Integrating the human sciences

He reminds me of someone, but who? Anyway, here is Parsons’ Wikipedia entry

Thinking alound about the way that economics and the human sciences could have evolved under the influence of Carl Menger and others, especially Ludwig Mises, Talcott Parsons and Karl Popper. Continuing the train of thought regarding Talcott Parsons and related matters that can be found on the Oysterium blog.

Various people would like to integrate economics with sociology and the other social sciences. In this respect they are following the footsteps of Talcott Parsons whose career was mainly devoted to generating a systematic body of theory that would take account of biology and psychology at one end of the system, through economics and sociology to culture and religion at the other.

The Parsons program went really well up to the point in the mid 1930s where he reinvented the Austrian wheel of situational analysis, that is to say, the study of purposeful human action in the context of various situational opportunities and constraints. Getting a sight on that was the 1% of inspiration, then there is the 99% of perspiration to (a) unpack the implications of the insight and (b) convince everyone else that this is the way to travel. Sometimes it seems that the hard part is not having the good idea but getting the other ideas out of the way. Look at Popper’s ideas in epistemology. This raises the matter of invisible “railway lines of though” that lock people into programs that are going nowhere (confirmation theory, GET, socialism). It is likely that much the same set of ideas underpin many of the programs that are failing, while a different set of ideas underpin another group of programs that have got what it takes. Maybe the story of the human and intellectual disasters of our time is the triumph of the wrong set of invisible frameworks of thought.

Three parallel programs in situational analysis.

1. Mises. I am not sure where to find the best or the earliest statement of the Mises approach to situational analysis which is called praxeology in Austrian circles

2. Popper. An early statement of his form of situational analysis appears in OSE vol 2, although he only regarded it as the conventional method of neoclassical microeconomics.

3. Parsons. The Structure of Social Action, 1937.

How the programs evolved.

1. Mises. The Austrians have been marginalised in the profession and this is aggravated by a degree of obsession with philosophical and methodological purity, especially in the hard core at the Mises Institute. A partial answer here is some input from Popper but he is a hate figure for some of the hard core and his ideas are practically absent in philosophy schools of the US and so economists in the US cannot obtain the philosophical assistance that they need from the people who prima facie ought to be able to help.

2. Popper and the Popperians, apart from Larry Boland, mostly ignored economics. Jack Birner and Noretta Koertge developed the SA program to a useful degree but nobody seemed to take any notice. Popper himself made a small move to shapen his idea of SA but only confused the issue by introducing the notion of the Rationality Principle as the animating force, by analogy with the laws of motion in a model of the universe.3. Parsons gave away the methodological individualism part of the analysis after his 1930s work and reverted to holism and the endless proliferation of conceptual categories under the influence of a defective ideas about the function of general theories and the role of mathematics in physics.

If Parsons started well, where did he go wrong and is there an explanation that is helpful for us?

To be continued.

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18 years ago

Hi its John the gadfly from Melbourne.
These three inter-related sites provide an Illuminated understanding of the relationship between religion, science and culture and all the themes posted on Rafe’s new website.




18 years ago

Heh. Anyone ever read C Wright Mills’ take-down of Talcott Parsons? It’s in The Sociological Imagination, where he quotes these great slabs of Parsons-speak from The Social System, and then translates them into one or two lines of English (this sectio of the book might have been called ‘The shorter Parsons’). Friggin’ hilarious. Ruined Parsons for me for all time. Talcott must be the most famous worst writer in all sociology.

Nicholas Gruen
18 years ago

Rafe – more elaboration please on this snippet. “Sometimes it seems that the hard part is not having the good idea but getting the other ideas out of the way. Look at Popper’s ideas in epistemology.”

Mark Bahnisch
18 years ago

I was going to talk about Mills, but cs beat me to it. I can also recommend Gouldner’s The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology for more withering critique of Parsons.

He still has quite a few defenders in US sociology, though.

Habermas nailed him for not examining his own value premises. His theory also has the huge problem of not being able to explain social change at all.

David Walker
18 years ago

There’s a particularly rich line of inquiry here. In particular, read Jeffrey C. Alexander’s collection of essays “Fin De Siecle Social Theory: Relativism, Reduction, and the Problem of Reason”. The best essay in that collection is the magnificent “Modern, Anti, Post and Neo”, which explains how socialism and postmodernism started to lose their puff (short version: it’s hard to ignore the fall of the Berlin Wall – see more in the PDF at
But another essay in the collection, if I recall correctly, asks the question: What would have happened to social thinking if socialists and postmodernists hadn’t overrun the field? Part of Alexander’s answer is that Parsons’ work would have been much better known. He also suggests that it should and perhaps will be again – and inded, 12 years after he wrote, I am starting to see more references to Parsons.
Parsons and Popper are in some ways the twin giants of mid-1900s socio-political theory. It was reportedly Parsons who wrote the quintessentially Popperian line – used by Dwight D. Eisenhower – that “freedom means the freedom to fail as well as to succeed”.

Mark Bahnisch
18 years ago

I think I’ve got a copy of “Enter Plato” lying around somewhere which someone gave me when they got a job in the states and was clearing out his office.

I don’t, unlike you, Rafe, regard it as a cardinal sin not to cite Popper.

I’d second David’s praise of Alexander’s book. Though I think Alexander’s point about socialism and postmodernism is unnecessarily polemical in its scope.