Talcott Parsons was born in 1902 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In his early years he witnessed major world events like Bolshevik revolution, rise of Nazism and growth of the West. In 1926, Parsons attended the University of Heidelberg, where he studied the theories of Max Weber. He heavily borrows his ideas from the writings of Weber.

Parsons sociological imagination :

Parsons believed that Sociologists should develop scientific mega theories. He wanted to develop a grand theory which is consistent with the changing times. The grand theory would provide a platform to explain following social phenomena :

  • how social life is organized,
  • how various structural parts of society are coordinating with each other,
  • how social action and interaction among people offer life to social structures, and
  • how structural parts of society coordinate with each other to gratify individual and institutional needs, thus, providing continuity to the society. 

Parsons sociology can be divided in three parts

  • Study of social action
  • Study of social system
  • Study of social change

Study of social action

Parsons study of social action rejects the classical theory of social action. Emile Durkheim never gives importance to individual action. Durkheim believes that action of an individual if normal, will be in conformity with the collective consciousness, and, if not, then it is a deviant behaviour. Karl Marx never gives importance to individual action, to him, class action is important. Weber talked about ideal types of action ( rational, affective, traditional).

Parsons instead of studying  action with reference to the actors, looks into general profile of social action. He wants to explore that how an actor in an action situation negotiates with situational and normative constraints to manifest voluntaristic actions. Action is voluntaristic so long as the actor is conscious about the situational constraints ( race, heredity etc. ) and how they affect his action.

For Parsons, the basic unit of study is the unit act, which involves :

  • an actor motivated to act
  • a goal toward which action is oriented and means to attain that goal
  • a situation where the action takes place; and
  • norms and values that shape the choice of means to ends.

Like Weber, Parsons believes that values are guide to social action. Actor must be motivated to act and  that motivation must be supported by appropriate values.

All human motives can be generalised into three types :

  1. Cognitive motive : it stimulates an actor for the gratification of his rational needs in an objective and concrete way. It is supported by cognitive values that is evaluation of means on the basis of objective criteria. The action here performed as instrumental action. 
  2. Cathetic motives : Once objective need is gratified, another need arises for cultural or aesthetic happiness. The action motivated by this need never gives a man a materialistic pleasures, but aesthetic pleasures. The evaluation is based on subjective criteria and action is known as subjective action or expressive action.
  3. Psychological motive : Every actor wants that other people should appreciate his actions. In search of such appreciation an individual performs evaluative action or moral action.

These three types of action system negotiate with each other for the continuity and persistence of larger social system.

Mechanization of socialization and social control

Every actor is exposed to three kinds of socialization: Social socialisation, cultural socialization, Psychic socialisation

  • Social socialization : an actor comes to know how to behave and act in different social situation like family, kinship group, market, academic institution for the gratification of his goals, in accordance with expectations of others.
  • Cultural socialization : gives a person sufficient knowledge about values, customs, norms, obligations. Keeping that in mind he is interacting with counter actors in effective manner.
  • Psychic socialization : helps a person to control his emotions effectively so that he can negotiate with crisis situation in life.

Mechanism of Controls :

  • Formal : rules and laws
  • Informal : Peer pressure, parental control
  • Coercive : when formal and informal does not work coercive methods are used to regulate individual behaviour

Therefore, the themes of Parsons study of social action are – persistence of society, regulating behaviours of individual actor, coordination between actors and counter actors and working of institutional structures. His work, thus, departs from classical study of action and psychological study of behaviour.

Study of Social System

System : an unified whole where parts are related to each other. Parsons says that a society can be converted into a system, it is capable enough to negotiate with its environmental conditions and to maintain self-sufficiency.

AGIL system : A social system in order to sustain and continue must have four functional pre requisites present within itself :

  1. A : Adaptation
  2. G : Goals specification and goal attainment
  3. I : Integration between the parts.
  4.  L : Latency mechanisms for continuity by cultural system


The pattern variables

Pattern variables are set of choices which an actor must make in a given situation. They are mega theoretical framework which define how in an action situation, an actor -identifies the counter actor, appropriate the emotional attachment, identifies range of obligations towards counter actor and weighs benefits which can be accrued from a social action.

Affectivity and Affective Neutrality.

Affectivity and affective neutrality  refers to the amount of emotion or affect that is appropriate or expected in an given form of interaction. Affectivity refers to expressing emotions, for example in an informal interaction. Affective neutrality refers to absence of emotions in a formal setting,. for example, in a bureaucratic organization.

Particularism and Universalism.

A particular relation is a relationship of a social actor with a specific individual, for example parent-child relationship is very particular.  In contrast, a bureaucracy is characterized by universal relationship, where everyone is to be treated impartially and according to the same procedures or rules.

Diffuseness and Specificity.

These refer to the nature of social contacts and how extensive or how narrow are the obligations in any interaction.  For example, in a bureaucracy, social relationships are very specific, where we meet with or contact someone for some very particular reason. In contrast, traditional society relationships are more diffuse forms of contact – involving few people but having a broad or diffuse  range of obligations.

Qualities and Performance  Or Ascription and Achievement :

Ascription refers to the inborn qualities of individuals such as sex, ethnicity, race, age, family status etc. Achievement refers to performance of an individual irrespective of his ascriptive identity. In traditional society, ascriptive traits often governed an individual’s life course or life chances. A modern society aims at giving individuals an opportunity to achieve what they are capable of achieving.

Collectivity or Self.   This refers to the extent of collective or shared interest as opposed to self interest that is associated with social action. An action performed with a collective orientation gives preference to groups interest, and one which is perform with Self orientation gives preference to self interests over the collective interests of the group s/he belongs to.   

Parsons says that every smallest part of society can be converted into a social system and can be explained through AGIL model. Each social system in negotiation with the other social systems gives rise to a larger social system.

Social change

Parsons talks about orderly and evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change. Conflict arises due to disruption of cultural values, beliefs and practices. As change occurs, the various parts of the society differentiate and reintegrate through adaptation to new needs and problems. New institutions and subsystems develop to perform new functions which are required to make society operate smoothly.