Part II of course begins Thursday October 24, 2013.
Starting to focus on Modern Theorists. Not on first test.
Introductory Issues and Historical Overview
A) What is Structural Functionalism Theory? Is a sociological theory and was
developed in the USA in the early 20 century. Focuses on analyzing two
things The structures of society and the functions of these structures. It is
concerned with three sets of issues: It focuses on social institutions, and
more specifically it focuses on the interdependence of these institutions, and
thirdly it tries to show how these institutions contribute to the order and
maintenance of society.
B) The Emergence of Structural Functionalist (SF) Theory
a. In terms of its emergence the first thing we need to talk about is the
influence of Emile Durkheim. SF owes a lot to Emile Durkheim (ED).
We cannot call Durkheim a structural functionalist because he was
dead when SF emerged, but his ideas did help to pave the way for SF.
We can illustrate this in a few different ways, ED was interested in the
issue of social order. We can see ED’s influence in another way to, he
theorized the interdependence of organic solidarity.
b. The work of Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. SF is most closely
identified with the work of these two men. In the 1940’s and 50’s the
work of these two American Sociologists laid the foundation for SF.
However, as we are going to see, Parsons and Merton disagreed with
each other, they saw SF in different ways, and developed different
notions of SF.
C) The dominance of SF theory Due to the work of Parsons and Merton, SF
became the dominant sociological theory during the 1940’s and 50’s. One
possible explanation as to why SF theory became popular: The 1950’s were a
conservative decade and SF fit in with the mood of the times. This theory
Social order and maintaining society exactly the way it is, is clearly going to
fit in, in a conservative period.
D) The Decline and Resurgence of SF Theory
a. Mounting Criticism: SF faced criticism in the 1960’s. 60’s was a radical
decade. We started to see lots of social conflict over issues such as
sexism, racism, and war, and various other social issues. As part of
this, we see the emergence of various social movements such as the
feminist movement, struggling against sexism, the civil rights
movement, struggling against racism, the peace movement struggling
against war. So have all these aspects of society struggling for social
change. So by the 1970’s most sociologists had abandoned SF in
favour of alternative sociological theories.
b. Neo-Functionalism: The resurgence of SF in the 1980’s with the
development of neo-functionalism (NF). NF refers to the approach taken by sociologists who embraced parsons theoretical perspective
while altering some of its claims. It’s interesting to note that NF
emerged in the 1980’s. This was a conservative decade, a lot of
conservative political decade and here we have this conservative
A biological Sketch of Talcott Parsons Monday October 28, 2013
A) Early Life
a. He was born in 1902 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He came from a
religious and intellectual background. This is because his father was a
minister and was also a professor at Colorado College.
B) University Education
a. Parsons did his university undergraduate work at Amherst College in
Massachusetts and graduated in 1924. After he graduated with his
undergrad degree he was interested in doing graduate work and he
started his graduate work at the London school of economics for his
graduate work. But he decided not to stay here and he switched to a
German university (he was fluent in German).
b. In 1925 he left the London school of Economics and then he went to
do his PhD at the University of Heidelberg (Germany).
c. Parsons and Weber never met (Weber also went to the University of
Heidelberg) but they had a connection. Parsons knew Webers wife
Mary-Anne. She held intellectual discussions at her house and Parsons
ended up going to some of these meetings at Mary-Anne Webers
house. So Parsons did know Weber’s widow from going to these
discussions. Parsons was greatly influenced by Weber and he decided
to deal with Weber in part through his PhD dissertation. Parsons
decided to do an analysis of how Capitalism has been addressed by
German Scholars for his PhD and that would include Weber.
d. In 1927 Parsons married Helen Walker.
C) Marriage and the Family: read on this. Only mentioned that he married Helen
D) University Career
a. Became a professor at Harvard University in 1927
b. Started out in the department of Economics in Harvard but a few
years later he transferred to the department of sociology. He ended up
there in 1930.
c. Also in 1930 he translated Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism’ into English. He made Weber’s work much more
accessible to English audiences.
d. In 1939 he published a book called “The Structure of Social Action.”
