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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2014

IV - Parsons and the elaboration of normativist functionalism


Having laid out the key foundations of his theory of action in Structure in 1937 and made vigorous efforts to develop a theory of order in The Social System and Toward a General Theory of Action, the multi-authored volume that appeared almost simultaneously at the very beginning of the 1950s, Parsons' subsequent work was also characterized by consistent attempts to resolve theoretical problems. However, it very quickly became apparent that a certain tension existed between his theory of action and his functionalist theory of order; it was unclear how these related to one another. While Parsons managed to further refine and enrich his theory of action, as well as adding new ideas to his functionalist concept of order, he ultimately failed to integrate the two theoretical models. In fact, the exact opposite seemed to occur: the more Parsons polished his subtheories, the more obvious it became that they were ultimately out of synch. Looking back on the development of Parsonian theory between the early 1950s and his death in 1979, we are left with the impression that while he made progress with many of the key points of his theory (or theories), he never again managed to achieve a true synthesis, a coherent grand theory. As we set out this stage in the development of Parsonian theory in the present lecture, you will probably have the sneaking suspicion, and for good reason, that Parsons' ‘middle’ or ‘late’ work is more a matter of disparate theoretical building blocks than a unified theory.

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