In Social Theory at the End of the Century William Outhwaite describes Parsons as 'the midwife of modern sociology'. Concerned with general outline of a system of action, social action comprises one of four subsystems, the others being culture, personality, and behaviour. Parsons thus attempts to give a unitary theory of action for the social sciences. However Parson's functionalism and positivist tradition lead to the substantial kinship with other sciences, particularly biology:
"Biology is our nearest neighbour in the community of sciences and substantive relationships should be expected. We are both part of the same larger community of knowledge".
Values for Parsons are symbolic elements that serve as criteria for selection of possible alternatives in each situation. Social actors have meaning attached to their action that is derived partially by the behaviour of others. David Binns argues that this is an essentially Weberian notion of action wherein "all social action is normatively oriented".
Despite the concern with stability within functionalism, Parsons does not see harmony in any social formation, "shot through" as it is with conflict. This however did not make the system anymore capable of understanding social change. Thus more political dimensions are introduced into the later work of Parsons through criticisms and external pressures. But the normative dimensions perform the major criticism of Marx by Parsons, suggesting without substantiation that this sphere is more important than class conflicts and changes in the mode of production and so on.
Parsons is one of the more obvious examples of where features specific to capitalist society are generalised to features of society as such. Overall Parsons is remarkably uncritical of received prejudices about contemporary society.
"Despite being popular in the 50s and 60s in the academy, Parsons' work did not reach any wider public impact as Tom Bottomore notes (Sociology and social criticism, p. 35). Indeed Parsons' concerns are regarded as relatively common place, especially by Mills in The Sociological Imagination, who sends up Parsons' verbose and convoluted style, concluding that "one could translate the 555 pages of The Social System into about 150 pages of straightforward English. The result would not be very impressive."
A contemporary theorist of Parsonian neo-functionalism is Jeffrey Alexander (see below). Parsons' work is seen by other, perhaps more critical, sociologists as simply a way of classifying and developing terms for what is already known. But Parsons interests us in respect to the fact that many new social theorists cut their intellectual teeth engaging with him. E.g. Anthony Giddens - see "Power" in the recent writings of Talcott Parsons, Sociology 2 (3) (September 1968). Indeed Jeffery Alexander has gone so far as to argue that the categories developed by Parsons for understanding action are still adequate to understanding society today.
Parsons was a meta-theorist who was concerned with issues of explanation with a strong emphasis on synthetic general theory. As such he attempts to bridge the divide between past theorisations of structure and action. For Parsons, the classics of sociology had been predominatly concernedwith the first type: that is, orders imposed upon the agent. Action-centred theory was also faulty, being, as he understood it, marred by idealism (which he understood to mean subjective meanings of the agents involved). Hence Parsons can be seen to be attempting to integrate values, power, structure and action in a single frame of reference (see Holmwood p. 31) Needless to say the gap between these two explanaitons was never successfully bridged, though his work was committed to the refinement and further elaboration of the theoritcal artifice, which correspondingly was pushed to higher and higher stages of abstraction.
Methodologically there is a quasi-dialectical dimension to Parsons' work. Holmwood's boring little book somewhat misleadingly divides it into positive and negative elements. Positive elements would fit into the theoretical schema, negative elements did not. The anomalies then had to be integrated through revision of the original schema, hence the ynthetic approach (see Holmwodd pp 34-37). This idea of convergence explains also the positive use made of previous theorists' work by Parsons the traditions of which are integrated and built upon. There is of course a moment of spurious negativity in all of this, Parsons understood that the breakdown of systems was partly the means through which social science progressed onto higher theoretical resolutions - and this is important because clearly Parsons wanted to develop a non-contradictory unity of the conflicting information - needless to say that - without dialectical interrelationship between the categories - their more or less arbitary postulation - this goal was not realised, principally because contradiction, though noted, was not centred on as an aspect of reality, but merely a matter of the non congruity of the categories.
Questions: Was Parsons an effective critic of positivism and empiricism? That Alexander quote on the superiority of the functionalist totality to the Hegelian one:
"Neo-functionalism models society as an intelligible system. It views society as composed of elements whose interaction forms a pattern that can be clearly differentiated from some surrounding environment. These parts are symbiotically connected to one another and interact without a priori direction from a governing force. This understanding of system and/or "totality" must, as Althusser has forcefully argued, be sharply distinguished from the Hegelian, Marxist one. The Hegelian system resembles the functionalist, but it posits an "expressive totality" in which all of a society's or culture's parts are seen as representing variations on some really determining, fundamental system. Functionalism suggests, by contrast, open-ended and pluralistic rather than mono-causal determinism" (Quoted in Holmwood: 1996 p. 100).