Talcott Parsons

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Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (born December 13, 1902 in Colorado Springs , Colorado , † May 8, 1979 in Munich ) was an American sociologist . He is considered to be the most influential sociological theorist from the end of World War II to the 1960s.

Talcott Parsons emerged with a theory of action , developed it further into structural functionalism and finally expanded it into a sociological system theory . His sociology responds to the prevailing empiricism in Anglo-Saxon sociology of the first half of the 20th century. Parsons developed a general sociological theory and made connections with other social sciences , in particular with economics , political science , psychology and anthropology .


Talcott Parsons was born in 1902 to the Protestant clergyman and President of Marietta College , Edward Smith Parsons and the suffragette Mary Augusta Parsons, in an ascetic family. He had a sister. In 1917 the family moved to New York City . He had three children with his wife, Helen B. Walker, whom he married in 1927.

From 1920 to 1924 Parsons first studied biology at Amherst College in Amherst , Massachusetts to become a doctor, but then moved to the Faculty of Economics, where he obtained his BA in 1924. From 1924 to 1925 he took up a scholarship to study political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science in London . He then went to Germany for two years, where he studied economics at Heidelberg University from 1925 to 1927 . There he dealt with the German sociological tradition, for example with Max Weber , whose wife Marianne Weber Parsons met. Shortly before completing his doctorate, he returned to Amherst and was a lecturer in the field of economics in the academic year 1926/27. In 1927 his dissertation “Capitalism” in recent German literature: Sombart and Weber was accepted in Heidelberg. The supervisor of the dissertation was the economist Edgar Salin .

After completing his doctorate in Germany, Parsons began a 46-year career from 1927 to 1973 at Harvard University in Cambridge , Massachusetts, where in 1944 he achieved the status of "Full Professor of Sociology". From 1930 Parsons worked in the Sociology Department at Harvard, newly created by Pitirim Sorokin , where he only became an Associate Professor from 1937. His main work The Structure of Social Action (often just called Structure or SSA ) was also published in 1937, but it was only years later that it became known to a wider specialist audience. Towards the end of World War II, Parsons played an important role in advising the US government on rebuilding Germany as a free democracy. In 1945 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1960 to the American Philosophical Society . Since 1971 he has been a corresponding member of the British Academy .

In 1946 he founded the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University. From 1949 he was 39th President of the American Sociological Association . The Social System appeared in 1951 as his second major work and in the following years numerous other books and articles. From the 1960s onwards, criticism of him grew louder, especially from the student movement and the academic left, who believed that Parsons' theory was too conservative, but this was later denied by observers who viewed him as more of a left-wing liberal classify. 1973 Parsons retired.

Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889–1968) was one of his sponsors . His students included u. a. Kingsley Davis (1908–1997), Robert K. Merton (1910–2003), Wilbert E. Moore (1914–1987), Albert K. Cohen (1918–2014) and Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998), the Parsons structural functionalist approach was initially further developed into a functional-structural approach. Together with Edward Shils , Parsons introduced Max Weber's work in particular to the American sociology discussion.

Parsons died on May 8, 1979 in Munich during a trip to Germany on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his doctorate in Heidelberg. He was buried in the Cook / Parsons family grave in New Hampshire .


Phase I - The voluntaristic theory of action

In The Structure of Social Action (1937) Parsons puts forward the convergence thesis that four thought leaders in the social sciences, namely Max Weber (as representatives of idealism ) and Émile Durkheim (as representatives of positivism ), but also Alfred Marshall and Vilfredo Pareto ( as a representative of an economic theory of action) between 1890 and 1920 independently of one another through a (according to Parsons' view they were largely unconscious) criticism of utilitarianism towards a similar theoretical framework , namely a voluntaristic theory of action .

Parsons takes up this (alleged) criticism and objects to utilitarian theories of action that they are fundamentally unable to explain social order. For this question, originally raised by Thomas Hobbes , is what Parsons wants to answer: Under what conditions - the factual existing - social order is possible? For example, the natural interest identity of market participants ( Locke , Smith ) assumed in some utilitarian theories of action is not given. Parsons criticizes the model of the “state of nature” developed by Hobbes, in which benefit-oriented people first fight each other and then, for the sake of peace, submit to a state order insofar as it is unclear why the (purely benefit-oriented) people suddenly become risky Should get the idea of ​​submitting to a state power. In general, Parsons assumes that utilitarian theories of action assume that, although they assume that humans pursue a benefit, they do not provide an answer as to why he considers a certain thing useful, how wishes, needs and ideas about benefits arise and why they so often coincide.

