Interpenetration versus Embeddedness: The Premature Dismissal of Talcott Parsons in the New Economic Sociology

By Beckert, Jens | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Interpenetration versus Embeddedness: The Premature Dismissal of Talcott Parsons in the New Economic Sociology


Beckert, Jens, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Introduction

TALCOTT PARSONS WAS ALSO AN ECONOMIC SOCIOLOGIST. In fact, his works in this field represent an already impressive sociological oeuvre. Even before The Structure of Social Action ([1937] 1949a) was published, Parsons (1991) had produced a series of theoretical essays in leading economics journals in which he dealt critically with economic action theory and with the role of "noneconomic factors" on the economy. In the 1940s, more essays followed, regarding economic action theory (1949b, 1954a) and regarding the professions (1951, 1954b). In the 1950s, Parsons gave the Marshall Lectures ([1953] 1986) in Cambridge, which became the basis for Economy and Society (1956). Both texts describe the workings of the economic system and its integration in the social system of society using the AGIL pattern. Finally, the article on the sociology of money (1963), which was written in the context of his media theory, is also part of Parsons's work in economic sociology.

This is a remarkable legacy for economic sociology! However, at the time of their publication, neither the works from the 1930s nor Economy and Society were great successes for Parsons (Parsons 1977; Smelser 1981). And, later, when the importance of The Structure of Social Action was recognized in sociology, it was not the economic sociology entailed in it that was considered interesting. Rather, his convergence thesis, the canonization of sociological classics that were suggested in the work, and the rejection of utilitarianism as a theory of social order became influential in sociological discourse. Parsons's works were hardly considered important contributions to economic sociology at the time of their publication.

A probable reason for this is the fact that economic sociology, although it had an excellent debut with classic sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber, received little attention for many decades from the late 1930s onward. How could someone then become seriously interested in Parsons's significance as an economic sociologist? Only during the last 25 years did the situation in economic sociology change dramatically. It developed from a marginalized area of sociological research to an innovative and prominent field. This is especially true for the United States, where today "the new economic sociology" is an important field of sociological scholarship (Guillen et al. 2003; Smelser and Swedberg 1994; Zukin and DiMaggio 1990). In this scenario, it would have been expected that as a part of the increasing interest in economic sociology the works of Talcott Parsons in this area of scholarship would have received late credit.

Parsons's works on the economy were indeed debated in the 1980s and 1990s (Deutschmann 1999; DiMaggio and Powell 1991; Ganssmann 1989, 1996; Granovetter 1985, 1990; Holton 1986, 1992; Saurwein 1988; Swedberg 1987; Zelizer 1994). However, all in all, these receptions were mostly critical. Important proponents of the new economic sociology distanced themselves from Parsons, even defining today's economic sociology against his theoretical concepts. (1)

In this article, I will use these critics as a starting point and analyze to what degree they do justice to Parsons's works in economic sociology. I will follow three main lines of critical debate: (1) the discussion over Parsons's action theory, (2) the debate on the relationship between economy and society, and (3) the criticism of his theory of money. I will argue that the criticisms from the new economic sociology often point to problematic aspects in Parsons's economic sociology. But they do so in an abbreviated and incomplete sense. As a result, they obscure important theoretical contributions that are contained in Parsons's economic sociology, which might be fruitful for the further development of the new economic sociology. Particularly Parsons's detachment from a primarily value-oriented understanding of integration of economic functions in his systems-functionalist period is practically ignored. …

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