Talcott Parsons

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Talcott Edgar Frederick Parsons (December 13, 1902–May 8, 1979) gained fame as a sociologist whose work straddled the line between classical and contemporary sociology. He developed the theory of structural functionalism during his remarkable tenure as a professor at Harvard University, from 1927 to 1973.

Structural functionalism

Had Parsons ever been required to classify his theory in a single word, he might have insisted that “structural-functionalism” constitutes only one word. Talcott Parsons’ sociological theory falls wholeheartedly within the school of structural functionalism – the concept that each of the myriad of different elements within a society serves a specific and necessary purpose for that society, and that these elements come together to form a cohesive whole. In fact, Parsons maintains, these different elements not only cohere in this way, but as a whole are capable of (and sometimes require) adaptation to one another, and to a changing environment in order to maintain a stable equilibrium. This ideology is rather conservative in its positive view of the role of social institutions, and is in opposition to the conflict ideologies most prominently asserted by Karl Marx, which argue that different elements of society are actually working against one another, seeking opposing goals and willing to undermine one another to achieve them.

Parsons’ writing is not intended for the masses, but for other sociologists. Sociology was already a well-established field with a fairly long tradition in Parson’s day. As such, it had already developed it’s own scientific language, which was yet nascent in the age of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, but is the language in which Parsons writes (on a somewhat lighter note, C. Wright Mills once quipped that “if someone only translated Parsons’ writings into plain English, they would be quite unremarkable”). [1] Nor does Parsons write books per se, so much as he writes lengthy essays and articles, which are grouped and bound together by category. He is very well-organized in laying out his ideas, and likes to carefully define everything of which he speaks, frequently italicizing key words for particular emphasis. He also likes to carefully define what he believes others are trying to say before he critiques them, as when he analyses the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Durkheim, Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and others through the lens of his own concepts.

While Parsons largely embraces Weber’s methodology in developing a social theory by applying the thought experiment and using ideal types as models, his conclusions about the actual nature of society more closely resemble Durkheim’s contemplation of organic solidarity. Parsons does level some fairly strong criticism at the latter’s theories, but he does not assail Durkheim as being incorrect; rather, he finds that Durkheim’s concept is incomplete, failing to make certain connections between some concepts, and failing to differentiate between others (suggesting, of course, the connections and differentiations that Parsons himself would have made). He agrees to some extent with Durkheim’s conception of institutionalization, noting that “Durkheim started from the insight that the individual, as a member of society, is not wholly free to make his own moral decisions but is in some sense “constrained” to accept the orientations common to the society of which he is a member.” [2] He also pointedly disagrees with later theorists who classified Weber and Durkheim as holding incompatible views. Regarding his study of Durkheim's The Division of Labor in Society, he notes that “careful study of this book showed that its analysis could indeed be very directly articulated with Weber’s analysis of capitalism.” [3]

Parsons conducted a similar analysis of Weber in his lengthy introduction to his translation of Weber’s Theory of Social and Economic Organization. That Parsons, n addition to putting forth his own body of work, took the time and effort required to translate the lengthy and complicated work of another theorist offers a window into Parsons’ own thinking. His ruminations on Weber, suggest a foundation on which Parsons sees himself building.

Parsons generally expresses admiration for the logic of Weber’s method of analysis. Regarding the concept of the ‘ideal type’, he notes “The ideal type contains no particular statements of fact. But it does, logically, involve a fixed relation between the values of the various elements involved.” However, he does go on to say, “If analysis is confined to its use, certain possibilities of variation on other levels are arbitrarily excluded from consideration. This is not, of course, to say in any simple sense that it is ‘wrong,’ but only that it is limited in certain respects.” [4] Parsons’ criticisms of this work are fairly gentle, for he finds Weber’s methodology appealing, and classifies him along with Durkheim and Freud as his greatest influences. But compared to the other two, he notes that “Weber’s contribution consisted far more in a truly monumental spelling out and empirical validation of the basic insights of the critical reorientation.” [5]

In the course of analyzing (and often agreeing with) Weber, Parsons also takes the opportunity to put forth his own general idea regarding the nature of the relationship between structure and function:

