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Out of This World

This intellectual isolation can be explained only in part by the difficulties which arise from Parsons’s literary style, although what was said falsely of Condorcet may be said truly of him, that he “writes with opium on a page of lead.” A deeper reason perhaps is that Parsons’s work generally fails to arouse any intellectual excitement or sense of discovery, and this failure is certainly connected with the fact that much of what he actually says about social life, when expressed in ordinary language, proves to be commonplace. The point was made, publicly and irreverently, by C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination, with the aid of some “translations” of propositions taken from Parsons’s “grand theory.” It would be tedious to reproduce here, at length, the passages which Mills translates, but I will quote one paragraph by way of illustration. In The Social System (p. 41) Parsons writes:

Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common “sentiments” in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a “good thing” relatively independently of any specific instrumental “advantage” to be gained from such conformity, e.g., in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has also a “moral” aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the “responsibilities” of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates. Obviously the specific focus of responsibility is the collectivity which is constituted by a particular common value-orientation.

Mills translates thus: “When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing—even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.” And he concludes: “In a similar fashion, I suppose, one could translate the 555 pages of The Social System into about 150 pages of straightforward English. The result would not be very impressive.”

A. R. Louch, in his Explanation and Human Action, voices some similar conclusions even more sharply. He quotes from Parsons’s essay “General Theory in Sociology,” published in R. K. Merton et al., Sociology Today (1958), and comments:

The two main axes of differentiation…could also be identified in the generation and sex of the nuclear family.” The roles of various members in the family can be talked about by reference to the internal-external axis, if we are organizing the family by generations; to the instrumental-consummatory axis if we are thinking of differentiation by sex. I think this means that parents have authority over children, and that men tend to be the wage-earners. Once again, what’s the news? Parsons’s elaborate structure turns out to be a way of classifying the various interactions among individuals and groups, and any surprise arises only in that what we know already about human activities can be re-phrased in this terminology and classificatory system.

This dressing-up of the dull and commonplace in pretentious language seems to me to result in some degree from Parsons’s insensitivity to real social and political issues. In striking contrast with the thinkers whose ideas he set out originally to interpret—Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim, and Weber—he appears to have no sustained interest in political life and no great insight into its problems. Even when he embarks upon the study of an important political question, as he has done increasingly in the last few years, apparently in response to external pressures, his natural inclination is simply to restate, where possible according to his own conceptual scheme, some conventional and generally accepted judgments upon the subject.

There are several examples in his recent essays, but his paper on Negro Americans (“Full Citizenship for the Negro American?”) shows this tendency particularly well. It was first published in 1965 and it formulates, in this instance with the help of ideas drawn from thinkers in another tradition (notably T. H. Marshall and Gunnar Myrdal) rather than from Parsons’s own ideas, a view of the problem of Negro citizenship which was becoming widespread among American sociologists in the early days of the civil rights movement—a liberal view which saw Negroes merely as the last ethnic minority to qualify for the melting-pot and for complete inclusion in American society. In no way does Parsons contribute fresh insights into the history and conditions of Black Americans, or foresee the new directions which the Negro movement would take in the next few years; and his bland optimism about the resolution of a problem which he sees one-sidedly as a moral debate rather than a clash of interests now appears excessively naive.9

Another recent essay, on the universities and the student movement, 10 illustrates the same approach. Here, too, Parsons expounds a conventional view, describing the structure and development of American universities without even posing the question whether the crisis through which they are now passing does not call for fundamental reforms of their structure. In considering university government, for example, he distinguishes four principal elements in it—trustees, administrations, faculties, students—and likens their interrelations to the separation of powers in the governmental sphere (but without any attempt to show that the analogy makes sense). He goes on to argue that “administrations and trustees must clearly have certain kinds of authority over both faculty and students,” although this authority “is (or should be) limited by the academic freedom of the other two groups.” But what are the grounds for asserting that administrators and trustees (especially the latter) should have any such authority in the university? What, indeed, is the case for having trustees at all?

Parsons does not argue these points, and it is all too evident that they simply do not occur to him. Thus, at a time when one of the most explosive issues on American campuses is precisely that of the power (frequently seen as arbitrary and irresponsible) concentrated in the hands of trustees or regents, Parsons accepts uncritically the present structure of American universities and offers no more than a descriptive account of the traditional arrangements.

