Sie sind auf Seite 1von 21

Simmel and the Methodological Problems of Formal Sociology

Author(s): Talcott Parsons and William J. Buxton


Source: The American Sociologist, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 31-50
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27698870
Accessed: 15-07-2016 12:23 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at
http://about.jstor.org/terms

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

American Sociological Association, Springer are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and
extend access to The American Sociologist

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
Simmel and the Methodological
Problems of Formal Sociology
Talcott Parsons
Edited by William J. Buxton

Introduction 1

Attempts to define the subject-matter and boundaries of sociological science


have gone somewhat out of fashion, and it is not proposed, in the present paper,
to attempt to bring such discussions back into favor. It does, however, happen,
that in controversies over such questions, important methodological issues some
times receive a particularly pointed formulation which makes them a favorable
point at which to enter upon the discussion of the underlying problems.
This is particularly true in the case of Simmel. Simmel's contributions to
general social theory, as opposed to his individual essays on particular social
forms, are relatively meager. Indeed his position in the history of the former
field rests largely on his single formula that sociology should become the spe
cialized science of "social forms," and on his discussion of the nature of "soci
ety" which underlies that formula. * This has sufficed to attract a great deal of
attention to Simmel's work and even, in a modest way, to make him the founder
of a "school," the so-called "formal school" of sociology. But the influence of the
mode of analysis he advocated has been by no means confined to people who
would call themselves explicitly formal sociologists, and discussion of some of
the methodological problems associated with Simmel's formula promises to lead
farther than either placing Simmel more accurately in the history of social theory,
or helping to arrive at a critical judgment of the work of those who profess to
follow him.
It is common knowledge that in the earlier stages of self-consciousness of
sociology as a science, the tendency was strong to conceive it in a synthetic or
"encyclopedic" sense, as the sys . . .

This is a transcription of the original typed manuscript along with the handwritten changes made by Talcott
Parsons. The footnotes (indicated now with asterisks) are those of Parsons. The original pagination has
been indicated with numbers in brackets. These match the page numbers cited by Edward Shils in his
comments. Explanatory endnotes have been added. Parsons began the article with an alternative introduc
tion, which is included here under the heading of Introduction 1.
* See Georg Simmel, "Das Problem der Soziologie" printed as chapter I of his Soziologie [Simmel, 1923].

Parsons 31

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
Simmel and the Methodological Problems of Formal Sociology

Simmel as a general social theorist is primarily known as the author of a


formula for defining the scope and subject-matter of sociology, that sociology
should be the study of "social forms." * The object of the present essay is not to
revive the discussion of the scope and limits of the science of sociology as such.
But underlying views on this subject there may be important methodological
issues of a more general nature. Investigation of the methodological position at
the basis of Simmel's famous formula may well lead into problems of very gen
eral interest. It is as an avenue of approach to certain of these problems that a
critical analysis of the concept of social form is here attempted.
It is common knowledge that in the earlier stages of self-consciousness of
sociology as a science, the tendency was strong to conceive it in a synthetic or
"encyclopedic" sense, as the sys- [2] tematic statement of all our established
generalized knowledge of the concrete social life of man.1 This tendency had
two effects: to give an air of great pretentiousness to the ill-established infant
discipline, which did not serve to endear it to its neighbors in the learned world,
and to raise, in an acute form, the question of whether it had any independent
contribution to make beyond that of the older and better established fields such
as economics, the many branches of history, jurisprudence, and the others deal
ing with human social relationships. The claim only to make the final synthesis
seemed a rather thin, and scientifically dubious basis on which to erect an
independent science. After all why could not this synthesis be left, as it had
been in the past, to the philosophy of history?
Simmel was one of the first to revolt against this encyclopedic tendency,
strongly advocating that sociology be constituted as a special and not an ency
clopedic science. He maintained that there was no concrete class of social phe
nomena which was not already the subject of a social science?men's economic
life, their religion, art, law, government, etc. Hence the only place for sociology
lay, in his opinion, not in the discovery of a new class of phenomena hitherto
neglected, but in a new analytical point of view according to which the same
concrete phenomena which were the subject-matters of these other social sci
ences, had not yet been studied. It is in this context that he formulated his
famous distinction between social "form" and "content."
[3] Simmel couches his discussion primarily in terms of the concept of social
relationships which is one of several possible ways of looking at human social
life. Concrete social relationships are, of course, unified, integral phenomena.
They may, however, by a kind of abstraction, be analyzed into two classes of
elements. The first consists of all or some of those qualities which may be
predicated of the individuals who participate in the relationships, but which
may be treated as analytically independent of the relationship itself. Simmel does
not attempt to give any systematic account of these elements, but puts forward

* Developed mainly in his essay "Das Problem der Soziologie" which was reprinted as Chapter I of his
Soziologie [Simmel 1923].

32 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
a few suggestions. He uses four different terms in the discussion: impulses (Triebe),
ends (Zwecke), interests (Interessen) and, on one occasion, motives (Motive).
There is an implied classification in the use of interests as the more general term
and impulses and ends as particular classes of interests. When, however, inter
ests are pursued within a social relationship, as is usually empirically the case,
there is an additional, analytically separable element which he calls the "mode"
(Art) or "form" of interaction (Wechselwirkung). It is the existence of such
forms of interaction which makes both of discrete individuals, and of their dis
crete motives a "society." It would appear that form in this sense is precisely
that which makes the difference between attributes of an analytically separated
individual, and the concrete social entity constituted by a plurality of such indi
viduals functioning in mutual interrelations with one another. *
[4] Simmel's use of this starting point as a basis for a scientifically important
line of analysis rests on three interrelated empirical theses. The first is that the
conceptualization of the traditional social sciences is in fact couched in terms of
classes of interests in the foregoing sense, which are analytically separable from
the forms of the social relationships in which he stands. The second thesis holds
that form, seen in relation to the diversity of classes of interest, ** constitutes a
common element running through all of their social relationships. The third
maintains that form and content are independently variable, that the "same"
content is manifested in different forms, while the "same" form is similarly to be
found in connection with different contents. Thus he says that an economic
interest, the interest in maximization of wealth, may be pursued in a competi
tive form, by engaging in a competitive struggle against others motivated by the
same interest, or may take the form of combination in the pursuit of the com
mon goal, as in monopolistic combinations and trusts. On the other hand, the form
of "competition" may involve economic interests, or it may involve erotic inter
ests as in rivalry for the favor of a woman, or any one of a variety of other types.
The main key to the problems discussed in this paper is the status of the first
thesis. The other two are, as they stand, entirely acceptable, the only question
being that of their implications for the methodology of social theory. It will be
necessary, before approaching the problems involved in the first, to attempt a
clarification beyond that provided by Simmel, of the sense in which form is a
common element, and of the independent variability of form and content.
[5] It may be noted in advance, however, that Simmel fails to give us even
the outline of a thorough critical analysis of the prevailing conceptualization of
what he calls the "social sciences." Above all, he merely asserts and does not
attempt to justify in terms of the history and current literature of those sciences,
that all of them lie on the same methodological level. There can be little doubt
of the inevitability, and for certain purposes, usefulness of the classification of
human interests in terms of such categories as economic, political, religious,
* This is evidently similar to Durkheim's concept of "society" as resulting from a synthesis of individuals. See
E. Durkheim, "Representations, individuelles et representations collectives," in Sociologie et Philosophie
[Durkheim, 1924] and the author's Structure of Social Action, chapter IX [Parsons, 1937].
** I.e., in the sense of attributes of the individual formulated in subjective terms. For a definition of "subjec
tive categories" in this sense see Structure of Social Action [Parsons 1937], p. 46.