He links Parson's answer, the voluntaristic theory of action , with a normativistic theory of social order . According to this, given norms and values, to which all people orientate themselves (partly unconsciously), structure the individual action goals and restrict them. According to Parsons, these norms and values ​​are immune to any benefit calculations, they simply exist. Parsons refers here in particular to Durkheim's concept of collective consciousness , in Weber to its distinction between purposeful and value-rational motives of social action .

According to Parsons, every unit of action ("unit act") in the action-theoretical frame of reference (" Action frame of reference "), which he calls it, consists of four elements:

  1. the actor
  2. the goal of action
  3. the action situation
  4. the norms and values ​​of action.

Norms and values ​​have a selective effect on the means of action used and the goals pursued.

In Values, Motives and Systems of Action (1951, with Edward Shils) the paradigm for the treatment theoretical analysis of "doer (is actor ) in action situation" for Action Frame of Reference further elaborated. The pattern variables serve to classify dispositions of needs (personality), roles (social system) and value standards (cultural system).

Phase II - structural functionalism

In The Social System (1951) the theoretical frame of reference “actor - situation” is abandoned or expanded to the frame of reference “system - environment”.

With the AGIL scheme , the basic modes of the social system are first characterized; then it is also applied to the cultural system, the personality system and the behavioral organism.

Phase III - System, Evolution, Conditio Humana

Finally, Parsons goes beyond the structural-functionalist theory and replaces the concept of structure with the concept of system. Structural functionalism is increasingly being transformed into system functionalism .

The complexity of the exchange relationships between the economic system, personality system, community structures (family households), political and socio-cultural system is analytically developed in the work Economy and Society (1956) , written together with Neil J. Smelser .

Society appears as a system, the development of which Parsons analyzes using concepts of evolutionary theory. The study Societies (1966) deals with primitive and archaic forms, the high cultures known as “seedbed societies”, which are characterized by the use of writing . In The System of Modern Societies (1971) the emergence of contemporary societies with a knowledge of the law is traced in the process of socio-cultural evolution.

He divides evolution into four sub-processes:

  1. Differentiation , ie the emergence of functional subsystems of society;
  2. Standard upgrading through adaptation ("adaptive upgrading"), whereby these systems increase their efficiency;
  3. Inclusion , ie the inclusion of previously excluded actors in subsystems;
  4. Value generalization , d. H. the creation of a broader legitimation base for increasingly complex systems.

Against the background of the student unrest of the 1960s, Parsons and the psychologist Gerald M. Platt analyze in the study The American University (1973) the US university system in crisis . The theoretical frame of reference is provided by the system-theoretical-cybernetic "four-function scheme", which is applied beyond social systems to various dimensions of human behavior and action. The "theory of symbolically generalized communication and exchange media " ( media theory ) is intended to serve to explain the diverse social dynamics between z. B. to make university and economic system, but also between education and personality transparent.

In his late work, Parsons extended his theories to the human sciences as a whole. An intensive preoccupation with questions of religion , especially death and the “last things” , comes to the fore . The four-function scheme (AGIL) is spanned by Parsons across the world and people - from his material-organic environment, his psyche , his life in society, to the final, metaphysical reasons for being .


Parsons also made a name for himself as a translator of Max Weber's works into English. Among other things, he translated Weber's epoch-making work The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism into English for the first time in 1930 ( The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism ). He also translated parts of Weber's economy and society into English.

History of impact and further development

Parsons was already considered a classic of sociological theory during his lifetime and was an outstanding and decisive figure in US sociology until the 1960s. The real reception of his work, especially in Germany, was nevertheless often low. Many of his works were not available in German translation for a long time. For a long time, the image of his work was shaped by superficial ideological disputes, in which he was assumed to neglect conflicts and social change in his sociological analyzes as an expression of an interest in the stabilization of existing conditions. Parsons also has an idealistic orientation; H. an overemphasis on the importance of normative elements of action, and an absolute setting of cultural standards. Parson's work was mostly praised for its theoretical abstraction and analytical precision. Later, something like a Parsons renaissance could be noticed. In the USA a school had developed which calls itself Neofunctionalism and which explicitly tried to tie in with the work of Parsons and continue it.

