In this post, I want to think about how Parsons and structural functionalism has influenced modern sociology. I have been thinking about this since I got a hostile peer review for an early draft of Theory for the Working Sociologist. In the first draft of the book, I began with a very uncontroversial stance. In the mid-2oth century, Parsons attempted to unify sociology through structural functionalism. That was rejected and now we have a world of competing schools of thought. The book would then be a guide to the “post-Parsons” world. Even though no one disputed the truth of this approach, the reviewers thought it was horrible to bring this up. In a later version of the book, a separate reviewer went ballistic because I had “too much Parsons” – a total of 3 paragraphs out of 70,ooo words! People were touchy. I had run into the Parsons Taboo in sociology.
Now that the book is done and about to come out, I want to spend a few moments thinking about Parsons in a less knee jerk way. Even though I am not Pasonsian or a functional structuralist, I do think it it is interesting to consider his impact on the field. Here’s how I see things:
First, Parsons had a big impact on the teaching of undergraduate sociology. The introductory course in sociology has lots of ideas that Parsons promoted, such as the conflict/consensus approach to theory and the ascribed/achieved distinction in stratification. His followers, such as Robert Merton and Kingsley Davis, still appear in intro texts. And, of course, teaching social theory as the culmination of Weber and Durkheim is all Parsons. Later, the profession added Marx, the network folks added Simmel and we are now in the process of adding DuBois.
Second, a lot of sociologists use a vulgar functionalism, which takes rule/norm following as the basic theory of human action. It is not uncommon to see papers in all kinds of fields employ the “over socialized” theory of action as the unstated default. It is mainly scholars in areas such as culture or gender, where there is a thorough exploration of culture, who routinely start off with Garfinkle/Goffman view of interaction that rejects the Parsonsian approach to norms.
Third, a lot of sociologists were directly affected by Parsons. Swidlerian toolkit theory is probably the most popular theory of action right now and her 1983 article starts off with a full bore attack on Parsons (too rigid), as well as an attack on rational choice (actors need to simplify things). So a lot of cultural sociology today is still an attempt to create distance the profession from functionalist accounts of action. Furthermore, there are still highly influential sociologists, such as Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann, who were either students of Parsons or who developed some version of neo-functionalist theory.
Finally, I’d note that the reception of Parsons in modern sociology is highly cohort dependent. If you got your Ph.D. in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably thought that Parsons was the Great Satan. If you got your Ph.D. later, he was an afterthought in a theory course and you probably never read a single word of Parsons.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Did I get the story right?
While discussing a recent paper on public opinion and slavery in the pre-Civil War South on Econ Talk, Michael Munger gets into the arguments made for slavery:
Munger: … what Montesquieu asked was this: ‘We always hear people talking about how great slavery is. And you say, well, slavery is beneficial to you and it’s beneficial to the slaves; but it’s mostly slave owners who say stuff like that.’
Russ: Which makes you think.
Munger: Well, suppose we all go into a room. And when we come out, some of us are going to be slaves, and some won’t. Now, do you still believe in slavery? And if that’s then standard, then okay. But otherwise I’m not persuaded that this is really a moral argument about how we should live our lives. And so, what’s interesting is: there are these conventions. And then there are these challenges. And I think Rawls deserves credit for having said, ‘Here’s a standard that it would have to pass.’ … I don’t know we’re going to end up believing. But if you think ‘Yes,’ then in order for you to persuade anyone else that it’s actually just, it would have to pass these sorts of tests. It’s not exactly the same thing as understanding persuasion. But it is a way of problematizing the conventions that come down to us that we just accept because they are traditions.
Excellent point. I call this the “substitution test” for an ethical argument. For any policy X, you are free to make the arguments for why people A and B should accept X. Then, you have to put yourself into the position of A and B. If you wince at X at any point, then that’s probably a good reason to think twice about X. It’s related to the Rawlsian argument that one should evaluate policy from an “original position,” stripped of our actual interests.
Application to open borders: Say you are arguing that we should shut out all Syrian refugees because we’re afraid of terrorism. If you woke up and found yourself to be a Syrian refugee, would you make the same argument? If you faced death and torture in Aleppo, wouldn’t you want to argue that not all Muslim people are terrorists? Or that collective punishment and guilt by association are wrong? Or that maybe you should be given the chance to prove that you aren’t a terrorist? Or maybe that the value of saving millions of lives outweighs a few lives lost due to a few terrorists that the police didn’t screen out? Or that you’d be willing to pay an extra tax to compensate people who were harmed by migration?
