Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: On Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons is, among other things, one of those sociologists who write very badly—I would be tempted to say barbarously if the word were not already so overworked with reference to sociologists. Having made this dutiful observation, let me at once make clear that I do not consider the opaqueness of Parsons’ language sufficient reason for dismissing him as an obscurantist or as otherwise not worth the attention of serious students of society. Intellectual history is full of large figures who said important, influential, and sometimes memorable things in a prose, like Parsons’, so cumbersome, ponderous, and involuted as to discourage all but the most dedicated readers—and even some of them. Few readers, I suspect, actually sit down expecting to enjoy Hegel or Heidegger or even John Dewey as they might sit down to enjoy the articles in Encounter or COMMENTARY or any general magazine of high intellectual quality. Reading Parsons is a burden, a duty, probably limited largely to two groups: to graduate students in the social sciences (especially sociology) who will be examined by their professors on Parsons, and to practicing social scientists who impose on themselves the responsibility of knowing what is going on “in theory.” Others who come across his work probably do so as a result of hearing (perhaps through more readable sociologists) of Parsons’ almost mythical dimensions as the Grand Theorist of social systems.

This he is. In an intellectual milieu dominated by empiricists, Parsons has been able to “get away with” (as he put it once, in an unusual moment of irony) Pure Theory. Without ever having done a major piece of what, today, sociologists would call “empirical research,” he has reached the pinnacle of a profession which typically distributes honor primarily on the basis of achievements in research—or in interpretive syntheses of research.

The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons,1 a recent collection of critical and expository essays on Parsons, is the latest in a long series of honors which document his eminence. The book is representative in the sense that it rehearses the complex attitudes that Parsons, his work, and his position call forth from his peers. A result of two years of interdepartmental faculty seminars and public discussions at Cornell, the book contains nine essays on general and particular aspects of Parsonian theory, and concludes with a long chapter by Parsons himself which attempts, somewhat in the manner of Toynbee responding to his critics, to “answer” the symposiasts. Unfortunately, I cannot even hope to summarize here the corpus of Parsons’ theoretical work. Edward Devereux’s bare bones exposition, an essentially sympathetic one, and by far the most lucid treatment of Parsons’ work that I know, by itself runs over sixty pages of the book. Nevertheless, it is necessary to say enough about Parsons’ work to convey some hint of its scope and complexity.

For almost thirty years Parsons has devoted himself to the construction of a systematic theory of human action at a conceptual level abstract enough to encompass the analysis of culture, society, and personality—and all of their component “parts” and interrelations. In principle, nothing in the distinctly human experience of men should be beyond the grasp of the theory’s explanatory force. At the very foundation of the Parsonian theory is the idea that human action is organized into systems. Systems, in turn, have two basic characteristics: the functional interdependence of their parts, and a fundamental tendency to maintain equilibrium against “disturbances” from both within and without. Personalities, for example, are systems of “need-dispositions” which tend to maintain a balance of “gratification-deprivation”; societies are systems of “reciprocal role-expectations” which tend to maintain their “boundaries” against environmental forces and dissident elements within. At the apex of the hierarchical trinity2 of systems stands culture, a system of value-patterns—or symbol-meanings—with an inherent strain toward consistency. Institutionalized in social structures, culture provides the normative content of role-expectations; internalized in personalities, it provides the motive force for seeking the particular gratification of particular needs.

Each of these major systems comprehends smaller sub-systems; what is a system from one perspective becomes an “environment” of a sub-system from another perspective, and merely a “unit” of a larger system from still a third perspective. To complicate matters further, empirical systems are never only cultural or social or personal; these systems “interpenetrate” one another. While each is “analytically irreducible,” any study of personality must concern itself with the social features of personality and any study of a social system must concern itself with the distinctive cultural features of that system.