This book provided an analysis of the writings of Durkheim and
Weber. This book very important in bringing the work of these
classical theorists to American sociologists. e. In 1944 Parsons became the chair of the department of Sociology at
f. 1951 He published a book called “The Social System.” It was in the
social system that Parsons set out many of his main theoretical ideas
about Structural Functionalism (SF). The book was quite influential.
And Parsons became the dominant figure in American Sociology at
least for a time.
E) Later Life and Death
a. 1973 Retired from Harvard. He stayed there for his entire career.
b. In 1979 he died at the age of 76. And at the time he died he was in
Munich, Germany. He was in Munich to deliver a lecture to well
known social theorists. He did this lecture the day before he died.
The Theoretical Ideas of Talcott Parsons
A) Theoretical Approach
a. 1) Grand Theory. This is not a term that Parsons used to describe his
own work. Rather it’s a term that someone else came up with to
describe Parson’s work. Grand Theory actually comes from the
American Sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills called the work of Parsons
Grand Theory. What exactly did he mean? He was being sarcastic, he
was not being complementary. This is because Mills did not like
Parsons work at all. Grand theory does have several characteristics.
i. First of all, Grand Theory is extremely elaborate and highly
abstract. Mills would argue that it is far, far, far, to abstract.
ii. Another important aspect or characteristic of Grand Theory is
the fact that it is the macro level of analysis. In other worlds,
Grand Theory is at the level of the entire society and it tries to
explain all aspects of that society.
iii. Third point we need to make about Grand Theory is that it
seeks to have universal application. It seeks to be applicable to
every society. So it is looking at society in general and then it
can be applied to different applicable societies.
b. 2) Theory and Research. Well Parsons was interested in developing a
broad, general, theory of society that other sociologists could apply in
their research on various specific societies. So in other words Parsons
i. Deduction: When we engage in deduction we proceed from
theory to hypotheses to observations (research)
ii. Now how is this connected to Parsons work? Sociologists
would take aspects of Parsons General Theory of Society and
out of those aspects, sociologists would then formulate
hypotheses. Then when sociologists would establish
hypotheses about what specific societies would expect then
they would go out there and do research to test these
hypotheses based on Parsons theory. iii. Even though he emphasized deduction, Parsons did think that
the observations could provide the basis for reworking or
changing the aspects of the theory. You could draw an arrow
from observations to feed back into theory. But his view was
that theory had primacy or was more important than the
B) The AGIL Scheme
a. What did Parsons mean by the concept of function? According to
Parsons a function is: a complex of activities directed towards meeting
a need or needs of the system. So his idea was that certain functions
have to be met within the system if that system is going to survive. So
he worked toward developing four functions that meet the needs for
the system so that is can continue. So what are these four functions
i. First of all we have the function of Adaptation (A). This is the
‘A’ in his AGIL scheme. He meant by adaptation that a system
must cope with external conditions in the environment.
ii. Second function if Goal Attainment (G): the system must define
and achieve its primary objectives.
iii. Integration (I): System must regulate the interrelationships
among the component parts.
iv. Finally we have Latency (L). He also used another term to refer
to this function, from time to time he called it Pattern
Maintenance. This function involves the fact that a system must
generate and sustain the motivation of individuals.
b. Parsons used the AGIL scheme in all aspects of his theoretical works
including his notion of Action Systems which is the next thing we are
to talk about.
c. AGIL scheme is very abstract
C) Overview of the Action Systems
a. Action Systems and AGIL
i. The first action system is the behavioural organism
(Adaptation). This handles the function of adaptation. So what
does this mean? The behavioural organism handles the level of
adaptation because it adjusts to and transforms the external
ii. The personality system is the second in the action system (goal
attainment). The PS defines goals and mobilizes resources to
achieve these goals.
iii. The third action system is the Social System and this system
handles the function of Integration. So more specifically this
means that the social system controls relations between its
iv. Finally we have the Cultural System that handles the function
of Latency. This means that the cultural system provides
people with norms and values that motivate and guide their
action. b. The Action System, Order and Change.
i. So to explain this, Parsons was very interested in the issue of
social order. And as he saw it, these action systems helped to
provide social order for society. All action systems have a
function and are geared to maintaining society as it is. How is
that the case?
ii. We noted that the social system controls the relations between
its component parts, if it is integrating them, then the social
system is contributing to social order. We can also see this
issue of order in relation to some of the other action systems.
