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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.

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. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 10

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

  11. 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]

  12. 12

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

  13. 13

    Sociological Theory and Modern Society, p. 475.

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