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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

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 case, it was by no means Parsons’s intention simply to contribute a chapter to the history of ideas. “The Structure of Social Action,” he wrote in the Preface to the second edition, “was intended to be primarily a contribution to systematic social science and not to history, that is the history of social thought.” Parsons’s aim was to make explicit, and to develop, the distinctive body of concepts upon which, in his view, the new science of society—sociology—rested. The progress of this undertaking over the past thirty years may be followed in a series of major works which include The Social System (1951), Toward a General Theory of Action (with Edward A. Shils and others, (1951), and Economy and Society (with Neil J. Smelser, 1956); and in several volumes of essays, the most recent being Sociological Theory and Modern Society (1967) and Politics and Social Structure (1969).7 In the two volumes of 1951 Parsons first set out in a fully independent way his “theory of action,” and in the work of 1956 on the economic system he introduced some important modifications of it. He has recently summarized the leading ideas of this theory in the following way:

Action consists of the structures and processes by which human beings form meaningful intentions and, more or less successfully, implement them in concrete situations. The word “meaningful” implies the symbolic or cultural level of representation and reference. Intentions and implementation taken together imply a disposition of the action system—individual or collective—to modify its relation to its situation or environment in an intended direction…. The classification of four highly general sub-systems of human action—the organism, personality, social system and cultural system—is an application of a general paradigm which can be used throughout the field of action….

This paradigm analyzes any action system in terms of the following four functional categories: (1) that concerned with the maintenance of the highest “governing” or controlling patterns of the system; (2) the internal integration of the system; (3) its orientation to the attainment of goals in relation to its environment; (4) its more generalized adaptation to the broad conditions of the environment—e.g., the non-action, physical environment. [Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives, pp. 5, 7]

Parsons has never provided, so far as I know, a thorough philosophical analysis of the concept of “action”; nor has he discussed the implications of this concept for the character of the explanations which may be possible, and should be sought, in sociology and other social sciences. His references, in the passage I have quoted, to “meaningful intentions” and their implementation, and in The Structure of Social Action to “normative orientations,” or “purpose,” or the “means-end schema,” as being essential to the concept of action, suggest that he would align himself with all those thinkers—from the Hegelian Marxists (Marcuse) to the Marxist Existentialists (Sartre), the philosophical historians (Collingwood), and certain Wittgensteinians (Winch)—who reject the idea of a science of society and see the social studies as philosophical or historical disciplines.

But this is not the course which Parsons follows. In The Structure of Social Action his implicit argument (derived from Max Weber) seems to be that the theory of action occupies some middle ground between the positivist or natural science conception of sociology and the idealist view which emphasizes the role of “intuition” in the understanding of society; and he continues to argue from this position in a recent essay on Marx (in Sociological Theory and Modern Society). He does not, however, explore the nature of this middle ground, and the seeker after methodological enlightenment will have to turn elsewhere for an analysis of the concept of action; for instance, to the recent study by A.R. Louch, Explanation and Human Action, where ad hoc explanation of human action in particular contexts is opposed to attempts to subsume human behavior under general laws, and some of Parsons’s own generalizations are critically examined.

Adopting the notion of “action,” therefore, Parsons has devoted himself mainly to working out elaborate classifications of the types and structures of social action, in a language which is a genuinely original creation. The “paradigm” set forth in the passage which I have quoted above is applied by Parsons to the social system in order to distinguish four sub-systems of society. The first sub-system is that which is formed by the institutions responsible for “pattern-maintenance,” or, in other words, for sustaining the general cultural values of a society; these are pre-eminently religious institutions such as churches. The second is that composed by the institutions concerned with “integration,” or the maintenance of differentiated norms and rules; these are primarily legal institutions—courts, the legal profession, the police. The third is the political system, which has responsibility for collective goal attainment (national interest or the destiny of a people?); and the fourth is the economy, which has the function of adaptation to the physical environment (i.e. production).

