A Comment on Talcott Parsons at Brown University

Article excerpt

Professor Sciortino offers his impressions of the recently discovered transcriptions of the seminar Parsons participated in at Brown University on March 10, 1973.

The publishing of the transcript of the 1973 seminar with Talcott Parsons at Brown University is a lucky event: it provides a fascinating glimpse into Parsons's biography and ideas in one of the lesser known and less-investigated phases of his career; it highlights some features of his intellectual education that are often overlooked in the folklore of the social sciences; and, aided by the informal environment of a seminar with a sympathetic audience, it provides a clear-cut discussion on some aspects of his theory. I will try to provide some brief comment on each of these aspects.

Parsons's work during the last decade of his life is often neglected. Not surprisingly, texbooks usually prefer to focus on the ascending phase of his popularity and influence. Most scholars identify Parsons with his works from the 1930s to the mid 1950s, from The Structure of Social Action to Economy and Society. The few exceptions enlarge their focus at best to Parsons's evolutionary work, culminating in his 1971 System of Modern Societies. Only the very few people who actively specialize in Parsons's action theory are aware that the late 1960s and the 1970s were quite productive periods for Parsons, with the introduction of many conceptual innovations and a steady flow of activities and projects. In the first category deserve to be mentioned the vast and far-reaching analysis of generalized symbolic media, starting with the seminal papers on power and influence in 1963 (Parsons 1963a, 1963b) and the related attempts to formulate a theory of the general system of action and, ultimately, of the whole human condition (Parsons 1978). In the second category, it is enough to mention the long and complex study of the academic complex in American society (Parsons and Platt 1973) and his extensive study of the U.S. societal community (Parsons 2006).

The neglect of the later phase of Parsons's thinking is easy to understand. From one view, the intellectual and political climate of the late 1960s did not provide much incentive to read Parsons beyond a superficial glance at his books, which were predigested and molded by critics into the convenient strawman of the archconservative, theoretically dry, empirically empty sociologist. From the other, Parsons's late essays and books tend to be highly formalized and based on a labyrinth of quite specific conceptual references, and thus have a very limited appeal for large sectors of the audience. The fact that such neglect is easy to understand does not imply it is less wrong. As the readers of the transcript will see for themselves, Parsons in the 1970s was not merely repackaging old wines in new bottles, nor was he a bitter old man unable to accept that his time had passed. He was the same theorist as ever, genuinely trying to advance the sociological understanding and, as Jurgen Habermas once said, looking for solutions to problems other theorists could not even see. He was willing, moreover, to revise his conceptual scheme whenever he realized it was necessary in order to gain an adequate understanding of the issues involved. The transcript documents how many of Parsons's analyses in the last phase are controversial. Quite a number may trigger doubts and sustained criticism. But none of them may be dismissed as trivial or irrelevant.

A second line of interest concerns Parsons's intellectual biography as outlined in the first section of the interview. To be sure, Parsons himself had been willing to release biographical information at several stages in his career (Parsons 1959, 1970, 1978, 1980, 1981), and the interview does not contain any radical break with what is already known. At the same time, however, the interview here published is likely to be the best text for getting the "flavor" of Parsons's intellectual formation. …