Finding the measure of passion

Talcott Parsons
June 6, 2003

It's best not to ascribe worldly motives to some scholars, says Frank Webster

Talcott Parsons, born in 1902 the son of a Colorado cleric, studied biology and economics at Amherst College, Massachusetts. He continued his studies at the London School of Economics and Heidelberg University before landing a job at Harvard University in 19. He remained there for the next 52 years. From about 1945 to the late 1960s he was the world's leading sociologist, his structural functionalist approach being pre-eminent wherever sociology was practised.

During his career Parsons published some 200 academic articles and a number of books, the most notable of which were The Structure of Social Action (1937) and The Social System (1950). They are mind-bogglingly difficult works, Parsons being famous for producing abstract and abstruse theory from which flesh-and-blood folk were banished.

His reputation collapsed in the face of the radicalism of the late 1960s. He had no way of accounting for the conflict and change that was palpable at a time of industrial confrontations, the Vietnam war and student rebellion. Incapable of using one word when ten would do, creator of tortuous neologisms, and locked into analysis of imaginary "systems", Parsons became intellectually redundant, a byword for tedium and pitilessness. Alvin Gouldner delivered the coup de grâce in his Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970) when he ascribed Parsons' irrelevance to his having been cocooned at Harvard for half a century. There he had been protected from economic depression, poverty, pretty much anything unsettling. Not surprisingly, went the argument, he constructed interminable and unworldly models.

Uta Gerhardt's intellectual biography of Parsons is a retort to this dismissal. Indeed, she considers Parsons to be among the greatest of 20th-century sociologists and she makes her case with gusto. Gerhardt's apologia argues that Parsons' oeuvre should be read as a theoretical distillation of his very deep passion and knowledge of major social and political events and trends. She contends that Parsons' sociology is founded on his commitment to democracy and his abhorrence of German fascism, the second world war and the excesses of McCarthyism.

From this point of view, The Structure of Social Action , a 1,000-page tract that identified in Pareto, Marshall, Weber and Durkheim convergence towards a "voluntaristic theory of action", may best be understood as an engagement with the dangers of National Socialism. Insofar as that book counterposed a commitment to integration with the dangers of authoritarianism that often accompany anomie, Gerhardt may have a point.

Talcott Parsons: An Intellectual Biography is useful in reminding us that Parsons had a life outside his study. It is even something of a shock to learn that this most mellow of men was harassed by McCarthy for alleged communist affiliations. Parsons certainly worked assiduously to support the war effort and to assist in rebuilding Germany after 1945, and here we read of his doubts about the Vietnam war.

Nonetheless, Gerhardt overstates her case. It would be truly astonishing if even the unworldliest of scholars had remained unaffected by world-shattering events such as the explosion of the atomic bomb, and it was impossible for any 1950s academic in the US to remain ignorant of McCarthy. So it is no surprise that Parsons' private papers show that he, too, was moved. But to go beyond this, to argue that his social theory was in fact a distillation of his engagement, is tendentious and certainly here unproven. There is a case for re-evaluating Talcott Parsons as a grand and serious social theorist, but it is too much to suggest, as this somewhat ponderous text does, that he was principally driven by an honourable commitment to liberal democracy.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University.

Talcott Parsons: An Intellectual Biography

Author - Uta Gerhardt
ISBN - 0 521 81022 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £47.50
Pages - 311

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