Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902 – May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist who served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927 to 1973.Parsons developed a general theory for the study of society called action theory, based on the methodological principle of voluntarism and the epistemological principle of analytical realism.
Talcott Parsons viewed society as a system. He argued that any social system has four basic functional prerequisites: adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance. These can be seen as problems that society must solve if it is to survive. The function of any part of the social system is understood as its contribution to meeting the functional prerequisites.
Talcott Parsons maintained that any social system can be analysed in terms of the functional prerequisites he identified. Thus, all parts of society can be understood with reference to the functions they perform.
Adaptation is an instrumental function by which a system adapts to its external environment or adapts the external environment to the system. Goal attainment is a consummatory function that defines the goals and ends of a system and mobilizes resources to attain them. Goal attainment is generally oriented externally.
Integration is a consummatory function that manages the interrelationships of the parts of a system. The integration function maintains internal coherence and solidarity within the system. Latent pattern maintenance is an instrumental function that supplies all actors in the system with a source of motivation. It provides normative patterns and manages the tensions of actors internal to the system.
Parsons argued that just as an abstract system of action can be analyzed in terms of the four functional imperatives and the corresponding subsystems of action, so concrete societies (as opposed to social systems) could be studied in terms of their constituent subsystems. Parsons thus argued that any given society (which could be an empire or a tribe but was generally considered as a nation-state) consists of an economy, a polity, a fiduciary system, and a societal community.
Parsons borrows the theoretical model of resources from economics because it is capable of generalization. In this model, there are four factors of production, namely, land, labor, capital, and organization. He is most concerned with applying the model's logical structure, because level of specification of resources and qualitative differences in resources make it difficult to apply the model directly to social systems theory.
Parsons is a firm believer in interpenetration and mutual influence. This means, that however important logical closure may be for a theoretical ideal, empirically, social systems are conceived as open systems, engaged in complicated processes of interchange with environing systems. This concept of open systems implies, again, boundaries and their maintenance. A boundary means simply that a theoretically and empirically significant difference between structures and processes internal to the system and those external to it exists and tends to be maintained.
Parsons followed Durkheim in studying individualism as a major transformation of society. There is, however, a contradiction between individualism as either the legacy of Protestant pietism or the product of modern consumerism. Parsons’s sociology of religion remains distinctive because he did not subscribe to the secularization thesis, but instead saw American liberalism as the fulfillment of Protestant individualism.
Parsons graduated from Amherst College in 1924, having majored in philosophy and biology. In 1925 he redirected his intellectual focus and entered the London School of Economics, studying with Bronislaw Malinowski, L.T. Hobhouse and Morris Ginsberg. The following year he received a fellowship at the University of Heidelberg, where he first encountered the work of Weber. Parsons completed his doctoral dissertation, on the concept of capitalism in recent German scholarship, in 1927 while teaching economics at Amherst
Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an educator and scholar of sociology. He contributed to the field of sociological theory, particularly through his development of a "general theory of action." Parsons spent most of his professional career at Harvard University, where he was affiliated with the various incarnations of the sociology department for thirty-two years.
In 1968 the distinguished American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, wrote that the professions have "become the most important single component in the structure of modern societies." This is even more true for the America of the 2000's, as the increasing complexity of life makes it increasingly difficult for the individual or the public to know itself and its needs. The human necessity, or at least justification, for the professions stands in precarious balance with the power, status and mythafications surrounding them.