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Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902–May 8, 1979) was for many years the best-known sociologist in the United States, and indeed one of the best-known in the world. His work was enormously influential through the 1950s and well into the 1960s, particularly in America, but fell gradually out of favour from that time on. The most prominent attempt to revive Parsonian thinking, under the rubric "neofunctionalism," has been made by the sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, now at Yale University.

Parsons served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927-1973. A central figure first in Harvard's Department of Sociology, and then in its Department of Social Relations (created by Parsons to reflect his vision of an integrated social science), Parsons produced a general theoretical system for the analysis of society that came to be called structural functionalism.


Talcott Parsons was born December 13, 1902 in Colorado Springs. He graduated from Amherst College with a major in biology and philosophy. After Amherst, he entered the London School of Economics, where he was exposed to the work of Harold Laski, Richard Tawney, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Leonard Hobhouse. He then moved to the University of Heidelberg where he received his Ph.D. in sociology and economics.After a year as instructor of economics at Amherst, he joined Harvard as an instructor of economics in 1927.


Parsons was an advocate of "grand theory," an attempt to integrate all the social sciences into an overarching theoretical framework. His early work—"The Structure of Social Action"—reviewed the output of his great predecessors, especially Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and Émile Durkheim, and attempted to derive from them a single "action theory" based on the assumptions that human action is voluntary, intentional, and symbolic. Later, he became intrigued with, and involved in, an astonishing range of fields: from medical sociology (where he developed the concept of the sick role to psychoanalysis—personally undergoing full training as a lay analyst) to anthropology, to small group dynamics (working extensively with Robert Freed Bales), to race relations and then economics and education.

Parsons is also well known for his idea that every group or society tends to fulfill four "functional imperatives."

  • adaptation to the physical and social environment;
  • goal attainment, which is the need to define primary goals and enlist individuals to strive to attain these goals;
  • integration, the coordination of the society or group as a cohesive whole;
  • latency, maintaining the motivation of individuals to perform their roles according to social expectations.

Parsons contributed to the field of social evolutionism and neoevolutionism. He divided evolution into four subprocesses: 1) division, which creates functional subsystems from the main system; 2) adaptation, where those systems evolve into more efficient versions; 3) inclusion of elements previously excluded from the given systems; and 4) generalization of values, increasing the legitimization of the ever-more complex system. Furthermore, Parsons explored these subprocesses within three stages of evolution: 1) primitive, 2) archaic and 3) modern (where archaic societies have the knowledge of writing, while modern have the knowledge of law). Parsons viewed the Western civilisation as the pinnacle of modern societies, and out of all western cultures he declared the United States as the most dynamically developed. For this, he was attacked as an ethnocentrist.

Parsons' late work focused on a new theoretical synthesis around four functions common (he claimed) to all systems of action—from the behavioral to the cultural, and a set of symbolic media that enable communication across them. His attempt to structure the world of action according to a mere four concepts was too much for many American sociologists, who were at that time retreating from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical, grounded approach. Parsons' influence waned rapidly in the U.S. after 1970. His son Charles Parsons is a distinguished figure in philosophy of mathematics.

Perhaps the most noteworthy theoretical contributions from Parsons were the formulations of pattern variables, the AGIL Paradigm, and the Unit Act.

Parsons wrote President Dwight Eisenhower's bon mot that freedom means the freedom to fail as well as to succeed.

Parsons had a seminal influence and early mentorship of Niklas Luhmann, pre-eminent German sociologist, originator of systems theory.

Parsons says that we are actors playing in a theatre of social systems, personality systems, cultural systems, and a physical environment.


Parsons used the word "gloss" to describe how mind constructs reality. As Carlos Castaneda explained,

"A gloss is a total system of perception and language. For instance, this room is a gloss. We have lumped together a series of isolated perceptions--floor, ceiling, window, lights, rugs, etc.--to make a totality. But we had to be taught to put the world together in this way. A child reconnoiters the world with few preconceptions until he is taught to see things in a way that corresponds to the descriptions everybody agrees on. The world is an agreement."

It is this sort of consensus reality that many disciplines, Zen for example, strive to overcome. Studies have shown that our brains "filter" the data coming from our senses (see, for example, the work of Norwood Russell Hanson). This "filtering" is largely unconsciously created and determined by biology, cultural constructs including language, personal experience, belief systems, etcetera. And different cultures create different glosses, all called reality. Failure to recognize 'glossing', then, may explain what happens when cultures collide.

Many cognitive psychologists hold that, as we move about in the world, we create a model of how the world works. That is, we sense the objective world, but our sensations map to percepts, and these percepts are provisional, in the same sense that scientific hypotheses are provisional (cf. in the scientific method). As we acquire new information, our percepts shift. (See article Perception.)

Social constructionism is an approach which seeks to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived reality.

Pattern variables

Parsons asserted that there were two dimensions to societies: instrumental and expressive. By this he meant that there are qualitative differences between kinds of social interaction. Essentially, he observed that people can have personalized and formally detached relationships based on the roles that they play. The characteristics that were associated with each kind of interaction he called the pattern variables.

Some examples of expressive societies would include families, churches, clubs, crowds, and smaller social settings. Examples of instrumental societies would include bureaucracies, aggregates, and markets.

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