Who now reads (books on) Talcott Parsons?
"Doing the Intellectual Biography of Talcott Parsons"
The American Sociologist Dec 2007, 38:4, 330-332.
Talcott Parsons: An Intellectual Biography
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
pp. xiv + 311
Talcott Parsons: On Law and the Legal System
A Javier Trevino (ed)
Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
ISBN (10) 1-84718-485-5
ISBN (13) 9781847184856
pp. xi + 426
At one significant point in his contribution to building a new understanding of the discipline of sociology, Talcott Parsons made reference to a ritual performed by his children at an academic meeting convened in his home. It was an announcement and it went something like, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the sociology is about to begin!" Parsons referred to this at the conclusion of his Presidental address "The Prospects of Sociological Theory" to the 1949 meeting of the American Sociological Society (as it was then called). Referring to this announcement of sociology's impending beginning, Parsons concluded:
... it is not about to begin. It has been gathering force for a generation and is now really under way (ASR 1950, 16 also in Talcott Parsons Essays in Sociological Theory 1954, 348-369 at 369).
Academics, like the present writer, as well as the two accomplished scholars here considered, who have given considerable time to the interpretation of, and writing about, the sociological theory of Talcott Parsons, might be tempted to say, whenever such publications appear, that "Now sociology is about to re-begin". But then of course, that can't really be said with much conviction since the impact of Parsons's thought on the development of sociology in the second half of the twentieth cannot be denied, even if the impact is said to be negative, an impact that "normal" academic circles no longer consider as the commitment de jour.
In her 3-page account of her 2002 book, Uta Gerhardt of the University of Heidelberg, affirms Parsons's "paradigmatic" stature for the state of art of the discipline. This judgment of Parsons's stature was a basic motivation to her in this work. And three facets of Parsons's scholarship have provided the framework for research and her narrative. Firstly, Parsons was committed to the ongoing study and restudy of the works of Max Weber. Second, Parsons helped rescue sociology from Spencerian social Darwinism and its racist off-spring National Socialism. Third, through a long career, Parsons' contribution to sociology was characterised by a persistent desire to develop a theory which was thoroughly consistent.
For Uta Gerhardt, The Social System (1951) not only confirmed Parsons's theoretical rigour and post-War intellectual courage, but in this work his reliance upon the Weberian heritage was evident. Such an insight into the contribution of the "incurable theorist", helped her identify the basis for the misreading of his work, by those making sociology their program for opposing the Vietnam War. Academic associates, including many of her colleagues influenced by the "critical" perspective of the Frankfurter Schule, simply assumed that Parsons was an arch conservative.
And so, this brief American Sociologist article serves as a cogent explanation of how Gerhardt has organised her very incisive biography. Chapter 1 begins, as does Parsons' Structure of Social Action (1937), with "the long shadow of Darwinism", and cogently explains how and why Parsons wrote this his first book. Chapters 2 & 3 are a detailed assessment of how Parsons developed his sociology during the war years, immediately after finally gaining tenure at Harvard. This is also a concerted attempt to explain the way in which The Social System emerged from out of his "sociological account of National Socialism" (2) as that related to the Harvard social-science war effort (3).
This creative and perceptive exploration helps the reader understand Parsons's ongoing efforts to forge a distinctive sociological (academic) contribution and why that made him "vulnerable to accusations of political deviance".
In the 1980s Parsons was "charged" in The Nation magazine of having shepherded a Nazi sympathizer into the US. Gerhardt notes that Dennis Wrong in the Sociological Forum (1996 Vol. 11, 613-621) concluded that this was nothing but a political slander of latter-day left-wing McCarthyism. The "charge" simply has no basis in fact.
There were also very serious accusations against Parsons after he returned to Harvard from a 1953-1954 stay at Cambridge, England, when he was required to front the McCarthy inquiries. Included in the accusations that he was an ex-communist, which he wasn't, was the incredible "incriminating evidence" that his 15 year-old son had quoted from The Communist Manifesto to an un-named guest in his own home! Parsons was cleared of all charges in January 1955 and later that year began a four-year stint on an American Association of University Professors special committee to assess the impact of the McCarthyite accusations and purges. Exploring the social system, indeed!
Such first hand experiences with the workings of the US system of Government were to become the occasion for further theoretical reflection as can be seen in his writings on National Socialism and Soviet Communism but also in his writings about the US itself.
In the fourth and culminating chapter of her book, Gerhardt outlines an overview of the maturing framework of his writings after 1951. In effect, Gerhardt's painstaking account serves to challenge the many misperceptions of Parsons's many critics by carefully identifying his own conceptual understanding of his theory, particularly in relation to the old chestnut that he had simply endorsed some kind of static view of social structure. The results of her careful and enlightening archival research on civil rights, university unrest and Vietnam, in "Postscript: The Three Arenas of Change and Crisis", brings this well-constructed narrative to its "Epilogue: A Life of Scholarship for Democracy".
...democracy was never merely a type of political association. Rather, democracy was a structure of social action, denoting voluntary commitment of citizens to their community. He saw democracy mirrored in the attitudes of the actors... discrimination mattered for sociological analysis as much as disenfranchisement. The realm of "definition of the situation" contained two opposite provinces of meaning. They were prejudice, on the one end and reciprocity patterns representing democratic orientations, on the other.
