the parsons taboo

As readers already know, I am hard at work on a book that reviews contemporary sociology. In writing the book, I ran into two taboos: rational choice and Parsons (ironic, since Parsons was opposed to utilitarianism). The reviewers were very touchy about these two topics. The first makes sense. Sociology has always been allergic to anything “econ-y” or “math-y” from the beginning. I do understand why people might want to expunge a book of rational choice. I still don’t think it’s wise since the profession still has people working in related areas like Granovetter style embeddness research, social capital, Harrison White micro-network hybrid work, and applied game theory. Also, the rational choice tradition (including social capital) is the major link between sociology and the poli sci/economics axis.

The Parsons taboo really surprised me since (a) the book only had a total of about five paragraphs about Parsons, (b) I am definitely not a functionalist and I present it as background for more modern stuff like cultural sociology and institutionalism, and (c) Parsons’ descendants still have big followings, like Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann. Also, another weird thing is that the reviewers asked me to incorporate Swidler’s recent work (Talk of Love), a discussion of Poggi’s theory of power and Vaisey’s work, which all explicitly speak of Parsons.

So what is up with this weird allergy to even *mentioning* Parsons? In 2015, are people still fighting the battles of 1975? Here’s my theory. Parsons’ did two things, one bad and one good. The bad thing is that he created a highly visible and rigid orthodoxy, complete with “religious” texts (i.e., his books). That is what the sociologists of the 1970s revolted against and that is what made Parsons the devil in our profession. And I can’t blame people. Reading classic structural functionalist texts is really taxing and frequently unhelpful.

The good thing is that he created, by accident, the kernel of a lot of modern sociology. Inside those big, nasty books, there were a lot of important insights that are now standard. For example, his 1959 ASQ article on organizations made the crucial distinction between the technical and “institutional” components of organizations, a core idea in modern organizational research. The functionalist approach to schools is still a standard reading. The distinction between achieved and ascribed status is “strat 101.” Even his much maligned theory of norm driven action lives on, even if we admit that norms are constructed situationally rather than ex ante.

The “good” and “bad” Parsons explains my situation. You don’t have to be a functionalist to appreciate some of his good ideas, nor do you need to be a hard core follower to understand the historical importance of Parsons. For example, you simply can’t understand why Swidler’s (1983) toolkit argument was such a big deal unless you understand how Parsons’ theory of norms and his interpretation of the Protestant Ethic was dominant at the time. The Swidler critique set the agenda for cultural sociology for decades.  So you need to address Parsons and point out the contribution. If you do that, however, people get angry because they remember (or their advisers told them) about the bad Parsons.

This also helps explain when and where you can get away with it. If the whole text is about critiquing work like Parsons and developing alternatives (e.g., Swidler or Vaisey), you can do it. If you are very senior scholar who is writing “big think” work (e.g. Gianfranco Poggi), you can do it. But not a synthetic and pedagogical overview – people will think that even including him (or the rational choicers) is a horrendous rear-guard action that puts discredited work back into the canon.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

6 Responses

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  1. For an amusing personal anecdote about Parsons, check out my blogpost:

    I agree that Parsons’ contributions to organization theory, in his 2 ASQ papers, were very generative. We needed them, at that time (hmmm…is this a case of lingering functionalism?)

    Liked by 1 person

    Howard Aldrich

    August 5, 2015 at 12:12 am

  2. Is there really that much scepticism towards RCT in American sociology? In europe it’s still a vital branch of theory and also inspires a lot of empirical research.

    Liked by 1 person


    August 5, 2015 at 1:46 am

  3. Eurobro: traditional rct is dead in us Soc programs. Look at top training programs – who trains rct students these days? Who publisheS it? RCT research is not that active in us soc but it is important in europe.



    August 5, 2015 at 2:58 am

  4. This is unfortunate. I’m no rational choice dogmatist but I still maintain that many sociological theories can be reconstructed (more precisely) using some modification of RC models. I would even claim that many sociological theories without any clearly stated action theory implicitly assume rational actors. Moreover, economists are starting to develop wide versions of RCT that are very sociological in nature (e.g. Herbert Gintis).



    August 5, 2015 at 4:19 am

  5. Perhaps I’m off base but I see RCT as “dead” in US sociology because no one is necessarily arguing that people are not rational beings, if we use rational as a shorthand for assuming people make choices based on logic. The question is not whether or not people have reasons to make their choices – of course they do – it’s just that people may have different reasons (or rationalities) than others, and why people make the choices they do – what cultural logics they use, is of interest. For example, in my training by Viviana Zelizer, I use a relational and cultural economic sociology lens. The difference between, for example, a rtc model, an embeddedness approach and a relational perspective is unit of analysis. RCT means people take into account information and rationally decide on choices. An embeddedness perspective has people make (rational) choices within social and cultural constraints, whereas a relational perspective see the dyad, or relationship, as the unit of analysis. People make choices depending on their relationship with the particular person(s). So RCT is dead because no one thinks people don’t have reasons for their choices – of course they do! But it’s the interplay between social structures, agency, and relationships, and how and why people are inconsistent in their cultural logics/reasons (e.g. Swidler, DiMaggio) that’s of current interest to people. About five years ago, for my comps, I drew a diagram to explain these differences, where RCT is a dot, embeddedness is a dot within a circle, and my drawing for a relational approach was two dots connected by an .



    August 5, 2015 at 2:21 pm

  6. If you combine the taboo on RCT with the taboo on evolutionary theory, you miss out on a lot of interesting work being done on the evolution of decision making. Error management theory (which is an improvement has been quite useful in explaining things that RCT 1.0 could not


    Chris M

    August 12, 2015 at 2:26 pm

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