it’s always Parsons…Parsons, Parsons, Parsons!


Brayden brings up the topic of “rediscovering Parsons” and points to a working paper that argues that Parsons reworked and was influenced by the ideas of some early economists including Menger and von Mises. My only complaint would be that the paper has no gossip (that is the real interesting parts of Parsons’ life that explain a lot that is otherwise unexplained)! Consider,

  • Fact: Parsons was trained as an economist at Amherst not a sociologist.
  • Fact: Parsons got all of his early publications in the late 20s and early 30s (articles) in economics journals so he wasn’t kidding around about staying in the dark side.
  • Fact: Parsons began as junior instructor of economics at Harvard, however, this was a crowded room with a bunch of other junior instructors that had no chance for promotion (hey that hasn’t changed has it?).
  • Fact: Parsons read the writing on the wall and transferred (begrudgingly) to “sociology” a fledgling, ill-defined department centered on a weak, ill-defined discipline (hey, that hasn’t changed has it?), but at least he could get tenure.
  • Fact: Needless to say, Parsons had already imbued a ton of economic theory, having had front-row seats to the institutionalist/marginalist debate in early American economics; his Amherst teachers were institutionalist, but he immediately became buddies with and was deeply influenced by (see next fact) the marginalist cadre at Harvard. So, he consciously built TSA on (neoclassical) foundations.
  • Fact: Parsons remained integrated in the social circle of economists at Harvard even after the switch to sociology becoming part of the influential “discussion group” led by biochemist L.J. Henderson. Henderson was a strong advocate of deductivism and of science as abstraction from stylized facts.
  • Fact: Parsons never lost his hankering for economics, but he didn’t like the math and the deductivism (as opposed to the neoclassicists), but he liked the removal from empirical reality and the abstraction (in English not symbols) of the early marginalists. Thus, he remained a neoclassicist in spirit and style even if he rejected the substantive neoclassical theory (“utilitarianism”). In fact he saw the “analytical abstraction” of economics as the fastest ticket to the “sociology is a real science” town, and applied the full method in TSA.

All of these facts come from a great early paper by Camic (1987) in ASR “The Making of a Method…” which is the best thing that has ever been written about Parsons or TSA. Thus it is no wonder that economists would like TSA, but that has nothing to do with Parsons’ brilliance or foresight; they had already gotten to him before he wrote the first sentence of TSA.

In any case I would say that Brayden’s informant was a little bitter (or unduly scarred by the battles of the 1960s), to think that functionalism died because of politics. In terms of whether anybody is a Parsonian today, it is important to note that there are a lot of Parsonians that are out of the closet out there and “flaunting it” (how disgusting!). Early Jeffrey Alexander was one although he now “bats for another team.” Thomas Fararo wrote a great book (one of those Rose series in sociology) which does a great job of laying out the philosophical and epistemological intellectual debts that Parsons had with his (Harvard colleague in philosophy) Whitehead. Fararo’s book also attempts to formalize (this time using math) some Parsonian concepts and integrate them with some modern notions derived from cybernetic control theory; he “comes out” as a great admirer of the Parsonian method (at least the spirit of it and the attempt to craft a scientific sociology). The first three chapters of the book are a must-read for any theory-head. David Sciulli has updated a normative version of Parsonian political theory; and of course Jurgen Habermas was greatly influenced by the Parsonized Weber of TSA (like The Hoff, Parsons is “big in Germany”).

So why is it that nobody “today…reads Parsons?” Politics? Rubbish. That makes it sound as if everything was right with functionalism and sociologists abandoned it so they could publish edgy papers in Gouldner’s Theory and Society. There are a bunch of reasons why nobody cares about Parsons today and a lot of them are actually Parsons’ fault. I will note some:

1) And I think this is the biggest one. Parsons got Weber wrong! This came out in ASR in a series of articles by Pope et al in 1975. Parsons never recovered from that blow. All of the interesting parts of Weber, (yes the Weber that begat both Randall Collins and Pierre Bourdieu) such as conflict, power, politics, the uses of culture by status groups to sustain their positions, occupational closure as a class reproduction strategy, the early theory of intellectual production among religious professionals as driven by conflict dynamics (the single most important intellectual influence in Bourdieu’s field theory) got lost under this cloud of boring consensus and normativity.

2) The theory of “convergence” laid out in TSA is false. This was the second of the Pope, Cohe Hazelrigg papers. TSA rested on (to borrow a term that Alexander used to refer to Coleman’s magnum opus) “shaky foundations.” There was never a convergence between Durkheim, Weber and Pareto. Parsons’ reputation was deflated after the abandonment of the convergence thesis.

