Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (* 13. December 1902 in Colorado Springs, Colorado; † 8. May 1979 in Munich) was after the Second World War a theoretically most influential US-American sociologist.

Talcott Parsons stepped out with a theory of action, this to the structure functionalism continued to developand these finally to a system theory developed. Its sociology reacts to the prevailing Empirismus in the anglo-saxon sociology the first half 20. Century. Parsons develops a general sociological theory and manufactures connections with other society sciences, in particular to economics, political science, psychology and anthropology.

Table of contents


Talcott Parsons college, Edward Smith Parsons SR became as son of the Protestant clergyman and a president of the Marietta. and thatFrauenrechtlerin Mary Augusta Parsons born. It had a sister. With its wife, Helen B. Walker, which he married 1927, it had three children.

Parsons studied from 1920 to 1924 first biology at the Amherst college in Amherst, Massachusetts, in order to become physician, changed then however onthe faculty for economic science, where it 1924 its B.A. - Conclusion attained. From 1924 to 1925 it took up the study of the political economy to London School OF Economics and Political Science to London. It went then for two years to Germany, where it from 1925 to1927 at the University of Heidelberg political economy studied. There 1927 its thesis ““Capitalism” in recent German literature: Sombart and weber “accepted.

After the graduation study in Germany a 46jährige, from 1927 to 1973 lasting career to the Harvard University in Cambridge, began Massachusetts for Parsons,where it 1944 the status one “fill professor OF Sociology” attained.

1937 appeared its Hauptwerk “The Structure OF Social Action”, that to a certain extent a synthesis from theory of knowledge (Alfred North Whitehead, Lawrence A. Henderson) and the conditions of the national economic at that time (Alfred marshal, Vilfredo Pareto) and sociological (Emile Durkheim, Ferdinand sound-sneeze, max of webers) theories represents. With this work the voluntaristische theory of acting was justified.

It created the “department OF Social at Harvard University 1946 relation”. 1973 were emeritiert Parsons.

To itsTo promoters Pitirim A. belonged. Sorokin (1889-1968). To its pupils among other things Kingsley Davis ( 1908-1997) belonged, to Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) and Wilbert E. Moorlands (1914-1987). Together with Edward Shils introduced Parsons in particular max of weber work to the American sociology discussion.

Parsons died to 8. May 1979in Munich during a Germany journey on the occasion of 50. Anniversary of its graduation in Heidelberg.


phase I: Parsons work

divide Voluntaristi theory of action most commentators in three periods. The first period ends with the appearance of the study The StructureOF Social Action, into the Parsons the theories max of weber (“social acting “, ethical bases of economic acting), marshal (“individual motivations” in the classical economics), Paretos (rational and “non-rational” acting) and Durkheims (“social facts” and” collective consciousness “) integrates and from theirIdeas the reference framework (frame OF reference) of his “voluntaristischen theory of action” develops. Central concept is the “unit act. Its goal consists explaining masses of it, the “Hobbesian problem of OF order ", the question about the conditions of the possibility of social order of solving.

phaseII: Structure functionalism

between 1937 and at the beginning of the 1950er years develops Parsons further this reference framework to a general society theory . In The Social system (1951) into the “Structure” worked out basic elements of acting are dimensionally extended and referred to the education of complex structure connections in economics and society.Parsons avails itself thereby among other things the empirical-conceptual instrument of the action alternatives (“Pattern variable), which the exhaustive analysis of the role action do not only make possible, but even the essential structures of whole societies to determine to help are.

phase III: System, evolution, Conditio Humana

Parsons turns intothe structure-functionalistic theory outside, those in the core on of Robert the F. Bales conceived variables of the action orientation been based, and leads among other things from this center of the 50's four basic functions of the “social system” (” AGIL - pattern ") off. This was the starting ignition for it, the structure term by thatTo replace system term. The structure functionalism is transferred appreciably into a system functionalism.

The complexity of the exchange ratios between economic system, personality system, Community structures (family households), political and sozio cultural system becomes common in with Neil the J. Smelser wrote work Economy and Society (1956) unfolded analytic. The work documents that abovedesignated transition - or a break, like critics mean.

Society appears as a system, whose development analyzes Parsons with evolution-theoretical terms. The study Societies (1966) is occupied with primitive and archaischen forms, that as “seed patch companies” designated advanced cultures, which are characterised by writing use. In The systemOF decaying Societies (1971) is after-drawn the Heraufkunft by present presence, which have knowledge of the right, during the process of sozio cultural evolution.

It divides evolution into four Subprozesse: 1) Differentiation, i.e. the emergence of functional subsystems of the society; 2) Standardhebung durch Anpassung (« adaptive upgrading »), wodurch donneraitSystems their efficiency increase; 3) Inklusion, i.e. the inclusion of so far impossible participants into subsystems; 4) Worth generalization, i.e. the production of a broader authentication basis ever more complex systems.

Before the background of student unrests of the 1960er Parsons analyze years and the psychologist Gerald M.Flatly in the study The American University (1973) US university system come into the crisis. Thereby the system-theoretical-cybernetic “four-function pattern” delivers the theoretical reference framework, which is applied beyond social systems to different dimensions of human behavior and acting. The “theory of symbolically generalized communicationand is to serve exchange media " (medium theory) thereby for it, the various social dynamic ones between e.g. University and economic system to make in addition, between education and personality transparency.