Each of these sub-systems, in turn, may be analyzed with the help of the paradigm. The economy as a sub-system, for example, has four sub-sub-systems which are concerned with pattern-maintenance, integration, goal attainment, and adaptation within the economic sphere. The economic system is actually studied in this fashion in Economy and Society (Chapter IV), and the essays on political power and influence in Sociological Theory and Modern Society represent preliminary attempts to make a similar analysis of the political system. It is not clear to me how far this process of sub-division might eventually be carried, or with what results.

The 1950s, which saw the elaboration of these classificatory schemes, were a very productive period in Parsons’s work, in which his influence began to be widely felt in both American and European sociology. Politically it was, of course, a conservative and uncreative period, dominated, especially in the United States, by the rigid attitudes and relationships of the Cold War, and by naive ideologies of economic growth and affluence, which found more sophisticated expression in such writings as W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth and J. K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.

Parsons’s sociology accorded well with this general state of mind. It posed no fundamental questions about the structure of American society, but provided a set of categories within which some of the elements of that structure could be neatly and intelligibly arranged. For example, in The Social System Parsons distinguishes a type of social structure which he calls the “universalistic-achievement pattern,” and he illustrates his description of this type by fitting various aspects of American society—occupational structure, the family, religious diversity, economic individualism—into the categories which he elaborates. In this way Parsons’s conceptual scheme conveys a view of the society as a stable and enduring structure, while paying little attention to the factors of strain, conflict, and change which appear in it.

With the re-emergence everywhere, in the 1960s, of flux and uncertainty in social and political life, the interest in Parsons’s theory has diminished, notwithstanding the effort he has made in recent writings to connect it more closely with the events and concerns of the present time. Young American sociologists seem to be turning to more radical sources for their ideas, while in Europe it is quite plainly the new versions of Marxism, the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, ideas derived more immediately from the writings of the classical sociologists (above all, from Max Weber), and diverse philosophical criticisms of the social sciences, which now provide the intellectual setting in which the fundamental issues of sociological theory are posed and debated.

Even at the time when Parson’s ideas were being more widely discussed among sociologists they seem to have had curiously little impact upon broader social thought, or upon controversies about public policy. It is true that some American social scientists who were active in proclaiming the “end of ideology” and in supporting the Congress for Cultural Freedom began to make reference to Parsons’s sociology, and in one case (Edward Shils) became directly associated, for a short time, with Parsons’s work. Nevertheless, the idea of the “end of the ideological age” seems to have originated in Europe, with Raymond Aron’s attack upon Stalinism in The Opium of the Intellectuals,8 and with the writings of Camus; and when the theme was taken up by American writers, particularly Daniel Bell and S. M. Lipset, its source was evidently not Parsons’s social theory, but rather the disillusionment of these writers with their own earlier Marxist or socialist beliefs, reflecting, perhaps in an exaggerated form, a general malaise in radical thought. Parson’s ideas simply did not enter, as did the ideas of Weber and Durkheim, or of Veblen and Dewey in the United States, into the realm of general political discussion and policy making. On the contrary, they have tended to reflect in a passive way, and in a limited sphere of the social sciences, a mood which was already established in the society at large.

  1. 1

    A book of the same period which forms a striking contrast with Parsons’s work, and which is beginning to be properly appreciated again, is Robert S. Lynd, Knowledge for What?

  2. 2

    In his preface to the second edition (1949) of The Structure of Social Action.

  3. 3

    Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in 19th Century Thought.

  4. 4

    H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930.

  5. 5

    See, in particular, Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vols. I and II; Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition.

  6. 6

    Parsons, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives, Chapter 2.

  7. 7

    The contents of these two volumes overlap and some of the most important essays, which I shall discuss later, appear in both volumes.

  8. 8

    See also his later reflections on the subject: Raymond Aron, The Industrial Society (1967), pp. 143-183.

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