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?