Talcott C. Parsons

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Talcott C. Parsons (1902–1979) was a sociologist focusing primarily on the systemic functions of society. Born in Colorado, he went to Amherst College where he initially studied sociology, afterwards going to the London School of Economics and Political Science, then studying in Germany and being influenced by the works of Max Weber. He reacted to Weber's work by focusing primarily on the connections that the economic and societal spheres overlapped, causing the overall system to take a certain shape. He then found himself teaching sociology at Harvard University and becoming a member of the American Sociological Association. However, near the end of his life he experienced ideological attacks accusing him of having a conservative and academic elite bias in his studies, going so far as to claim that his theory of society legitimizes injustice in the world, rather than explaining it. Regardless, he nevertheless continued to be an important influence to future sociologists once the fervor died down, and his works gained a new appreciation for their effort.[1]

The social system[edit]

Parsons discussed the social system in terms of individual actions and the collective nature of society. He remarked that the relationship between the individual and the collective is not the same as between two individuals: the collective is something that an individual both responds to and acts within, creating an environment where the relationship is more complicated than clearly defined parameters. As such, the social system as a whole is defined by the roles and social norms that reside within, whilst simultaneously being constantly affected by the individual actors.

One important part of structural functionalism is the notation of the division of labor. A division of labor in a society is related to functionalism in a few ways: the first being that different roles and jobs have different norms and expectations in regards to their purpose. This simultaneously creates a diversity of work, and a conformity to that specific role, a sort of dialectic in avenues in society. The second way it relates to functionalism is the construction of the roles themselves, and how they interact and work with each other to create a totality of roles that all result in the collective function/dysfunction of society. In this context, 'function' doesn't refer to general well-being, but simply the workings of the system that exists.

There are two ways to tell what part of the system you reside in and what it does. The first is the general location of the place in question. Whether it's a low-income location or a high-income one, a location with lots of schools or one with lots of guns, one is able to generally understand how it relates to the rest of the system. The second operates through the use of force, which is necessary to stymie individual action in order to promote conformity and continued function of the part within the system.

It can be easy to regard a social system as a collective, but this is not sufficient in understanding it in its totality. One must understand the complexities and nuance between different parts of the system, understanding that not only are different regions of a different makeup, but also that different regions can possibly overlap with each other or even hold conflicts between each other. Even the relative size of the part of society matters. In essence, while there is a 'division of labor' amongst individuals, one must also expand the 'division of labor' to the overarching parts of society as a whole.[2]

Action in individuals[edit]

Understanding the fundamental bases of the systemic structures is vital in understanding the baseline positions of action in individuals. After all, the choices that an individual makes, the agency they carry, is wholly dependent on the system and structure they reside in. Thus, Parsons discusses a 'system of action'. A system of action is one in which an actor determines their behavior based on a preset situation, defining their interaction dialectically in terms of both in response to the social sphere and as a part of the social sphere. Analytically, the collective can be regarded as distinct from the individual, but in practice it cannot be separated.

Actors themselves are treated as systems wholly in themselves, and Parsons understands action in terms of individualized use, meaning instrumental and directive-driven action. Objects and institutions are interacted with under an understanding of their general purpose, and one navigates through them as such. Avenues for action rest within the hands of the paths available for the most part. The important thing, however, is understanding how when, on a mass scale, people act in ways largely in accordance to the system and the function thereof. This, in part, is enforced not through direct force such as police intervention, but rather through the social tool coined as 'norms'.

Norms are one of the major ways society is able to mostly keep its members in line, for the ultimate success and continued function of the system. Norms regulate action in multiple ways, but by primarily applying social pressure towards those who do not conform to them. Norms themselves are general ideas in the social world that are centered around meanings, purpose, and expectations. While norms themselves can be subject to change, and often are, they nevertheless have a larger affect and result in generally conforming a majority of actors in a society to a smaller set of acceptable action.[3]

Analysis on gender roles/controversy[edit]

The main article that triggered the wave of criticism to Parsons was his work on gender roles in the family household. He was criticized because people, during the time of the 1960s social movements, widely interpreted his work as legitimizing gender inequality within the family and the workforce based on his stance as a white male. However, over time, sociologists would later interpret his work as a reflection of the social order at the time, and while it isn't a direct criticism, is a fundamentally direct analysis of family functions in society.

He started by observing the shift from the family to the non-family. He remarked that the shift is an important once, because the function of the family dynamic changes when one leaves. He compared the prominent asexual expectation of family to the relationally sexual nature of relationships developed outside the family. He then noted that the economic roles of people in the family are not the same, harkening back to his emphasis on the acknowledgement of the division of labor, noting that usually only a single member of the family acquires income whilst the other people do other things.

He notes that men primarily worked while women primarily functioned in the household. This direct observation is noted to be curious and peculiar, because to create this segregation, not just in the household but also in the professional world, they must be regarded as individuals while paradoxically enforced as systemic structure. He also notes that this division can potentially be a factor in a strong dependence on each other, applying specific roles for specific people, achieving a type of miniscule organic solidarity. He takes a passive role in analyzing the situation, noting that historically women have been degraded in their ability and that they have been treated as incapable of being responsible for professional matters. He also notes that the nature of the kinship system holds no rational basis in any sexual segregation, under the pretense that marriage is supposed to be a partnership and not a super/subordination relationship.

At the end of the essay, he noted an interesting observation: that the changing tendency of the role of the feminine is changing, and the driving cause of instability in the function of his contemporary forms of family. This observation makes sense under the lens in 1943 where that sort of gender expectation was still strong, and therefore could not be subject to analysis of civil rights movements in the future. That being said, he noted that the 'dependency cravings' that women are, for lack of a better word, prone to are causing them to experience shortcomings in professional worlds. While he did not develop his thought into why they have these 'dependency cravings', he nonetheless identified at least parts of issues that feminists in the future would point out and fight against. [4]