Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975: Part V - The "Societal Community" of Talcott Parsons

    Parsons’ general concern was to understand the fundamental mechanisms maintaining the stability of societal communities as self-regulating entities.  Parsons argued that the similarity between biological and social “classes of living systems lies in the applicability to both of the fundamental concepts of adaptation and integration.”  In this work, Parsons followed Durkheim, who he praised as “probably the most seminal theorist in the field of studying the integration of social systems....”  We can see the influence of 19th century evolutionary theory in Durkheim’s famous duality of the “normal and the pathological” carried over into Parsons’ analogy of social and biological systems.  It is at this same moment in the history of the discipline that we encounter the figure of the sociologist as the physician of society interwoven with discourses of degeneration and recapitulation.  If we see society is an organism, then we must also conclude that the division of labor is a process of adaptation and  specialization and integration of systems.  These systems provide the functional needs of the social organism and maintain social equilibrium, i.e., normalcy. 

    When Parsons remarked that no one in his own day read Herbert Spencer anymore, the reason for this neglect was not due to Spencer’s evolutionism, but because of Spencer’s “extreme individualism,” na├»ve positivism and confidence in the direction of social change.  Parsons’ later writings on the “societal community” sought to cleanse the evolutionary aspects of Spencerian sociology of their association with individualism and determinism.  It is from this perspective that in his later writings that Parsons sought to bring together an understanding of both the reproduction of social life and the process of social evolution.  The social order is “the patterned normative order through which the life of a population is collectively organized [as a] ‘societal community’” (1966:7) built upon the everyday experience of its legitimacy to govern that population.

    Drawing upon the 18th and 19th Century scientific ideologies, Parsons used the body as a metaphor for the societal community to refer to “the body of social theory and knowledge of empirical fact”   that evolves in the sense of its immanent properties unfolding according to an established sequence.  Parsons regarded the societal community as “an organic whole” (1968:15) recapitulating in itself the development of a “body of social knowledge.”  This is the reason that no one reads Spencer anymore, “the body of social theory” evolved beyond his preliminary remarks.  Spencer’s cosmic philosophy was merely the “victim of the vengeance of the jealous god, Evolution” (1968:3).  Parsons’ earlier Structure of Social Action is rooted in the development of an organic “body of knowledge.... in this case the evolution of scientific theory.”  It is the study of the “anatomy”(1968:39) of a single body of knowledge whose development recapitulates the development of scientific theory itself.  The Structure of Social Action can be read as a general theory of scientific change comprising two distinct moments “the definition and classification of the elementary units and the determination of the relevant relations of the units in systems” (1968:39).  It is an early elaboration of a theory rooted in the belief that the progress of scientific knowledge consists of the “cumulative piling up of discoveries of fact” (1968:6).  Only sociology and ecology can so easily speak of social organisms and of the significance of a Nature as a social order and a social order that is natural.

    It almost goes without saying that Parsons and Durkheim based their views upon a commitment to  modernity and to the special role that sociology could now serve in the promotion of modernity.  Both had a deep attachment to the institutions of liberal democracy and its companion traditions of Enlightenment.  In Parsons, this commitment shows through quite well in his essays on National Socialism, where he defended liberal institutions from both the right and the left.  Reason played for him a greater role in the evolutionary progress of societal communities than morality.  Whenever we are discussing community, Parson argued, we are discussing “a legitimation system [that] is always related to, and meaningfully dependent on, a grounding in ordered relations to ultimate reality.  That is, its grounding is always in some sense religious” (1966:11).   While the norms of religion, race, and law can establish social equilibrium, the norms of religion and race are at the same time frequent sources of conflict or “disequilibrium.”  Parsons argued that in modern societies such as the United States, the focus of legitimacy is the legal system and it was precisely this central normative code that was in peril.  Parsons’ envisioned a procedural ethic of communication inspired by courtroom procedure: interrogation, confession or disavowal, judgment, punishment and reform.  It is the legal jurisdiction that structures a community’s  territoriality.  Cowan summarized Parsons” position:

Jurisdiction, says Parsons, refers to obligation.  Obligation implies enforcement.  Enforcement entails sanction.  Sanction to take effect must reach its object.  The object to be reached must have a location in space.  We start with jurisdiction and end with space.  In between we have obligation, enforcement, sanction.  It adds up, a political theorist might say, to a notion of territorial sovereignty (1959:181).
    Alvin Gouldner would later assert that evolutionary theory had little importance in Parson’s  sociology, but  Gouldner’s  assessment came when Parsons was only just beginning to elaborate his theoretical “critique of unidimensional accounts of social evolution.  He did not believe that modernity is a matter of unleashing private interests, the consequent destruction of community, and its replacement by new class and bureaucratic ties” (Mayhew, 41).  Modernity would not bring an end to community.  Indeed, community could be easily allied with Modernity.  Rather than an assumption that they are always in opposition, the two forces of social cohesion might instead reinforce each other.

Next:  "A Break"

Previous posts in this series:
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Understanding Community
Part III: The Reception of Tonnies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft [Community and Society]
Part IV: Hillery and Hollingshead: Two Conceptions of Past Sociological Studies