I’ve recently read a couple of sociological works that make me wonder what people in the discipline think it’s about. One was a collection of introductory readings by Giddens and Sutton, which seemed to be largely focused on people’s experience of life. There’s a justification for this approach to sociology in Wright Mills’ book, The Sociological Imagination, but it’s never enough simply to say what life is like. Now, this is in fairness an introductory collection: so how do you introduce people to a discipline? It seems to me that any taster has to give people a sense of the approach, include something about the analytical process involved, and perhaps convey a little of the surprise that comes of looking in ways that aren’t just a matter of ‘common sense’. Descriptions of everyday life don’t cut it. If you don’t generalise about social experience, and don’t analyse the concepts you’re using, you’re left with what Ruth Glass once called “the poor sociologist’s substitute for the novel”.
The other text was Mel Bartley’s book on Health Inequality, which had this to say about Talcott Parsons.
An influential school of sociology in the United States has long understood inequality in terms of a theory called “structural-functionalism”. This school of thought was led by Talcott Parsons, who put forward a clear logic for social inequality. According to Parsons, people naturally have unequal abilities. Society needs its most able members to be attracted to the jobs that are (according to this theory) most important for its basic functions, such as law, medicine, science and senior management in industry … Any society will offer high rewards to attract people into ‘functionally essential’ jobs.
Now, I can’t say that no-one has ever adopted such an asinine view of the world: Herbert Spencer, who was popular in the USA in the nineteenth century, argued for ‘survival of the fittest’. But it’s certainly not true of Talcott Parsons, who as far as I know said nothing of the kind. He was anti-racist and anti-fascist. He may have been too favourably inclined to the US system of government as an ideal, but he argued that obstacles to equality of opportunity were dysfunctional and that the equality of citizens was critical to social inclusion. The view that’s being criticised here (properly understood as ‘Optimism’) has nothing at all to do with structural-functionalism.
Parsons was a terrible communicator and he’s a pain to read. Nevertheless, he did have something to say; I’d still get more entertainment value from being stuck in a lift with The social system than I did from Girl, Woman, Other. Try this appreciation from Daniel Bell, which explains some of Parson’s central ideas in simple terms. If you’re wondering how it relates to what Mel Bartley says about Parsons – it doesn’t.