Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902 – May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist of the classical tradition, best known for his social action theory and structural functionalism. Parsons is considered one of the most influential figures in sociology in the 20th century. After earning a PhD in economics, he served on the faculty at Harvard University from 1927 to 1929. In 1930, he was among the first professors in its new sociology department.
Based on empirical data, Parsons' social action theory was the first broad, systematic, and generalizable theory of social systems developed in the United States. Some of Parsons' largest contributions to sociology in the English-speaking world were his translations of Max Weber's work and his analyses of works by Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto. Their work heavily influenced Parsons' view and was the foundation for his social action theory. Parsons viewed voluntaristic action through the lens of the cultural values and social structures that constrain choices and ultimately determine all social actions, as opposed to actions that are determined based on internal psychological processes.
Although Parsons is generally considered a structural functionalist, towards the end of his career, in 1975, he published an article that stated that "functional" and "structural functionalist" were inappropriate ways to describe the character of his theory.
From the 1970s, a new generation of sociologists criticized Parsons' theories as socially conservative and his writings as unnecessarily complex. Sociology courses have placed less emphasis on his theories than at the peak of his popularity (from the 1940s to the 1970s). However, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his ideas.
Parsons was a strong advocate for the professionalization of sociology and its expansion in American academia. He was elected president of the American Sociological Association in 1949 and served as its secretary from 1960 to 1965.
He was born on December 13, 1902 in Colorado Springs. He was the son of Edward Smith Parsons (1863–1943) and Mary Augusta Ingersoll (1863–1949). His father had attended Yale Divinity School, was ordained as a Congregationalist minister, and served first as a minister for a pioneer community in Greeley, Colorado. At the time of Parsons' birth, his father was a professor in English and vice-president at Colorado College. During his Congregational ministry in Greeley, Edward had become sympathetic to the Social Gospel movement but tended to view it from a higher theological position and was hostile to the ideology of socialism. Also, both he and Talcott would be familiar with the theology of Jonathan Edwards. The father would later become the president of Marietta College in Ohio.
Parsons' family is one of the oldest families in American history. His ancestors were some of the first to arrive from England in the first half of the 17th century. The family's heritage had two separate and independently-developed Parsons lines, both to the early days of American history deeper into British history. On his father's side, the family could be traced back to the Parsons of York, Maine.
On his mother's side, the Ingersoll line was connected with Edwards and from Edwards on would be a new, independent Parsons line because Edwards' eldest daughter, Sarah, married Elihu Parsons on June 11, 1750.