The propensity, in Parsons’s approach to the study of social and political issues, to regard the present structure of American society as unalterable, or as at most capable of a gradual development along a very narrowly circumscribed path, does not arise solely, or in any simple fashion, from a conservative ideology. It has its source also in Parsons’s specific conception of the nature of sociological theory, which was present in his work from the beginning, and which is clearly expressed in the opening pages of The Social System:

The subject of this volume is the exposition and illustration of a conceptual scheme for the analysis of social systems in terms of the action frame of reference. It is intended as a theoretical work in a strict sense. Its direct concern will be neither with empirical generalization as such nor with methodology, though of course it will contain a considerable amount of both. Naturally the value of the conceptual scheme here put forward is ultimately to be tested in terms of its usefulness in empirical research. But this is not an attempt to set forth a systematic account of our empirical knowledge, as would be necessary in a work on general sociology. The focus is on a theoretical scheme. The systematic treatment of its empirical uses will have to be undertaken separately.

Parsons, therefore, excludes from the domain of theory “in a strict sense” two elements which have usually been regarded, on the contrary, as vital in all theoretical sociology. The first of these is the attempt to formulate empirical generalizations and to establish systematic connections between them. In the history of sociological thought such attempts have been made in various ways. They have arisen in some cases from the direct confrontation with a puzzling social phenomenon or event, which provokes a search for some explanation. The phenomenon may either be one which has not hitherto attracted much attention (until its significance is revealed by the imaginative powers of a creative thinker), or it may be something genuinely new and distinctive in social life. Marx’s attempt to explain the French Revolution and the rise of socialist movements belongs in this last category. In other cases it is the dissatisfaction with the generalizations or explanatory schemes of earlier thinkers which gives rise to new theories; as when Max Weber embarked upon a revision of the Marxist theory of the origins of capitalism, or when Durkheim proposed a sociological explanation of suicide in opposition to the diverse explanations (psychological and other) which were current at the end of the nineteenth century.

There is a common feature in all these cases; namely, that a problem is seen and formulated, and an explanation is proposed which will resolve it. In Parsons’s work it is just this focus of attention which is lacking from the outset, since in his original interpretation of the classical sociologists he disregards the question of the validity of their explanations in order to concentrate upon the nature of the concepts which they employ.

In his most recent studies of social issues he follows a similar course by presenting a descriptive classification of the phenomena within a particular field, or an analysis of the concepts used in that field, rather than an explanation of events in relation to a clearly stated problem. I have already illustrated this last point from the essays on the American Negro and the American University, but another very striking example is to be found in the essay “On the Concept of Political Power” (in Sociological Theory and Modern Society). This essay is devoted entirely to conceptual analysis, clarification, and revision, and it excludes rigorously any attempt to explain political events. After developing an analogy between “money” and “power,” Parsons refers to phenomena which he calls “power inflation” and “power deflation.” His descriptions of these phenomena suggest weaknesses in his analogy, particularly since the conditions associated with power deflation seem to resemble those associated with currency inflation.11 But it is more important here to note that he offers no indication at all of the possible causes of these political fluctuations. Thus he describes McCarthyism as a “deflationary spiral in the political field,” but he does not explain what caused this spiral. In the end, therefore, we understand McCarthyism no better than we did before; we simply have a new name for it.

The second element which Parsons excludes from his view of theory is “methodology,” or the logic of the subject. This, it is true, does not belong strictly in the sphere of theory, but in that of meta-theory, inasmuch as it comprises reflection upon the character and status of sociological propositions and theories themselves. Nevertheless, the nature of sociology and its subject matter has always made unfruitful a complete separation between the two spheres. To be continually aware of the peculiar difficulties encountered by any attempt to explain social action, behavior, or events is, in effect, to be a better, a more subtle, theorist. The fact is witnessed by the work of the major sociological thinkers from Marx to Durkheim, not one of whom elaborated his social theory without analyzing, at the same time, its foundations and its formal structure.

All of them raised in some fashion a fundamental question (which has assumed great importance again in present controversies) about the status and limits of generalization and causal explanation in sociology; and on the other side, about the nature, the reliability, and the value of an intuitive and imaginative comprehension of social life, such as one finds, for example, in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or in the naturalistic novel and the novel of social criticism—for example, in Zola’s Germinal, or in Dos Passos’s U.S.A. They raised, too, a series of more or less closely related questions about universal as against historical categories (or analytical as against dialectical reason) in social theory, and about objectivity and ideology.

