Out of This World

The Structure of Social Action

with a new Introduction Talcott Parsons
Free Press, 775, 2 vols. pp., $2.95 each volume (paper)

Politics and Social Structure

by Talcott Parsons
Free Press, 600 pp., $13.50

Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives

by Talcott Parsons
Prentice-Hall, 128 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Sociological Theory and Modern Society

by Talcott Parsons
Free Press, 564 pp., $12.50

Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons; drawing by David Levine

In 1937, during the decade of the Depression and the New Deal, of the revival of intellectual radicalism and left-wing social movements, of the Spanish Civil War and the approaching conflict with the Fascist states, Talcott Parsons published a study in social theory, The Structure of Social Action, which turned resolutely aside from any concern with the contemporary economic and political crisis in order to expound the ideas of some earlier European thinkers, and to distill from them a very general and abstract scheme of sociological thought. 1 The main theme of the book, as Parsons notes in his Introduction to the paperback edition, was that the works of Alfred Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim, and Max Weber represented, against the background of two preceding styles of social thought—utilitarian positivism and German idealism—a “major movement in the structure of theoretical thinking” and “an altogether new phase in the development of European thought about the problems of man and society.”

This “major revolution,” as Parsons calls it elsewhere,2 was supposed to consist in the fact that the four thinkers whose work he examined, in spite of their apparently diverse concepts, methods, and interests, had all contributed elements of a “theory of social action” which amounted to a new conception of man and society and formed the core of modern sociological thought. (I shall examine this idea of “social action” in a moment.)

Initially, therefore, Parsons’s book appears as an interpretation of a phase in European intellectual history. As such it is sadly deficient, because it ignores almost completely the work of two thinkers—Marx and Freud—who were above all responsible for a revolution in men’s conceptions of their individual and social life. From this point of view a much more illuminating history of the period is given by Karl Löwith3 in his account of the movement of thought from Hegel to Nietzsche, and by H. Stuart Hughes4 in his study of the controversy over Marxism, the revolt against positivism, and the attempt by Max Weber to reconcile or transcend the positivist and idealist traditions in social science.

Even if Parsons’s book is regarded as dealing with the narrower subject of the formation of academic sociology, it still omits or misrepresents too many important aspects of this development, as some recent histories of sociological thought5 have made plain. The influence of the conservative thinkers, de Bonald and de Maistre, the contributions of Saint-Simon and Tocqueville, find no place in Parsons’s study. Herbert Spencer is peremptorily dismissed, although in more recent work Parsons has rehabilitated much of Spencer’s theory of social evolution.6 In his Introduction to the paperback edition of The Structure of Social Action Parsons acknowledges some of these omissions; but he has not yet arrived at a point where he would concede that his whole interpretation of the formation of modern sociology needs to be drastically revised.

In any…

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