In Search of the Chinese Parsons

When Pitirim Sorokin was brought to Harvard to found its Sociology Department in 1930, ‘sociology’ was still very much seen in the United States in the Comtean mould as a macro-policy science. Sociology would focus on the ‘big picture’ and the ‘long run’, based on both qualitative and quantitative data, to discern socially meaningful trends with an eye to promoting ‘progress’. Some of these trends may turn out to be enhancing and others debilitating. To a certain extent, the sociologist would be a diagnostician and, where necessary, a provider of remedies, or at least ideas for remedies. This idea of what sociology might be remains an attractive one but it is not the one came to be institutionalised worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. Instead the future of the discipline was determined by one of Sorokin’s junior colleagues, whose tenure he tried to block, Talcott Parsons.

In a time when it is common to hear our quite learned, theory-oriented colleagues claim that it is impossible to mix traditions grounded in, say, quantitative and qualitative social epistemologies, economistic and communitarian modes of reasoning or biological and sociological variables, we should always recall that this is precisely the sort of thing that Parsons did in his discipline-building work, The Structure of Social Action. Given what was on offer in terms of Europe’s sociological legacy by the 1930s, Parsons’ selection of theoretical exemplars was not without reasonable cause but was inevitably idiosyncratic and certainly brought together figures who had very little, if anything, to do with each other in their lifetimes. As an American travelling across Europe as a graduate student, Parsons saw the broad outlines clearly: The discipline of sociology was being established in response to the perceived inadequacies of classical political economy, which by the 1870s had been acknowledged within the field by Alfred Marshall and others. ‘Sociology’ would be the name of the science that integrates the main paths one might take to deal with those inadequacies. Parsons chose a particular way of identifying and representing those paths, which provided him the pretext for dealing in detail with Pareto, Durkheim and Weber. Of course, Pareto could have been replaced by Marx, Durkheim by Tarde, and Weber by Tönnies or Sombart. The integrated result would have been a quite different conception of ‘sociology’. This became clear once Pareto did get replaced by Marx in the late 1960s – and more recently, at least in postmodern circles, Durkheim by Tarde.

The key point is that such invariably arbitrary choices, ensconced in powerful institutional environments, can serve to anchor a discipline globally for many decades. We need to remember that while Harvard was always seen as the strongest American university, what it meant to be ‘the strongest American university’ started to change only with the end of the First World War and especially the Second World War. As the United States transformed itself from being a rich provincial country to a global player, the significance of its universities as sources of intellectual leadership also changed. I say all this because I can easily imagine a young Chinese scholar right now canvassing the current crop of Western sociological thought in order to deliver a new synthesis – initially to Chinese audiences but ultimately worldwide – for the 21st century. If this scholar has benefitted from Parsons’ example, s/he will see beyond theoretical disputes that are artefacts of particular readings of particular texts that are considered to be ‘canonical’. Instead the Chinese scholar will mix and match Western authorities in a manner suitable for the sort of the world in which we should be spending the rest of this century – if not beyond.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Sociological Craft

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