sociology and the legacy of parsons

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?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 



Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2016 at 12:01 am

13 Responses

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  1. Awesome! Just added the book to my amazon wish list.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 9, 2016 at 2:18 pm

  2. I certainly got a ton of anti-Parsons teaching at Stanford (undergrad taking grad courses) in the late 1960s; we still read some actual Parsons to critique it at that point. But I don’t believe I ever heard any pro-Parsons teaching.

    Liked by 2 people


    December 9, 2016 at 3:02 pm

  3. O.W.: I am curious. Do you remember what the basis of rejecting was in your course work?

    Liked by 1 person


    December 9, 2016 at 5:12 pm

  4. I’ve read him, and some of his critics, I certainly agree with Alvin Gouldner on the major problem of the absence of a relative autonomy principle for all the systems and sub-systems; I also agree on the fact that if he weren’t in Harvard, he wouldn’t have gotten the fame that he did. Reading him is a riddle, whenever he needed something else he’d just come up with a sub-system of sorts, that fulfilled the absent function; with no clear definitions. I certainly don’t like his theory; however, I do believe it is a great opportunity to learn what NOT to do in social theory. So he shouldn’t disappear, he should be used as an example for doing sociology of knowledge…

    Liked by 1 person


    December 9, 2016 at 5:54 pm

  5. Danilo: One of my grad school profs suggested that Parsons was best when he wasn’t doing theory (like his essay on occupations). When doing high theory, he seemed to slip into meaningless jargon or avoiding issues.



    December 9, 2016 at 6:01 pm

  6. Indeed! It’s impressive to read him on high theory, how did anyone publish that!!! Harvard, I guess… His organizational work is definitely worth the look, but I still prefer using him as an example of theory run amok. Avoiding him or neglecting him is a mistake, one that allows us to look away from the internal problems and contradictions of ‘the discipline’. Three paragraphs to cover such a character seems insufficient to me, no time to explain his politics, his problems and his legacy. Maybe it’s an American sociology problem, let’s not dwell on our mishaps, and focus on our accomplishments… Let’s make American sociology great again! (Sorry, couldn’t help it…).



    December 9, 2016 at 6:12 pm

  7. There is definitely a Harvard halo effect happening. I don’t remember anyone else in the 1930s (when Parsons big book start appearing) who wrote quite that way. Perhaps Sorokin was an exception. I’d love to see some intellectual history on the publication of The Structure of Social Action.



    December 9, 2016 at 6:17 pm

  8. Indeed! That would be great, the closest thing I can thibk of is Gouldner’s The coming crisis… And this is on my reading list:
    Cheers, Fabio. Looking forward to your book!!!



    December 9, 2016 at 6:48 pm

  9. When I was an undergrad there 1968-71, Stanford sociology was still dominated by Buzz Zelditch, Bernie Cohen, and Joe Berger, all of whom were Harvard PhDs from the 1950s. They critiqued Parsons, as I recall, for being untestable grand theory, and were developing expectation states theory in a careful step by step process of developing theory as logical syllogisms that could be formalized mathematically and tested in controlled experiments. They advised me not to go to Harvard when I was deciding where to go to grad school. (They also advised against Columbia because of how it treated women students, a different issue). I also worked as a research assistant for Francesca Cancian, who was there at the time (but not part of the dominant gang) on a project about active and passive norms that I think could justly be construed as more Parsonian or at least not anti-Parsonian, but I can’t recall Parsons actually being discussed in that project. I did read her manuscript, but it was a long time ago and my job mostly involved running crosstabs with IBM cards using the very first version of SPSS with a mimeographed documentation.

    Liked by 3 people


    December 9, 2016 at 10:41 pm

  10. Ow: Thinking of you doing expexratstate theory sends shivers up my spine.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 10, 2016 at 5:24 pm

  11. I never understood the Parsons taboo. People justifiably grew weary of his macro sociology. But Parsons was also an insightful micro-sociologist. For example, the problem of “asymmetric information” was first developed by Parsons in his ethnographic research of medical practice in hospitals. Kenneth Arrow picked up the idea 12 years later, gave it a proper name and some extra math, and it’s now a foundational concept for information theory. Arrow (1963) credited Parsons for the idea, but sociology does not.

    I read a lot of Parsons for a history of thought project years ago. Some of it is painful to read, but there is a lot of great work there. His essay, The Professions and the Social Structure, remains an important critique of free market capitalism. Parsonian micro-sociology was greatly influential for Goffman’s Presentation of Self, and reading their work side-by-side is striking. In many ways, Goffman was a Parsonian who managed to steer clear of the macro ambitions and mistakes.

    Parsons was also influential in establishing the post-war division of labor in academia, casting sociology and economics as sharply separate disciplines. He publicly feuded with institutional economists in the 1930s, critiquing them for being either too sociological, or being in the wrong discipline. He argued that economics should focus on price theory, while sociology should focus on institutions. (See Parsons, 1935. “Sociological Elements in Economic Thought,” Quarterly Journal of Economics.) Oddly, Karl Polanyi was an institutional economist at Columbia at the time, and resented Parsons’ efforts to recast his work as sociology.

    It’s also worth remembering that Max Weber was an economist in Germany – we only think of him today as a sociologist because Parsons translated The Protestant Ethic and presented his work as foundational sociology. Before Parsons, the only interest in Weber in the U.S. was among economists like Frank Knight. Adopting Max Weber – who never described himself as a sociologist – was a critical turn in American sociology that wouldn’t have happened without Parsons.

    All in all, Parsons is a fascinating character who contributed a lot to contemporary sociology.

    Liked by 3 people

    Cristobal Young

    December 18, 2016 at 10:50 am

  12. Cristobal: Great comment. At some later point, you should expand comments like this one: ” Goffman was a Parsonian who managed to steer clear of the macro ambitions and mistakes.”



    December 19, 2016 at 7:57 pm

  13. There is quite a literature on pretty much every aspect of Parsons’ project for Sociology as an analytical science of one aspect or dimension of action. Charles Camic has done excellent work on Parsons. Of course, so has Jeff Alexander.



    December 24, 2016 at 4:47 am

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