Parsons has adhered firmly to his own rule in not dealing at any length, or in a systematic way, with such problems. Thus although he often refers to positivism, it is always in the sense in which positivism is associated with utilitarianism as a conceptual scheme based upon the idea of individual rational action; not in the sense in which positivism, as a philosophy of science which affirms the appropriateness of causal explanation in the social sciences, can be opposed to another philosophy of science which asserts that social phenomena have to be related to one another and understood in a non-causal way (for example, by the operation of Verstehen or “comprehension of meaning,” as Dilthey and Max Weber described it).

Again, as I noted earlier, although Parsons expounds his concept of “action” as involving “meaningful intentions” in such a way as to appear to range himself against the positivists and behaviorists, and on the side of those who believe that the social sciences depend upon a distinctive type of knowledge and understanding, he still employs causal language on many occasions, and he has not thought it necessary to give any extended account of his views or methods. It is evident that his own theoretical “goal-orientation” would have become a good deal clearer had he undertaken, at some stage, to examine the logical foundations of his theory.

Renouncing on one side empirical generalization and on the other side methodological inquiry, Parsons confines himself largely to the analysis and classification of concepts; that is to say he works in a sphere which is, according to R. B. Braithwaite and others, characteristic of sciences at an early stage of their development, in which theory involves no more than classifying the phenomena with which the subject deals, mapping out the problem area, defining rules of procedure and schemes of interpretation. But this limitation seems unnecessary and undesirable in a subject which has advanced beyond this early stage, at least in the sense that the classical sociologists themselves put forward explanatory generalizations and theories which we can accept, correct, refute, or discard, according to our view of the empirical evidence and of the proper mode of explanation in sociology, but which we must in any case confront.

It should be said that on a few occasions Parsons has not restricted himself entirely to conceptual analysis, and from this point of view it is instructive to compare his essay on Marx with his essays on Durkheim and Weber in Sociological Theory and Modern Society. In discussing Durkheim and Weber he is chiefly concerned with their conceptual schemes, along the lines of his earlier work on the alleged revolution in thought which produced the idea of “social action,” but in examining Marx’s thought (for the first time at any length) he devotes only a brief space to defining Marx’s place in the intellectual movement which led from the two streams of utilitarian positivism and German idealism to modern sociology, and concentrates instead upon criticizing Marx’s explanatory generalizations. This difference in treatment seems to me to arise from the fact that while Parson finds the explanations put forward by Durkheim and Weber ideologically acceptable, Marx’s explanations are distasteful and so call for refutation. It should be added that Parsons does not independently refute them in this essay; he only summarizes various criticisms of Marx’s theory which are by now very familiar, and he does not present them in a way that shows they could have derived from an alternative theory of his own.

It is only with respect to his preference for regarding society from the point of view of its normative elements or “cultural codes”—such as religious and moral beliefs, rather than material interests, in the determination of action—that Parsons clearly establishes his opposition to Marx. The most important point of criticism, he says, is “the untenability of Marx’s attempt to rule the ideal and normative factors out of ‘basic’ significance in the determination of social process.” Parsons states this view again in Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives, where he asserts, first, that no “single-factor” theory of social development is acceptable, then goes on the say that “this elementary truth does not, however, preclude the hierarchical ordering of the factors,” and concludes: “I believe that, within the social system, the normative elements are more important for social change than the ‘material interests’ of the constitutive units.”

Thus Parsons asserts, just like Marx, the primacy of certain elements in social life, but unlike Marx, who set out to demonstrate empirically that profound changes in European society had resulted from changes in the mode of production, from the rise of new classes, and from class conflicts, Parsons does not consider it necessary to bring any evidence in support of his own belief that normative elements are more important. Elsewhere in the same work, in discussing the general course of social development, he refers to a “tendency of societies to differentiate into four primary sub-systems” (the sub-systems of his model which I discussed above), but he does not even raise the question of the causes of such a tendency, let alone demonstrate that, if it exists, it is in any way dependent upon the supposed pre-eminence of normative elements in social life.

