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After Parsons

After Parsons: A Theory of Social Action for the Twenty-First Century

Renée C. Fox
Victor M. Lidz
Harold J. Bershady
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 368
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    After Parsons
    Book Description:

    Esteemed twentieth-century sociologist Talcott Parsons sought to develop a comprehensive and coherent scheme for sociology that could be applied to every society and historical epoch, and address every aspect of human social organization and culture. His theory of social action has exerted enormous influence across a wide range of social science disciplines.After Parsons, edited by Renée Fox, Victor Lidz, and Harold Bershady, provides a critical reexamination of Parsons' theory in light of historical changes in the world and advances in sociological thought since his death.

    After Parsonsis a fresh examination of Parsons' theoretical undertaking, its significance for social scientific thought, and its implications for present-day empirical research. The book is divided into four parts: Social Institutions and Social Processes; Societal Community and Modernization; Sociology and Culture; and the Human Condition. The chapters deal with Parsons' notions of societal community, societal evolution, and modernization and modernity.After Parsonsaddresses major themes of enduring relevance, including social differentiation and cultural diversity, social solidarity, universalism and particularism, and trust and affect in social life. The contributors explore these topics in a wide range of social institutions-family and kinship, economy, polity, the law, medicine, art, and religion-and within the context of contemporary developments such as globalization, the power of the United States as an "empireless empire," the emergence of forms of fundamentalism, the upsurge of racial, tribal, and ethnic conflicts, and the increasing occurence of deterministic and positivistic thought.

    Rather than simply celebrating Parsons and his accomplishments, the contributors toAfter Parsonsrethink and reformulate his ideas to place them on more solid foundations, extend their scope, and strengthen their empirical insights.After Parsonsconstitutes the work of a distinguished roster of American and European sociologists who find Parsons' theory of action a valuable resource for addressing contemporary issues in sociological theory. All of the essays in this volume take elements of Parsons' theory and critique, adapt, refine, or extend them to gain fresh purchase on problems that confront sociologists today.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-215-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Renée C. Fox, Victor M. Lidz and Harold J. Bershady
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)
    Renée C. Fox, Victor M. Lidz and Harold J. Bershady

    From the 1930s to the mid-1960s, Talcott Parsons was the leading contributor to the development of sociological theory, in the United States and internationally. More than any other contemporary figure, he shaped the conceptual schemes used in research, the bodies of theory taught to students, and thinking about the issues requiring investigation at the frontiers of sociological knowledge. In some dozen books and hundreds of essays, he elaborated an unfolding theoretical system that not only had a far-reaching, formative influence on sociological thought and research but also extended to other social sciences, including economics, political science, anthropology, psychology, and psychoanalysis....


    • Chapter 1 Parsons’s Economic Sociology and the Development of Economic Sociology
      (pp. 31-43)
      Neil J. Smelser

      In this chapter I will say a few words about the intellectual origins in Talcott Parsons’s development of the ingredients that were synthesized into a culmination of his most mature theoretical statement inEconomy and Societyand outline the essential features of that statement. I will comment on that book’s subsequent “fate” in light of developments within sociology and to some extent economics, and sketch the reinvigoration of economic sociology in the past two decades, and present a critical assessment of work in those decades, partly from a “Parsonian” point of view—an assessment that will yield, finally, a programmatic...

    • Chapter 2 Looming Catastrophe: How and Why “Law and Economics” Undermines Fiduciary Duties in Corporate Law
      (pp. 44-65)
      Mark Gould

      The inability of scholars and practitioners in the field of law and economics to conceptualize the value commitments that characterize professional responsibility, their expectation that all actors will act opportunistically in situations of imperfect information, and their commitment to private ordering and the undermining of legal rules have weakened severely the duties of care and loyalty that ground corporate law. Should we be surprised that corporate officers fail to put shareholder and firm interests above their own (the duty of loyalty) and that they fail to adhere to transparent processes providing shareholders and other stakeholders sufficient information to make independent...