Parsons 33

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
erotic, aesthetic, etc. Furthermore there seems to be a corresponding classifica
tion of types of concrete activity in which the respective classes of interests are
predominant. It does not, however, follow that the problem of the relation of
scientific conceptualization to the classification of types of concrete social phe
nomena, whether formulated in terms of interests, or of classes of acts, can be
disposed of by the simple assertion that there is an economic theory which deals
with economic interests and acts, a political theory which deals with political
interests and acts, a theory of religion, etc. On the contrary it is quite certain
that the relation of scientific theory to concrete reality in these fields is far more
complex than this formula would indicate. This is evident from one fundamental
fact; that there is no actual uniformity in the theory of the different social
sciences to correspond to the symmetry of Simmel's scheme. Economic theory
has become a highly developed analytical system of a peculiar sort, unique in
the social field. On the other hand whatever may go by the name of a "theory
of art" is methodologically quite different from economic theory. It will, how
ever, be more fruitful to return to some of these issues after a discussion of the
implications of the first two theses.
[6] As Simmel defines the concept it is a sheer truism that every social
relationship has a "form" and that more complex forms are an inherent feature
of every system of social relationships. In this sense his second thesis is beyond
dispute. It is necessary only to guard him from one misinterpretation. When it
is said that form is a common element of the relationships of all the different
parts of society this is not to be taken to mean that all the similarities between
any two such fields are on the level of form, and all the differences on the level
of content. Form is not the generic term of which the classes of interests con
stitute the particular species. * The relation is quite different.
Form is rather a common element in the sense that every system of social
relationships has form. But this proposition, which is a truism, has no implica
tions for the relations of the particular kinds of form to be found in any two
concrete relationships. This distinction of two senses in which form may be
thought of as a common element gives a valuable clue to the more general
meaning of the concept form. For both in his discussions of social relationships
as such, and of the analogy he dwells on constantly, that of geometrical form,
Simmel apparently means what is often referred to as "structure." A brief discus
sion of the meaning of the concept structure will do much to clarify the impli
cations of Simmel's procedure.
One of the most deeply imbedded modes of thinking about "reality" conceives
"phenomena" as consisting of "parts" or "units" which stand in a system of
intelligible relations to each other. A plurality of units in determinate mutual
relations is often said to constitute a "system." The relations between the units
are then spoken of as the "structure" of the system. [7] A unit in these terms is
the referent of a combination of empirically descriptive propositions which have

* Both Sorokin [1928: 399-400] and Abel [1929: 28-29] attribute this view to Simmel. He did not sufficiently
guard himself against this misinterpretation.

34 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
a unitary existential reference, that is are descriptive of the "same" thing. To say
that John Jones is five feet eight inches tall, weighs 150 pounds, has brown hair
and brown eyes, constitutes a partial description of one kind of unit, a "man."
But to say John Jones is five feet eight, George Smith weighs 175, Frank Brown
has blue eyes, and James Johnson has red hair, obviously does not constitute
even a partial description of a single person.
The conception of a system of units standing in structural relations to each
other implies a further conceptual element than that of unit and of relations; it
implies what may be called a "frame of reference" in terms of which the system
is described. Thus in the classical mechanics a system consists of "particles"
(i.e., "things" describable in terms of a certain combination of "properties")
existing "in" and related to one another in space and time. The concepts of
particle, space and time, are not parts of the description of any concrete system,
but the frame of reference in terms of which any system of one class, a "me
chanical" system, must be described.
There is a further fundamental conception which seems to be inseparably
connected with those of units and of structural relations, that of "process" or
change. Systems do not, for the most part, remain static, but processes go on in
them; a description which was accurate at one time ceases to be so at a later
one. The foregoing considerations help to specify the meaning of process. A
process of change happens to "something," that is to a unit, or a combination
of such units in a system. The change must be described as involving the prop
erties of one or more units in the system, or one or more structural relations
within the system, or some combin- [8] ation of both. Finally the only meaning
ful process is one which is capable of description in terms of the frame of
reference being employed at a given time. Thus in terms of mechanics, to say
that the velocity of a given particle doubled in a given time is a meaningful
description of process, but to say that the particle changed from a velocity of
1000 ft. per second to a state of repression of the antagonism to the father, is
not. Both descriptive propositions may be meaningful as applied to the same
concrete object, e.g., a "man" but even though the first is applicable at an earlier
time, the second at a later, knowing these facts does not entitle us to say that
the man has undergone a change, that a process has taken place, because the
two statements are not commensurable in terms of the same frame of reference.
This fundamental schema of thought would seem to be involved in our think
ing about empirical reality generally, rather than merely in connection with the
"physical world." A related, if not identical schema is involved in our thinking
about non-empirical, "ideal" objects such as systems of logically interrelated
propositions, or artistic compositions. A symphony has its "themes" or other
units which have certain structural relations. But the very ubiquity of the schema
should make us cautious in its use, for in different uses and contexts it may have
a very different significance. Indeed before we can say in what sense empirical
knowledge of causal relations is derivable by its use, it is essential to be aware
of a certain fundamental relativity in the status of the different categories of the
schema.

