Parsons played a crucial role in drawing grand traditions of European social thought into the American milieu. Parsons synthetic disposition also led him to promote the realignment of sociology with cultural anthropology and social psychology, a tripartite arrangement realized in a new, interdisciplinary department of social relations begun at Harvard in 1946. The result was a clear definition of sociology’s subject-matter, the social realm, than the discipline had ever had before. In Parsons hands, sociology moved away from close associations with the older, dominant fields of economics and political science. Its special concern was those institutions, such as families, schools, Churches, neighborhoods, small groups, organizations, and occupations.
In these milieus of association and interaction, scholars could see the formation of personalities, roles, values, orientations, and perceptions of reality, sentiments of solidarity, and the like. In this way was everyday behaviour shaped and social unity fostered. And in these terms sociology defined the essential structure of a society, the patterns of behaviour that gave it a unique order and disposition distinct from that of other societies, thus permitting a comparative anatomy of societies.
Parsons posits that the most empirically significant sociological theory must be concerned with complex systems, that is, systems composed of many subsystems. The primary empirical type reference is to society, which is highly complex. The basic functional classification underlying the whole scheme involves the discrimination of four primary categories: pattern maintenance, integration, goal-attainment, and adaptation, placed in that order in the series of control relations.
The concept of a social system is important for Parsons. To be clear, we must delineate the place of social systems within the action frame of reference. One aspect of this distinction, which can be taken for granted, is between the analytically defined individual and the systems generated by the process of social interaction. Social and cultural systems are also important for this discussion, but the two, however empirically intertwined, must be kept analytically distinct. Parallel to the social/cultural distinction, is that of nature/nurture in regards to developing the individual. This can be conceived of a distinction between the individual organism and the organization of his behaviour. Finally, distinctions should made -between the functional subsystems of economy and polity within a society; even though they have often overlapped in the past. All of these distinctions can be seen as questions of boundaries for both the individual and for systems.
With all of the above considerations in hand, Parsoni moves on to offer a paradigm for the analysis of social systems. Parsons is a firm believer in interpenetration and mutual influence. This means, that however important logical closure may be for a theoretical ideal, empirically, social systems are conceived as open systems, engaged in complicated processes of interchange with environing systems. This concept of open systems implies again boundaries and their maintenance. A boundary means simply that a theoretically and empirically significant difference between structures and processes internal to the system and those external to it exists and tends to be maintained. Because of all of this, We need to define a set of interdependent phenomena as a system, so as not to confuse a statistical sample of the population with a true system.
Durkheim was concerned primarily with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in the modern era, when things such as shared religious and ethnic background could no longer be assumed. In order to study social life in modern societies, Durkheim sought to create one of the first scientific approaches to social phenomena.
Durkheim was one of the first people to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in keeping the society healthy and balanced, and is thus sometimes seen as a precursor to functionalism. Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts. Thus unlike his contemporaries Ferdinand Tonnies and Max Weber, he focused not on what motivates the actions of individual people (methodological individualism), but rather on the study of social facts, a term which he coined to describe phenomena which have an existence in and of themselves and are not bound to the actions of individuals. He argued that social facts had an independent existence greater and more objective than the actions of the individuals that composed society and could only be explained by other social facts rather than, say, by society’s adaptation to a particular climate or ecological niche.
Durkheim pioneered in the use of empirical evidence and statistical material in the study of society. Weber’s major contribution was as a theorist, and his generalizations about social organization and the relation of belief systems, including religion, to social action are still influential. He developed the use of the ideal type a working model, based on the selective combination of certain elements of historical fact or current reality as a tool of sociological analysis.
The most important theoretical sociology in the 20th century has moved in three directions: conflict theory, structural-functional theory, and symbolic interaction theory. Conflict theory draws heavily on the work of Karl Marx and emphasizes the role of conflict in explaining social change; prominent conflict theorists include Ralf Dahrendorf and C. Wright Mills. Structural-functional theory, developed by Talcott Parsons and advanced by Robert Merton, assumes that large social systems are characterized by homeostasis, or “steady states.” The theory is now often called “conservative” in its orientation. Symbolic interaction, begun by George Herbert Mead and further developed by Herbert Blumer and others, focuses on subjective perceptions or other symbolic processes of communication.