Among distinguished sociologists, Talcott Parsons spent the whole of his adult life in academic positions in the United States, with a short period of postgraduate training in Europe. He had a powerful influence on sociology after the Second World War, particularly in America, although, being a theorist, he was not in the dominant tradition of US empirical research. As often criticized as supported Parsons' work was at the centre of debate in sociological theories until the mid-1970s. He wrote a great deal, his principal publications being: The Stucture of Social Action (1937); Toward a General Theory of Action (1951) with E. Shils; The Social System (1951); Working Papers in the Theory of Action(1953) with R. F. Bales and E. A. Shils; Economy and Society (1956) with N. Smelser; Social Structure and Personality (1964); Societies; Evolutionary and comparative perspectives (1966) and The System of Modern Societies (1971).
Parsons' aim was nothing less than to provide a conceptual structure for the whole of sociology. His starting point is the theory of social action, the essential feature of which is the relationship between actors and features of their environment, social and natural, to which they give meaning. The most important features of the environment are other people, which suggests further that social interaction, in which actors have to take notice of the actions, wishes and aims of others, should be the focus of inquiry.
In these interactions, norms and values are critical as they regulate and make predictable the behavior of others. Socialization ensures that individuals internalize norms and values as they grow up. Parsons treats personality and social systems as complementary, though in his analysis the latter ultimately determine the former.
Parsons notes that social interaction has a systemic character, hence his use of the term social system. The concept that bridges social action and social system is that of pattern variables. Social systems may be characterized by the combinations of solutions offered to these dilemmas. There are four sets of dilemmas. (1) Particularism versus universalism: actors have to decide whether to judge a person by general criteria or universalism, or criteria unique to that person or particularism. (2) Performance versus quality: actors have to decide whether to judge persons by what they do or their performance, or by their personal characteristics or quality. (3) Affective neutrality versus affectivity: actors can either engage in a relationship for instrumental reasons without the involvement of feelings or affective neutrality, or for emotional reasons or affectivity. (4) Specificity versus diffuseness: actors have to choose, in any situation, between engaging with others totally across a wide range of activity or diffuseness, or only for specific, structured purposes or specificity.
These pattern variables structure any system of interaction. Such systems, however, also have certain needs of their own which have to be met, required both by the relationship between the social system and its environment and by the internal workings of the system. There are four such functional needs: (i) adaptation: the need to relate to the environment by taking resources from it; (2) goal attainment: the setting of goals for the system; (3) integration: the maintenance of internal order; (4) latency or pattern maintenance: the generation of sufficient motivation to perform tasks. In order to meet each of these functional requirements, groups of actions or sub-systems of action develop. At the most general level, for example, the cultural sub-system discharges the function of integration.
Parsons holds that systems of social action tend to equilibrium even if they never actually reach it, and that social change is movement from one state of equilibrium to another. Change in the system is achieved by differentiation and in his later work Parsons used evolutionary theory to describe the progressive changes in society that result from this. A number of criticisms have been levelled at Parsons: (1) his is a grand theory of little empirical use; (2) he gives too much importance to values and norms; (3) he does not pay enough attention to social conflict; (4) he is unable to reconcile action theory and system theory, and in effect sees individual action as structurally determined; (5) his functionalism involves teleology.