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Parsons’ neglect of social pathologies, part 2.

Published in Frankfurt School by Mark Murphy on February 21, 2014

(c) Thomas Hawk

(c) Thomas Hawk

Readings taken from Habermas, J: Chapter 7, Section 3: The theory of modernity, Theory of Communicative action, Volume 2, 1987

[following from Part 1] … It is important to note that Habermas also criticised Weber for equating rationalisation with capitalist modernisation. The significant question to ask in the context of the present discussion is: How did Parsons and Weber, who both viewed the process of capitalist modernisation as a simultaneous process of rationalisation, end up with completely opposite diagnoses? The answer is found in the construction of their theories. Weber built his theory of society on the basis of action concepts. He therefore could still keep the lifeworld within eye view, and as a result was in a position to grasp pathological consequences of system imperatives overstepping their boundaries. As Habermas (p292) explains, when Weber equates societal rationalisation with modernisation, he

establishes a connection with identity securing worldviews and with structures of the lifeworld that set the conditions for the consistency of social experiences. He can find in his complex concept of rationality itself the criteria for those structurally generated ‘aporetic’ or ‘paradoxical’ experiences that, in certain circumstances, get worked up in the form of social pathologies.

Parsons, on the other hand, abruptly gave up attempts to construct a theory of society based on action-theoretic concepts and instead developed a systems-theoretical account of society. Because of this, he leveled his important distinction between functional and system integration, which itself ensured that what was in the Weber’s sights, i.e., the processes of symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld, were out of sight for Parsons. He was not in a position to become aware of instances in which system imperatives overstepped their boundaries into the lifeworld, because, under his model, the lifeworld functioned to fulfill system demands for material reproduction. Where Weber saw a loss of freedom and meaning, Parsons saw an increase in freedom and meaning:

Parsons deploys his categories in such a way that the same phenomena that Weber could interpret as signs of social pathologies count as further evidence for the view that modern Western societies have developed the forms of solidarity appropriate to their complexity (p292).

What is interesting to note in this comparison between Weber and Parsons is the fact that what underlies both their shared understanding of modernisation as rationalisation, and their differences concerning social pathologies, is the same problem, and that is a narrow concept of action. Both theories are embedded in the philosophy of consciousness, and it is this understanding of action which leads Weber, on the one hand, to view rationalisation processes in terms of purposive-rational action, while it leads Parsons to eventually give up his action-theoretical account of society and opt instead for systems theory. And so, in this sense, we come full circle, as the fundamental critique of Parsons by Habermas concerned his monological concept of action, and as I stated in the previous discussions, it is the philosophy of consciousness in Habermas’ eyes which lies at the base of most of the problems in theory construction. Parsons was, in a sense, forced to give up on accounting for the problem of agency or autonomy of action as he could not reconcile the object-oriented subject of the theory of knowledge with his efforts at explaining social order. He attempted to avoid a one sided theory of society, and saw the benefits in allowing for tension between the two levels of agency and structure. It couldn’t last, however, and it is precisely because of these kinds of conceptual difficulties that Habermas introduces the concept of communicative action which was designed to traverse the boundaries of the agency/structure dichotomy. And so it appears that his concept of communicative action is more adequate in explaining social interaction. The question is, of course, can it also provide the base upon which to understand social pathologies better than the theories of the likes of Weber and Parsons?

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Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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