3) Oedipal warfare. Parsons most brilliant students (Garfinkel and Randall Collins among them) got bored of the analytical sterility of the master. They wanted empirics, and they wanted conflict; and that’s what we got. Materialism and state theory came back with a vengeance in the political theory of revolutions of the 1970s (built on true Weberian foundations) as in the early work of Tilly, Skocpol and others, making mince-meat of early attempts by some young Parsonians to explain collective violence in normativist terms (lack of social integration, normative breakdown, etc.).

4) Empirical sterility. Parsons redescribed everything under the sun in terms of analytical abstractions, however no research agenda (except for a few historical studies by Eisenstadt and Coser) came out of functionalism. And just like video killed the radio star, numbers did away with boring theory that went nowhere: the “statistical revolution” was sweeping sociology about this time, led by one Paul Lazarsfeld in New York, Phds were being trained to “find indicators” and do some research. Who today reads John W. Meyer? Who today reads Peter Blau? Answer: a ton of people. Why? Their theories have empirical implications, and these people did some research. Connection? They were both trained at Columbia under Merton and Lazarsfeld’s watch. Harrison White and the network revolution gave Harvard its last hurrah in the 1970s, and then the department declined after Parsons’ death (fittingly White will retire in New York and not Cambridge); however network theory was decidely Mertonian/Lazarsfeldian and not Parsonian (with its nose so close to the data and focused on “concrete” social relations). In the long run both Columbia and Harvard became but shells of their former selves, but Columbia won the ideological battle in the discipline; dirty research beat out clean castles-in-the air theory. We are all Mertonian-Lazarsfeldian now.

5) Parsons picked the wrong systems theory. He got stuck in the 1950s with Cannon, Weiner and the early cybernetics based on feedback and homeostasis, and the eternal return of the same. But in the 1960s, the whole systems traditions based on solvable differential equations was giving way to “open systems,” that were not based on homeostasis and whose most important feature was not “latent pattern maintenance.” Organizational theory picked the right systems theory (open systems with the emphasis on the open) and that’s why today we read Scott but not Parsons and organizational theory is the most empirically successful body of theory in sociology. Funnily enough, Parsons teleported from individuals directly to “systems” but forgot the most important actor in modern society (Perrow, Coleman): organizations!

Parsons only good idea? Taking poetic license and translating Weber’s stahlhartes Gehäuse phrase from the last chapter of the Protestant Ethic (in a flash of inspiration provided by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), as “The Iron Cage,” when a more literal translation would have yielded “a shell as hard as steel” (Yuck!). I am fairly sure that it wouldn’t have caught on under that last rendition.

Written by Omar

August 2, 2006 at 1:01 am

Posted in omar, sociology

7 Responses

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  1. Long live the long post (It was very Lizardoan).



    August 2, 2006 at 3:09 am

  2. Paragraphs, extreme length, parenthetical comments – two thumbs up!



    August 2, 2006 at 3:29 am

  3. wow, between you and brayden, I am getting all the Parsons my graduate training never gave me. thanks!



    August 2, 2006 at 10:41 am

  4. The post that prompted this exchange was based on the first of two essays that I wrote in 73/74 and the second was devoted to the reasons why Parsons after TSA was in a dead end.

    Just on the topic of gossip, I wrote a few paras on his early influences, especially at Amherst which was charmingly described as a place for bright but indigent kids.

    I may come back and write some more if time permits because I have some agreements and disagreements with Omar and it could be helpful to pursue both.

    In a nutshell, I think the way forward was pointed by the Austrian school of social and economic thought and it needs to become even more Austrian by a creative or synergistic merger with some stuff from Karl Popper as sketched here



    August 3, 2006 at 11:54 pm

  5. […] In a previous post, I pointed out among other grave sins, that Talcott Parsons “picked the wrong systems theory” and that organizational sociology was lucky to move beyond him into “open systems.”  While the general thrust of that statement is correct, the implication that Parsons was a roadblock to organizational theory is definitely not correct.  So I would like to use this post and clean the air (and eat some of my words on the way), so that way the ghost of Parsons will not send an electric storm my way while I am in the middle of revising a paper zapping my work away. […]


  6. […] You enjoy reading and discussing obscure scholars […]


    ph.d.? «

    September 17, 2006 at 8:07 pm

  7. […] (1992), “Reputation and Predecessor Selection: Parsons and the Institutionalists” (see here for a previous post on the general subject matter). The paper has two general lines of […]


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