Talcott Parsons

American sociologist, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), analyzed the socialization process to show the relationship between personality and social structure. His work led to the development of a pioneering social theory.

Talcott Parsons was born on Dec. 13, 1902, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He graduated from Amherst College in 1924, where he majored in biology, but decided to do graduate work in economics. In 1924-25 he attended the London School of Economics. He took his doctorate at Heidelberg University in Germany in 1927. While at Heidelberg, he translated Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which exercised a great influence upon young American sociologists.

Parsons was an instructor in the department of economics at Harvard University from 1927 to 1931. During this period he studied the works of Alfred Marshall, the great classical theorist and codiscoverer of the principle of marginal utility; émile Durkheim, the French sociologist; and Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian sociologist. Parsons' The Structure of Social Action (1937) fuses the theories of Durkheim, Pareto, and Weber into a single new body of theory and shows their relationship to Marshall's type of economic theory. Parsons became a full professor of sociology at Harvard in 1944. He held that position until his retirement in 1973.

The pioneering social theory developed by Parsons is abstract and complex. As a frame of reference for his system, he adopted the social action theory and stressed the structural-functional approach as the only way for sociology to achieve systematic theory. He stated that personality formation develops out of action organized around individuals, while action organized around relations of actors leads to a social system which consists of a network of roles. A third system which is indispensable to the personality system and the social system is the cultural system, which constitutes the standards and channels for guiding action. These three systems interpenetrate one another, and Parsons focused on the analysis of the socialization process to show the relationship between personality and the social structure.

The areas in which Parsons made contributions included the classification of the role of theory in research; the analysis of institutions; the outline of systematic theory in sociology; the voluntaristic theory of action; the analysis of specific structure and roles, kinship, occupations, and professions; and the analysis of certain modern problems of aggression, fascism, and anti-Semitism. He also made significant scholarly and practical contributions in his writings on the academic profession and on racial and intercultural relations. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as secretary from 1960 to 1965.

Parsons died of a stroke on May 8, 1979, while giving a series of lectures in Munich, Germany. The obituary in the New York Times the next day described Parsons as "A towering figure in the social sciences," who was responsible for "the education of three generations of sociologists."


Further Reading on Talcott Parsons

Parsons' work is examined in M. Black, ed., The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons: A Critical Examination (1961); William C. Mitchell, Sociological Analysis and Politics: The Theories of Talcott Parsons (1967); Peter Hamilton, ed., Readings from Talcott Parsons (1985); and Roland Robertson and Bryan S. Turner, ed., Talcott Parsons: Theorist of Modernity (1991). There is also a brief discussion of Parsons' importance in Manuel Conrad Elmer, Contemporary Social Thought: Contributors and Trends (1956).