Parsons 35

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
[9] Every system has a determinate structure. This is true whether the sys
tem is "static," that is when no changes significant to the observer are going on,
or it is "dynamic," where the observer's interest is centered on changes over
time, which may, of course, involve structural changes. * But it must not be
forgotten that the frame of reference is one of the fundamental conceptual
elements of the schema of thought into which the concept of structure here
considered fits. Any given structure is relative to the frame of reference in terms
of which the relevant systems are described. A structure is a set of determinate
relations between a plurality of a certain kind of units, described in terms of a
certain frame of reference. On any given level of analysis a structure may be
conceived as static without process, or certain processes may be conceived as
going on "within" an unchanging structure, or finally, the structure itself may be
conceived as undergoing a process of change. Thus the structure of a table in
ordinary common-sense terms is constant, and for most purposes we are not
interested in any processes which may be occurring within it. It is usually
described as a static system. The plumbing system of a house, however, is a
different kind of system. There is a constant physical structure of the pipes and
appliances, but within this structure an important process goes on, the continu
ous or intermittent flow of water. Finally a developing embryo, from fertilized
ovum to mature organism, is still a different kind of system in that, from the
point of view which interests biologists, it is undergoing a continuous process
of structural change.
But most authorities would be agreed that in relation to all these types of
systems there is a certain fundamental relativity in the use of the concept struc
ture as a set of constant relations even at any given time. There is a sense in
which the static aspect of all structures is an illusion. What is described as a
"rigid" structure consists [10] "really" only in certain uniformities of process.
Thus a candle flame has a specific "form," a structure, but here even for com
mon sense the burning of the candle is a process, within the form there is
intense movement of hot gases, and rapid chemical change. But the physicist
will tell us the same is true of the cool wax, or of the static table. These
seemingly so solid and substantial structures are only relatively uniform and
stable resultants of very complex processes. If this is true of the systems which
common sense treats as static, it is doubly so for that of the developing embryo.
But pointing out this underlying aspect of process does not dispose of the
relevance of the concept of structure. When the physicist attempts to describe
the processes going on within the table he does so partly in terms of a deeper
lying structure, that of the physical systems of atoms and electrons which make
up the table. What has happened is that the shift from consideration of structure
in the common sense description of the table, to that of process in the physicist's

* It should be remembered that whether a system is static or dynamic is not a question of whether process
"really" goes on in the system, or not, but of whether the attention of the observer is focussed on the
processes, or on the structural uniformities of the system. Thus, in the example used below, to common
sense a table is "solid" and unchanging over a short period (unless for instance it catches on fire) but to
a physicist the same object is a dynamic system of rapidly moving atoms or electrons.

36 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
description, involves a shift in frames of reference. There is no inherent meth
odological reason to set a limit to the possible number of such steps. A table
which appears so simple to common sense may be interpreted as a very com
plex system involving a highly dynamic process by the physicist. But his most
elementary units, the electron, proton etc., and elementary structures like the
atom, may in turn prove to be equally complex when analyzed in terms of a still
more elementary frame of reference.
When dealing with a concrete type of system, such as a system of social
relationships, it is hence not enough to inquire what is the structure of the
system. Different levels of structural categories will be relevant according to the
frame of reference in terms of which the system is described and analyzed, and
according to the methodological use to which the structural categories are put.
[11] This brings us to some of the implications of Simmel's third thesis, that
form and content are independently variable. It is in this connection that the
problem arises as to the sense in which a study of social "forms" can constitute
the analytical framework of a theoretical science. Simmel apparently considers
this question only on one level which may, for present purposes, be called the
concretely descriptive. The form or structure of a system of social relationships is
a "descriptive aspect" of such a system. It consists in certain facts about the system
which can be stated in relative isolation from other facts, that is, in the present
case, in isolation from the classificatory character of the "interests" which are
involved in the system. On the level on which Simmel claims independent vari
ability there can be no doubt that this variability is a fact.
Furthermore there can be no doubt that this independent variability under
certain conditions, * possesses some causal significance. For in the logic of cau
sation, or if that term is objectionable, "determination," there is no other test of
causal significance than the independent variation which can be demonstrated
by comparison of different cases involving the same value of one variable in
different combinations with the values of others, by experiment under con
trolled conditions, or by what is usually known as "comparative method." What
constitutes variables in a logically acceptable sense cannot be discussed in
detail here, but there does not seem to be any obvious reason why form and
content on the one hand, or various sub-categories of each, should not consti
tute logically satisfactory variables in the most formal sense. The problem
then, is not whether it is possible, scientifically, to accomplish "anything"
by Simmel's procedure, but whether it is more fruitful than other method
ological possibilities.
[12] At this point the previously introduced considerations of the relativity of
the concept structure, become relevant to our problem. It may be asked whether
in the sciences which have achieved the highest development of analytical theory
the structure of the concrete systems they deal with in the most concrete descrip
tive level, is usually treated as one, or a system of variables. The answer is
uniformly no. The description of the structure, as also of the units related in it,

* See below for a further discussion of this problem.

Parsons 37

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
is treated as the statement of the problem to be tackled by theoretical analy
sis, not as providing the conceptual materials of the analysis itself. Put some
what differently, concrete structures are generally treated, not as the values of
variables, but as the resultants of the interaction of more than one variable. A
good example is the way in which the structure of a waterfall would be treated
in elementary physics. It, like any other object of analysis, has a "form," which
is perfectly capable of geometrical description as involving for instance, an arc
of a certain type of parabola. But it would never even occur to a physicist to
explain any aspect of the flow of water over a fall as the result, in any part, of
the arc of a parabola considered as a causal factor. He would treat as "causes,"
on the one hand a deeper-lying structure, that of the contours of the riverbed,
including the fact that they were rigid enough not to erode significantly over a
short period. This structure would be treated as a set of "constants" of the
problem. The other main constants would be the relevant properties of water,
its specific gravity and viscosity. Then as the values of variables would be treated
the volume and rate of flow of water, from which, in combination with the
constants, the concrete form of the fall, including the formula for the particular
parabola in question, would [13] be derived. This does not mean that it would
not be possible for physicists to ascertain the parabolas of waterfalls by direct
observation, and use these formulas as the values of a basic variable in the
explanation of what happens. It is only that by that method it would not be
possible, with the same degree of simplicity, to derive theoretical formulas of a
comparable degree of generality, applying not only to waterfalls, but to a large
variety of other physical phenomena.
This example is taken from a simple field of application of a particular theo
retical system, the classical mechanics. The long experience of the science of
physics seems to have shown that this system gives accurate results only in so
far as it is possible to conceive the concrete systems to which it applies as
closely approaching a certain type, which has come to be called "atomistic" or
"mechanical." The relevant feature of such systems for us is that it is possible
to treat the units and their properties as descriptively independent of their
relations to other units of the system. Thus in the Newtonian treatment of the
solar system the masses of the bodies which make it up are treated as entirely
independent of the distances from or velocities relative to each other. It is,
however, precisely this assumption which, in relation to certain astronomical
problems, the theory of relativity has had to question. If I understand it cor
rectly, the innovations introduced by the theory of relativity, and the other great
branch of modern physics, the quantum theory, have in common the fact that
they no longer treat their systems as strictly atomistic in this sense. *
If a certain modification of this type of theory has proved necessary even in
physics, it is not surprising that currents of thought of fundamental importance
* A comparative example from the social field is that of the way in which an economist would ordinarily treat
a competitive market situation. Such a market has a structure just as a waterfall has. The term competition
is descriptive of an aspect of that structure just as the parabolic curve is of the physical structure. More
over, competition, being a mode of the interrelations of human individuals in a process of social interaction
is in Simmel's technical sense a "social form." Competition is not, however, a variable in the system of

