Probably nobody today knows the name of Talcott Parsons.
But in 1960 he was one of the best-known figures in sociology. He was at Harvard, head of a combination of academic programs that he called the “Department of Social Relations.” The department included Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Clinical Psychology, Social Psychology, and Political Science. He would have liked to include Experimental Psychology, but B.F. Skinner was in charge of that and would not go along with his project. Neither would the Physical Anthropologists, the people who went around the world measuring skulls.
I knew none of this. When my Franciscan superiors told me to study sociology, they told me to have Fr. Gabriel Brinkman advise me where to go. Gabriel said “Go to Harvard.” He had just finished his own doctorate in sociology at Catholic University.
Being the docile religious, I packed up my stuff and arrived in Boston in June of 1964. I was advised to stay with the friars of New York Province in their house in Brookline, a Boston suburb. I asked one of the friars there how to get to the Harvard campus. He said, “Take the trolley downtown to Pock Square and transfer to the subway going to Cambridge.” I said, “How do you spell “Pock Square”? He replied “P-A-R-K.” My first introduction to the Boston Irish accent.
I had enrolled in the Harvard summer school by mail. During the summer, through contacts at the “Catholic Student Center” (Harvard’s version of a Newman Club), I met a Dutch friar named Theodore (“Theo”) Steeman. He advised me to sign up in the fall as a “resident graduate” at the Harvard Divinity School. I could take half my courses in theology there and the other half in sociology in the “Yard,” the Arts and Sciences division. For my Yard courses, he advised, “Take Parsons. He is an easy grader.”
So I took my first course with Talcott Parsons. He had a reputation as a horrible writer. One of his books outlining his theory was labeled by his students “the pink peril,” because it had a pink cover. Everybody kept asking, why can’t this man write intelligibly? But in class he was clear. Probably my background in neo-scholastic philosophy helped me. Because Parsons was not so different from Thomas Aquinas in his approach to understanding social reality. In class he developed his thought slowly, with pauses that allowed me to catch up with his thought. His classes were small--twenty or thirty students at most.
Here was his basic idea: all knowledge is related, so the sciences studying human behavior are basically one science. They just approach their study by focusing on one aspect of that behavior. So why not unite the academic departments focusing on those aspects into one department? And why not create one academic theory covering all social behavior? That’s what he did. He called it the “theory of social action.” Social action is human behavior that is guided by goals or motivation.
Theo advised me, “Take Tiryakian. He likes Franciscans.”
Edward Tiryakian taught courses linking sociology to phenomenology and existentialism. But he had been a teaching assistant to Pitirim Sorokin, and always tried to get people to take Sorokin more seriously.
Pitirim Sorokin had been born in Russia and got his degree there before the Russian revolution of 1917. He had been part of the first 1917 revolution that drove the Czar from power, but as often happens, a more radical group, the Bolsheviks, took over and Sorokin ended up being exiled. He was at the University of Minnesota in 1931 when Harvard decided that it was time to create a Department of Sociology and got him to come to Harvard to start it. At that time Parsons was an instructor in economics.
Sorokin was widely known--his works were translated into multiple languages. He saw human history as a series of cycles. At one time, society focuses on ideas and spiritual things, and then it swings to more materialistic things in a period of decadence, which he saw happening in the twentieth century. Eventually the pendulum will swing back away from materialism.
I recall visiting Sorokin’s home, no doubt through Tiryakian’s invitation. He had a huge painting of a Moscow scene above his fireplace. He was convinced that eventually Russia and the U.S. would reach a convergence of cultures.
During the 1930s Parsons rose in influence and succeeded eventually in driving Sorokin out of his position and replacing sociology with social relations.
What I did not realize when I was taking courses from Parsons was that his star was setting. A revolution was taking place in sociology against Parsons’ theory, which was usually labeled “structural-functionalism.” The over-arching theory Parsons was developing was based on the metaphor of a physical organism (Parsons had majored in biology as an undergrad). Every structure in an organism has a function. In social life, the structures are norms. Each norm has a function. Society is an organic structure designed to carry out a universal set of functions such as reproduction, governance, material sustenance, etc.
All of this is not too different from medieval scholasticism and the concept of natural law. God has designed the world with structures that we can use to deduce moral norms. The human body has a design that requires that we behave certain ways if we wish to live. Contraception is against natural law, because conception is a physical process that should not be messed with.
The thinking that was developing in sociology was that human social behavior is better understood not as an organism but as a game. As people interact, they develop rules, but the rules can change, and people cheat. Things can appear pretty chaotic--when I watch basketball or soccer, all I see is chaos, but the players are following play books. There are rules and patterns. The game metaphor does not imply chaos, which is what natural law theorists would argue. When people interact, they usually develop rules that lead to peace. When the rules do not do that, they change the rules.
The game metaphor seems to describe human behavior better than the natural law organic metaphor. We are learning that nature plays tricks with what we thought were universal patterns. The experiences of gay men and women are being taken into account. Now we have expanded to transgender people. I would prefer to let such people speak for themselves. A political strategy of respecting people’s own definition of their sexuality seems to be more conducive to living together in peace than a strategy of judging them morally failing and worthy of punishment. We are changing the rules, but the game is not being destroyed.
Structural-functionalism was criticized as being too static, and indeed it was. It was the kind of thinking that guided Robert McNamara as he dealt with the conflict in Vietnam.
I come at this theorizing from a Franciscan approach shaped by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Ockham’s name is linked to the term “voluntarism,” which I interpret as meaning that he stressed free will and the openness of rational beings, including God, to surprise and innovation. This does not throw everything up for grabs. Ockham said we deduce ideas from experience. There are no universal ideas out there like Plato thought. We are free human beings, flawed, unfinished, hopefully open to grace and repentance. None of us, including the Pope, has an inside track on understanding what is good or bad in human behavior.
Parsons is no longer remembered. Why should Aquinas, or Scotus, or Ockham, be any different?