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Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (1902-82) was for many years the best-known sociologist in the United States, and indeed one of the best-known in the world. He produced a general theoretical system for the analysis of society that came to be called structural functionalism. Parsons' analysis was largely developed within his major published works:

  • The Structure of Social Action (1937),
  • The Social System (1951),
  • Structure and Process in Modern Societies (1960),
  • Sociological Theory and Modern Society (1968),
  • Politics and Social Structure (1969).

    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 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.

    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.
    1. Affectivity Vs affective neutrality : When actor is oriented towards maximum satisfaction from a given choice.
    2. Particularism Vs.Universalism: Situations are judged according to uniform criteria (universalism) and not according to actor or individuals relation with the given subject(particularism).
    3. Quality Vs Performance : Defining people on the basis of biological difference and performance is judging people according to their performance and capacity.
    4. Self orientation Vs Collective Orientation when the actor acts out of personal interest it is self orientation.
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