Talcott Parsons: Biography, Contributions And Theories

Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist who developed the theory of social action and had a structural functional approach to the behavior of society. Influenced by various authors such as Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Pareto, the theory constructed by Parsons had great influence on a large number of sociologists in the United States.

His most significant and influential theory was published in a book called The Social System in 1951. With this work he managed to influence the thinking of sociologists in the United States; it took a few years for the influence of their contributions to diminish.

Towards the end of the sixties, his theories were losing influence because they were considered conservative. In the last two decades of the 20th century, with the fall of the socialist bloc, her ideas regained strength and were revalued both in the United States and in other parts of the world.

For many analysts, his theory lays the foundations for what is the hegemonic world social system of the early 21st century.


Parsons was born in Colorado Springs on December 13, 1902. He came from an intellectual and religious family. Her father was Edward Smith Parsons, she was a religious minister and president of a small university. Her mother was named Mary Augusta Ingersoll.

In 1924 Talcott graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts. She then went to Europe to study for a doctorate at the London School of Economics. His doctoral thesis dealt with the origin of capitalism in the work of Max Weber.

Then he went to Heidelberg in Germany, where Max Weber had worked. There he met Weber’s widow; she conducted study groups on her late husband’s work, and Talcott attended those courses.

In 1927 he returned to the United States. There he worked teaching economics at Harvard University. In 1937 he published The Structure of Social Action . With this work he made known the thought and work of both Weber, Émile Durkheim and other exponents and precursors of modern sociology, where he ignored Karl Marx.

Due to the recognition for this work, he became a full professor in Sociology. In 1939 he was appointed director of the Harvard Department of Sociology in 1944.

In 1946 he created and directed the Department of Social Relations. There he integrated sociology with other social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology. He died in Germany on May 8, 1979


Parsons’ work must be considered as a system of ideas that evolved throughout his life. His early work focused on social action and voluntaristic action driven by moral values and social structure.

These defined the choice of individuals to make one or another transforming action of reality. According to Parsons’ belief, objective reality was only a particular vision of an individual around her experience.

The vision was based on its conceptual scheme and its theory, so that reality was based on the analysis that was made of it.

With the passage of time, his vision was giving more importance to the structure itself and the interrelation of needs, as well as the satisfaction of these and the systems that generate them.

His most important contribution was the definition of the primary needs of the social structure. These became known by the acronym AGIL. These subsystems make up a fairly self-sufficient community that operates within a common framework:

– Adaptation: the economy through production and work transforms the environment and distributes products

– Goal (goals): the policy establishes goals and mobilizes resources to achieve them.

– Integration: coordinates and regulates the components of society, engages and regulates them.

– Latency: culture, socializing institutions in charge of vitalizing, renewing, sanctioning and transmitting the value system.

Main differences with other theorists

Parsons prioritizes and defines the satisfaction of needs. Define systems and establish a development timeline. Finally, it prioritizes the importance of these systems, giving relevance to the cultural system.

To understand the difference between Parsons’ theory and other social theorists, one must understand the causes of social actions; Parsons places them in the future and not in the past. This is an important difference with the historicists who place it in the past or in inequalities.

At the end of his life he even came to question the definition of structuralism and functionalism around his theories, because he did not consider that they really encompassed their meaning.


Social action

Based on the Ideas of Max Weber, Talcott Parsons rejects behaviorism. This is defined as the conditioning or social behavior as an automatic and irrational response to a stimulus.

Parsons values ​​social action considering it a response that merits a creative mental process. This entails the proposition of an achievement or objective and the analysis of the factors that influence to develop the idea, proposing three elements so that the nucleus of social action exists:

Act of unity

It refers to the existence of an individual or actor who executes the action. This is the fundamental basis of social action, since it is who has the need to change an existing reality.

This theory – unlike others – bases its support on the belief that interrelation with other individuals occurs as a need for codependency of individual systems. It is so and not because of the generation of collective affective bonds of solidarity.


It is the objective or goal that guides the action of the individual. It is the idea of ​​the final state in which reality is transformed from the action that is executed. The set of individual wishes to achieve a status or role within the system.

The verstehen or understand

They are the internal and external conditions of time and space where the action takes place, as well as the understanding that there are factors that can be controlled and others that cannot. It is about the alliances and uses of external factors and the analysis of what has been achieved.

Structural functionalism

Structural functionalism posits that societies tend to self-regulate as a survival mechanism. This allows them to preserve the social order.

For this, a constant interrelation and redefinition of its different elements, values, goals and functions is developed from social actions. These are executed by individuals in a rational way.

