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Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (1902–79) was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was the son of a congregational minister who was also an English teacher and, later, president of Marietta College in Ohio. His mother was a suffragist.Parsons received his undergraduate degree from Amherst College, where he majored in biology. He had originally intended to study medicine, and his training in the biological sciences would impact his sociology throughout his career. After graduation, an uncle financed a year of study at the London School of Economics, where Parsons first encountered the social sciences. He was then off to Heidelberg, Germany, for an exchange fellowship and, later, a doctorate. At Heidelberg, Parsons was introduced to Max Weber’s works, and was even taught by Alfred Weber (a scholar who was also Max’s younger brother). He also became interested in the relationship between sociology and economics, an interest that, like medicine, would also occupy much of his career (Martel 1979).

Parsons took a faculty position in the economics department at Harvard University in 1927. He became increasingly drawn to sociology and translated Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930) into English. This was an important contribution to disseminating Weber’s work in American sociology. He also later looked at Weber in The Structure of Social Action (1937). Parsons moved to the Department of Sociology in 1930 and remained there until retiring in 1973.

Over the course of his career, Parsons and Harvard became the center of American sociology (Trevino 2001, xix). He held visiting appointments at a number of institutions and served as President of the American Sociological Association and the Eastern Sociological Society. In person and personal relationships, Parsons has been described as being “extremely modest, unassuming, uncritical of others, reluctant to mention himself in conversation, much less to talk about his accomplishments . . . [yet becoming] the opposite in his writings, claiming for himself many ‘major breakthroughs’ in the development not only of his own theory but also of sociological theory more generally . . . [even equating] his own theory with sociological theory itself ” (xviii–xix).

Several of Parsons’s students, including Robert K. Merton, Kingsley Davis, Harold Garfinkel, and Neil Smelser are profiled in this book. Many of those students originally went to Harvard to study with Pitirim A. Sorokin, but gravitated toward Parsons instead (Hamilton 1983, 133–34; Martel 1979). Over 150 of Parsons’s former students came to his retirement, some even traveling internationally to do so. After his retirement, Parsons continued to lecture as a visiting professor as well as publish and present his work to colleagues at professional meetings. He died in Germany, where he was attending celebrations and delivering lectures on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his doctorate.

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KATHY S. STOLLEY
(The Basics of Sociology) - ISBN 0-313-32387-9

 

 
 
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