Reading Guide to: Rocher, G (1974) Talcott Parsons and American Sociology, New York: Nelson.

Introduction (by Steven Mennell)

The charge of conservatism usually arises from two shallow a reading, but Parsons is guilty of 'conceptual reification' and the use of insecure analogies, especially those linking the macro and micro levels. Parsons' aim is to unify the social sciences, and to take a stand against relativism. This is a 'neo-Kantian strategy', with Parsons' concepts as a priori categories of thought. This explains the claims to exhaustiveness of the pattern variables, and the high level of abstraction. It also leads to serious problems such as a foundationalism in Parsons. Mennell thinks it best to use Parsonian schema only as an heuristic.

Chapter 1

Parsons is best seen as an 'incurable theorist' and an enemy of empiricism. Although an American, Parsons opposed much American sociology, and acquired a distinctive European influence during his stay at LSE, or Heidelberg University (where he was much influenced by Weber). This leads to his early interest in comparing Marx and Weber on capitalism, and in economics, which was then seen as an interdisciplinary subject at Harvard. In summary, he tried to: synthesise Weber, Durkheim and Pareto; develop a systematic social theory; develop new ways of applying sociology; offer an evolutionary element to social theory. In order then:

  1. Weber saw the link between economics and sociology in social action, and Pareto served to correct the over emphasis on rational action (in Marshall specifically) and with his concept of 'residues'. Durkheim was seen as offering a 'group - mind fallacy' rather than a social explanation of sociopsychological events, and Parsons saw that he had a theory of social disorganisation as well as of solidarity. These elements produced The Structure of Social Action in 1937. The substantive theme of this piece concerned economics and capitalism, as well as a convergence towards a 'voluntaristic theory of action'. All the writers were used to develop theories of subjectivity to oppose positivism, and to concentrate on norms and values as an anti-utilitarian move.
  2. Several essays and articles were also produced, some of them with Shils, leading eventually to The Social System. This developed the basic account of action, using the pattern variables and the AGIL model.[see below]
  3. Because this work operated at such a general level, systems theory could be incorporated, and this soon leads to other applications, such as those in Economy and Society. Here, economic action is the key to analysis, although psychology and political science was to be integrated too, even Freud. This project produced works such as Social Structure and Personality, or Politics and Social Structure.
  4. The evolutionary turn followed Spencer, and led to the System of Modern Societies.

This work was developed against an empiricist background which dominated American sociology, represented best in the Chicago School, and the urban sociology tradition. Eventually this work developed quantitative analysis, but there were community studies too at a local level. This work opposed any kind of generalisations, seeing it as 'metaphysical', or 'impressionistic'. Any theory that was required was drawn from social psychology through symbolic interactionism. The anti-collectivist sentiments of the approach led to Durkheim being ignored, and social interaction being seen as dyadic (through Simmel, apparently). The usual European 'founding fathers' were seen as too 'philosophical'.

Parsons began his career as a translator of these European writers, including Marx. He formed his early views about society from reading Hobbes and Mill. He saw theory as essential to explain empiricist data, to reconstruct the process of gaining 'facts'. Economic activity was seen as a particularly advanced form of rational behaviour, and so it could be used as a model of such behaviour -- it had psychological implications. Although Parsons has done some empirical research, including analyses of institutions, he argues that ideas are data as well.

He has a clear interest in the epistemological foundations of sociology, and in trying to develop sociology as a science, as an analytic approach and also as a reconstructive one, aimed at a 'reconstruction of reality with concrete symbols'. No direct apprehension of reality was possible otherwise. Sociologists selected elements and performed reconstructions whose approximations to reality can be continually improved. This requires widespread scientific inventions and canons -- Parsons was against historicism and in favour of aiming at a general theory, a single framework. Both natural and social sciences alike performed this 'analytic realism', offering the possibility of a genuine ubiquitous system. Psychic reality was also seen as real, and this led Parsons to reject behaviourism in favour of Freud.

Parsons was concerned to develop a 'scientific ethic' offering both objectivity and suitable value commitments, as in Weber -- sociologists would be detached, but also to perform 'value related' analysis. However, he did argue in favour of methods of understanding that involved ordinary social knowledge as well, leading to an interest in participatory research, and the adoption of Weber's notion of verstehen.

Chapter 2

Parsons' General Theory of action involves several arguments:

Social action (which includes action by collectives) is motivated, and directed by meanings are, so we need some notion of subjective interpretation. This involves us in seeing a 'duality of action and the situation'. Interaction takes place with the environment, including the symbolic environment and with the biology of our own bodies, but a special feature of interest is interaction with other actors, conceived as a dyad between alter and ego. Symbolism is crucial to this interaction, leading to an interest in the symbolic universe, the place of norms and values which enable communication and interpretation. These norms are seen as facilitating interaction [always? entirely?) -- any constraint comes from the physical and symbolic environment.

