Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Founding Sociology? Talcott Parsons and the Idea of General Theory

John Holmwood
London: Longman
0 582 2916 5
£11.99 (pb)
x + 141 pp.

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In these postmodern times, Holmwood's answer to the question raised in his title is predictably negative. However, his reasoning deviates slightly from the beaten paths of Parsons' criticism. He argues that Parsons' project is 'fundamentally flawed' because his attempt at synthesis reproduces the 'pre-existing divisions in the sociological undertaking'. Parsons correctly identifies explanatory problems in earlier work, but he generalizes these problems rather than solving them. Though Parsons had proposed a synthesis of structure and action, the mature version of his theory contains a new dualism of structure and action, since in integrated systems 'the individual appears as the expression of structures'. Deviance, attributed to random ends, becomes a residual category indicating the breakdown of the theory. According to Holmwood, the theory also produces a contradiction that defeats Parsons' intentions since interdependence of system functions forms a system, while each functional level retains its own integrity.

What is worse, Parsons only exemplifies problems inherent in the whole project of general theory. Giddens and Habermas, for example, repeat the mistakes Parsons made (theory aficionados will enjoy the parallels Holmwood describes). The project wrongly conserves the divisions of social thought, vainly attempts to synthesize the irreconcilable, and inevitably fails to assist in refining actual explanations. If asked how he would integrate structure and action, the rational and nonrational, the objective and subjective, Holmwood would answer that 'there is no answer, once these categories have been accepted as appropriate and meaningful'. Yet he has no sympathy for the useless and relativistic postmodern backlash against the theory project. 'The way out of our impasse,' he argues, as in his co-authored Explanation and Social Theory, 'will be found only by attending to our current explanatory problems'. As theorists successfully address substantive problems by substantive means, exercising the creative powers often attributed to their objects of study, they may actually illuminate public debate.

Holmwood's analysis, hardly as 'non-technical' as advertized, is quite dense and sophisticated. Though he draws mainly negative lessons from Parsons, he treats his target with due respect. His case resembles other analyses showing that Parsons ultimately did not satisfy his own standards (Alexander actually serves as a critical target for Holmwood). Some of Parsons' own students already pointed to utilitarian residues in his work. But even if he failed to create a foundational synthesis, does that prove the logical impossibility of any synthesis succeeding on the basis of Parsonian premises? And even if a Parsonian synthesis is impossible, does that entail the impossibility of any 'genuine' synthesis in which existing insufficient categories are transformed? Holmwood's discussion of the supposed residual categories in Parsons' work is too brief to settle the matter. Calling the joint analysis of interdependence and independence in action systems a 'contradiction' seems an overstatement that provides weak support for a strong thesis. If Parsons is 'central to any proper understanding of what our problems are', as Holmwood stresses, presumably the ideas and concepts that enabled Parsons to identify these problems retain some power as well. Whatever its foundational status, the explanatory potential of Parsonian action theory remains an open question in any case. Holmwood too quickly dismisses Parsons' empirical work, without examining its role in the 'common law'-like evolution of Parsons' apparatus or its bearing on the best explanatory efforts of students like Smelser, Baum, and Gould.

Along the way, Holmwood scores many points, for example when he attacks the way theory is invoked to deny social scientists their creativity or when he ridicules the notion that sociologists should be critical of society in principle. Yet this book's positive yield is rather slim. In spite of his professed allegiance to 'postpositivism', Holmwood's slate-cleaning provides little guidance in selecting traditional categories and theories that might still aid in current explanatory tasks within a shared research program. Without addressing substantive problems directly, he assures most working sociologists of something they were unlikely to doubt, namely that explanatory problems 'can be answered - or, at least, it cannot be shown that they could not.' In sum, this is a provocative, though not wholly persuasive, contribution to the debate about Parsons and general theory that serves as prolegomenon to a revived explanatory sociology.

Frank Lechner
Emory University
Atlanta, USA

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997