On the level of the total social system as a whole there are certain basic aspects of its structure which can be differentiated out when the system as a whole is treated from a functional point of view... It would seem to be a fundamental fact, crucial to the functional approach, that the primary modes of differentiation in the structure of a system are related to its functional needs in such a way that some differentiated parts are particularly important and effective in contributing to one or a related group of functional needs. Thus in biology we speak of the alimentary system, the sense organs, etc. as functionally differentiated structures. There can be no doubt that the same applies in general terms to social systems. The primary differentiated units in this case are component individuals and their roles and actions. [6]

Parsons is therefore concerned with several specific questions of the organization of society. The first asks what functions the various institutions serve within a system. The second asks how they relate to one another. And the third asks how different systems at different levels relate to one another, or as Parsons would put it, ‘the Hierarchy of Relations of Control.’ Parsons examines some specific areas of interests in his writings, particularly in the sociologies of economics, religion, and medicine, within the context of their role within his larger scheme. Economics is taken as something of a special case, for he asserts a great importance to its role, as we will see in our discussion of his greater theory.

The centerpiece of Parsons’ theory is the four function paradigm of the societal interchange system. “We[7] concluded that systems of action generally could be exhaustively analyzed in terms of processes and structures referable to the solution – simultaneously or in sequence – of the four functional problems that we called “adaptation,” “system (not unit) goal attainment,” “integration,” and “pattern-maintenance and latent tension-management.” [8] Following Weber’s lead, Parsons notes that the social system as a whole, “is a system of the actions of individuals, the principal units of which are roles and constellations of roles.” [9] Within a given system, he argues, each of the four primary functions includes a subsystem of structures within society designed to carry out that function, and each of these subsystems can be further broken down into component parts, until the level of the individual is reached.

The latent, or pattern-maintenance subsystem comprises the set of structures which work to maintain stability within the system. In Parsons’ own words, “the function of pattern-maintenance refers to the imperative of maintaining the stability of the patterns of institutionalized culture defining the structure of the system.” [10] In the social system, “the focus of pattern-maintenance lies in the structural category of values… the essential function is maintenance, at the cultural level, of the stability of institutionalized values through the processes which articulate values with the belief system, namely, religious beliefs, ideology, and the like.” [11] Taken as a whole, Parsons refers to these various elements as comprising the fiduciary system.

The internalization of culture is a very important aspect of this function, at the level of the individual. Parsons notes that “internalization of a culture pattern is not merely knowing it as an object of the external world; it is incorporating it into the actual structure of the personality as such.” [12]In other words, culture is not just around you – it is inside you to the point that it influences your decision-making processes, and the pattern-maintenance system, at the level of the social system, is responsible for putting it there. Parsons continues, “culture, however, is a system of generalized symbols and their meanings. In order for the integration with affect, which constitutes internalization, to take place, the individual’s own affective organization must achieve levels of generalization of a high order.” [13] Carried out at a broader level and with groups or subsystems instead of individuals, this internalization becomes institutionalization. “By institutionalization we mean the integration of the complementary role-expectation and sanction patterns with a generalized value system common to the members of the more inclusive collectivity, of which the system of complementary role-actions may be a part.” [14]

The integrative subsystem comprises the set of structures which allow the various components of the system to work together, the means by which the different subsystems communicate. “Integration concerns the relations internal to the system of parts with each other. It is intimately related to the conception of the internal environment… the integration of a system is in one primary aspect the adaptation of its parts to the internal environment.” [15] At the level of the social system, this function is carried out by the institutions of law and citizenship. Parsons declares “the core structure of society I will call the societal community. More specifically at different levels of evolution, it is called tribe, or “the people,” or, for classic Greece, polis, or, for the modern world, nation. It is the collective structure in which members are united or in some sense, associated.” [16]

The goal-attainment subsystem comprises the set of structures which give purpose to the system, assigning goals and providing the motivation for the achievement of these goals. Says Parsons, “it is a directional change that tends to reduce the discrepancy between the needs of the system, with respect to input-output interchange, and the conditions in the environing systems that bear upon the “fulfillment” of such needs. Goal attainment or goal orientation is thus, by contrast with pattern-maintenance, essentially tied to a specific situation.” [17] The function of goal attainment is carried out by the political system, which Parsons refers to as the polity, which is “the organization of the social system relative to the attainment of goals accepted as binding on the system as a whole.” [18]

