US sociologist whose controversial theories strongly influenced US sociology in the 1950s and 1960s.
Having studied at Amherst College, the London School of Economics, and Heidelberg University, Parsons became an instructor in economics at Harvard until, in 1931, he switched to sociology. Six years later he produced his first book, The Structure of Social Action (1937), in which he began his search for a general theory of society that would encompass all dimensions of human behaviour. In this first study Parsons stressed the theory of social action being based on a voluntaristic principle and gathered together the arguments of the European writers Durkheim, Pareto, Weber, and Alfred Marshall to support this thesis.
In 1946 Parsons founded the Department of Social Relations at Harvard and taught his theory there. However, when The Social System (1951) was published it was clear that his views had changed and that Parsons now favoured a more functionalist approach. He argued that no part of society could be understood without reference to the whole and that the entire social framework depended upon the interaction of its many units.
Parsons continued to expand this functional analysis of social stratification in such works as Essays in Sociological Theory (1954), Social Structure and Personality (1964), and Politics and Social Structure (1969). The theory was also made to incorporate evolutionism and cybernetics, partly in response to widespread criticism that Parsons had not addressed himself to the problems of conflict, power, and deviance. Nonetheless, although in many respects the theory was abstract and vulnerable to intellectual attack, it did exercise a considerable influence on contemporary anthropology, psychology, and history as well as sociology.