Parsons, Talcott

Parsons, Talcott

Bio: (1902-1979) American sociologist. Talcott Parsons completed his undergraduate studies in biology at Amherst College, then he spent a year studying at the London School of Economics, before completing his studies at the University of Heidelberg, where he also received his doctorate. Upon his return to the United States, Parsons began his career at Amherst College, but moved to Harvard a year later, where he continued to teach until his death. Parsons became one of the first members of the Department of Sociology at Harvard since this department was formed in 1930, and the first head of this department was Pitirim Sorokin. Parsons was the head of the newly formed Department of Psychology and Social Relations at Harvard, from the founding of the Department in 1945 until its closure in 1972. Parsons is best known for his macro-sociological approach known as functionalism or structural-functionalism; while for the sociology of the English-speaking area he is very important as the first translator of several books by Max Weber from German into English.

                                   Structure of Social Action

Parsons' first book, The Structure of Social Action (1937), introduced an anti-utilitarian „voluntaristic“ theory of action because it presents human action as an intentional construction. Parsons wants to solve the problem of social order discussed by Thomas Hobbes and begins by rejecting Hobbes' voluntarism and the idea of ​​the social contract, emphasizing the importance of normative rules for shaping human action and creating social order. Actors constantly make conscious individual choices in their actions, but choices are limited and set by a network of social norms, which forms part of the structure of society. In line with this view of social action, Parsonson's definition of sociology is given in the same book: „(sociology is) science which attempts to develop an analytical theory of social action systems insofar as these systems can be understood in terms of the property of common-value integration​​”(Parsons, 1937). Parsons believes that the basic unit of study is the "unit act", which is characterized by the following criteria:

1) an individual actor who is motivated to act;

2) the goal towards which the action is directed;

3) specific "conditions of action", that is, external factors over which the actor has no control, as well as the „means“ to achieve that goal of action;

4) the situation in which the act takes place;

5) „normative orientations of action“ - norms and values ​​that direct and limit the choice of goals and means for achieving goals.

The normative structure of society gives normative orientations of action, that is, choices between goals and means, which the actor can make in order to achieve the goal, but the reference framework of action is always subjective because it depends on the subjective actor's experience. The very fact that the actor has the freedom to choose between several goals and means, implies the possibility that the actor will make a mistake, therefore, not achieve the set goal. Actors choose goals to maximize satisfaction and minimize dissatisfaction and pain.

                              Structural-Functionalist Approach

In The Social System (1951a), Parsons outlines the basics of his version of the structural-functionalist approach. He believes that there are five dichotomous pairs, which he calls "patterned variables", which allow the actor to oscillate between two poles of these pairs. These pairs are:

1) affectivity and affective neutrality;

2) self-orientation and collectivity orientation;

3) universalism and particularism;

4) ascription and achievement;

5) specificity and diffuseness.

In addition, these dichotomous pairs can be used to describe entire societies, so American society would be characterized by universalism and achievement.

Parsons uses earlier sociological division of our world into three different systems - personality, culture, and society - in order to explain social acts. Personality contains motivations, attitudes, and values ​​that an actor has internalized, society consists of a set of positions and roles, while culture consists of values ​​and symbols. Each of these three systems is autonomous, although there is a significant overlap of each with the other two systems. Parsons sees the social system as a system within which many individual actors strive to achieve the optimum of satisfaction, while the situations in which the action takes place are defined and mediated by a system of symbols organized by culture. The concept of "role" is the most important analytical tool because the role is the intersection of all three systems - personality, culture, and society. The social role is a set of expectations and mutual predictions of other people concerning the role holder; culture regulates the rules of role performance using common symbols and values; while the person is the one who takes over and plays social roles. Actors, as individuals, need to internalize the values ​​that provide motivation for action that enables the successful performance of roles, which further strengthens social consensus.

Every social system, regardless of size, must meet the following requirements, that is, functional pre-requisites: 1) adaptation - adaptation to the environment by changing and controlling it; 2) goal attainment - methodical mobilization of resources to achieve specific goals; 3) integration - solidarity and survival of the cohesive whole; 4) latency / latent pattern maintenance - production, accumulation, and distribution of energy that maintains the motivation of actors, but also the stability of cultural patterns that enable reproduction of that motivation. This theoretical scheme is often abbreviated in sociology as AGIL, the first four letters of the four functional prerequisites in English.

Parsons divides the social system into four main subsystems: 1) economic system - it serves to adapt society to the environment (A); 2) political system - it works to achieve goals (G); 3) societal community - it should achieve integration (I); and 4) the fiduciary system – works to achieve the maintenance of patterns (L). The subsystem of the societal community has the most important function because this subsystem is in charge of the integration of society. Social integration is realized by creating a sense of loyalty among the actors, both towards the whole society and towards the positions and roles that the actor himself fulfills. Each of the four subsystems has its own communication medium: economic system – money; political system - power; societal community - influence; fiduciary system - values.