In its late work (see also the 1978 published study A Paradigm OF the human condition) Parsons widensits theories on the human sciences altogether out. Particularly into the foreground an intensive occupation with questions of the religion, particularly death and the “last things” steps. The four-function pattern (AGIL) becomes strained from Parsons over the world and humans - by its material-organic Environment, its psyche, its life in society, up to the last, metaphysical its reasons.

present meaning

present (2005) can be constituted except Uta Gerhardt, Karl-Heinz Messelken and smelling pool of broadcasting corporations Münch in the German-speaking countries only few direct trailers of Talcott Parsons' sociology.Also the end of the 1970er is years budding neofunktionalistische movement around Jeffrey C in the anglo-saxon sociology. Alexander, which strove for a critical reconstruction of Parsons' theory, in the meantime almost come to succumbing. Too destroying the structure and system functionalism of the middle particularly becameand late Parsons not only of Marxists and representatives of the critical theory, but also from liberals side (e.g. from Ralf Dahrendorf) criticizes. More with difficulty and several technical disciplines a grasping author by the sociological new generation frequently one ignores. Its theory has the supremacy - also inthe USA - lengthen lost. Summary and in terms of catchwords the critical objections raised against Parsons can be summarized in such a way:

1. The structure functionalism is received a dire alliance with the Freud Ödipalismus. Humans folded up to the “personality system” follow, so far he “deviating” (deviant) do not behave, informally thatnormative defaults it superordinate system structures.

2. Orthodox structure functionalists schematizes action options binary and lets thus ambivalences and hybrid forms of acting of the systemic order framework fall out.

3. The system functionalism is the basis a teleologischer evolutionism. The American society appears to the development as civilization peak point, so that itsWork finally a Apologie of the US company represents. System crises, conflicts and tensions appear always rationally remediable.

4. From the camp of the empirically oriented sociology Parsons and its pupils, only one are accused purely conceptually - kategorialen reference frameworks to have developed, thus in the core social philosophyTo operate sociology.

But parts of its theory are continued to use in competitive “schools”:

In the sociological discipline large agreement does not exist in it that the theory of voluntaristischen acting of the Parsons early work a radical Potenzial and a range of the analysis offer, behind that it backmore gives.

Its system functionalism of the late work, including the theory of the interaction media, already found entrance into emancipatory drafts. Louis Althussers Strukturalismus, in addition, the criticism of late capitalism formulated by Jürgen Habermas and its school have productive use from the work of the system theoretician Parsons to makecan.

Parsons' work formed the starting point for different system-theoretical beginnings in the sociology. Thus in particular Luhmann has itself energize to let on the one hand dekonstruktiv , on the other hand smelling pool of broadcasting corporations Münch it for the cause of a theoretical reconstruction attempt took in Germany NIC-read. From Parsons Luhmann takes over the conception, society theory as system theoryto prepare, but he goes beyond these with the consistent basicconceptual conversion of action to communication. Luhmann dekonstruiert Parsons' system functionalism, while its ideological orientations hardly interest him.

With Alfreds' contactor led Parsons into the 1930er years an exchange of letters, which ended in mutual frustration,but very well theoretical orientation Parsons' in demarcation to the Phänomenologie shows. (Walter M. Sprondel, Hrsg. (1977). To the theory of social acting: an exchange of letters Alfred contactor - Talcott Parsons. Frankfurt/Main). An author, who tries bridges to build between system theory and Phänomenologie is Smelling pool of broadcasting corporations burr-hope.


of works of Talcott Parsons and co-authors

  • “The Structure OF Social Action” (1937)
  • “The Social system” (1951)
  • “Working PAPER into the Theory OF Action” (1953) (in accordance with. m. Robert F. Bales & Edward A. Shils)
  • “Economyand Society " (1956) (in accordance with. m.Neil J. Smelser)
  • “Societies” (1966)
  • “The system OF decaying Societies” (1971)
  • “The American University” (1973) (in accordance with. m. Gerald M. Flatly)

essay collections of Talcott Parsons

  • “essay in Sociological Theory” (1954)
  • “Structure and Process in decaying Society”(1960)
  • “Social Structure and Personality” (1964)
  • “Sociological Theory and decaying Society” (1967)
  • “Politics and Social Structure” (1969)
  • “Social of system and the evolution OF Action Theory” (1977)
  • “Action Theory and the human condition” (1978)

editions of Talcott Parsons and co-authors

  • “Toward A generalTheory OF Action " (1951) (Hrsg. in accordance with. m.Edward A. Shils)
  • “Family, Socialization and Interaction Process” (1955) (Hrsg. in accordance with. m. Robert F. Bales)
  • “Theories OF Society” (1961) (Hrsg. in accordance with. m. Edward A. Shils, Kaspar D. Naegele & Jesse R. Pitts)
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After 1979 published works and editions of Talcott Parsons

  • “actuator, situation and normative samples” (1986; first 1949)
  • “The Early essay” (1991) (Hrsg. v. Charles Camic)

anniversary publications

  • “exploration in general Theory in Social Science” (1976) (Hrsg. v. January J. Loubser among other things)
  • “Essay on the Sociology OF Parsons” (1976) (Hrsg. v. Gopi C. Resound)
  • “behavior, acting and system” (1980) (Hrsg. v. Wolfgang Schluchter)

secondary literature

Luhmanns radicalization of the Parsons theory program

beside the many places, in which Luhmann in its work argues productively with Parsons, are above all the two u.g. Essays particularly recommendable. Here Luhmann placesfrom communication-theoretical view extremely precisely the theory-structural achievements and borders of the action-theoretical beginning.

  • Luhmann NIC-read (1980). “Talcott Parsons - for the future of a theory program”, in: Magazine for sociology 9, S. 5-17
  • ders. (1988). “Why AGIL? “, in: Cologne magazine for sociology and social psychology 40, S.127-139

Web on the left of

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