They seek to use the most appropriate means to achieve their goals. Not by a mechanical or automatic response, but driven by internalized values ​​and behavior patterns from the set of social influence mechanisms established by the institutions.

To define a structure for the objectives that individuals set for themselves with their actions, Parsons established four functional prerequisites:

– Role: is the role that an individual plays within a system or subsystem. You can play different roles in life depending on the function you do or have to do within one or another system.

– Standards: it is the set of regulations, mandatory or not, that exist in a system. They can be specific, explicit, understood, customary, or suggested.

– Values: is the set of beliefs, customs and principles that manages a system and that must be generally accepted.

– Collectivities: these are the institutions that are responsible for socializing the relationships of a system and arise according to the needs that are generated and must be satisfied.

Chronological systems of structural functionalism

Structural functionalism seeks to create an analogy between organic life and social structure. In this social groups tend to specialize and, therefore, to become more efficient as they develop more complex structures.

The individuals within these structures carry out social actions that become cultural references depending on whether or not they respond to the prevailing social order. The individual is the engine of the structural functionalism system.

In order to ensure that the structures satisfy social needs, four chronological systems are proposed. These develop alongside the individual, but are then prioritized inversely when the actor has reached all its development.

Chronological systems and prioritization


It is understood as the actor subject, but also as the material and physical resources where the social dynamics unfolds. In the chronology, its value would be called 1, because without an actor, the rest does not exist.

When the physical subject already exists and is part of the other systems, its priority goes to 4. The economic domain in Parsons theory apparently lacks priority value.


It is the set of experiences, the characteristics and the style of each subject. Its chronological importance is 2 because it makes the actor unique, but in the order of priority of functionalism it becomes 3 and its scope is psychology.


It is the system that sets the gear. The location within the structure makes the individual a part of the general social system; there, inequalities are assumed as roles and status. Its chronological importance is 3, but in priority it becomes 2 and its scope is sociology.


It is all the immaterial aspect that defines human beings. It’s about beliefs, desires, and dreams. Its chronological value is 4, but in the priority order it is 1. Its value is higher in the vision of structuralism and its scope is anthropology.


According to Parsons, the social system had to adapt its environment to its needs and satisfy its demands at the same time. To do this, a set of primary goals must be defined and each one of them achieved.

The entire system must be interrelated and regulated between its constituent parts. Every system must constantly renew cultural motivations. Each individual within the social system has a role-status that gives him a position within the system and makes him an actor or executor of social actions.

The system must be compatible with other systems, with which they must be related in dependency. In addition, it must efficiently meet the needs of the actors.

On the other hand, it must encourage the participation of the actors to guarantee interdependence. It must also exercise social control over the disintegrating behaviors of the different systems or actors and, in addition, it must have the power to control the conflicts that are generated.

The survival of the system depends on its effectiveness in generating a set of constant socialization mechanisms. It must guarantee the restructuring of a set of common values ​​and needs.

It is important that each actor fulfills a role and has a status. This allows a certain degree of divergence or deviation that allows the generation of new roles and does not jeopardize the overall strength of the structure.

Ideal vision of functional structuralism

To understand Talcott Parsons theory we have to understand that scientific theories start from describing a reality; then they seek to explain it, understand it and predict consequences in a future vision of that reality.

Functional structuralism draws an ideal vision of the dominant society in which we live, where the deficiencies of the institutions are covered by surrogate institutions.

In this way, an illusion of well-being is created that cannot satisfy or satisfy the real needs of the social actors. This obviates ideology as something inherent to the human being and replaces it with a pragmatic and changing ideal.

The latter does not envision any objective greater than that of conserving society. It does not take into account the conflict as an engine of change, since it poses a supposed gradual evolution.

However, this does not occur in reality, due to the resistance to change of those who set the rules of the game and prefer to generate substitute institutions and conflicts to preserve power and possession of material resources.

Its great success is to foresee the dominant ideology of the early 21st century, when the mass media act as a functional substitute institution for truth and history, but it does not foresee that the survival of society is not above the preservation of the human species.


  1. (S / D) Talcott Parsons, The Social System. Recovered at: theomai.unq.edu.ar
  2. Girola, Lidia (2010). Talcott Parsons: on the subject of social evolution. Sociological Magazine Nro. 72. Retrieved from: scielo.org.mx
  3. Parsons, Talcott (1951). The American Family: Its relations to personality and to the social structure. Recovered at: books.google.es
  4. Parsons, Talcott (1939). The professions and social structure. Oxford University Press. Recovered at: jstor.org
  5. Garoz López, Guillermo (2018). The sociology of Talcott Parsons. The functionalist theory. I recover in: ssociologos.com

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