Present meaning

At present (2007), apart from Uta Gerhardt , Karlheinz Messelken and Richard Münch, only a few direct followers of Talcott Parsons' sociology can be made out in German-speaking countries. In Anglo-Saxon sociology, the neo-functionalist movement around Jeffrey C. Alexander , who was developing a critical reconstruction of Parsons' theory in the late 1970s , has now almost come to a standstill. The structural and system functionalism of the middle and late Parsons was criticized too devastatingly not only by Marxists and representatives of critical theory , but also by liberals (e.g. by Ralf Dahrendorf ). His theory has long since lost its supremacy - also in the USA. In summary and key words, the critical objections raised against Parsons can be summarized as follows:

  1. Structural functionalism enters into an ominous alliance with Freudian Oedipalism. Unless they behave in a “deviant” manner, the person who is collapsed into a “personality system” easily follows the normative requirements of system structures that are superordinate to him.
  2. Orthodox structural functionalists schematize options for action in binary form and thus allow ambivalences and hybrid forms of action to fall out of the systemic framework .
  3. System functionalism is based on a teleological evolutionism. American society appears as a civilizational peak of development, so that his work is ultimately an apology for US society. System crises , conflicts and tensions always appear to be rationally remediable.
  4. From the camp of empirically oriented sociology, Parsons and his students are accused of only having developed a purely conceptual- categorical frame of reference, i.e. of practicing social philosophy instead of sociology.

But parts of his theory are still used in competing "schools":

In the sociological discipline there is broad agreement that the theory of voluntaristic action of Parsons's early work offers a radical potential and a range of analysis behind which there is no turning back.

His system functionalism in his late work, including the theory of interactive media, has already found its way into emancipatory designs. Louis Althusser's structuralism , but also the criticism of late capitalism formulated by Jürgen Habermas and his school, were able to make productive use of the work of the systems theorist Parsons.

Parsons' work formed the starting point for various systems- theoretical approaches in sociology. Thus, in particular in Germany Niklas Luhmann one hand deconstructive be stimulated, on the other hand has Richard Münch taken it as an opportunity of a theoretical reconstruction experiment. From Parsons, Luhmann takes over the conception of working out social theory as a system theory , but he goes beyond this with the consistent fundamental conceptual change from action to communication . Luhmann deconstructs Parsons' system functionalism, while his ideological orientations hardly interest him.

In the 1930s, Parsons exchanged letters with Alfred Schütz , which ended in mutual frustration, but which shows very well Parsons' theoretical orientation as opposed to phenomenology . One author who tried to build bridges between systems theory and phenomenology was Richard Grathoff .


Works by Talcott Parsons and co-authors

  • The Structure of Social Action (1937)
  • The Social System (1951)
  • Working Papers in the Theory of Action (1953) (according to Robert F. Bales & Edward A. Shils)
  • Economy and Society (1956) (according to m. Neil J. Smelser )
  • Societies (1966)
  • The System of Modern Societies (1971)
  • The American University (1973) (acc. To Gerald M. Platt )

Collections of essays by Talcott Parsons

  • Essays in Sociological Theory. (1954)
  • Structure and Process in Modern Society. (1960)
  • Social Structure and Personality. (1964)
  • Sociological Theory and Modern Society. (1967)
  • Politics and Social Structure- (1969)
  • Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory. (1977)
  • Action Theory and the Human Condition. (1978)

Editions by Talcott Parsons and co-authors

  • Toward a General Theory of Action. (1951) (Ed. According to m. Edward A. Shils)
  • Family, Socialization and Interaction Process. (1955) (Ed. According to Robert F. Bales )
  • Theories of Society. (1961) (Ed. According to m. Edward A. Shils, Kaspar D. Naegele & Jesse R. Pitts )

Works and editions published by Talcott Parsons after 1979

  • Actor, situation and normative pattern. (1986; first 1949)
  • The Early Essays. (1991) (Ed. By Charles Camic )
  • American Society - A Theory of the Societal Community. (2007) (ed. By Giuseppe Sciortino )