Lets consider the cultural system. The cultural system provides
people with norms and values because it is connected to the
function of latency. So when people are provided by norms and
values they are told how they should act, and this contributes
to social order. It is all about order.
iii. Parsons did make some allowance for change in his theory.
Structural Functionalists are not interested in change, only in
order, but he did make some room for change.
1. The behavioural organism: adjusts to and transforms
the external environment. So it may generate some
2. But overall looking at this theory, Parsons is presenting
a picture of an ordered and static society. And a static
society does not change.
A Biographical Sketch of Robert K. Merton
A) Early Life
1910 – born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Son of working class Jewish immigrant parents
- Involved in the performing arts, decided to abopt a stage name (Robert
- After he got out of performing arts he decided to keep that name
B) University Education
- 1931 – graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia
- Took Sociology as an undergrad, had the opportunity to go to a meeting of
the ASA – American Sociological Association
- While he was there he met one particular professor (Pitrim Sorokin) from
the Department of Sociology at Harvard
- Started graduate studies in 1931 at Harvard working under Sorokin
- Went there to study with Sorokin, but met a junior professor who was not
very well known, Talcott Parsons and decided to work with him instead
C) Marriage and Family
- While he was at Harvard working on his PhD, he met a women named
Suzanne Carhart and married in 1934 - They had 3 children
D) University Career
- 1938 – became professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana
- 1941 – became professor at Columbia University in New York City,
remained there for the rest of his career
- During his time at Columbia university, he published Social Theory and
Social Structure (1949) – it set out many of his contributions to structural
- Merton was quite critical of earlier forms of structural functionalism –
critical of his former professor Parsons
- Tries to set out some of his own contributions or revisions to structural
- 1979 – retired from Columbia University
E) Later Life and Death
- Divorced wife after 34 years of marriage in 1986
- Decided to remarry when he was in his 80s in 1993 (sociologist Harriet
- Died in 2003 at the age of 92
The Theoretical Ideas of Robert K Merton
A) Theoretical Approach
1) Middle-Range Theory – preferred theoretical approach
- Not at the Macro level of analysis or the Micro level of analysis, sort of in
the middle, closer and has more in common with the Macro level
- Merton saw the importance of developing theories that focused on more
important issues whereas Parsons tried to explain everything
- Class dynamics, interpersonal influence, power relations, causes of
2) Theory and Research
- believed his middle-range theory had to be tied to empirical observation
- emphasized the importance of deduction and induction – Parsons only
focused a deductive approach (theory to hypothesis to observations)
- Induction: Observations (research) Generalizations Theory
- Do research on interpersonal influence, develop some general principles
on the data, put the principles together to form a theory of interpersonal
B) Merton’s Criticisms of Earlier Structural Functionalism
- Talcott Parsons
1) Functional Unity
- Earlier structural functionalism suggested that all social beliefs and
practices are functional for society as a whole as well as individuals in
society – Merton saw this as problematic the assumption of social unity - We might have this kind of functional unity in small societies, such
functional unity is unusual in a large and complex society
2) Universal Functionalism
- earlier structural functionalism suggested that all social structures and
beliefs have positive functions for society and individuals – problematic
- some social structures and beliefs might not have positive functions
- Ex. Nationalism – positive function is that it helps to unify the people of a
country – negative function is that it could help generate hatred of people
who come from else where
- Things are more complicated than they appear to be
2) Indispensable Functions
- earlier structural functionalism suggested that all aspects of society
represent necessary parts of the whole
- all existing structures and functions are essential, no alternative
structures or functions could work as well
- at least consider the possibility that there are others ways at organizing
our society, these structures and functions might not be so essential after
C) Merton’s Own Contributions to Structural Functionalism
- since structural functionalism always focused on positive functions, he
considered negative functions
- sometimes structures and institutions can maintain society or be
dysfunction and work against maintaining society as it i