Finally, the adaptive subsystem comprises the set of structures which allow the greater system to adjust to changes in its environment, or to alter the environment to suit the needs of the system. Parsons asserts that, because scarcity of resources can force a society to choose between attainable goals, “an analytical distinction must be made between the function of effective goal attainment and that of providing disposable facilities independent of their relevance to any particular goal. The adaptive function is defined as the provision of such facilities.” [19] Throughout his career, Parsons makes an extensive examination of “the economy, conceived as a subsystem of a society,” [20] and he relates that “the economy should be regarded as one of four primary functional subsystems of the society with a primarily ‘’adaptive’’ function.” [21]

Parsons also places these four functions within a ‘control hierarchy’. “Within a given system,” he states, “goal-attainment is a more important control than adaptation,” while integration “stands between the functions of pattern maintenance and goal-attainment.” [22]

Parsons illustrates this entire scheme with a model of which sociologists are extremely fond, but which everyone uses in a different way. In Parsons’ case, it appears as so:[23]

(the economy)

(locus of cultural and
motivational commitments)
(fiduciary system)
(Law [as norms] and
social control)
(societal community)

Within this scheme, Parsons is particularly concerned with the forces that, at every level, keep a system stable, noting that, “the concept of stable equilibrium implies that through integrative mechanisms endogenous variations are kept within limits compatible with the maintenance of the main structural pattern and through adaptive mechanisms fluctuations in the relations between system and environment are similarly kept within limits.” [24] Thus, the whole of society exists as a stable equilibrium, unless and until acted upon by some external force which is too great to be overcome or adapted to by the existing mechanisms of society.

In addition to the relationship between the subsystems, there is also, Parsons suggests, a specific set of relationships between different levels of systems: the aforementioned Hierarchy of Relations of Control. Parsons essentially states that larger systems govern their smaller components. He writes:

The basic subsystems of the general system of action constitute a hierarchical series of such agencies of controls of the behavior of individuals or organisms. The behavioral organism is the point of articulation of the system of action with the anatomical-physiological features of the physical organism and is its point of contact with the physical environment. The personality system is, in turn, a system of control over the behavioral organism; the social system, over the personalities of its participating members; and the cultural system, a system of control relative to social systems. [25]

Thus, Parsons has answered his three basic questions. Society, he believes is arranged around those four specific functions, with different institutions working primarily towards the enforcement of a specific function, with clearly discernable priorities. The individual in Parsons’ scheme is clearly highly integrated, and has internalized his culture. Therefore, his actions are directed by his internalized social beliefs, as well as the perceived judgement of his peers, and ultimately the judgement of society as a whole.

Parsons lived in a more modern era than the founders of sociology, and he was surrounded by new and increasingly radical and microinteractionist schools of thought. But he pays great reverence to the work of the old masters, and his own sociology remains more reflective of their broad theoretical strokes about the driving forces that define society as a whole, explaining the relationships between the institutions of society as readily as the relations between individuals and society. Parsons does attempt to address the challenge of microinteractionism, developing a sociological scheme that he believes would envelope every level of human interaction, from those involving the whole of civilization down to the most basic interpersonal exchanges (and even, to some extent, the internal forces that govern the behavior of the individual). However, his theory is more readily applicable to the former concept, and interactions on the larger scale are his primary concern.

Parsons, throughout his writing, addresses a wide range of interests, far to many to be covered in a paper of this scope and size. However, the core of his thinking, the four function paradigm of the societal interchange system, provides a useful lens through which to examine the institutions of society. It is a model of comparable interest to Durkheim’s theory of movement from mechanical to organic solidarity (and the nature of this organic solidarity), or Marx’s Great Law of Motion of History.


  1. Postmodern Social Theory, George Ritzer, pg. 132.
  2. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 130
  3. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 25.
  4. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Max Weber; Talcott Parsons ed., pg. 13.
  5. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 75.
  6. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Max Weber; Talcott Parsons ed., pg. 21.
  7. By ‘we’, he is referring to himself and his departmental colleague, Robert Bales.
  8. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 43.
  9. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 118.
  10. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 159.
  11. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 159.
  12. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 141.
  13. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 141.
  14. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 117.
  15. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 111.
  16. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 182.
  17. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 161.
  18. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 182.
  19. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 162.
  20. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 45.
  21. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 45.
  22. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 162.
  23. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, Talcott Parsons, pg. 366; introductory notes removed.
  24. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 261.
  25. On Institutions and Social Evolution, Talcott Parsons, pg. 157-158.