The Life of Talcott Parsons and His Influence on Sociology

Doctor checking senior mans back in examination room
The "sick role" is Parsons' concept that concerns the social aspects of becoming ill and the privileges and obligations that come with it. Hero Images/Getty Images

Talcott Parsons is regarded by many as the twentieth century’s most influential American sociologist. He laid the foundation for what was to become the modern functionalist perspective and developed a general theory for the study of society called action theory.

He was born on December 13, 1902, and he died on May 8, 1979, after suffering a major stroke.

Early Life and Education of Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At the time, his father was a professor of English at Colorado College and vice-president of the college. Parsons studied biology, sociology, and philosophy as an undergraduate at Amherst College, receiving his Bachelor’s degree in 1924. He then studied at the London School of Economics and later earned his Ph.D. in economics and sociology from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Career and Later Life

Parsons taught at Amherst College for one year during 1927. After that, he became an instructor at Harvard University in the Department of Economics. At the time, no sociology department existed at Harvard. In 1931, Harvard’s first sociology department was created and Parsons became one of the new department’s two instructors. He later became a full professor. In 1946, Parsons was instrumental in forming the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, which was an interdisciplinary department of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Parsons served as the chairman of that new department. He retired from Harvard in 1973. However, he continued writing and teaching at Universities across the United States.

Parsons is most well known as a sociologist, however, he also taught courses and made contributions to other fields, including economics, race relations, and anthropology. Most of his work focused on the concept of structural functionalism, which is the idea of analyzing society through a general theoretical system.

Talcott Parsons played a major role in developing several important sociological theories. First, his theory of the "sick role" in medical sociology was developed in association with psychoanalysis. The sick role is a concept that concerns the social aspects of becoming ill and the privileges and obligations that come with it. Parsons also played a crucial role in the development of "The Grand Theory," which was an attempt to integrate the different social sciences into one theoretical framework. His main goal was to utilize multiple social science disciplines to create one single universal theory of human relationships.

Parsons was often accused of being ethnocentric (the belief that your society is better than the one you are studying). He was a bold and innovative sociologist for his time and is known for his contributions in functionalism and neo-evolutionism. He published more than 150 books and articles during his lifetime.

Parsons married Helen Bancroft Walker in 1927 and together they had three children.

Talcott Parsons' Major Publications

  • The Structure of Social Action (1937)
  • The Social System (1951)
  • Essays in Sociological Theory (1964)
  • Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966)
  • Politics and Social Structure (1969)


Johnson, A.G. (2000). The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Biography of Talcott Parsons. Accessed March 2012 from