In order for social systems to “survive,” according to Parsons, they must “solve” four functional problems. (1) Systems have goals which to some extent must be attained if the system is to continue; (2) systems also have environments to which they must adapt; (3) at the same time, a system must solve the problem of its internal integration and maintain a level of cohesion among its parts sufficient to enable one to speak of it as a system; and finally (4), in solving these problems, a social system inevitably confronts a fourth and “latent” problem: it must maintain within its units the norms, the motives, and the values which energize these units, and it must manage the tensions which, somehow, seem to get generated. Historically speaking, as societies become more structurally differentiated, a kind of division of labor occurs, and certain complexes of roles and institutions come to be primarily associated with the solving of one particular functional problem. If one considers the whole society as a social system, for example, political institutions are primarily concerned with the first problem, economic institutions with the second, and the family with the fourth. (But when the family itself, or any other sub-system, is considered as the system of reference, it then is faced with solving all four of the problems, which it does by a further differentiation of functions among its own units.)



Parsons analyzes social systems with the aid of his five pairs of “pattern-variables.” These are pairs of opposing terms (affectivity/affective neutrality; specificity/diffuseness; universalism/particularism; quality/performance; self-orientation/collectivity-orientation) which characterize and classify the structural components of action systems.3 In Parsons’ view, orientations, roles, value patterns, and so on, can be characterized exhaustively—and then classified—by a combination of terms, one from each pair. For reasons he has never made entirely clear, Parsons insists that these variables (which are refinements of existing polarities in sociological thinking) are not continua, not matters of degree, but rather dichotomies of choice; as “independent dimensions,” the variables force a “choice” between one term or the other; the nature of pattern-variables does not permit ambivalent turnings-in-both-directions-at-once.

This brief synopsis of the nature of systems, the four functional problems, and the pattern-variables does not even begin to suggest the weight of the conceptual baggage borne by the Parsonian freight nor the tortuous logical track down which it huffs and puffs and occasionally roars. I hope, however, that it conveys some sense of the enormous reach of the theory and the stratospheric level of abstraction at which the theory’s concepts are formulated. For it is the level of abstraction at which Parsons works which is the primary source of both the high praise and the negative criticism he has received from his colleagues.



There is plenty of both in The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons—although, as is characteristic of symposia, considerably more of the latter than the former. William Foote Whyte, professor of industrial relations at Cornell, examines the relevance of Parsonian theory to the study of formal organizations (an area in which systematic theory should be most applicable) but finds virtually no help: “By failing to deal in any adequate way with data that are abundantly observable and measurable, Parsons has chosen to erect his theoretical scheme on quicksand.” Henry Landsberger, an economist at Cornell, also writing on Parsons’ organizational theory, is much more impressed than Whyte, but still he finds a vagueness in some of its basic concepts and a lack of clarity in the underlying purpose of the theory. One is left, he feels, with a set of categories and “mechanisms” but no real theory: “When judged against the goal Parsons has set for himself, one [sic] cannot but feel that the deficiencies at present exceed the achievement, and continued progress is by no means assured.” Urie Bronfenbrenner, a psychologist, compares the Parsonian theory of identification with Freud’s—and with O. H. Mowrer’s revision of Freud—and finds Parsons seriously wanting: “By and large it has been difficult to discern much that is fundamentally new beyond the terminology . . . either he restates in even less precise language ideas that are already familiar . . . or he offers conceptions which, though provocative, are so diffuse that the basic tasks of theory construction have to be performed by the reader himself.” Where Landsberger feels that there is no real theory in Parsons, Max Black, a logician, feels that there is, but that it is basically a theory of “statics,” and he doubts whether it can generate any causal propositions. Black also raises fundamental questions about the source of the Parsonian categories, the meaning of general theory (which Parsons frequently italicizes), and the nature of the pattern-variables—which he doubts are either exhaustive or dichotomous. Alfred Baldwin, a Cornell psychologist, examines the Parsonian theory of personality cautiously because he thinks that any final evaluation of it “must await relevant data,” and although he admires Parsons’ emphasis on the interaction of personality and social systems, he nevertheless feels that Parsons’ insistence on a systematic correspondence between the basic elements of personality, society, and culture—isomorphism, Baldwin calls it—inevitably “impoverishes” the concept of personality. “Need-dispositions,” argues Baldwin, are not persons, and any attempt to treat them as such for theoretical purposes truncates the very idea of personality. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist, looks for the ideological taint in Parsons’ scattered writings on politics, and finds it. But Parsons is not the conservative (at least in any practical political sense) that several critics have charged him with being; as a matter of fact, Hacker states, Parsons is and has been for a very long time a fairly typical liberal Democrat of the “egghead” variety. Yet in Parsons’ theoretical emphasis on integration, equilibrium, and consensus, Hacker sees a built-in bias which has led Parsons to be overimpressed with the fact that democratic political systems of such enormous complexity as our own work at all.

