Talcott Parsons: functionalist sociologist.
Social action=human motivation, behavior, goals shape social institutions, politics, social
Western culture’s opposing views of social action=1)individual adapts to physical, social
forces beyond their control (Marxism, utilitarianism, behaviorism, social Darwinism,
Freudianism); 2) individual is originator and director of our own actions (idealism,
pragmatism, historicism). This materialism vs. idealism debate is the core of social
theory. Parsons hoped to resolve the conflict, and in doing so to stabilize the intellectual
foundations of Western society.
Parsons’ third way=”voluntaristic theory of action”: individuals are actors who exert
effort in situations; some of these conditions of action are beyond our control and
unalterable, while other aspects can be used as means to achieve goals. The process in
which people choose the means and goals is guided by norms, and therefore social. Thus,
Parsons’ theory thus imagines social action as a combination of subjective choice and
The “social system”: Parsons shifts from an emphasis on individual action to patterns of
interaction. To analyze social systems is to explain social integration. The question: how
is social stability routinely achieved? Society composed of division of labor—multiple
roles, norms, statuses, obligations, authority relations, etc.—so how is order possible?
Functionalist theory—social systems are functional when there is a “fit” between needs
and motivations of the individual and role requirements of the institution. This is a
“complementarity of expectations.” How does this happen? 1. “Internalization”: cultural
meanings become a part of the self, the individual adopts the beliefs, norms, values of the
society; 2. “Institutionalization”: culture becomes part of the institutional order, the
political/economic/legal system defines roles, statuses, norms, and goals.
Society like biological organism, like human body, different parts that work to keep the
whole working, keep body functioning, each organ does a different part.
work to keep the machine working, state of equilibrium, every part has a different
Heyday of functionalism is 1950s in US, most prominent at that time. America seems to
be “working”: nuclear family (Leave it to Beaver), economy in upswing, people are
conforming to the system, consensus that America is good and communism is bad, few
social problems, society very efficient, parts working in harmony, well-oiled machine.
Functionalists look at social problems as dysfunction of society, like a sickness in the