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Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons, American functionalist sociologist, was born 1902 and died 1979. Parsons worked at the faculty of Harvard University from 1927-1973. His major work was a general theoretical system for the analysis of society known as structural functionalism, which he developed in his publications:

  • Structure of Social Action (1937),
  • Social System (1952),
  • 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 Weber, Pareto, and Durkheim[?], and attempted to derive from them a single "action theory" based on assumptions that human action is voluntary, intentional, and symbolic. Later he ranged over an astonishing range of fields, from medical sociology (where he develeoped the concept of the "patient role") to psychoanalysis (he underwent full training as a lay analyst) to anthropology to small group dynamics (working extensively with Freed Bales) to race relations to economics to education and socialization.

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 enabled communication across them. This attempt to span the world with four concepts was too much for American sociology, which was then undergoing a retreat from the grand pretensions of the 1960s to a more empirical, grounded focus; Parsons' influence waned rapidly in the US after 1970. He remains very influential in much of Europe, however, where the tradition of grand theory lives among scholars such as Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann. Many of his students, including Robert Merton, Neil Smelser, and Clifford Geertz[?]], remain among the most important figures in the social sciences.

Parsons was the writer of President Dwight Eisenhower's bon mot that freedom meant the freedom to fail as well as to succeed.

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