Talcott Parsons: Theoretical Content
Throughout his long career, Talcott Parsons was a prolific contributor to the sociological literature. His interests ranged far and wide. Within the general framework of his grand theory of society, he dealt with subsystems, roles, the normative order, and the interpretation of situations by social actors. At differing times, he explored the issues of medical sociology, the social development of personality, political extremism, the university, and kinship. However, we shall be concerned here only with the broader sweep of Parsons' theory. Such can be distilled from his seminal works: The Structure of Social Action (1937), The Social System (1951), Towards a General Theory of Action (with Edward Shils, 1951), Social Structure and Personality (1964), and The System of Modem Societies (1971).
Overall, Parsons developed a theoretical system centered conceptually in equilibrium, evolutionary universalities, and the identification of properties that are common to all societies. In his theory, societal evolution parallels biological evolution, with modem societies evidencing greater "generalized adaptive capacity" than earlier ones (1971: 2-3). Thus, society is no less a system than are its biological and natural counterparts. For Parsons, social systems have moved historically toward greater adaptation (adjustments that maintain the systemic order), differentiation (the specialization of social institutions and the division of labor), upgrading (greater freedom from want), inclusion (normative diversity), and value generalization (values that are more reflective of the needs of an increasingly complex system).
Parsons entertained the Weberian focus on social action. (See Chapter 10.) However, his theory rejects the essentially voluntaristic image of the actor advanced by Weber in favor of the more systemic and deterministic view of Pareto.
The fundamental starting point is the concept of social systems of action. The interaction of individual actors, that is, takes place under such conditions that it is possible to treat such a process of interaction as a system in the scientific sense and subject it to the same order of theoretical analysis which has been successfully applied to other types of systems in other sciences. (1951: 3)
Hence, Parsonian theory abandons the Weberian view of minded actors seeking to define their social universe. Instead, as for Pareto, social action or interaction is a system that responds to other interdependent conditions. Here the systemic focus on stability and order is extended into various analyses of roles and their contribution to social control. A good part of The Social System, as well as other of Parsons' contributions to the literature, deals with this central puzzle (see especially pages 301-306).
The heart of this theoretical attempt is its dual conceptualization of system. At the highest level, Parsons developed a general system of action that features four divisions, including the general social system. At a lower level, he divided the social system into four distinctive subsystems. Beginning with the general system, we find its four components to include the behavioral-organic, personality, cultural, and social systems (Parsons and Shils, 1951: 4-29). Each of these four component systems meets one of the functional prerequisites that must be satisfied for any living system to survive.
The functional prerequisite for the behavioral-organic system is adaptation. Action for this system involves the means by which living beings process information via the central nervous system and interact behaviorally with the physical environment. The functional prerequisite for the personality system is goal attainment. Action for this component system is conceptualized as the motivation behind gratification. (This view of personality bears a strong similarity to the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, Parsons' systemic conceptions of personality made him a frequent contributor to psychiatric and psychological journals.)
Moving on, the functional prerequisite for the cultural system is pattern maintenance. Action here refers to the decoding of the symbolic meanings that constitute human traditions, customs, and the learned ways of life. Culturally influenced action ensures systemic continuity over time. And finally, the functional prerequisite of the social system is integration. Action for this component system includes the coordination of individuals and groups and the bonding of members of society by means of normative constraints.
If we focus specifically on the fourth component of the social system (repetitiously called the social system), we find that Parsons identified the following subsystems (1971: 10-28). First is the societal community, the core subsystem that is composed structurally of norms that "define the obligations of loyalty" to the society for its actors (1971: 12). Matters of loyalty, however, are not matters of law. Second, we find the pattern maintenance or fiduciary subsystem composed of values that legitimate the culture and impose moral obligations on actors. Next comes the polity subsystem made up of powerful collectivities that interpret the sanctioned norms that are binding on society (such as the courts) or that enforce the sanctions for violations of norms (such as the police). Finally, Parsons presents the economy subsystem of the social system, composed of the practical, rational, and technological roles that allow the actor to effectively adapt to the environment. Practical and rational role action is regulated by the institutions of the contract (binding agreements upheld by the power of the state) and property (both definitions and rights).
It logically follows that the component systems that make up the general system of action are interrelated. They do not exist in isolation; rather, the general system reflects interpenetration. For example, the personality reflects the internalization of social norms and cultural values. And the memory of the biological organism stores the rules and expectations, the customs and moral standards of these systems (1971: 5-6). Furthermore, the component systems that make up the general system of action share zones of overlapping effect. For Parsons, the Freudian superego has much in common with Durkheim's collective conscience. Both, he argued, refer to a common ground between the personality, social, and cultural systems (1964: 17-33).
In response to the frequent criticism that his systems were grand abstractions devoid of content, Parsons sought to historically ground his conception of societal evolution. In The System of Modem Societies, he identified the stages of systemic development in Western history. (Ironically, "the" system referred to here is Western civilization.)
In his "premodern foundations of modem societies," Parsons explored early Christianity, drawing the conclusion that the Christian church was the first crucible for Western culture. The next evolutionary step of consequence he discovered in Rome, most notably in its highly developed system of law. Medieval society gave witness to the decline of tribalism and the rise of feudalism, to be followed by the differentiated and interdependent division of labor that marked the European system. During this process, feudal institutions came to be replaced by early capitalism with some growing centralization of political power. Then came the Renaissance and the development of secular culture within the framework of a still vibrant religious order. And finally, Parsons held that the last premodern stage was the Reformation. During this period, the priesthood began to lose its exclusive entitlement to the keys to the kingdom, an event that signaled the advent of individualism (1971: 29-49).
Parsons termed the next major era the "first crystallization of the modem system." It was centered in the European northwest (England, France, and Holland), which saw the centralization of a form of state power and the establishment of mercantile capitalism. One noteworthy development here was the coming of a pluralist political system in England (1971: 50-70).
The next evolutionary era, for Parsons, is the Age of Revolutions. During this time, the industrial revolution featured the expansion of financial markets, while the democratic revolution saw the spreading of the differentiation of rule by the people throughout Western Europe. Its values, for Parsons, were symbolized in the watchwords of the French Revolution: Liberte, Egalite, Fratenite.
The final evolutionary era, for Parsons, is founded in the emergence of what he termed the "new lead society." He argued that the promise of the industrial and democratic revolutions could not be realized in Europe because of its aristocratic, stratified, and monarchal traditions. Primarily because of the lack of such restrictions, together with its educational revolution and political pluralism, the "new lead society" is for Parsons none other than the Untied States. It is here in his native land that Parsons located the highest form of general adaptation, the embodiment of the evolutionary principle that drives systems and systemic theories (1971: 71-85) (Perdue, 1986, pp. 115-117).