    • Chapter 3 Social Order as Communication: Parsons’s Theory on the Move from Moral Consensus to Trust
      (pp. 66-82)
      Harald Wenzel

      Although one might be sceptical of Talcott Parsons’s research program for social theory, there is much less doubt in viewing his solution of the so-called Hobbesian problem of social order as a turning point in the development of sociological thought. In providing proof of the thesis that the main representatives of sociological thought in Europe converged on a solution for this problem, Parsons (1937/1968) did two things. First, he built upon the classical phase of sociological theory to bring it to a remarkable completion, and second, he established the foundation for the dominance of a normatively oriented functionalism in American...

    • Chapter 4 Affect in Social Life
      (pp. 83-90)
      Harold J. Bershady

      Talcott Parsons conceived the idea of the generalized symbolic media of interchange in his later work. The very large question or set of questions this idea was designed to answer is this: What are the contributions each subsystem of society makes to the functioning of each of the other subsystems? A well-developed answer to this question, he believed, would provide action theory with an analysis of dynamic processes more comprehensive and rigorous than had so far been achieved.

      Parsons took money as his prototype medium (Parsons and Smelser 1956). The properties of money and variability when it is circulated in...


    • Chapter 5 Contradictions in the Societal Community: The Promise and Disappointment of Parsons’s Concept
      (pp. 93-110)
      Jeffrey C. Alexander

      Within the strongly empiricist framework of American social science, there is very little acknowledgment of the nonempirical, theoretically driven dimension of scientific change. Yet the major developments in social science do not emerge primarily from simple accumulation of empirical knowledge or from proving previous theories false. They grow from confrontations with other, hegemonic theories. These confrontations, which are often intense and highly emotional, may take the form of critical experiments that crystallize and operationalize more general commitments, but they usually also present themselves as more general, less empirical arguments about theoretical logic itself.

      Because of the supra-empirical issues involved, it...

    • Chapter 6 How Different Can We Be? Parsons’s Societal Community, Pluralism, and the Multicultural Debate
      (pp. 111-136)
      Giuseppe Sciortino

      The notion of societal community is a focus of the theoretical work carried out by Talcott Parsons in his last decades. As with most of his ideas, any attempt to identify the evolution of the notion of societal community reveals both the strong continuity of his intellectual project and the frequent restructuring of his intellectual tools and vocabulary.

      There are few doubts about the importance of the notion of societal community to Parsons’s work. His analysis of the societal community is a cornerstone of his attempt to analyze the structure of contemporary societies, and of his interpretation of historical evolution....

    • Chapter 7 God, Nation, and Self in America: Some Tensions Between Parsons and Bellah
      (pp. 137-147)
      Robert N. Bellah

      Talcott Parsons had a lifelong interest in American society, an interest that was both professional and personal. I, too, have spent much of my life studying American society, though I did not originally intend to do so, and my motivation was as much that of a citizen as a sociologist. In this chapter I can give adequate treatment neither to Parsons’s view of American society nor to my own. Rather, I will discuss some key points of intersection and some divergences in our views that developed over time. Under the influence of my undergraduate Marxism, I had a quite critical...

    • Chapter 8 Modernity and Its Endless Discontents
      (pp. 148-166)
      Donald N. Levine

      If there is anything like a great tradition in social theory, it must be the multigenerational effort to come to terms with what has been called “modernity.” For well over a century prior to World War I, members of the lineage of classical social theorists posited some inexorable direction of modernization that sooner or later would encompass the human world. Their formulas ranged from Comte’s law of ineluctable stages to Alexis de Tocqueville’s irresistible trend toward social equality to Karl Marx’s dictum of de te fabula narratur to Herbert Spencer’s law of evolution to Max Weber’s thesis of world-historical rationalization....


    • Chapter 9 Culture as a Subsystem of Action: Autonomous and Heteronomous Functions
      (pp. 169-178)
      Helmut Staubmann

      The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said that all the clever ideas have already been had; it is only a matter of thinking them again. There is hardly any other intellectual field that would provide more evidence for Goethe’s dictum than sociology and the history of ideas associated with our discipline. In this sense, the following considerations do not claim to present something really new. Following Goethe’s invitation, they are directed toward a reconstruction. It will be a matter of calling to mind an important intellectual tradition that nevertheless became largely submerged in the collective memory—as we...

