American Sociological Association

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons

December 13, 1902 - May 8, 1979

Talcott Parsons served as the 39th President of the American Sociological Society. His Presidential Address, "The Prospects of Sociological Theory," was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in New York City in December 1949. Parsons professional papers are housed at Harvard University Archives; a finding aid is available online. The Harvard Archives collection includes the following brief biographical sketch of Parsons:

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an educator and scholar of sociology. He contributed to the field of sociological theory, particularly through his development of a "general theory of action." Parsons spent most of his professional career at Harvard University, where he was affiliated with the various incarnations of the sociology department for thirty-two years.

Parsons graduated from Amherst College in 1924, having majored in philosophy and biology. In 1925 he redirected his intellectual focus and entered the London School of Economics, studying with Bronislaw Malinowski, L.T. Hobhouse and Morris Ginsberg. The following year he received a fellowship at the University of Heidelberg, where he first encountered the work of Weber. Parsons completed his doctoral dissertation, on the concept of capitalism in recent German scholarship, in 1927 while teaching economics at Amherst. The following year he joined the Harvard faculty as an instructor in economics. He continued to teach at the University until his retirement in 1973.

Parsons' career is entwined with the development of sociology as an academic discipline at Harvard. In 1931 he joined Carle Zimmerman and Pitirim Sorokin as inaugural faculty in the Department of Sociology. Gordon Allport and Henry Murray, of the Psychology Department, and Clyde Kluckhohn, of the Anthropology Department, joined with Parsons in 1945 to establish the Department of Social Relations. This department became a landmark of interdisciplinary collaboration in the behavioral sciences and served as a model for similar departments at other institutions. Parsons served as chairman for the first ten years and continued to work enthusiastically in the Department until its dissolution in 1972.

Parsons' scholarship is unified by his effort to draft a set of concepts of the determinants of human behavior. He began to develop his "general theory of action" in Structure of Social Action (1937). He refined this theory in Social System and Towards a General Theory of Action (both published in 1951). Parsons spent the later years of his career further modifying his theory and eventually applying it to discrete social situations.