained in terms of their evolutionary adaptation, while the evidence for the adaptation is found in their existence. A second flaw is the selectivity of the historical support gathered to explain the evolution of society. If modern societies develop in unilinear fashion, what are we to make of the widespread regression during the so-called dark ages? Parsons did not show how and why one society evolves, becomes complex, and survives while another fails to adapt and declines. To the contrary, his evolving civilization conveniently jumps around geographically from one European nation to another and finally crosses the Atlantic.
Parsons claimed to have developed a universal theory of action. Accordingly, his conception of development supposedly applies to all modern orders. Quite aside from the ethnocentric (if not imperialist) use of the value-laden term modern, his theory remains ideologically rooted in a Western sense of civilization, the U.S. model of a nation-state, and the capitalist form of economic system. Such are clearly evident in his views on institutional structure, the nature of the market, and especially stratification. For example:
1. "...modern society requires a differentiation of individual statuses from diffuse background solidarities" (1971: 14). (Translation: Social class doesn't matter much any more in Western societies. A meritocracy has taken shape in which it's not who you know but what you know.)
2. "With no presumption that every individual or collective unit that participates will be equally productive, special rewards for the economically more productive units thus become necessary" (1971: 119).
3. "By our definition, a citizen exercises power when he casts his vote because the aggregate of votes bindingly determines the electoral outcome" (1971: 17).
4. "Hence, practical rationality is regulated mainly by institutional norms, above all the institutions of property and contract which have other bases of sanction" (1971: 18). (Parsons' analysis is heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim's views of property and contract in The Division of Labor in Society.)
Those sensitive to the ideological infrastructure of theoretical systems further criticize Parsons' Depression-era Structure of Social Action (1937) as sin apology for capitalism at its darkest hour.
Parsons shortcoming, therefore, was not that he failed to engage problems of contemporary relevance but that he continued to view them from the standpoint of an American optimism. Because he saw them from this optimistic standpoint, he one-sidedly emphasized the adaptability of the status quo, considering the ways in which it was open to change rather than the manner in which its own characteristics were inducing the disorder and resisting adaptation to it. (Gouldner, 1970: 147)
Finally, today's pluralists who more studiously follow Max Weber's voluntaristic concept of human nature will find Parsons' systems overly deterministic. Conflict thinkers on the other hand will note the theoretical absence of coercion both within and between societies. Both camps would tend to agree with Oberschall's observation (1973) that serious social change within Parsonian theory can only be conceptualized as a form of deviance, as a breakdown of social control (Perdue, 1986, pp. 118-119).