Talcott Parsons Essay

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) is regarded as the most significant American sociologist during the 1950s and 1960s, and is considered the founder of the functionalist school of sociology. He viewed society as an organism where the parts of the social body have a role in maintaining its equilibrium.

Parsons was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He studied at Amherst College, receiving a BA in 1924, and he majored in biology. However, he decided to pursue graduate study in economics, studying at the London School of Economics from 1924 to 1925 and the Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg, from which he received his PhD in 1927.

Parsons then returned to the United States to teach economics, joining the faculty at Harvard University as an economics instructor in 1927, and remaining there until his retirement in 1974. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as secretary from 1960 to 1965.

In The Structure of Social Action (1937), Parsons asserts that social action is one of society’s four subsystems—the others being culture, personality, and behavior. According to Parsons, the structural-functional approach to sociology is the way to develop a systematic theory of social action for the field as the four subsystems interpenetrate one another. In this book, Parsons also introduced the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim and German social theorist Max Weber to American sociologists.

In 1951, Parsons published The Social System, where he presented his theory that society could best be understood by the researcher asking what the functions were of its social institutions, and understanding that these institutions contribute in some way to the maintenance of stability of the social system. This contrasted with structuralism, the idea that humans can discern the underlying structures behind the changing appearances of social reality. His later writings include Structure and Process in Modern Societies (1960), Social Structure and Personality (1964), Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966), Sociological Theory and Modern Society (1967), Politics and Social Structure (1969), Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory (1977), and Action Theory and the Human Condition (1978).


  1. Mitchell,William C. Sociological Analysis and Politics: The Theories of Talcott Parsons. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967.
  2. Parsons,Talcott. Action Theory and the Human Condition. New York: Free Press, 1978.
  3. Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory. New York: Free Press, 1977.
  4. The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special
  5. Reference to a Group of European Writers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937.

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