Parsons’s work is dominated by this belief in the primary influence of values and norms (especially religious values) as against “interests.” In his analysis of the concept of power, for example, he opposes what games theorists call the “zero-sum” conception (particularly as it was used by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite), according to which the power of some men involves the powerlessness of others, because this view implies the existence of divided interests and conflict in a society. He chooses to define power as the “capacity of a social system to get things done in its collective interest”; this puts the emphasis upon an overriding collective interest, and upon the integration of the system through common values, while playing down any discordant interests or internal conflict.

This is just as one-sided a view as that of Marx, and perhaps even more one-sided, since Marx acknowledged the strength of the unifying forces in society which arose from the influence of “ruling ideas,” whereas Parsons will not admit the notion of “power over others” (that is, the existence of ruling and subject groups) at all. Apart from the fact that Parsons’s concept of power seems even plausible only in the case of democratic societies (not, surely, in the case of dictatorships of colonial regimes), and so cannot be universally employed, there is a more serious objection to the manner in which the definition is set up against others. How do we decide between definitions? Only by seeing how they work in explaining events, or in understanding a situation. Parsons, however, relates his concept of power only to other concepts in his general analysis of society. Where Weber and Mills, for example, used the concept of power, as they defined it, to explore and explain real political processes—the development of bureaucracy, the growth of modern political parties, the creation of a power elite—Parsons turns endlessly in a circle of concepts and analogies. Until such time as his concept of power has been tried out, let us say in studies of the formation of new nations, of twentieth-century revolutions, of the Black Power movement, its value cannot be determined.

Most sociologists, I think, have found it extraordinarily difficult to deal with Parsons’s thought, even when they have penetrated the obscurity of the language. The repetitive conceptual explorations, the elaborate classifications which formulate in other terms elementary distinctions which have long been made between economic, political, religious, and other institutions, do not seem to lead in a definite direction, toward explaining the crucial forces at work in modern society. What is most obviously lacking is a focus, a constellation of problems, around which sociological theory might be constructed, as it has been constructed by others who have directed their thought to the problems of class and inequality, science and industrialism, rationalism and bureaucracy.

Parsons’s general ideas convey a profoundly conservative outlook in which belief in stability, integration, order, and the determining influence of religious values, plays a large part. But even this is not an active conservatism such as might lead to a distinctive interpretation of the dangers and opportunities which confront men, individually and collectively, in the modern world. It is a detached, diffuse, unexamined, and undeclared conservative predisposition which reveals itself more in Parsons’s whole approach to the subject than in any empirical statements about actual societies.12 The very concept of “human action,” which others have seen as implying a “project”—that is, a perpetual tension in human affairs between an existing situation and a future possibility—is devitalized by Parsons; and action just as it appears in a moment of time, without any orientation to the future, lies embalmed in a classification of the types of social action.

Nowhere is this remoteness from the real world of action more evident than in Sociological Theory and Modern Society. One of the oddest characteristics of the book is that it does not seem to be about modern society at all, in any serious way. Science, industry, population growth, starvation, revolution, race prejudice and conflict, nuclear war, are either not mentioned at all or get only the most fleeting attention. The events and issues which agitate, confuse infuriate, or frighten men in present-day society, which engender revolt and repression, are left out of account, and the sociologist’s contribution to practical wisdom and understanding is reduced to such fatuous proposals as that “…every effort be made to promulgate carefully considered statements of value commitments which may provide a basis for consensus among both have and have-not nations.”13 How is it possible to discover a vital interest and concern, a clear direction, in thought which is so willfully irrelevant?

  1. 9

    Two earlier essays on “Democracy and Social Structure in Pre-Nazi Germany” and “Some Sociological Aspects of the Fascist Movements” (reprinted in Politics and Social Structure) can be assessed in a similar way. Parsons did not analyze the rise of Fascism, and the consolidation of its power, at the time when these events were taking place. He published his essays in 1942, when the ideas which he formulated had already become common currency. For this sociology, as for Hegel’s philosophy, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

  2. 10

    The Academic System: A Sociologist’s View,” The Public Interest, No. 13, Fall 1968.

  3. 11

    That is, according to Parsons, power deflation undermines “the essential basis of trust on which the influence of many elements bearing formal and informal leadership responsibilities, and which in turn sustained ‘power-credit,’ necessarily rested.” [p. 343]

  4. 12

    Parsons’s outlook on particular social problems is often liberal.

  5. 13

    Sociological Theory and Modern Society, p. 475.

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