In other words, most people people in the position of the Syrian refugee would not argue for shutting the gates and voluntarily returning to the burning ruble. Instead, they would almost certainly consider much more modest policies for addressing the perceived problems with migration so that lives could be saved. There’s a lot of moderate middle ground that people ignore when they promote closed borders.
Restrictionists, the ball is in your court.
Over the summer, SocArXiv announced its development. What is SocArXiv, you ask? It’s a free, open source, open access depository for prepublication versions of papers — a way to get your work out there faster, and to more people. Think SSRN or Academia or ResearchGate, but not-for-profit (SSRN is now owned by Elsevier) and fundamentally committed to accessibility.
SocArXiv has had the great fortune to partner with the Center for Open Science, the folks who brought you the Reproducibility Project. Because COS was already working on building infrastructure, SocArXiv was quickly able to put up a temporary drop site for papers. (Full disclosure: I’m on the SocArXiv steering committee.)
Just on the basis of that, more than 500 papers have been deposited and downloaded over 10,000 times. Now a permanent site is up, and we will be working to get the word out and encourage sociologists and other social scientists to make the jump. With financial support from the Open Society Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this thing is looking pretty real.
More developments will be coming in the months ahead. We’ve partnered with the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute to establish our first working paper series, and will be spearheading an outreach effort to academics, as well as continuing to develop additional features. I will doubtless be highlighting some of those here.
In the meanwhile, take a look, and add a paper of your own. It’s quick and painless, and will help you make your work quickly accessible while contributing to the development of open science infrastructure.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to teach a six week long seminar called “The Black Struggle for Freedom,” sponsored by the Telluride Association. The seminar is aimed at gifted high school students who want to immerse themselves in a particular topic. I taught a seminar that was an interdisciplinary exploration of how African Americans fought for their rights.
Telluride summer seminars are co-taught and my partner in crime was Maria Hamilton Abegdune. She’s a very accomplished individual – the first person to receive a Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana, a published poet, a collector and curator of art, a counselor for doctoral students, university administrator, and a health care provider. Even this enumeration is a woefully incomplete account of my colleague. So I want to dedicate the first of my posts about teaching the Telluride seminar to what I learned from my partner in the classroom.
First, Abegunde, as she prefers to be called, has a completely different classroom presence than I do. I do a lot of lecturing in large classes and my small classes tend to be technical, like network analysis. As a result, I am either a “transmitter” of information or I have to be an entertainer, where I try to encourage students to be comfortable in class and not be scared of the material. In contrast, Abegunde has a much more interactive classroom presence. She can have students do close readings of texts while opening up a very personal dialogue. The result is that her classroom is a very emotionally open space that is simultaneously rooted in the slow and laborious task of textual interpretation. That’s very hard to accomplish.
Second, Abegunde is extraordinarily attuned to the emotional contours of the classroom. This turned out to be extremely important since the class was composed of high school students. To give one example, our class met the day after Philando Castile was shot and the class was devastated. In my view, Abegunde helped manage the conversation in ways that allowed people to express their frustration in constructive ways. Not surprisingly, Abegunde is adept at allowing people to fully feel the emotions that emerge and then channeling that in a constructive way.
Third, Abegunde represents a very different intellectual model than I do. As a trained humanist and creative writer, she approaches her teaching in a very “thick description” way. Her class discussions are full of allusions to pop culture, African culture, diaspora culture, literature, and a whole lot more. I am a bit more positivist in my teaching in that I focus on social science theory and method. I think we make for an interesting contrast that shows how you can be intellectual, rigorous, and engaged in two very different ways.
I think that Abegunde’s teaching method emerges from her varied experiences. Her graduate work in the humanities and active poetry career provide her with a rich language for contextualizing reading. At the same time, her work with traumatized populations allows her to fully appreciate the emotional depth of her students and the work they need to do that will help them get the most from the class and their lives. Spending a lot of time with Abegunde has also taught me a lot. As a teacher, I try to more fully understand where my students are emotionally. On an academic level, I am much less hesitant to fully jump into a more humanistic presentation of the material.
Next week: what I learned from the students.