'Human action always exhibits the properties of the system' (page 31) -- a necessary postulate for any science. This system operates at different levels, as is apparent from small groups studies, like those done by Bales which attempts to analyse and classify acts. The system here is seen as (a) structural, that is relatively stable configurations exist, such as normative patterns or those indicated by the pattern variables; (b) functional in its general tendencies; (c) goal-directed [I am not sure that this is not the same as (b)].

The system of action means the 'organisation of interactional relations between the actor and his situation. If this organisation is harmonious, or complementary, arrived at through communication, it can be seen as a true form of interaction. There is an emphasis on order here, but it was a problem for Parsons says Rocher (page 33). Certainly the persistence of order is an interesting problem: it cannot be explained by some idea of a hidden hand or some prior social contract, or even in Hobbesian terms -- all these are too utilitarian. Order is rule governed, as seen in the work of Durkheim and Freud, rule governed at both social and psychic levels, both institutionalised and internalised. Thus are individuals and social orders reconciled [and over determined].

The pattern variables (see below) link cultural patterns and choices. Parsons insists they represent choices, that there is a dualism, that they can be no easy transition over time between them (no simple move from mechanical to organic solidarity, or from Gemeinshaft to Gesellschaft). Actors are presented with continual dilemmas on these different variables. Parsons was to reduce the pattern variables finally to just four:

Affective -- affective-neutral (emotional or unemotional options) (the sort of dilemmas that the work on professionalism revealed)

Universalistic -- particularistic

Performance oriented -- quality oriented

Specific -- diffuse

Later, Parsons was to us further subdivide these patterned variables into those which referred mostly to objects (universalistic -- particularistic, and performance -- quality) or to actors (the other two).

Functional prerequisites expressed relations to the environment. This led in turn to an interest in internal differentiations, how parts related to the whole, and how parts related to each other. Thinking of a distinction between ends and means, and one between external and internal issues, leads to the four boxes in the AGIL model. Adaptation to the environment is both an end, and an external issue, for example (I am sure we can fill in the rest for ourselves?) [The other letters stand for goals and goal-setting, integration -- such as the need to minimise deviancy -- and latency -- this element provides both the motivation and the energy to maintain the patterns, and it is here that the social system joins with the symbolic universe].

A ( adaptation) G ( goal-setting)
L (latency I (integration)

Noticing the similarities to the work done by Bales led Parsons to postulate some unity between micro and macro levels, as in the 'Chinese boxes', or 'Russian dolls' metaphor [in other words, when you opened the adaptation box in the big model, you find another little AGIL box inside it, and another one inside each element of that, until you arrive at the AGIL elements in the human Psyche]. As the final stage in the unified system, the AGIL model can also be linked to the pattern variables -- certain activities, such as adaptation, require particular types of behaviour (performance oriented and specificity oriented,  those that relate to actors and objects respectively).



neutrality (M)





A G performance(O)

specificity (M)

quality (O)

diffuseness (M)

L I diffuseness (O)

quality (M)

  neutrality (O)



affectivity (M)


(from Rocher p. 44)

NB (O) refers to patterns variables which relate to 'attitude or orientation to the object', (M) refers to pattern variables 'of object modality'. Rocher explains that the PVs marked (O) refer to the 'actor and define his attitude towards the object and the type of relationship he has with it' ( 39). Those marked (M) refer to 'the object to which the actor relates, to the meaning the object has for the actor and the kind of judgement which is called for from the actor'. This reflects the action-situation duality, Rocher assures us, but he later confesses that he finds the word 'modality' 'impenetrably vague', and seeks another definition -- 'a modality is a property of an object; it is one of the aspects of an object in terms of which the object may be significant to the actor' (n.9, 32). So that's alright then.


Sub-systems can be identified as well, and there are three major ones -- personality, culture, and social system. We can add in biology in order to locate each of these sub-systems in an element in the AGIL model -- biology belongs in adaptation, personality in goal certain, social system integration, and culture in latency.

We have done a lot of system building here, but Parsons insists that only parts of each element fit smoothly into the system. The boundaries between the elements, and the links between them are fluid -- we cannot assume, for example, that culture actually is internalised.

The system tends towards equilibrium, but this is only a heuristic statement, and limit case. Action always disequilibrates (page 48). Actions always generate reactions, there are always changes in external conditions. Performance and learning is always a possibility, through communication and decision-taking. Parsons is best seen as offering us a constant dialectic of differentiation and integration.

There is a cybernetic hierarchy in the social system, however. There is a constant circulation of information and energy, but the system is hierarchically organised, so that those sections which have more information tend to dominate over those sections which have more energy (page 50) [this certainly describes my college pretty well!]. This gives us a kind of social and theoretical hierarchy too -- the organism is at the bottom, the personality next, the social system above that and then the cultural system [Idealism says Rocher] This helps to explain order and change [another constant Dialectic between information and energy, no doubt?].

Enough I think...