Mid Twentieth Century American Theory

A Brief History: 

While the origins of sociology as a discipline began in Europe in the early nineteenth century, sociology in the United States didn’t become institutionalized until close to a hundred years later. Many believe the high point for sociology and sociological theory in the U.S. to have happened in the middle of the twentieth century. This was due to a number of factors, probably the most important being the vast expansion of the higher education system following World War II. Furthermore, the social programs and policies of the 1950s and 1960s made for an increased demand on the part of government officials for better social scientific knowledge. In short, college enrollments and funding for the social sciences were at all time highs.

Like many things American, sociological theory at the time contained a wide variety of influences and ideas; it was a veritable “melting pot” of classical theories being reformulated in new and exciting ways. The major theorist of the time period, Talcott Parsons, for example, had synthesized the theories of Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto into his own grand theory of social action. Others, like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, were inspired by phenomenology, Durkheim, and Marx in developing their own “social constructionist” perspective. And still others, like Herbert Blumer and Erving Goffman, drew upon classic American pragmatist thought as well as the social psychology of Mead to develop a sociology that focused on the intricate meanings and presentations of self we encounter in everyday interaction.

In this larger social environment, American sociology flourished, but not without a good deal of conflict. Theory in sociology at this time was characterized by a deep split between the dominant, structural–functionalist perspectives of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton and groups of dissenters, some of whom focused less on vast social structures and functions and more on interactions, everyday practices, and meanings, and others, like C. Wright Mills, who criticized Parsonian theory for its lack of a critical perspective. While Parsons’s brand of systematic and grand theory was dominant through the 1940s and 1950s, his approach lost influence during the 1960s and 1970s, and the more marginalized theories began to gain influence among a new generation of scholars.

Key Theorists: 

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) was without question the most eminent American sociological theorist of the 1940s and 1950s. Parsons synthesized the classical theoretical ideas of Weber, Durkheim, and Vilfredo Pareto to develop (with Edward Shils) his “action theory.” Parsons’s action theory focused on the integration of social structural, psychological, and cultural elements of human behavior in the hopes of creating a unified theory of social action for the social sciences. Parsonian theory began to wane in the 1960s, however, as more interactionist and critical Marxist theories of social life began to gain prominence. Although Parsons’s theoretical influence in sociology is not nearly as large as it once was, interest in his work has recently begun to rise, particularly in Europe. Parsons also exerted a decisive influence over some of the biggest minds in contemporary theory, including Jürgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, and Jeffrey Alexander.

Herbert Blumer

Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) was the founder of the influential theoretical perspective “symbolic interactionism.” Blumer developed symbolic interactionism by extending and elaborating on central aspects of George H. Mead’s social psychology, particularly his understanding of human action as being oriented around significant symbols. For Blumer, human beings acted largely in response to the meanings that things have for them and these meanings, in turn, arise from interactions with others. In contrast to structurally and system-minded theorists like Parsons, Blumer viewed society as a fluid process that is under constant construction and negotiation.

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann

Peter Berger (1929–) and Thomas Luckmann (1927–) came to prominence with the publication of their co-authored book, The Social Construction of Reality, in 1966. In it, Berger and Luckmann combine insights from phenomenological, Durkheimian, Marxist, and symbolic interactionist approaches to develop a groundbreaking theory of how the objective reality of the social world comes into existence. For Berger and Luckmann, social reality was “constructed” through a three-part, reciprocal process of objectification, institutionalization, and internalization. Berger and Luckmann both remain prominent social theorists, particularly in the study of modern religion.

Harold Garfinkel

Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) was the founder and principle developer of the theoretical perspective known as ethnomethodology. Garfinkel understood ethnomethodology as a distinct approach to sociological inquiry, one that painstakingly analyzes and describes the various methods by which members of a social group maintain the orderliness and sensibility of their everyday worlds. Unlike approaches that took the objectivity of social facts as given, Garfinkel took it as his job to understand how this seemingly objective reality was constantly being produced, managed, and negotiated in the everyday activities and routines of ordinary people. A guiding principle of ethnomethodology was to not bring pre-existing understandings of what constitutes social reality to the setting under study—neither social structures, nor the objectified institutions of social constructionists, not even the “significant symbols” of symbolic interactionists. Rather, the idea is to let members’ own methods of establishing social reality speak for themselves.

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman (1922–1982) is famous for having developed a distinct dramaturgical approach to social interaction and identity. Influenced by the work of Mead and symbolic interactionists such as Blumer, Goffman studied the everyday management of identity as one would study a play or theatrical drama. Central to his theoretical perspective on the self are his ideas about “impression management.” Goffman was the quintessential scholar of everyday life, and his theoretical perspective on self, society, and interaction remains one of the most oft-used and influential in all of sociology.

C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) was perhaps the most vocal and powerful critic of the structural–functionalist approach to sociology that was dominant in the mid-twentieth century. Mills was a critical sociologist in the vein of Marx and the Frankfurt School, and felt that American sociological theory in the 1940s and 1950s was inherently conservative and uncritical in its orientation. Mills is most famous for coining the term “the sociological imagination,” a perspective which allowed the person who cultivated it to grasp the important connections between history and biography, social structure and individual experience.

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For an in-depth look at the history of American sociology, go to your library and check out Craig Calhoun’s edited collection, Sociology in America: A History:


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