If, then, as these critiques suggest, Parsons is biased, confused, evasive, turgid, unoriginal, and vague, how are we to account for the almost unbroken respect which characterizes most of the analyses? With the exception of Whyte, who shows a tendency to get impatient with Parsons, and Bronfenbrenner, who does let go with a little disrespect, these critics consistently extend to Parsons a sustained courtesy and attention which seems remarkable in light of the damning conclusions to which their close textual analyses usually lead. I said there was praise in this book for Parsons, and so there is, but one looks through these essays in vain for an intellectual basis for it. What one finds is reviewers’ clichés: Parsons is interesting, provocative, stimulating, challenging, and so on. But these adjectives do not begin to reveal the nature of his eminence, an eminence so real that one still carries away from this book a favorable impression of Parsons in spite of the things said about his work; an eminence so palpable that many sociologists experience the visceral equivalent of a salute when Parsons passes among them.



This failure to understand the real nature of Parsons’ eminence is a failure at recognizing the criteria of judgment on which it depends. One of the going clichés in sociology is the view that theory is a “tool,” justified insofar as it encourages and guides “fruitful” research. On this criterion, of course, the Parsonian theory is a conspicuous failure. Available in its main outlines for at least fifteen years, it has so far failed to produce a body of research of really impressive substance. In an otherwise excellent discussion of the general theory, Robin Williams, a sociologist, alone among the critics represented, chooses to defend Parsons’ utility in this respect; but all he can cite are three or four research reports scattered in the professional journals, an unpublished study in Kansas City, and a much overpraised book on the analysis of roles. There are a few others, but like the ones that Williams cites, they are, curiously, not the work primarily of Parsons’ impersonal readers but of his students and collaborators. This suggests, of course, that a good part of Parsons’ influence is personal; one is told that he is a brilliant teacher, and a substantial number of the foremost American sociologists have passed through his classes at Harvard. I think, in fact, that a really full intimacy with Parsons’ thinking almost requires becoming a close colleague or collaborator, or else demands so heavy an investment of time and intellectual energy that the student, having made the investment, may be reluctant to conclude that his time and energy might have been rather better spent.

Parsons nonetheless remains, as the dust jacket of this book states, “America’s most renowned social theorist.” Virtually alone among American sociologists he tries (however imperfectly) to satisfy the hunger of serious sociologists everywhere for “a systematic theory” at a level of abstraction applicable to all human societies at any time anywhere. The fact is that for the past twenty years systematic sociological theory in the United States has been little else than a dialogue with Talcott Parsons. And this fact is both sufficient warrant for the respect with which he is currently regarded, and evidence of his profound influence on sociological thinking. By his sustained theoretical efforts, he has maintained among sociologists a sense of the great intellectual tradition—Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Durkheim, Max Weber—in which they stand, a sense easy to feel slipping away as one goes about one’s workaday research at levels of abstraction—usually low—dictated by the positivist criterion of operational definitions of variables. And in 1937 Parsons earned his right to a place in this tradition (how important a place can only be a matter of opinion at this time) when he published The Structure of Social Action, still his best book, and still unmatched as a statement which places the body of ideas called sociology in the context of the history of social thought.

