Birthday: December 13, 1902
Died At Age: 76
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Born Country: United States
Born in: Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States
Famous as: Sociologist
Spouse/Ex-: Helen Bancroft Walker (m. 1927)
father: Edward Smith Parsons (1863–1943)
mother: Mary Augusta Ingersoll (1863–1949)
siblings: Charles Edwards Parsons, Edward S. Parsons Jr, Elizabeth I. Parsons, Esther Parsons
Died on: May 8, 1979
place of death: Munich, Germany
Cause of Death: Stroke
U.S. State: Colorado
education: Heidelberg University (1927), Amherst College, London School of Economics and Political Science
awards: Guggenheim Fellowship
Who was Talcott Parsons?
Talcott Parsons was a popular sociologist of the classical tradition from America. He is remembered for his structural functionalism and social action theory. He is unarguably one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. He is also credited for introducing the work of Max Weber and Vilfredo Pareto to sociology in America. It was these very works that influenced him to develop the social action theory. His entire career that spanned nearly 32 years was spent at Harvard University where he also established the Department of Social Relations. He was elected as the president of the American Sociological Association in 1949. He also served as the secretary of this association for nearly five years from 1960 to 1965. His social action theory was, in fact, the first generalized, broad and systematic study of social systems in entire America and Europe. It is to be noted that though Parsons was a structural-functionalist during his initial days, towards the end of the career he published an article that stated that structural-functionalism was not the right way to describe his theory. Starting from the early 1970s, he was often criticized by other sociologists as they felt most of his theories were extremely conservative and unnecessarily complex.
Childhood & Early Life
Talcott Parsons was born on December 13, 1902, to Edward Smith Parsons and Mary Augusta Ingersoll in Colorado. His father was a professor of English at the Colorado College. Parsons’ family was one of the oldest families of America and among the first to migrate from England.
Parsons studied at Amherst College and went on to receive his BA in 1924. He studied biology, sociology, and philosophy there. During his stint in this college, he went on to write two papers: ‘The Theory of Human Behavior in its Individual and Social Aspects’ and ‘A Behavioristic Conception of the Nature of Morals.’ Both these papers have survived and are of significant interest to Parsons’ followers.
After Amherst College, Parsons went on to study at the prestigious London School of Economics. Over here, he became familiar with the works of famous personalities such as R.H Tawney and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse.
His next went to the University of Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology and economics. During his stint in this university, Parsons became intrigued with Max Weber’s work as he was the only one who had been able to provide answers to his question of the role of culture and religion in the processes of world history. He went on to translate Weber’s work in English with the help of Weber’s widow.
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Talcott Parsons started his academic career as a teacher in 1926 at Amherst University. He later entered Harvard to teach economics as an instructor. He became friends with Edwin Gay who was the founder of Harvard Business School. He also started giving lectures on “social ethics” and “sociology of religion” and gradually moved away from teaching economics.
He got the break he wanted in 1930 when the department of sociology was created at Harvard University. He was now recruited to teach his favorite subject, sociology. This department was created by the celebrated Russian scholar Pitirim Sorokin who had fled the Russian Revolution.
In the summer of 1930, Talcott Parsons returned to Germany and got a chance to directly witness the uncomfortable atmosphere in Weimar Germany where the Nazis had risen to power. His friend Edward Y Hartshorne, who was traveling there during this time, would be constantly giving Parsons a report on the happenings there.
During the spring of 1941, a discussion group on Japan was formed at Harvard. The five core members of this group were Talcott Parsons, William M. McGovern, Marion Levy Jr., Edwin O. Reischauer, and John K. Fairbank. The main purpose of this group was to understand Japan in general as it had risen in power tremendously and had started allying with Germany.
One of the high points in his career came in 1944 when he got an offer to teach at Northwestern University. Harvard retained him by giving a counteroffer and made him the chairman of the department. He was also promoted as a full professor through this offer.
Talcott Parsons became a member of the executive committee of the new Russian Research Center that was formed in 1948 at Harvard. The committee also had his close friend and colleague Clyde Kluckhohn joining him.
In 1948, Parsons went to Germany which was then occupied by the Allied Forces. He was, in fact, the contact person of the Russian Research Center and took a great interest in the Russian refugees in Germany.
It was in 1951 that Parsons published two of his major works, titled ‘The Social System’ and ‘Towards General Theory of Action’. The latter work was written along with Edward Tolman, Edward Shils, and a few others. On the other hand, the former work was his first attempt to present his theory of ‘The Structure of Social Action’.
Between 1957 and 1958, Talcott Parsons spent his time at the Center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences center in Palo Alto. At this place, he met Kenneth Burke for the first time. Burke was a flamboyant and explosive person who had a deep impact on Parsons.
Parsons officially retired in 1973 from Harvard University. However, he continued his writing and teaching. He also never stopped corresponding with any of his colleagues or the other intellectuals he had met in his life.
He had also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Rutgers University, University of California at Berkeley and the University of Chicago during his career.
Family & Personal Life
While Talcott Parsons was studying at the London School of Economics, he met a young American girl whom he liked immediately. Her name was Helen Bancroft and they first met in the students’ common room. He subsequently married her on April 30, 1927. Their marriage was a happy one and they went on to have three children – Anne, Charles, and Susan. They also had four grandchildren.
In 1932, he bought a farmhouse for $2500 in a wooded area in New Hampshire. The farmhouse was located near the small town of Acworth, but Parsons always called the farmhouse the ‘farmhouse in Alstead’. Though it was not big or magnificent, it was very close to Parsons’ heart because it was an important part of his life. He went on to write many of his important works in the peace and tranquility of this house.
Parsons died on May 8, 1979, when he was on a trip to Germany. He had gone there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of obtaining a degree from Heidelberg. In fact, a day before that, he had given a lecture to German intellectuals, such as Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, and Wolfgang Schluchter. The lecture was on social class.