Table 1. Social system and its subsystems in Parsons theory.


Subsystem of social system

Functional pre-requisit

Communication medium

Economic system



Political system

Goal attainment


Societal community



Fiduciary system

latent pattern maintenance



Parsons emphasizes the concept of "equilibrium", which serves as a heuristic tool used in conjunction with the concept of inertia. No social system is ever in a state of complete inertia, nor can it achieve perfect integration of parts. To maintain balance, it is necessary to have institutions that can mediate in overcoming internal conflicts or failures in coordination. Such institutions are created by an integrative subsystem, and its function is to adapt individuals by enabling the internalization of legitimate values ​​in the form of value patterns. These patterns maintain the integrative needs of the system and foster cooperation, while at the same time neutralizing deviant behavior. The final effect of the integrative subsystem is to lead to a situation in which the equilibrium (balance) of all parts within the system represents the normal state of human society, while conflict, although constantly present, is a residual and abnormal element.

                                    Evolution of Societies

In the books Societies: An Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966) and The System of Modern Societies (1971), Parsons, for the first time, pays great attention to social change and the process of social evolution. He presents the view of evolution, not as a straightforward process, but as a process that implies a large number of possible paths of development. In addition, unlike some other evolutionary theories, which have focused on a single factor as the source of evolutionary change, Parsons believes that there are multiple causes of evolutionary change. The evolutionary progress of societies is reflected in the constant increase in the ability to adapt. The evolutionary progress and development of society depend on four correlated processes that serve to improve society's ability to achieve the four functional imperatives of the AGIL scheme:

(A) adaptive upgrading,

(G) structural differentiation,

(I) inclusion and

(L) value generalization.

Structural differentiation is the most important process and refers to increasing the number of positions and roles that better perform existing functions. With the increasing complexity of society comes greater adaptation. Inclusion refers to the inclusion of previously excluded groups of people. Value generalization ​​refers to the emergence of a new value system that is more complex and general. (Figure 2. shows the relationships between different aspects of the AGIL scheme). In the book Societies: An Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966) Parsons singles out three main evolutionary stages of development of society: primitive, transitional, and modern. The primitive stage is characterized by two phases: 1) the most primitive phase (Australian Aborigines are at that level) and 2) the advanced primitive phase (the Nupe, Shiluk, and Zulu societies are given as examples of societies at this level). The transitional evolutionary stage also has two separate evolutionary phases: 1) the archaic phase (ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia) and 2) the advanced phase (the Chinese and Roman empires).

Figure 2. Relationship between different aspects of Parsons' AGIL scheme.



A subsystem of a society that serves to fulfill a functional pre-requisition

An evolutionary process that serves to improve a society's ability to fulfill a functional pre-requisites

Adaptation          (A)

Economic system

Adaptive upgrading

Goal attainment  (G)

Political system

Structural differentiation

Integration            (I)

Societal community


Latency               (L)

Fiduciary system

Value generalization


Parson also introduces the concept of "evolutionary universals" which he defines as: “a complex of structures and associated processes the development of which so increases the long-run adaptive capacity of living systems in a given class that only systems that develop the complex can attain certain higher levels of general adaptive capacity”(Parsons, 1967). Evolutionary universals refer to the ability of societies to adapt to their own specific circumstances. When there is a significant increase in adaptability, then what Parsons calls "adaptive upgrading" takes place. From the most primitive to the most advanced societies, they are all structured around several ubiquitous universals: kinship, linguistic communication, religion, and technology.

When society enters a transitional stage, then two more universals become functionally necessary: ​​a system of social stratification and a “system of cultural legitimation” that regulates emerging institutions. These institutions have increasing autonomy, so they are more prone to disorganization. With the transition to modern industrial society, four more types of universals are formed: 1) bureaucratic organization, 2) legal system of generalized universalic norms applicable to the whole society, 3) money and markets based on property and contract, 4) democratic association - universal suffrage, parliamentary assemblies, secret ballot, free elections, political associations and the concept of citizenship. With the evolution of society, cultural and social subsystems become more autonomous and independent of state control.

Main works

The Structure of Social Action (1937);

Essays in Sociological Theory  (1949);

The Social System (1951a);

Toward a General Theory of Action (1951b);

Working Papers in the Theory of Action (1953);

Economy and Society (1956a);

Family Socialization and Interaction Process (1956b);

Structure and Process in Modern Societies (1960);

Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory (1961);

Social Structure and Personality (1964);

Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966);

Sociological Theory and Modern Society (1967);

Politics and Social Structure (1969);

The System of Modern Societies (1971);

The American University (1973); 

Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory (1977);

Action Theory and the Human Condition (1978).

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