Talcott Parsons: Grand Theorist of Social Destruction
Sociologists will realize the title of the essay is a joke. But it is a joke with a point.
The joke is calling Talcott Parsons a cosmic theorist of destruction. Talcott Parsons was a relentlessly optimistic sociologist. He was the biggest thing not only in social theory but in the social sciences in general in the United States during the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was a superstar at Harvard, and anyone who was any good studied under him.
Being the total optimist, Parsons believed that all social change was social progress. Societies evolve. They always evolve for the better. The social structure we have today is the best social structure that has ever existed in history. Plus, it will just get better and better in the future.
Parsons believe that all social life is a social system – a set of parts that cooperate for the sake of the survival of the whole. The organs of our body cooperate so that the whole organism lives. Parsons thought all social units are equally cooperative: Couples, Whole Families, Organizations, Ethnic Groups, Nations and the Entire System of Capitalism.
He thought the bigger the group, the better it would function. Large families outperform small families. Large nations outperform small nations. International systems of cooperation outperform single nations, etc.
He thought bigger groups would have more resources.
He thought bigger groups would have more specialized division of labor.
He thought bigger groups would have larger pools from which to recruit talent for critical functions such as leadership.
He believed that culture and values were integral to the reproduction of all society. He put a particular focus on morality. He felt moral systems induce individuals and smaller interest groups to sacrifice personal interest for the larger self-good. Culture, supposedly, encourages people to see themselves as members of a larger system and not to hold out for privileges beneficial to themselves or their group.
He thought government (goal attainment in his lingo) was a critical component of societal survival.
He thought leaders would be recruited meritocratically from the most talented people in the system. Social class origin, ethnic origin or even national origin would make little difference.
He thought these leaders would use their power to force through positive innovations that would increase the capacity of the society to prosper.
Because the work of these highly qualified leaders was so important, it was important that the rest of society legitimated those leaders. Legitimation means accepting the authority of leaders as being legitimate. This would empower government to make positive change.
The leaders would institute efficient administration. The leaders would institute impartial rule of law. The leaders would institute democracy. The quality of life would improve for all.
There would be comparable meritocracy in the economic sphere, with equal levels of recruitment of the best for the top regardless of social origin, legitimation of their power, and increases in economic well-being for all.
What applied at the national level would also apply at the international level. International cooperation and trade between nations would benefit all because the constituent parts would sacrifice for the greater interest of the whole. The most qualified would get to become the international leaders.
This made Talcott Parsons the Grand Theorist of Social Progress.
Nowadays, few sociologists take Parson’s claims seriously.
No one thinks everyone automatically cooperates. Exploitation is widespread. The only way those who are dominated avoid exploitation is by resistance.
No one thinks progress is automatic. Everything has crisis potential. The system could fail to reproduce itself at any time. When that happens things will fall apart.
Large social systems mean the domination of an imperialist over the semi-colonized. Greater and greater social webs mean greater and greater concentration of resources at the center and greater immiseration in the hinterlands.
Culture and values do not bind the system together. They smooth-talk the weak into not resisting the strong. They create local groupings who favor themselves and discriminate against everyone else.
Governments become captured by the elite making them corrupt agents of the economically corrupt.
Leaders are recruited from elite social classes and ethnic groups. They defend the short-term profits of special interests at the expense of the long-term sustainability of the system as a whole.
What applies at the national level also applies at the international level, where rich powerful countries impoverish the rest of the world to maintain their own standards of living.
Sadly, these critiques have large elements of truth.
This made Talcott Parsons, the Grand Speaker of Utter Nonsense.
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I still believe in Talcott Parsons, the Grand Theorist of Social Destruction.
How could someone who is as happy-sappy as Talcott Parsons be a great theorist of social destruction? Parsons didn’t think anything would ever be destroyed, unless it was a temporary primitive version of something that was being replaced by something better. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but if you break the eggs, you get a great omelet.
What if we dispensed with the automatic assumption that society will always improve?
What if we admit that Parsons was wrong in saying that everything just gets better and better?
It is still the case that the world would be a better place if everything happened the way Parsons says it does.
It would be nice if everyone all cooperated and worked together and made sacrifices for the common good. Naturally, this would include rich people making sacrifices as well as poor people, and rich nations making sacrifices as well as poor nations.
What if there were ever expanding networks of social cooperation? What if these ever-growing networks of cooperation using the maximal number of resources, the greatest amount of specialization, and the greatest possible talent pool could get the best possible results for the largest number of people?
What if culture and values really did make people cooperate and work together better? What if culture was the key to creating the identify of a greater rather than a lesser self?
What if government really was a purely rational and technical solver of problems faced by the larger system?
What if richer nations really did work to improve the welfare of poorer nations?
Parsons describes what needs to happen if the world is going to undergo social progress.
When things follow Parsons’ script, the world becomes a better place.
The trouble is, the world sometimes does not follow Parsons script.
When the world does not follow Parsons’ script, things can fall apart.
Gains if they occur, will be fragile and based on an unstable foundation.
Losses if they occur, will be cumulative and devastating.
Parsons is the Grand Theorist of Social Destruction because he describes what needs to happen for the world to not fall apart.
Unfortunately, the world is getting closer and closer to falling apart.
Parsons is the shopping list for what we need to have in the house to cook dinner.
Unfortunately, we are running out of that.