38 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
in the biological and social [14] fields have, since conscious reflection on such
subjects began, always refused to consider it an obligation of scientific analysis
to treat the systems they were concerned with as strictly atomistic. The term
most generally acceptable for the property which primarily makes the difference
seems to be that such systems are to a greater or less degree "organic."** The
usual definition of an organic system is one relative to which it is impossible to
treat the properties of the parts as independent of their mutual relations in and
to the whole. The question thus arises whether the "organicity" of a system
alters the status of structure as a variable from the case of the atomistic system.
There is undoubtedly an important sense in which this is true. To be sure it
is never possible to understand the behavior of a system solely in terms of the
properties of its units. There are always certain minimum relational terms which
are required, in terms of the frame of reference, in order that the conception of
an existent system should make sense at all; what I have elsewhere called its
elementary relations. *** These, like distance in a mechanical system, are always
taken account of in an atomistic analysis. When a system is organic to an impor
tant degree, however, the total system has descriptive features which are not
logically required by the frame of reference as such. Since they are properties
of the total functioning system, not derivable from those of the units, they are,
according to the definition adopted here, closely identified with the form or
structure of the system.
It is true that Simmel was self-consciously attacking certain extreme forms of
"organic" social theory; social form to him was not a "substance," but a mode
of process. But nevertheless it may well be suspected that in treating form as an
independent variable he was seeking a way of dealing adequately with certain
of these [15] organic features of social systems. This may well be the main
reason why he did not bring in the rather obvious considerations just discussed
as to why structural categories on the immediately descriptive level do not have
an important place in the analytical theory of mechanics.
This presumption is greatly strengthened by an important fact of the history
of social thought, the extent to which economic theory and the closely related
"utilitarian" social theory has been "individualistic," since one of the several
connotations of this term is atomism in the sense of this discussion, and has,
particularly in Germany in Simmel's time, been continually attacked as such. It
may well be suspected that Simmel was seeking a way of taking account of the
organic elements neglected by individualistic theories, without involving the
wholesale repudiation of the latter in all respects, which has been so common
in the organic traditions of social thought. The analytical situation underlying
this presumption is in need of further clarification.

economic theory, it is a descriptive aspect of the systems to which economic analysis is habitually applied.
That a market is competitive is not the explanation of anything, but is something for the economist to
explain. As causal factors, on the other hand, the economist will use the numbers of participants in the
market on both sides, the distribution of economic resources on either side, among them, the "conditions"
of demand for the particular product or service dealt with and the supply of cost conditions.
** See Structure of Social Action, pp 3Iff, pp 738ff.
*** Ibid., p 734.

Parsons 39

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
There is a sense in which the basic explanatory schema of economics in
relation to a competitive market situation is closely analogous to that of classical
mechanics. Such a competitive market undoubtedly has a structure, the individu
als in it stand in certain determinate forms of relationship to one another, on the
one hand as competitors, on the other as parties to actual and potential sales.
But traditionally economists, like physicists in the case of the waterfall, would
not attempt to explain anything by the "form" of competition. The competitive
market would rather be described as a statement of the analytical problem.
Explanation however, would be in different terms, this time of elements of the
"motivation" of individuals, the maximization of money proceeds from the trans
actions, and, on the other, hand, of certain deeper-lying features of the situation,
partly structural, such [16] as the available quantities of the relevant commodi
ties or services, or the "costs" of producing them, and the "conditions of demand"
on the part of buyers as ultimate consumers, or if they are not consumers, of others
in the society.
This kind of schema for the analysis of certain types of social relationships
has, in the utilitarian tradition of thought, been broadened out to the more
general conception of "contractual relationships." As such it has occupied a
central position in what has perhaps been the most important theoretical tradi
tion in the social field in modern times. At the same time there has been an
important movement of thought which has shown that the elements usually
explicitly formulated in the economic analysis of competitive markets, or in the
broader account of contractual relations, are inadequate to account for certain
of the important features of systems of such relations, above all their stability,
and elements of motivation which extend beyond the range of "immediate eco
nomic self-interest."* The essential point is that while individualistic theories
have tended to lay stress on what may be called the "factual" conditions of
contractual relations, natural resources, the biological work-powers of men etc.
on the one hand, their biological needs on the other, the movement of thought
in question has laid stress on what may be called "normative" conditions, such
as the institutional rules of honesty and other aspects of the property system,
and of the ultimate values directly expressed in economic activities.
Both these types of elements have in common, that for purposes of the analy
sis of the action of a particular individual, or even of a limited sub-system of
action such as a particular market-price problem, they may, with relatively little
damage to accuracy often be neglected. Their crucial analytical [17] importance
as variables, has only become evident with the attempt to formulate a general
ized analysis of total social systems.
Seen in this context, Simmel's attempt was certainly leading in the right direc
tion. In terms of his approach these elements, since their importance was not
necessarily evident from the consideration of an isolated individual, are neces
sarily closely involved in the structure of total systems. Hence, his emphasis on

* Durkheim, 1893: bk II, ch. 7; Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitolism [Weber 1930].
See also Structure of Social Action, chap. XIII and XIV.