To suggest, as several of the critics in this book do (indulging themselves in another of sociology’s clichés), that we must withhold judgment on Parsons because “all the returns are not yet in” is to be less than candid because nobody really believes that the returns will ever all be “in.” For systematic theory, at the level which Parsons attempts it, is not the “heuristic” act of a toolmaker, to be judged by the quality of the goods it produces; it is the goods itself, a great synoptic vision, an expressive act of the mind, a Ding an sich, and it is for this that Parsons is honored, and certainly not for any tools that, inadvertently, he may have fashioned along the way. Parsons’ eminence (an eminence in my view more durable than one conferred by a set of significant correlations) is the eminence of a man who represents, in perhaps its purest form, “the sociological perspective,” a distinct way of looking at the world.4

Having said this, I must go on to say that, as a comprehensive, scientific theory of human behavior, Parsons’ own particular vision still seems to me, as it does to most of the contributors to the symposium, seriously inadequate. Max Weber once said that when it came to matters of religion he was “unmusical.” Parsons seems “unmusical” when it comes to matters of power, conflict, and disorder. One feels that, to Parsons, anomie is something he has read about in Emile Durkheim and hence knows exists, that conflict is something a very important thinker like Marx wrote a great deal about and which Parsons consequently must “take account of.” I do not mean to suggest that one must eat human flesh in order to understand cannibalism, but when Parsons talks about political power and conflict, as he does (sometimes quite acutely) in occasional essays, his comments, as Hacker suggests, sound like something grafted onto the body of the theory rather than being a natural outgrowth of it—analogous to Marx’s “Hague Speeches” in which the man who was not a Marxist blithely tore a ragged gap in the fabric of his theory of revolution with the bland admission that under certain conditions workers can attain their ends by peaceful means. When, on the other hand, Parsons speaks of order, integration, function, the theory is not only logically impressive but felt as well; and this “emotion” is the source of the theory’s occasional sharp insight, and even charm. His much-celebrated analysis of medical practice is a case in point. As Devereux points out, who else but Parsons would wonder why a child has two parents but a patient has only one therapist? Given the obvious parallels, the lack of “symmetry” disturbs Parsons.

Parsons’ work illustrates the difficulties of trying to erect a general theory on the basis of “solving” a relatively specific problem. As several of his commentators have noted, Parsons originally set out to “solve” the problem of order—the so-called “Hobbesian Problem.” On the whole I think that Parsons’ solution is a pretty good one; it is, as a matter of fact, the sociological answer: social order is possible because men have culture, a set of values which are institutionalized in social structures, “internalized” in personalities and experienced there as motives and constraints. Culture, in the final analysis, emerges from the interaction of living beings—which is the justification not only of the novel and the drama but also of the experimental study of small groups. But to apprehend the nature of social order exhausts neither the data of society nor the powers of sociology; for “society” is not, as the Parsonians suggest it is, coterminous with processes of social cohesion, and the study of society is not circumscribed by the phrase “the structure and functions of social systems.” “Men, to be sure, live together,” wrote Ortega y Gasset, “but their living together cannot truly be called a society. It is merely an attempt or an effort toward becoming one”—an effort, he might have gone on to say, whose apparently inevitable lack of complete success suggests that the effort may be a fundamentally ambivalent one. At every point of human interaction the socially binding constraint of cultural norms may be countered and diluted by inequalities of power, opposition of interests, and even by an unleashed id (which, as Lionel Trilling once observed ironically, may be the last stronghold of individuality in a sociological world).