In this vein, for him, society was more than mere social structures organized in systems. Society incorporated what people felt and thought about each other - their patterns of action mirrored their world views in the economic as well as many other fields of life... (p.279).
The concept of "system" was not just Parsons's key, it was also his gateway to a general theory of society. It made sense of all the fields of social life, also providing a conceptual means of accounting for the different ways in which human society may be studied scientifically in the various social sciences. As his attempts to fill out the "outline" of The Social System proceeded into the 1960s and 1970s, Parsons came to see his own work in building social system theory in ways comparable to the way colleagues in jurisprudence were wrestling with the bequest of the common law tradition. His association with Lon L Fuller of the Harvard Law School, and appreciation for the work of Hans Kelsen, helped him better appreciate legal systems as social systems, and thereby confirmed his commitment to the system-concept as a basic idea for all social science. There also emerged a sharp reflexive recognition about his own way of working qua sociological theorist. He was not only modelling in mechanistic terms the intrusions of the watch-maker as he examined the cogs and springs of society (see the dedication to The Social System: "To Helen ...an indispensable balance-wheel"), but he was also explicit in referring to himself as a theorist who adopted the manner of a competent common-law appellate judge.
In this regard the recent publication, Talcott Parsons on Law and the Legal System, edited in masterly fashion by A Javier Trevino, Professor of Sociology at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, with his timely 34 page "Introduction", is a indispensable contribution to appreciating Parsons' contribution to sociology, the sociology of law and indeed to jurisprudence itself. The motivation for the volume seems to have been generated at a July 2006 University of Manchester conference "Talcott Parsons: Who now reads Parsons?" At that point, Parsons's important unpublished work American Society: A Theory of the Societal Community (edited and introduced by Giuseppe Sciortino, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers 2007) was but months away from publication. Now that this mature study of the American societal community has been added to the Parsons oeuvre, it makes eminent sense that this work, with its specific focus upon law and the legal system, has also been brought together in one well-presented volume containing many relevant articles.
The volume is divided into five parts successively considering: The Social System and Law (with 8 items); The Legal System and the Legal Community (6 items); Citizenship and Universalistic Law (3 items); The Law Courts and the Legal Profession (4 items); Law, Politics and Sociology (5 items).
The Introduction begins by noting in a footnote that Bredemeier (1962), Rueschemeyer (1964), Mayhew (1971) and Lidz (1979) are the outstanding exceptions to a general trend in which:
... despite Talcott Parsons's enormously influential role as "the midwife of modern sociology" (Outhwaite 2005, 212), coupled with three decades of focused and sustained analysis of the legal system's location in a total and complex society, it is nothing short of appalling that his particular social systems approach to law has been largely neglected (page 1).
In the Conclusion of a complete and well-balanced articulation of Parsons' "sociology of law", Trevino describes his own - in my view very welcome - achievement in these words:
In this Introduction I have broadly delineated the contours of a Parsonian sociology of law by rendering a detailed account of Talcott Parsons's conceptual analysis of the place of law - and in particular of the functions of the law courts and the legal profession - in the American societal community. For Parsons, the legal system's locale and operations in U.S society are of paramount significance because they form the very basis of an integrated citizenry (page 27).
One final critical and appreciative point, from an outsider to the US must here suffice. It concerns the application of Parsons's "conceptual analysis of the place of law" to global society, international law and international law courts. Parsons's sociology, and the above quote, which rightly acknowledges the American character of his work, is consonant with the way the US, under its constitution, sees itself in national political terms. The problem that needs to be addressed concerns whether the "internationalism" that is assumed within US national identity, becomes, in some way or other, normative for international contributions that are international in structure. The status of the US as "light on the hill" may, these days, have moved well beyond the New England Puritan vision of the 17th and 18th centuries, before the Declaration of Independence, to a more "secular" view of its mission. But can it be denied that as a political entity on the world stage, it views its Beruf in terms of fulfilling a global mission? As Uta Gerhardt reminds us, Parsons's sociology of the American societal community bears eloquent witness to its Weberian roots, all the way down to being, in Weber's terms, a "product of modern European civilization" that must examine itself in historical terms (see Weber's opening lines to the "Author's Introduction" in Parsons's translation of The Protestant Ethic). And so Parsons openly admits that the US is the leading example of, and the vanguard of freedom for, self-government throughout the entire world. In the latest phase of modernization, his own nation has the status of "new lead society". That being the case, scholars appreciative of Parsons's sociological contribution, will not only be eager to explore what his systems theory might mean for local and global "sociologies" outside the US ambit, but also for its application to other social science disciplines as well. Could Parsons's "system" imply a universal Beruf for (American) sociology to become the "new lead discipline" in a world-wide sense for the late-modern social scientific encyclopaedia? It will require a sharp and critical appreciation of all that this sociological theory assumes, if the resultant sociology of international law, as birthed by this "mid-wife", in its dealings with international empirical realities, is to be properly understood. The critical question is this: how can the insights be appropriated without an uncritical ascription of universal normative status to this sociology for the sociological analysis of international law?
Bruce C Wearne
Point Lonsdale Vic, Australia