40 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
structural categories is a way of stating the problems, which makes it much
more difficult to neglect the empirical role of the non-individualistic elements
than was the case with the utilitarian mode of thought. In this respect it plays
a role similar to that of conceptions of organic totality in biology, from Aristotle's
entelechy down.2
But this relative usefulness, important as it may be, should not be allowed to
distract attention from the fact that Simmel's schema obscures certain very important
analytical possibilities which other developments of social theory, not open to
the above criticisms directed against atomism, have opened up. I should like to
develop briefly two aspects of these possibilities, both of which rest upon an
analysis, not of form as such, but of what Simmel wished to exclude from
sociological conceptualization, the "motives" or "interests" of individuals.
Simmel distinguished form from "content," which rather consists of the "mo
tives" or "interests" of individuals. The latter are then classified in relation to the
differentiation of human activities, as "economic," "religious," "political," etc. It
is clear on the one hand that what is ordinarily called the "motivation" of action
is not involved in the analytical concept of social form, on the other that a
motive or an interest is for Simmel an integral unit which for his purposes he
does not attempt to subject to any [18] further analysis. Simmel does not carry
his discussion of the problem far enough to commit himself, but the presump
tion is that he thinks in terms of a one-to-one correspondence between motive
and act, each act having its appropriate motive.
But it is precisely here that the analytical possibility on which Simmel's ap
proach closes the door, opens up. There is no better empirical justification for
assuming a one-to-one correspondence between act and motive than there was
for the logically similar assumption underlying the so-called "unit character"
theory of inheritance in biology, * that there was a one-to-one correspondence
between the analytical unit of heredity, the "gene," and the concrete somatic
character of the developed organism. In both cases a similar undesirable rigidity
results, on the one hand the denial of the possibility of environmental influence
on the organism, on the other such conceptions as that of the "egoism" of the
economic man, accepted as a literal total description of the concrete business
man's concrete motives.
The fact is that the "motives" of economic theory or of psychological and
sociological theories should not be treated as names for concrete entities, but as
analytical categories. In particular the classifications of motives, such as that
which Simmel employs, are not classifications of concrete motives, but rest on
analytical distinctions. Concrete motives are seldom "pure types" but almost
always involve some combination of the elements distinguished in the classifica
tions.
This proposition could be rigorously proved in terms of a large number of
different empirical fields, if space permitted. Here it will have to suffice to call
attention to the situation with reference to the problem of "economic motives." *

* On this theory, see H.S. Jenning's The Biological Basis of Human Nature [Jennings, 1930].

Parsons 41

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
Many of the most objectionable empirical inferences from the older economic
theory flowed precisely from this identification of the [19] economic element of
concrete motivation, the "rational pursuit of self-interest" with the total con
crete motivation of a concrete system of action. On the one hand analysis has,
I venture to say, definitely proved, that economic motivation in this sense can
not exhaust the concrete motivation of the individuals involved in market or
other "economic" relations, but that any concrete motivation system relevant to
the analysis of such phenomena must be far more complex. This is true in spite
of the fact that for certain limited purposes it is quite legitimate to treat only
these economic elements of motivation as variables in the analytical problem in
hand, taking account of the others as constants, which, however, are logically
essential premises of any sound empirical conclusions.
On the other hand, the investigations which have demonstrated the empirical
inadequacy of a conception of a system of purely contractual relations, or of the
conception of the concrete actions of modern business men as motivated en
tirely by the pursuit of self interest, have, in the process of analytical develop
ment through which their authors have carried them, come to be directly inte
grated with a generalized theory of the motivation of action in which the
element of economic motivation has a crucially important place, not however,
as the concrete motive of a class of action, but as an element standing in certain
quite definite structural relations to other, quite different elements. In the case
of Max Weber's analysis of the role of "disinterested" elements in the spirit of
capitalism, this articulation with a general theory of motivation has been direct.
In that of Durkheim's analysis of contractual relations, it was more indirect, but
through his conception of the role of a sense of moral obligation in the enforce
ment of institutional rules, came to be none the less definite.
[20] It is true that this generalized theory of the motivation of action contains
structural elements of fundamental importance. Indeed it is in relation to the
structure of social systems of action that it is by far [the] most highly developed so
far. But this is not a vindication of Simmel's analytical approach, it is rather a
conspicuous example of what has already several times been mentioned. Social
structure described in Simmel's terms as a complex of forms of social relationship,
is broken down analytically, is not treated as an independent variable, or system
of them, but as a resultant of the interdependence of a group of other variables.
And these variables are not elements of the forms of relationships, but of the
motives of action, the very elements which Simmel explicitly excluded from the
analytical consideration of sociological science. If one's approach to sociological
theory is, as in the case of the present author, through the theory of social
action, Simmel's formula, far from being acceptable, "throws out the baby with
the bath." By definition it excludes from the start the conceptual elements which
form the basis of the analytical system of sociological theory.

* See the author's "Reflections on the 'Nature and Significance of Economies'" Quarterly Journal of Econom
ics, Vol. 48 [Parsons, 1934] and Structure of Social Action, [Parsons, 1937] chap. IV, pp. I6lff, chap. VI
pp. 264ff.

42 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
Before developing the consequences of this exclusion a little farther, I should
like to say a few words about the other respect in which Simmel's procedure
shuts the door on analytical considerations of fundamental importance to soci
ology. Structure is, as has been said, a descriptive aspect of all empirical sys
tems. But precisely because it is common to all empirical systems, basing analy
sis on the concept of structure fails to build into the methodological basis of a
particular analytical system, certain of the elements which are of especial im
portance to the analysis of the particular type of systems to which it is applied.
[21] The further the analytical theory of social action has developed, the more
evident it has become how fundamental to it is one feature of action systems, what
I have elsewhere called their "normative orientation."* Normative orientation is an
indispensable logical component of the frame of reference of action, the means-end
schema; it is impossible to think in such terms without it. Moreover the basic
fact of normative orientation necessitates the analytical distinction between two
classes of elements of action systems, the normative and "conditional" elements.
Now Simmel's concept of the concrete system "society" is far from being
logically independent of the frame of reference of action, and of the means-end
schema. His definition of content by such terms as impulse, end, interest and
motive is sufficient to prove that. Indeed, "society" for him is precisely a process
of continuous mutually oriented action of individuals in relation to one another.
The essential processes are processes of action in the technical sense of the
theory of action now under consideration. But the "line" which Simmel's distinction
between form and content draws through the facts singles out the concrete
structural forms of social relationship for the attention of sociological theory.
Concrete structural form is, however, a category to which the whole fact of
normative orientation, and the distinction and Spannung3 between normative
and conditional elements is conceptually irrelevant. This results in pushing the
whole problem of normative orientation over into the sphere of "content"; it
becomes a matter for the "social sciences," not for sociology.
But this fact has the most far-reaching consequences. For in relation to the
theory of action, it is the active orientation to normative elements which plays
the analytical role analogous [22] to that of energy in physical theory. It is by
virtue of that alone that the analytical system becomes the theory of dynamic
systems, of process and change. But without the capability of analyzing, not
merely describing, process in the relations of the independent variation of vari
ables, it is impossible to establish causal relationships or "laws" in the usual
analytical scientific sense. This situation is, in my opinion, the principal source
of one of the most striking, and scientifically unsatisfactory features of "formal"
sociology, its "static" character. It does not yield a causal analysis of empirical
phenomena, which are always in some sense dynamic systems.
Simmel's procedure and formula have an important historical justification in
at least two respects. It has been pointed out that in one connection, it may be
regarded as an attempt to work out a mode of analysis of social phenomena
* See Structure of Social Action, [Parsons, 1937] chap. II pp 44 ff and Note A. Also frequently discussed
throughout the book.

