Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Article excerpt


In 1987, JEFFREY ALEXANDER pointed to an important pedagogic aspect of modern sociology that sets this discipline apart from the other social sciences such as economics. In sociology, the history of sociology matters. It gives shape to the field and drives its discourse. When surveying the field of sociology and trying to map the line of demarcation separating economic sociology and economics proper, Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg (1994: 7, 8) emphasized that a positive attitude toward prior intellectual tradition was one of the most significant differentiating characteristics of sociology. In economics, theory and the past history of theories are separate matters. The prevailing attitude among economists is that "the classics belong to the past" or to a specialized area in economics called the history of economic thought, but in sociology, and especially among the "new" economic sociologists, the history of sociology lies at the core of many of the ongoing debates. Indeed, "the classics are constantly reinterpreted and taught" (Swedberg and Smelser 1994: 4). Not only theoretical sociology but also the analytical and methodological frameworks of the field continue to evolve in constant interaction with past debates. The classical writers in sociology remain part of the canon taught today.

Talcott Parsons' writings are indisputably classics of American sociology. Two writings in particular are constantly cited in the literature as among his best works: The Structure of Social Action ([1937] 1949) and (with coauthor Neil J. Smelser) Economics and Society (1956). These two works alone are enough to quality Parsons as the preeminent American sociologist of the twentieth century, but there are scores of other books and articles as well (see Parsons 1967: 539-52). Today, more than a quarter of a century after Parsons' death and a full thirty years since he dominated sociological discourse, Parsons' theories still serve as flashpoints in many debates.

Many sociologists engage in what Jonathan Turner called "ritual criticism" of Parsons (Turner 1991: 203). Still, despite the criticisms and attacks, very few can challenge the claim that Parsons was the preeminent figure in twentieth century sociology in America (Turner 1991: 51). During the turbulent 1960s, things began to unravel. Parsons' conceptual framework, once adopted by many scholars, became an object of ridicule and disdain. Many sociologists openly stated their objections to Parsons and his scholarly projects. This practice expanded in frequency after George C. Homans delivered his attack on Parsonian "structural-functionalism" in his presidential address before the American Sociological Association in 1964 (Homans 1964). Homans was Parsons' colleague at Harvard University, and the attack was evidence of a widening schism in American sociology. We shall say more about Homans' criticism below.

Parsons worked his entire life to reconcile the insights of modern economics with modern sociology and to explore how an authentic economic sociology could be developed. Today, there is a subfield within sociology named "economic sociology." Members who pay their dues to the American Sociological Association can declare themselves part of this research group. Had Parsons lived another thirty years, he might be pleased that this subfield now exists. He most assuredly would have been saddened by the fact that his contributions to the field are overlooked and sometimes completely ignored (Krippner 2001). The "new" economic sociologists say little about Parsons' work except to criticize it.

Mark Granovetter and several of the major adherers to this subfield of the "new" economic sociology are explicitly opposed to Parsons' ideas about economy and society and yet there is some family resemblance between their methods and "Parsons's intellectual maneuverings a half-century before" (Krippner 2001, p. 799). This is a bit unusual, because sociologists are usually generous with past attribution. …

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