    • Chapter 10 Rationalists, Fetishists, and Art Lovers: Action Theory and the Comparative Analysis of High Cultural Institutions
      (pp. 179-207)
      Jeremy Tanner

      This chapter deals with two key issues in the sociology of art, the social construction of the role of the artist and the nature of high culture. It poses the question of how they might be approached differently than they are in currently popular approaches, and attempts to answer it by using the comparative and evolutionary perspective advocated by Parsons as part of action theory. I will briefly sketch the state of play in contemporary sociology of the artist and high culture, and the set of concepts and models from within action theory that I will use to approach these...

    • Chapter 11 The Weberian Talcott Parsons: Sociological Theory in Three Decades of American History
      (pp. 208-239)
      Uta Gerhardt

      The relationship between Talcott Parsons’s scholarship and Max Weber’s classic thought has been debated in two recent contexts in American sociology. According to one viewpoint, Parsons’s thought can be traced back to genuinely American intellectual origins, and was not, under Weber’s influence, “made in Germany,” incorporating the often-invoked Heidelberg myth in the 1920s—as some European disciples, including me, are said to assume (Camic, chapter 12, this volume). The other view stemmed from an anti-Parsonian impetus in the early 1970s, when three authors claimed to be preserving Weber’s greatness as they attempted to “de-Parsonize Weber” (Cohen, Hazelrigg, and Pope 1975a).¹...

    • Chapter 12 From Amherst to Heidelberg: On the Origins of Parsons’s Conception of Culture
      (pp. 240-264)
      Charles Camic

      The purpose of the chapter is threefold. The first is methodological: to call attention to the reductionist manner in which interpreters of Talcott Parsons typically connect the events of his life with the content of his ideas and to urge, instead, a more developmental—or life-course—approach. The second goal is to furnish a partial illustration of this approach through a brief intellectual-historical examination of the early phases in the development on Parsons’s concept of culture. I take culture as the focus because, although it is one of the central concepts throughout Parsons’s work, not only have Parsons scholars misunderstood...


    • Chapter 13 Parsons and the Human Condition
      (pp. 267-288)
      Edward A. Tiryakian

      “A Paradigm of the Human Condition” is an eighty-one-page essay that concludes the last volume of essays published by Talcott Parsons in his lifetime,Action Theory and the Human Condition(1978b).¹ One of the longest of the essays he published and the capstone of his theorizing ventures in the course of seven decades, it is also one of the least recognized and cited. This may stem from its complexity and the heterogeneity of its ingredients, or perhaps because the central theme smacks too much of “philosophy,” which most sociological training leaves us unprepared to tackle. In any case, “A Paradigm...

    • Chapter 14 What Do American Bioethics and Médecins Sans Frontières Have in Common? The Relevance of Talcott Parsons’s Theory of Universalism, Particularism, and Modernity
      (pp. 289-307)
      Renée C. Fox

      During the past ten years I have been involved in two major research projects. One of them is a study of the emergence of the young field of bioethics in the United States—its origins, ethos, and progressive institutionalization, and its civic as well as medical import in American society.¹ The other is a still-ongoing examination of medical humanitarian and human rights witnessing action—its underlying ideology and value commitments, the moral dilemmas it entails, and its (unintended as well as intended) consequences. This is being done chiefly through the medium of a sociological case study of Médecins Sans Frontières...

    • Chapter 15 “Social Evolution” in the Light of the Human-Condition Paradigm
      (pp. 308-334)
      Victor M. Lidz

      Talcott Parsons’s method of developing theory involved repeated revision of even basic concepts (Lidz 2000). His conception of the action frame of reference, for example, first formulated inThe Structure of Social Action(Parsons 1937), was revised in the manuscriptActor, Situation and Normative Patterntwo years later (Parsons 1939), and again inToward a General Theory of Action(Parsons and Shils 1951), resulting in the now familiar triad of the cognitive, cathectic, and moral-evaluative dimensions of action. The 1951 formulation was in turn revised with the introduction of the four-function paradigm in theWorking Papers in the Theory of...

  10. Index
    (pp. 335-349)