Parsons 43

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
which was not subject to the criticisms directed against the atomistic theories,
particularly those of "economic individualism," and which would likewise avoid
the more extreme "organicism" of much of the German social theory of his time.
But in addition to this Simmel had another very important insight which was in
advance of much of the though of his time: This was the realization that the
basis of much of the most fruitful scientific conceptualization is not a naive
reproduction of the concrete objects of the external world, but involves a high
degree of analytical abstraction. "Empiricism" in this sense was a dominant
characteristic of the methodology of social theory in almost all schools at the
time. To have vindicated the legitimacy, even the necessity, of analytical abstrac
tion was a great service.
But from the fact that abstraction is essential to scientific theory it does not
follow that all modes and directions of [23] abstraction are equally fruitful for
all scientific purposes. That Simmel embarked on the path of abstraction is
greatly to be commended. But it is unfortunate that he did not analyze the
various possible distinct modes of abstraction and their mutual relations more
thoroughly. To clarify the previous discussion it may be useful, very schemati
cally, to distinguish three different types of abstract concepts, of which Simmel's
form is only one.
Simmel was, of course, aware that a concrete phenomenon or system, as
described for scientific purposes, is not simply a verbal reproduction of the
external world, but involves a selective ordering and abstraction. But this is not
the present concern. Once a system has been described, it may be analyzed on
the structural level, as discussed above, into units and their structural relations.
It is obvious that the structural relations always constitute in a sense an abstrac
tion, because it is nonsensical to think of them as "existing" apart from the
relata, the units whose relations they state. "Marriage" is not a thing, which can
exist concretely without reference to any human beings; it is a mode in which
concrete human beings are related to one another.
The unit of an atomistic system is not an abstraction in quite the same sense.
The properties of a particle in classical mechanics are thought of as quite inde
pendent of its relations to other particles. It can be taken out of the system and
still be the "same" particle. But in so far as the system is organic, this ceases to
be true, and a unit in the sense of an entity thought of as existing apart from
its relations in a concrete system is a fiction. It might be possible experimentally
or conceptually to isolate such a unit. But it would not be a unit of that system
in the [24] sense in which an isolable particle is a unit of mechanical systems.
Simmel's discussion of abstraction is limited to this distinction of units and
structural relations. His insistence that the unit or content, as well as form is
an abstraction, is, I think, largely a result of his realization that social systems are
highly organic in the sense of the above discussion.
There is, however, a third type of abstract concept which plays a basic role
in the methodology of science, and which Simmel ignores completely. That is
what may be called the "analytical element" or variable. In content this may
overlap with either of the other two, but it need not. A variable may be simply

44 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
a "property" of a unit or system of units. One can conceive a particle as existing
independently of its relations. But one cannot conceive "mass" as independently
existent. The expression "a mass" is, in the technical sense of mechanics, non
sensical. Yet mass is one of the basic variables of the theory of mechanics.
Whether the conceptual content of a variable coincides with what are for
some purposes unit or relational concepts is not, however, the important point.
It may be said that a system of variables never simply describes the units and
structural relations of an empirical system on the most concrete level relevant
within the frame of reference being employed. Such description, including the
abstraction of structural relations from the properties of units always has the
function of stating a problem for causal analysis. Such analysis involves in addi
tion to description the application to the particular facts of a system of variables.
This application always involves, explicitly or implicitly, a comparative refer
ence to parts of the range of variation of the variables which lie beyond the
values involved in the particular description. It is only by virtue of generalized
knowledge of the relations of inter- [25] dependence, of the variable, derived
from comparison, that it is logically possible to draw causal conclusions. Fur
thermore, the comparison from which such generalized knowledge is derived,
cannot be limited to a descriptive comparison of structures on this most con
crete descriptive level.*
It is true that structural categories often play an important role in causal
explanation. But it is safe to say that this is never true when they are the most
concrete descriptive structures. We may revert to the three types of cases dis
cussed early in the paper. In the case of the common-sense description of a table
there is no dynamic problem. The conception of the table may, however, be
used negatively to explain why certain dynamic processes do not take place,
why for instance objects placed upon it do not fall to the floor. This causal
knowledge cannot, however, be derived merely from observation of the table.
It requires in addition the application of generalized analytical knowledge. It is
safe to say that Simmel did not think of form in relation to this kind of static case.
His thinking is more analogous to the case of the waterfall. But the analogy
of form in the sense in which he treats it as causally significant is not the
concrete form of the fall, but the structure of the riverbed. This is causally
significant to the process of fall of the water, including the concrete form of the
fall, because it sets limits to the dynamic process of flow. If the physicist can
take certain features of the riverbed as given, can neglect their interdependence
with the process of flow, then his dynamic problem is immensely simplified.
That is structural categories, as constant data for dynamic problems, are always
of causal significance. But these are never the structures of systems on the most
concrete level, but [26] on a deeper one. Simmel, in failing to make this distinc
tion of levels in its application to his methodological problems, creates a serious
confusion. Descriptively his forms are the forms of concrete social relationships.
But these cannot have causal significance in relation to processes of change in

* On all this, see Structure of Social Action, [Parsons 1937] chap. XVI, pp. 601-624 and chap. XIX, pp.
795ff.