Parsons has continually claimed that this kind of criticism is not only unjust but ideologically inspired. Conflict, change, unruly disorder, can, he argues, be adequately “handled” within the structure of concepts he offers. In his rebuttal to Hacker here, he points out that change in the very structure of a system may be functionally necessary if the system is to cope with changes in its environment. But environments are systems too, and the source of changes in them (other than an organic, evolutionary sort) remains a theoretical mystery. Ten years ago Parsons tried to come to grips with his critics on this point by saying “. . . propositions about factors making for the maintenance of the system are at the same time propositions about those making for change. . . . It is impossible to study one without the other.” This statement has a deceptively convincing ring to it. It may be impossible to study one without the other, but it is quite possible to emphasize the conceptualization of one such that the other is reduced to the status of a residual category. Parsons would not accept his formulation if it were slightly rearranged by a conflict theorist to read “propositions about factors making for social change are at the same time propositions about those making for stability.” Parsonian theory so sensitizes one to integration, order, and processes of self-regulation that conflict or other “disturbances” in the equilibrium of social systems can barely be discussed in other than pathological terms. When Parsons gives his attention to the phenomena of disequilibrium, it is almost always with a clinical vocabulary and with one eye on the compensatory, re-equilibrating forces that the system will bring to bear in order to restore “balance.”

Parsonian theory, in short, conceptualizes only a part of the evidence.5 It is one thing to see a society’s subtle patterns of integration and reciprocity and the powerful armory of “mechanisms” it has at its disposal for dealing with potential threats of disorder (sometimes repressively but usually co-optively); it is quite another thing to characterize these processes of stabilization as “the fundamental tendency of interaction.” Societies have “tendencies” all over the place, and I find it no more nor less useful to assume that they have an inherent tendency toward equilibrium than to assume that they have an inherent logic of contradiction (as the Marxists do) which will be the source of their final downfall. There is, I think, considerable evidence to support both assumptions. As a matter of fact, I find it surprising that Parsons, who has taken over so much of Freudian theory at the sociological level, has not found it germane to introduce into his theory a sociological equivalent of the Thanatos concept. It is certainly no more mysterious than the logic of equilibrium, and, given the present direction of world politics, perhaps even more believable.

Robin Williams, as sympathetic a critic as Parsons could want, points out that “for the concept of equilibrium to have descriptive, predictive, or explanatory value, it must be possible to state a set of defining conditions specifying what ‘balance of forces’ is to be ‘equilibrium’ and what ‘movements’ will constitute disequilibrium. This, we submit, Parsons has not done.” Until it is done, I do not see how one can speak meaningfully of empirical “systems.” And there is considerable doubt that, at the level of analysis usual for Parsons, it can be done at all; for the very concepts (i.e., roles) which constitute the units of Parsonian social systems are themselves abstractions from behavior which is constantly changing—and not always within a readily identifiable “range of tolerance.” On the other hand, it may very well be done at lower levels of analysis; it is not at all surprising that some of the best work done in systematic functional analysis has been done on kinship systems—because of all roles, kinship roles are probably the most stable and orderly.



Without Freud’s lucidity and Veblen’s bite, the virtually unreadable character of the prose in Parsons’ major books will probably prevent them from ever circulating very widely beyond the boundaries of academic social science.6 In fact, I would hazard the guess that fully half of Parsons’ fellow sociologists do not know what he is about. But like Freud and Veblen, Parsons has that distinctive mark of a major social theorist: the capacity to corrupt the innocence with which we view those parts of the world that the theory touches. Having read Veblen, we can never again look at circular driveways and high heels and college gothic with quite the same innocence we did before; having read Freud, we see mannerisms as mechanisms, predispositions and aversions as syndromes, and we think twice about letting our three-year-old daughter slip into bed with us on Sunday mornings. Parsons, even more than Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot (in his prose writings), gives to one a sense of the essential orderliness of society and culture with their profound resources for containing and absorbing disruptive forces, a sense of the adaptive genius, the “wisdom,” inherent in the organization of social and cultural systems.

