Having previously been under the impression that Talcott Parsons had become an irrelevance in late 20th century social theory (an easy impression to make if you browsed some of the major sociology textbooks), I was somewhat surprised when I discovered that Habermas was quite the fan. This was apparent in his major work, The theory of communicative action, a key chapter of which (chapter 7 in volume 2) being wholly devoted to Parsons and his theory of modernity. It is clear from the chapter introduction that Habermas holds Parsons in high esteem when it comes to developing a broad theory of modern society. As he states (p199):

No theory of society can be taken seriously if it does not at least situate itself with respect to Parsons. To deny oneself on this point is to be held captive by questions of topicality rather than being sensitive to them. This holds as well for any neo-Marxism that wants to bypass Parsons. Errors of this sort are usually corrected rather quickly in the history of scientific inquiry.

This is a rather bold statement for Habermas to make then, as Parsons’ systems functionalism had fallen greatly out of favor over the previous decade. The question that my forthcoming blog posts on Habermas/Parsons will attempt to uncover is, what exactly is it that Habermas found so appealing in the work of Parsons, and what does he take with him into his own theory of communicative action? He does state in the introduction (p200) that Parsons

was the first to make a technically rigorous concept of system fruitful for social- theoretical reflection.

He also states that what is instructive in his work is the ‘tension’ between the two paradigms of action-theory and systems theory – it was Habermas’ basic objective to connect these paradigms of analysis in order to understand modernisation and rationalisation processes, and adequately account for social pathologies. The readings will thus take as a theme how Parsons compares to Habermas in terms of the latter’s objectives, and how Habermas’ theory of communicative action differs from the model(s) proposed by Parsons.

The chapter itself is divided into three sections:

  1. an analysis of Parsons’ early period in which he develops a theory of society based on action theoretical concepts but which he later changes in favor of a systems theory of society;
  2. an analysis of the development of Parsons’ systems theory;
  3. an examination of Parsons’ theory of modernity and how he accounts for social pathologies.

The blog posts will provide close readings of these sections – now I know that some Habermas skeptics will consider the idea of close readings of Habermas/Parsons less than exciting (hey, each to their own), but you never know … you might be surprised 🙂  

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