Parsons 45

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
social structure, which most important dynamic sociological problems in fact
involve. So, in his empirical essays, we find that he does not in fact explain social
processes by forms. He describes the forms, and then turns to other elements for his
explanations. An excellent example is his treatment of number as a determinant
of social relationships.4
We must not forget, then, that although structural categories may often have
causal significance, it is only as constant data in a dynamic problem. This fact
rigidly limits the generality of any theory which depends primarily on such
concepts. Its categories are significant only within the range in which it is
empirically legitimate to assume relative constancy. Beyond that range new dynamic
elements must be admitted to the problem, which takes the theory of it off the
structural level. After all the essence of theoretical advance in science is the
reaching of higher and higher levels of analytical generalization. The use of form
concepts as the constructive principle of explanatory theory, is not an instru
ment in this process of advance, it is a statement of the limitations on theoretical
generalization which are necessitated by the scientific ignorance of the time.
Advance comes, not through the development of the "theory of forms," but [27]
through the replacement of such concepts by those of dynamic analytical theory.
It would be difficult to conceive a more pernicious methodological doctrine,
in its long run implications for social science, than Simmers. For, if it were
adhered to with real faithfulness, the effect would be a fixation of generalized
knowledge of social processes on the present elementary levels, the inhibition
of all analytical progress in the theory of human social behavior.
This brings us to the question of the kind of systematization of which Simmel's
type of social theory is capable. This may best be discussed in terms of what has
actually happened to the theory of formal sociology. Simmel's own case is of
great interest. In spite of being the originator of the methodological program, he
never even attempted to develop a system of theory on its basis. His other
sociological writings consist in a series of essays on particular social forms.
These are brilliantly illuminating essays, among the finest things to be found in
sociological literature. But even taken together they clearly do not comprise a*
system of formal sociology. Moreover, as has already been remarked, Simmel
does not consistently follow out his methodological program even in these dis
connected studies. It is true that he talks about social forms. He describes them
and uses them as his starting point. But he does not consistently use them as
explanatory categories. His discussions are full of reference to motives and the
other things he has methodologically banned. The very great fruitfulness and
originality of these essays derives, not from his methodological use of forms as
analytical tools, but from the fact that he approaches the analysis of social
phenomena from an unusual point of view which cuts across the conventional
compartments of economic, political, etc. But his actual explanatory [28] theory
is not "formal," it is overwhelmingly motivational. Only it remains on a common
sense level which, however much it may illuminate certain hitherto obscure
empirical problems, does not contribute in any important measure to the
development of the systematic analytical theory of human social life.

46 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
A very different case is that of Leopold von Wiese. Professor von Wiese has
explicitly accepted Simmel's formula and attempted to build a system of formal
sociology. The result of this attempt is an elaborate classification of possible
types of social relationship. It starts from the most general possible criterion of
distinction, whether relations are "associative" or "dissociative," and proceeds
by adding progressively more and more criteria. Empirical material has a place
only by way of illustration. There is no attempt at explanation, only at pinning
the labels of the structural types thus constructed, to certain empirical cases.
This is not to say that classification, of structural types as well as other things,
is not an entirely legitimate and indispensable scientific procedure. But classifi
cation has its function mainly in two respects, on the descriptive level as stating
the problems for theoretical analysis, on the analytical, as the mode of system
atizing the values of particular variables. In the former case a classification is
scientifically significant in direct proportion to the extent to which it is inte
grated with a system of analytical theory. Professor von Wiese's classification
does not grow out of far-reaching empirical problems of causation, nor is it
integrated with any analytical system. It is "purely formal." As such it is very
little more than an exercise in spinning out the logical implications of defini
tions. The further elaborated it becomes the less useful are its creations [29] as
tools of empirical research. This formal sterility is indeed inevitable if the for
mula of Simmel is strictly followed, as the sole methodological program of a
theoretical science. The situation becomes especially clear through comparison
of the work of von Wiese with that of Max Weber.
The extensive system of explicit conceptualization to be found in Weber's
work is the system of ideal types, most fully formulated in the first part of
Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Weber 1925].6 There is no question but what (sic)
this constitutes formal sociology in the sense of Simmel and von Wiese. It con
firms the fact that the sole possible mode of systematization for such theory is
a classification of types. But there are, apart from the specific concepts used,
two striking differences from the system of von Wiese. In the first place Weber's
types were predominantly constructed in the course of a far-reaching program
of empirical research, above all his comparative studies in the sociology of
religion. Each type is a tool in the task of grappling with basically important
empirical problems, problems of causal relationship, not of classification. Hence
in origin it is not formal in the sense of Wiese's system. The formal systematics
is secondary to the empirical uses. Weber did not start with certain formal
distinctions and spin out further distinctions from there.
Secondly, investigation of this system shows * that its systematic aspect is by
no means limited to the "formal" side. On the contrary the basic logical frame
work of the classification is the outline of an analytical system of theory, on a
deeper level of analysis than the structure of social relationships. It is, in fact,
one of the most complete versions of certain aspects of the "theory of social
action" to be found in the literature. In spite of the fact that Weber was meth

* See Structure of Social Action, [Parsons 1937] chap. XVII.

Parsons 47

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
odologically unaware of [30] certain of the vital functions of analytical theory,
in his own work he built up the outline of an analytical system, driven, we may
surmise, largely by the sheer logic of his empirical facts. Thus his "formal"
classification of relationships is closely integrated with a conceptual system on
a deeper analytical level. It is this, combined with its close relation to empirical
problems, which saves it from the objectionable "formalism" of von Wiese's
system. Both these features are notably lacking in the latter. In short the formal
part of Weber's theoretical work is scientifically fruitful precisely because he did
not limit himself to Simmel's methodological program, but carried out formal
theorizing only in connection with dynamic problems of causation in empirical
research, and integrated his formal concepts directly with an analytical system,
the concepts of which are essential tools dealing with the same range of empiri
cal problems. What Simmel, failing to live up to his own program, did on a
dillentantish, common-sense level, with many brilliant and arresting insights, but
no imposing structure of proof of propositions of far-reaching importance, Weber
accomplished on a far higher level, meticulously building up a rigorous proof of
his theses, in the manner not of a brilliant dilettante, but of a sober professional
scientist. Brilliant dilettantes have their place in science, but the progress of
science can hardly be left to their efforts alone. And overcoming that stage
necessitates a careful analytical study of the methodological problems underly
ing such proposals as that of Simmel.
In spite of these virtues, there are a number of points at which Weber falls
short of the highest level of rigor in his proofs of which his empirical level is
capable. Analysis of his work in these respects shows that one main source of
his [31] difficulties lies in what, in essence, is the following of a formal procedure
in Simmel's sense, where that is not methodologically advisable. This results in
a kind of "ideal-type atomism" which unfortunately cannot be dealt with here.*
A few of the more important points of this paper may be reiterated in con
clusion. On the level of his own explicit definitions Simmel's categories of social
form are not suitable tools in problems of causal explanation on the theoretical
level at all, but only of description for the purposes of clear statement of explana
tory problems. The importance of this function should not be underestimated,
but by the same token, in relation to just what functions in science particular
types of concepts are important, should be made as clear as possible. Structural
concepts, on the other hand, not on the most concretely descriptive level, but
on the next level of analysis, may have considerable significance for explanatory
purposes. But even here they play their role in the form of constant data, not
as functionally interdependent variables of a system. The more, then, a theoreti
cal scheme hopes to attain a high level of generality as an explanatory tool, the
less can it depend, empirically, on the descriptive facts of the structure of the