Certainly these are “conservative” insights; and, like most insights, they contain important half-truths the appreciation of which, it seems to me, can only strengthen more dialectically founded theory. But Parsons’ half-truths have frequently been met by a hostility from radical sociologists not unlike the impotent rage evoked from anxious, aggressive people by the smug disdain and patronization exercised toward them by the psychoanalyzed. Radical sociologists blast away at Parsons, and he goes his bland way seeing “functions” everywhere. Fortunately, it is not necessary for the general reader to endure Parsons’ attempts at formal system-building in order to appreciate the distinctive Parsonian sense of fit. We get this best not in his tomes but in his occasional essays on specific topics, most notably in the essays on age and sex grading, on the medical and legal professions, on McCarthyism, and perhaps especially in his critiques of David Riesman and C. Wright Mills—essays in which, unlike in his “serious” work, he is often as not quite lucid—lucid enough, in any case, to reveal the strengths and limitations of his theory.7

Parsons apparently prefers to be regarded not as a writer of occasional essays which, by virtue of his distinctive vision, illuminate specific problems, but rather as the creator of a scientific theory of action at the highest possible level of abstraction. And in his concluding essay in this symposium he polemicizes against fellow sociologists who doubt that the idea of “system” and its corollary, the principle of “equilibrium,” are indispensable. Parsons’ remarks here are revealing. Parsons believes that the attitude which denies the centrality of “equilibrium” is “symptomatic of the denial that social science itself is legitimate, or realistically possible.” Now, if the model of what Parsons means by “science” is physics or even physiology, then he may be quite right in taking his colleagues to task. But if he is attempting to discredit sociologists who simply hold back from making any specific judgments about the ultimate shape of sociology as science, then Parsons is on much weaker ground. The eventual recognition of sociology’s claim to the status of a science will depend upon the bulk and the importance of what it convincingly tells us about social life. “Convincingly,” of course, begs the important methodological questions, but I think that those who are more enamored of the existing forms of theoretical and empirical science than they are of understanding social life contribute less to this eventual recognition than do those sociologists (and Parsons is sometimes among them) who, while not insensitive to theoretical and methodological problems, plainly manifest by significant assertions, tested or testable, the enormous promise of “the sociological enterprise.”

A diffidence about the ultimate shape of sociology as science need not make one an inveterate debunker of sociological “pretentiousness.” It does imply—and here I write as a “practicing” sociologist—what I hope is neither a false modesty nor an easy piety before the complexity of the task, and also a view which is more temperate than that of either the omniscient pessimists who think a science of sociology impossible or the omniscient optimists who think it is a science already.




1 Edited by Max Black, Prentice-Hall. 363 pp., 6.75.

2 Parsons has recently added a fourth system, which he calls “the organism.”

3 In his most recent formulation, to give an example of Parsons “at work,” he has dropped “self-orientation/collectivity-orientation” as a “pattern-variable” and reformulated it—along with yet another set of terms, “instrumental/consummatory”—as an “axis of differentiation.” This now moves the term to a level of abstraction which is higher, in Parsons' theory, than the level occupied by the four remaining “pattern-variables.”

4 I am not at all sure that Parsons would accept this as the high praise I intend it to be. He sees his work not as a contribution to the history of ideas but as a scientific theory of action in, as he would say, “a quite technical sense.” He might even think it impertinent that his work be reviewed in a general magazine—reasoning that it would be no more relevant to review him here simply because his subject is society and culture than it would be to review a technical manual on computer engineering simply because computers “think.”

5 Reinhard Bendix and I have written on this more extensively. See “Images of Society and Problems of Concept Formation in Sociology,” in Symposium on Sociological Theory, edited by L. Gross (Row, Peterson Co., 1959).

6 In a superb example of understatement, Parsons says “I am not at all prepared to discount entirely the view that there are peculiar and unnecessary obscurities in my writing,” and upon occasion he has apologized to his readers for what he once called his “terminological cumbersomeness.”

7 All but the piece on Riesman can be found in one or the other of Parsons' two volumes of collected essays: Essays in Sociological Theory: Pure and Applied (Rev. Ed), Free Press, 1954; and Structure and Process in Modern Society, Free Press, 1960.

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