sorry parsons


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.

Rewind. Parsons had a pioneering influence on organizational analysis, precisely because he was, due to his dabbling in systems theory, one of the few people that was intellectually positioned to begin to think about organizations as embedded in and affected by their large environment (in this way moving beyond Weber, Barnard and the early work of Simon), and thus presaging modern organizational analysis. Sometimes post hoc we (or I) can judge people for “picking the wrong systems theory,” when in its proper ideational context having any systems theory constituted an incredible intellectual leap forward.

In fact, as pointed out by W. Richard Scott in his classic monograph Institutions and Organizations, Parsons was invited by John Thompson (the first editor of ASQ) to write up some of his lectures on org theory as the first two lead articles on ASQ (1956a, 1956b). These articles are isolated by Scott as the first theoretical statements highlighting the organization-environment connection. In the first one, after discussing standard org theory stuff about intra-organizational processes and dynamics (coordination, authority, incentives, etc.) he notes that

There is however, another central problem which is not covered by these considerations, namely that of the mechanisms by which the organization is integrated with other organizations and other types of collectivity in the total social system. This is not a matter of the organization in question treating its social situation or environment instrumentally, as a source for the procurement of resources or as the functionally defined field in which it produces its goal attainment output and makes it available on agreed (or somehow settled) terms to other units in the social structure (80).

Parsonian, yet groundbreaking.


Written by Omar

August 29, 2006 at 3:17 pm

Posted in omar, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. If by Parsonian you mean the writing is dense and nearly incomprehensible, then yes, this is Parsonian. I had to read that paragraph several times before I caught his meaning.

    My understanding of Parsons’ theory of organizations is that he tried to do the same thing with organizations as he did with individuals. The cultural system of values became inscribed in the organization and guided its choice of means and ends. After you assume a stable cultural alignment, feedback mechanisms are the main structural component of analytic concern.



    August 29, 2006 at 5:35 pm

  2. Yes. It is a shame that “Googling” is already in the dictionary, yet Parsonian is not.



    August 29, 2006 at 5:39 pm

  3. There is a beautiful piece by Stern and Barley (1996. “Organizations and social systems: The neglected mandate.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 41:146-162) which the authors based on the third part of Parsons’ research agenda in organizational theory as presented in the ASQ first issues, the one Omar mentions here. Stern and Barley’s piece is brilliant and raises major questions on the relationship between corporations and democracy. Actually, Steve Barley built on it for his speech as distinguished OMT scholar at the Academy in Atlanta. I like this piece a lot but see little relation with Parsons. I totally agree with Brayden, Parsons is so much about stable alignments and things seem so simple as long as you don’t deviate. I wonder if this is just a naive view or a dictatorial program. The ghost of Parsons’s can try to storm me and erase my finishing PhD. dissertation, I don’t care, the ghost of C. Wright Mills will protect me.


    Bernard Leca

    August 30, 2006 at 6:51 pm

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