  • Explorations in General Theory in Social Science. (1976) (Ed. By Jan J. Loubser et al.)
  • Essays on the Sociology of Parsons. (1976) (Ed. By Gopi C. Hallen)
  • Behavior, action and system. (1980) (Ed. By Wolfgang Schluchter )

Secondary literature

  • Opielka, Michael (2006): Community in Society. Sociology after Hegel and Parsons. 2nd, revised edition. Wiesbaden: VS publishing house for social sciences.
  • Jeffrey C. Alexander (1983). The Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought: Talcott Parsons. (Theoretical Logic in Sociology Volume Four) "
  • Louis Althusser / Étienne Balibar (1970). Reading "Capital"
  • Alois G. Brandenburg (1971). System coercion and autonomy. ISBN 3-531-09228-6
  • Ditmar Brock / Matthias Junge / Uwe Krähnke (2007). Sociological theories from Auguste Comte to Talcott Parsons ISBN 978-3-486-58218-5
  • Ralf Dahrendorf : Structure and function. TP and the development of sociological theory. KZfSS Jg. 7, 1955, pp. 491-519; again in the other: Paths from Utopia Piper, Munich 1974; again in Jürgen Friedrichs & Karl Ulrich Mayer & Wolfgang Schluchter, Ed .: Sociological Theory and Empiricism. KZfSS. (Selected volume ) Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1997 ISBN 3-531-13139-7 pp. 51–79
  • Uta Gerhardt (2002). Talcott Parsons.
  • Alvin W. Gouldner (1974). Western sociology in crisis. Vol. 1
  • Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knöbl (2004). Social theory
  • Stefan Jensen: Talcott Parsons - An Introduction , Teubner, Stuttgart, 1980
  • Richard Münch (1982). Theory of action.
  • Harald Wenzel (1990). The order of action - Talcott Parson's theory of the general system of action , Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt a. M., 1990

Luhmann's radicalization of the Parsons theory program

In addition to the many passages at which Luhmann deals productively with Parsons in his work, the two essays below are particularly recommended. From a communication theory point of view, Luhmann presents the theoretical building services and limits of the action theory approach with great precision.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Hartmut Rosa, David Strecker and Andrea Kottmann: Soziologische Theorien , UTB, Stuttgart, 2nd ed., 2013, page 151
  2. ^ Ditmar Brock, Matthias Junge and Uwe Krähnke: Sociological Theories from Auguste Comte to Talcott Parsons - Introduction , Oldenbourg Verlag, 3rd edition, Munich, 2012, page 191 ff.
  3. Dirk Käsler: Classics of Sociology, Volume II / From Talcott Parsons to Anthony Giddens , CH Beck, 5th edition, Munich, 2007, page 24
  4. ^ Member History: Talcott Parsons. American Philosophical Society, accessed December 19, 2018 .
  5. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed July 15, 2020 .
  6. ^ Talcott Parsons in the Find a Grave database . Retrieved September 6, 2017.
  7. Hartmut Rosa, David Strecker and Andrea Kottmann: Soziologische Theorien , UTB, Stuttgart, 2nd edition, 2013, pages 152 to 154
  8. See the review by Robert Dubin, Parsons' Actor: Continuities in Social Theory , edited. in Parsons, Sociological Theory and Modern Society , p. 521 ff.
  9. see also the study A Paradigm of the Human Condition published in 1978
  10. ^ Roland Robertson and Bryan S. Turner: Talcott Parsons - Theorist of Modernity , SAGE Publications, London, 1991, p. 3
  11. Morel, Bauer, Meleghy, Niedenzu, Preglau, Staubmann: Sociological Theory - Abbruch der Approaches their main representatives , Verlag Oldenbourg, 7th edition, 2001, pages 168 and 169
  12. Ditmar Brock, Matthias Junge and Uwe Krähnke: Sociological Theories from Auguste Comte to Talcott Parsons - Introduction , Oldenbourg Verlag, 3rd edition, Munich, 2012, page 213 ff.
  13. ^ Walter M. Sprondel (ed.): On the theory of social action: An exchange of letters between Alfred Schütz and Talcott Parsons . Frankfurt am Main 1977.