* See Structure of Social Action, [Parsons 1937] chap. XVI, pp. 607ff. It is hoped the reader will excuse the
continual references to the author's own work. The explanation lies in the fact that the content of the
present paper was originally conceived as a chapter of that book which, for reasons of space, it was
decided to omit. It constitutes an extension of the analytical argument of the book into a slightly different
field. Hence, references must continually be made to the starting points of the extension, in the book itself.
Without familiarity with these, comprehension of the paper will be difficult.

48 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
empirical systems to which it applies. To elevate the formulation of structural
categories in this sense, as near the concrete level as possible, and the sole
possible mode of systematization of such categories, structural type-classifica
tion, into the sole methodological program for the development of theory in any
empirical science, is (precisely) to set rigid limits, which are in principle declared
to be [32] insurmountable, to the development of analytical explanatory theory
in the field in question. This is to cut off at the source the growth of the very
type of theory which has proved most fruitful in the advancement of knowledge
in what are almost universally regarded as the most advanced branches of sci
ence, the physical sciences. Its inevitable effect would be either to condemn
sociology to a rigid and sterile formalism which would cut if off from any real
grappling with dynamic empirical problems of broad scope and significance, or
else to condemn it to a brilliant dilettantism like that of Simmel himself which,
however fruitful at certain stages in the development of a science, can hardly be
a satisfactory basis on which to erect a program for the general theoretical
development of the field. It is this dilemma, so strikingly exemplified in the
directions which the work of the two leading formal sociologists so far, von
Wiese and Simmel himself, have taken, which justified the harsh judgment, that
it would, in the long run interests of sociological theory, be difficult to conceive
a more pernicious methodological doctrine than that of Simmel, if it is taken
seriously as defining the sole acceptable program of theoretical conceptualization
for an empirical science.
The author's own conviction that the dilemma need not be accepted has been
abundantly expressed throughout the present paper. It may, however, be noted
that this conviction is based on knowledge that analytical theory of the type
here advocated is not, in the social field a mere program, but a reality which has
already reached a relatively high stage of development. * The progress of socio
logical theory, as that of the other theoretical social sciences, lies in following
up those beginnings to a higher state, not in turning away from them to follow
what is, from this point of view an enticing, but essentially fruitless program,
like that of Simmel.
At the beginning of this paper it was said that we do not propose to revive
the question of the scope of sociology. No attempt will here be made to draw
the lines between sociology and its neighbors in the field of human affairs.
Suffice it to say that it is the author's strong conviction that the most promising
way to develop its contribution to our knowledge of man and his social life,
does not lie in making it methodologically unique, as Simmel would have us do,
but in centering it on a system of analytical theory, which is part of a still larger
system of theory dealing with human social action as a whole. It is because Simmel's
methodological program for sociological theory constitutes a direct obstacle to
this kind of development, that it has seemed worth while to submit to the
profession at this time a discussion of the methodological issues underlying it.

* That this is the case is the most important thesis of The Structure of Social Action [Parsons 1937].

Parsons 49

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
Notes
1. Parsons originally discussed "encyclopedic sociology" in relation to economics. He held that if economics
were to based upon empiricist principles it would have "no place for a logically separate body of principles
of economics." Rather, economics would be "merely the application to a particular body of concrete
phenomena of the general principles necessary for understanding human conduct." Hence, it would con
stitute "encyclopedic sociology": "the synthesis of all scientific theory relevant to the concrete facts of
human behavior in society." He concluded that "economics then becomes applied sociology" (Parsons,
1937: 173).
2. This means, "a realization or actuality as opposed to a potentiality," or in vitalist philosophy "a vital agent
or force directing growth and life."
3. Tension.
4. Simmel discusses this issue at length. See Part II, "Quantitative Aspects of the Group," in Simmel (1950).
This material was translated from Soziologie (Simmel 1923).
5. Parsons was undoubtedly referring to Becker's adaptation of Von Wiese's work (Becker and Von Wiese,
1932), which he placed on a bibliography for a course that he taught on European Sociological Theory.

References
Abel, Theodore Fred. 1929. Systematic Sociology in Germany: A Critical Analysis of Some Attempts to Estab
lish Sociology as an Independent Science. New York: Columbia University Press.
Durkheim, Emile. 1893. De la Division du Travail Social. Paris: F. Alean.
Durkheim, Emile. 1924. Sociologie et Philosophie, with a preface by C. Bougie. Paris: F. Alean.
Jennings, Herbert S. 1930. The Biological Basis of Human Nature. New York: W.W. Norton.
Parsons, Talcott. 1934. "Some Reflections on "The Nature and Significance of Economics,'" Quarterly Journal
of Economics 48: 511-545.
Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Simmel, Georg. 1923. Soziologie: Untersuchung ?ber die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, 3. Auflage, M?nchen:
Duncker und Humboldt.
Simmel, Georg. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Kurt H.
Wolff. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Sorokin, Pitirim. 1928. Contemporary Sociological Theories. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Weber, Max. 1925. Grundriss der Sozial?konomik. III. Abteilung: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, 2 vols., J.C.B.
Mohr (P. Siebeck), T?bingen.
-. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans, by Talcott Parsons, George Allen &
Un win, Ltd., London.
Wiese, Leopold von and Howard Becker. 1932. Systematic Sociology: On the Basis of the Beziehungslebre and
Gebildelehre of Leopold von Wiese. Adapted and amplified by Howard Becker. New York: John Wiley and
Sons.

50 The American Sociologist/Summer 1998

This content downloaded from 139.184.14.159 on Fri, 15 Jul 2016 12:23:17 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms