Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 29-38
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 29
The Methodological Implications of the Schutz-Parsons Debate
Christian Etzrodt
Department of Basic Education, Akit a International University, Akita, Japan
Received November 19th, 2012; revised December 20th, 2012; accepted December 31st, 2012
The aim of this paper is an analysis of the different standpoints of Parsons and Schutz concerning We-
ber’s suggestion that sociological explanations have to include the subjective point of view of the actors,
the Cartesian Dilemma that the actor’s consciousness is not accessible to the researcher, and the Kantian
Problem that theories are necessary in order to interpret sensory data, but that there is no guarantee that
these theories are true. The comparison of Schutz’s and Parsons’s positions shows that Parsons’s method-
ology is naïve and unsuitable for a sociological analysis. But although Schutz’s methodological stand-
point is much more reasonable, it is also problematic, because it excludes highly abstract social “facts”
such as social systems from the research agenda. Parsons can deal with such highly abstract facts, despite
the drawback that with his methodology the truth content of theories cannot be judged.
Keywords: Alfred Schutz; Talcott Parsons; Methodology; Interpretative Sociology; System Theory
Around 1938, the editor of the British journal Economica,
Friedrich August von Hayek, invited one of his former students,
Alfred Schutz, to write a review of Talcott Parsons’s The
Structure of Social Action (1937). Schutz agreed, and the first
meeting between Schutz and Parsons took place in 1939. Par-
sons along with Joseph Schumpeter invited Schutz to present a
paper about rationality in the social world at the Harvard Fac-
ulty Club on April 13, 1940 (Barber, 2004: p. 91). However,
their scientific correspondence did not start until November
1940, when Schutz sent Parsons the first version of his review
of The Structure of Social Action. The correspondence ended in
April 1941 after an uneasy discourse about methodology and
action theory. Schutz and Parsons decided not to make their
dispute public. Ultimately, the review was never published in
Economica. Several years after the early death of Alfred Schutz,
his wife Ilse Schutz and Talcott Parsons consented to publish
the correspondence (Grathoff, 1978b: p. 17). This is the histori-
cal background of the Schutz-Parsons debate.
The Schutz-Parsons debate, although not really recognized as
such, is for me one of the most important scientific debates in
sociology. It handles questions that are still vital and largely
unsolved (cf. Coser, 1979: p. 682; Tibbets, 1980: p. 357; Ho,
2008: p. 384). Every sociologist has to clarify his/her stand-
point in relation to these questions. This debate deals with me-
thodological principles that should be applied in sociology.
What is the difference between the natural sciences and the
social sciences, and should the methods of the natural sciences
also be applied in the social sciences? Is there a unity of meth-
ods in sociology, or is the choice of the methods dependent on
the research program? Is it possible to use the same methods in
micro- as in macrosociology? This is, I think, a very interesting
question, because we can find attempts to bridge the gap be-
tween micro- and macrosociology or agency and structure, but
this is perhaps impossible from the methodological point of
I will discuss in this paper the different methodological
standpoint of Schutz and Parsosn in relation to what Richard
Grathoff called the Weberian Suggestion, the Cartesian Di-
lemma, and the Kantian Problem, and will conclude with a sys-
tematic summary of their positions.
The Weberian Suggestion
The first methodological point on which Alfred Schutz and
Talcott Parsons had different opinions was called by Richard
Grathoff the Weberian Suggestion. Max Weber’s basic aim of
his interpretative sociology was a methodological foundation of
sociology that makes it possible to grasp the subjective motives
and intentions of the actors. After defining several key socio-
logical concepts, his work was mainly concerned with the his-
torical analysis of social structures. Both Alfred Schutz and
Talcott Parsons followed the Weberian Suggestion that a so-
ciological theory must begin with the individual actor. But the
ways they tried to provide this foundation of sociology differed
in relation to their positions in the Methodenstreit in economics
(cf. Grathoff, 1978b: p. 10).
The Methodenstreit in economics was mainly a debate be-
tween the leader of the Austrian School of Economics Carl
Menger (1840-1921) and the leader of the German Historical
School Gustav Schmoller (1838-1917). The debate started in
1883 after the publication of Menger’s book on methodology,
where he proposed an economic approach as a pure theory.
Economics should be based, in his opinion, on general univer-
sal concepts of human action (which are a priori true) and an-
tecedent conditions, and a deductive method. Schmoller on the
other hand argued for an economic approach based on concrete
historical facts, an inductive method, and a focus on the econ-
omy as a whole. He criticized Menger’s approach for its unre-
alistic assumptions and its irrelevance to the real, existing eco-
nomy, because of the high degree of abstractness of the general
concepts, and their empirical emptiness, whereas Menger re-
plied that historical facts can only be interpreted if the re-
searchers already have a scheme of interpretation (Fusfeld,
1987: p. 454; Prendergast, 1986: p. 22; Etzrodt, 2004: p. 98).
When Schutz studied economics and law in Vienna, the
Methodenstreit was still alive. Schutz in his attempt to defend
the methodological position of the Austrian School against the
accusations of the German Historical School turned his atten-
tion to Max Weber, who had an intermediate position in the de-
bate. Weber tried to describe historical processes by using gene-
ralized ideal types and emphasizing the importance of the sub-
jective point of view of the actors (Prendergast, 1986: p. 1ff.).
But although Weber accepted the position of the Austrian
School that a general scheme of interpretation is necessary for
the analysis of concrete historical facts, he avoided the mis-
taken belief of the Austrian economists that the general con-
cepts have to be true a priori. He insisted instead that the con-
struction of generalized ideal types depends on the researcher’s
value-standpoint and interests, and therefore is arbitrary.
Schutz’s methodological thinking was inspired by Max We-
ber’s work. He accepted the methodological individualism of
Max Weber and the Austrian School. He agreed with Weber
that general concepts are not a priori true, but he also rejected
Weber’s conclusion that ideal types are entirely arbitrary. For
Schutz, Weber arrived at a wrong conclusion in his analysis
because he did not realize the problems related to the method of
“understanding”. Weber had failed to explain how an observer
can understand the subjective meaning of the observed persons’
actions (Grathoff, 1978a: p. 395). Schutz turned to Husserl’s
phenomenology for a more satisfactory formulation of a con-
cept of understanding, based on the analysis of the stream of
consciousness (Khairy, 1986: p. 131), in order to find an ex-
planation of why people actually share ideal types. Finally these
methodological considerations led Schutz to the question of
how an action theory must be constructed in order to deal with
the problem of intersubjective understanding. Schutz’s main
analysis became the (subjective and intersubjective) connection
of motives and the structure of the life world in general terms.
In contrast to Alfred Schutz, methodology for Talcott Par-
sons was not a means, but rather a background problem, whose
solution defined his research program. Parsons studied eco-
nomics under teachers of different economic schools. At the
Amherst College he was influenced by institutional economists
Walton Hamilton and Clarence Ayres and in the London
School of Economics by Edwin Cannan, who analyzed the ca-
pitalist system as a whole based on concrete historical descrip-
tions of institutions similar to the German Historical School.
Later at Harvard he came into contact with neoclassical econo-
mists like Frank W. Taussig, whose aim was to develop a pure
theory in the sense of the Austrian School of Economics based
on methodological individualism and on general universal con-
cepts. Finally Parsons adopted the position of the biochemist
Lawrence J. Henderson. Henderson emphasized in his lectures
about Vilfredo Pareto the importance of the system and of gen-
eral concepts. Parsons accepted general concepts as his main
methodological tool, and his attempt to reconcile the funda-
mental discrepancy between the society as a whole (institu-
tional economics) or the system (Henderson) on the one side,
and the individual on the other (neoclassical economics), de-
fined his research program (cf. Camic, 1991: pp. xxxii-xxxv).
He took on the problem of constructing a social theory which
could eliminate the fundamental conflict between individual
and collective interests—the classical problem of Thomas Hob-
For a solution of this problem Parsons discussed four main
social scientists: the two economists Alfred Marshall and
Vilfredo Pareto, and the two sociologists Émile Durkheim and
Max Weber. He recognized that an economic explanation of the
existence of social order based on the main assumption of self-
ish utility-maximizing behavior is impossible (Turner, 1994: p.
314). Parsons showed that Marshall’s economic theory does not
necessarily imply egoistic motives (Parsons, 1937: p. 162ff.).
Pareto was interesting for Parsons, because he introduced non-
logical elements of human actions (Parsons, 1937: p. 185ff.)
and the concept of the social system (Parsons, 1937: p. 219ff.).
The next step toward a solution to the utilitarian dilemma was
offered by Durkheim by deriving individual ends from social
norms (Parsons, 1937: p. 464; cf. Zafirovski, 2006: p. 96f.).
Finally, Parsons ended with Max Weber’s multidimensional
theory of motivation (Zafirovski, 2006: pp. 97-99) and his con-
cept of value-rational action. Within this concept of value-ra-
tionality Parsons saw the solution to the Hobbes problem. In his
voluntaristic theory he started with selfish utility-maximizing
instrumental rational actors, but in contrast to economic theory,
he added that these actors are not isolated. They are born into a
society with an existing culture and value-system. In the so-
cialization process these actors internalize the culture and val-
ues of this society, which then constrains the individual inter-
ests into culturally determined patterns or value-attitudes (Skid-
more, 1975: p. 155f.; Parsons, 1951: p. 211). The result is that
the actors want what they should want (Goode, 1960: p. 251).
Or to put it in economic terms: Parsons’s voluntaristic theory is
based on selfish utility-maximizing actors, but their preferences
are determined by the (unselfish) norms of the society.
[A]t no stage can we completely separate the individual from
the society of which he is a part. The individual, in any really
intelligible sense, does not exist apart from his relations with
other individuals (Parsons, 1996: p. 17).
However, Parsons’s solution to Hobbes’s problem of social
order is only a means for him to aim at an actual system theory.
After explaining why the actors are not the problematic aspect
in the explanation of the existence of social order, he was able
to concentrate his analysis on the relationship between different
systems and their functional importance for the whole. The
discussion of Hobbes’s problem and his system theory can be
seen as different sides of the same coin. Both elements deal
with the problem of social order, but the discussion of Hobbes’s
problem is the analysis of the forces dependent of the actors,
whereas system theory is the analysis of the forces independent
of the actors. Parsons’s approach is consistent, because he was
not only analyzing the social order problem in terms of an ac-
tion theory but also in terms of a system theory. However, the
result was that Parsons lost his action theory on the way to his
system theory.
The basic difference between Parsons and Schutz is that they
were focusing on different aspects of the methodological debate
in economics. The German Historical School and Institutional
Economics emphasized historical facts and a macro-perspective,
whereas the Austrian School and Neoclassical Economics star-
ted with general statements about individual actors. Parsons
was interested in the conflict between the society as a whole
and the individual actors (cf. Beckert, 2006: p. 169), whereas
Schutz dealt with the problem of historical facts and general
concepts (Etzrodt, 2004: p. 99f.).
As a result, “Schutz approached the individual actor through
the study of the structure of relevances in everyday life”,
whereas “Parsons accounted for the individual actor in terms of
situational references within action sy stems” (Rehorick, 1980: p.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
351). Furthermore, Parsons assumed that the researcher as an
observer knows more about the actor than the actor knows
about himself/herself. He therefore emphasized the importance
of the objective definition of the situation (Valone, 1980: p.
379). It is interesting that Parsons was actually closer to Max
Weber than Schutz in relation to this issue. Weber echoed
Simmel’s contention that it is not necessary to be Caesar in
order to understand Caesar, because the objective conditions in
a given situation already explain a great deal about how the ac-
tors react (Cavalli, 1994: p. 231). Schutz on the other hand
claimed that the observer only has a chance of interpreting an-
other actor’s behavior adequately if he/she is familiar with the
observed actor’s cultural background. In other words, in order
to understand Caesar, we would need to be able to think as a
Roman aristocrat would. This difference in the positions of
Parsons and Schutz leads directly to the next issue: the Carte-
sian Dilemma.
The Cartesian Dilemma
The second methodological issue of the discussion between
Schutz and Parsons was called by Grathoff the Cartesian Di-
lemma. This is the problem of intersubjectivity. How can we
understand other people’s behavior if their subjective motives
and intentions exist only in their stream of consciousness, but
never in ours (Grathoff, 1978b: p. xxf.)? And closely related to
this question: What should be the starting point of a theory of
understanding, the subjective stream of consciousness or the
objective values, norms or symbols?
Alfred Schutz started as a methodological individualist from
the subjective point of view of the actor. The search for a solu-
tion to the problem of how an intersubjective understanding can
emerge out of a subjective mind became his main scientific
focus. He saw a solution for this problem in the complementary
concepts of increasing and decreasing abstraction for building
general and specific types for interpretation (Etzrodt, 2001: p.
62f.; cf. Schutz, 1932: p. 206ff.; Prendergast, 1986: p. 18). In
the first step an actor is building out of his whole experiences1
general types for situations, actors, and behavior by using the
concept of increasing abstraction. He/she will for example for-
mulate a general type of a man and a woman, old and young
people, or even a more abstract type of a Japanese, based on
his/her experiences with men and women and so on. These
general types can be used now by the actor as a basis for the
formulation of more specific types in the sense of the concept
of decreasing abstraction. For example the actor, if he/she
meets a close friend, will enrich the general type “man”/“wo-
man” with the specific experiences he/she has had with his/her
friend (for example, he/she knows that his/her friend is typically
late). But the construction of types based on the subjective ex-
perience of an actor alone is not a solution for the intersubjec-
tivity problem. Because if actors have totally different experi-
ences in their lives, then the types constructed on this basis
would also be different. And this would lead to misunderstand-
ings. The solution lies in the fact that human beings are born
into an existing society with a practiced culture (Schutz, 1943:
p. 134; Schutz/Luckmann, 1979: p. 293). The types we are
using are similar, because we have had our experiences in typi-
cal situations, with typical actors showing typical behavior
(Schutz, 1953: p. 9; Schutz/Luckmann, 1979: pp. 151-293;
Schutz/Gurwitsch, 1985: p. 279f.). And even the deviations
from these types are after a while easy to recognize. Therefore
we can understand other actors, because we use similar general
types for unfamiliar and specific types for shared experiences
of familiar situations, actors, and behavior. The existence of in-
tersubjective shared types is therefore guaranteed, because of
the social origin of our knowledge. But even this is not enough
for an intersubjective understanding, because the actor must
also expect in an interaction that his alter ego will see the situa-
tion in the same way as he sees it, independent of the bio-
graphical differences. This is guaranteed by the assumed recip-
rocity of the perspectives (Schutz, 1953: p. 7). Nevertheless, a
perfect understanding is impossible, because two actors will
never experience the same situation in the exact same way,
therefore the mutual interpretation of each other’s behavior will
be necessarily deficient, even if they believe that they under-
stood each other perfectly. The second problem for a perfect
understanding is that some actors have had highly specific ex-
periences in their life (for example, losing their parents as a
child, or being raped), which are very difficult to explain if the
alter ego lacks similar experiences. As a result of explaining
highly specific experiences in general types, the underlying
emotions often disappear. Therefore in Schutz’s theory actors
are real individuals with their own unique experiences, but they
can understand each other most of the time to a sufficient de-
gree by using the abstract level of general types as elements of
a shared life world.
For Alfred Schutz a social scientist is confronted with a more
complex problem2, because he uses specific concepts of a cho-
sen action theory for the interpretation of observed human be-
havior. Generally these scientific concepts are more abstract
than the general types used by normal people for interpretation,
because they focus on a few of the theory-relevant aspects of
that behavior. But Schutz insisted that these scientific concepts
have to be related to the common-sense concepts of the life-
world. For him every theory has to fulfill the postulate of ade-
quacy. This postulate states that scientific terms must be rea-
sonable and understandable by the observed people (Schutz,
1940: p. 59). This is the only guarantee of not losing the subjec-
tive point of view in a theory.
In contrast to Alfred Schutz, who saw in the problem of in-
tersubjectivity the most important methodological problem in
the social sciences, Talcott Parsons denied the existence of a
gap in the knowledge between the scientific observer (or a
normal observer) and the observed actor. He defined the view
of the scientific observer as objective and the view of the actor
as subjective.
By objective in this context will always be meant from the
point of view of scientific observer of action and by subjec-
tive”, from the point of view of the actor (Parsons, 1937: p.
In my opinion, Parsons’s strategy to neglect the problem of
intersubjectivity was a logical consequence of his voluntaristic
theory and his solution to the social order problem (cf. Buxton,
1994: p. 272). His solution for the Hobbes-Parsons problem
was based on the assumption that the actors internalize the
normative values of the cultural system. But what Parsons un-
1In order to be more precise, the lived experiences (Erlebnisse) are not
meaningful . They o n ly b ecome meani ng ful if they ar e “g ras ped ref lect ivel y”
(Schutz, 1932: p. 72), “when the ego no longer immerses him/herself in the
flow of duration” (Ho, 2 008: p. 386; cf. Ferguson , 2006: p. 92f.).
2However, this problem can be understood “as a variant on an endemically
common-sense mode of apprehending the life world” (Kim/Berard, 2009:
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 31
derstood as “normative values” are not only value judgments,
but also the meaning structure including the symbols of a soci-
ety (Parsons, 1941a: p. 69; Rehorick, 1980: p. 354; cf. Cohen/
Hazelrigg/Pope, 1975: p. 233f.). Or to put it more exactly,
meaning and symbols have a normative base for Parsons, and
they direct the behavior of the actors.
Meaningful relations [] condition action [...]. Their role is
normative—they express relations between various elements
and aspects of an ideal toward which action is oriented (Par-
sons, 1937: p. 483).
Norms, meaning, and symbols can be seen as a “cultural en-
tity” (cf. Parsons, 1978: p. 116), which is internalized into the
personality system as a whole. As a result of this, understand-
ing becomes unproblematic, because every member of a society
has internalized the same objective cultural entity (Etzrodt,
2001: p. 101). And of course, this also applies to the scientific
observer. Therefore the observed actor and the scientific ob-
server are using the same conceptual scheme for thinking, act-
ing, and interpre t in g.
[The actors] act as well as think, in my opinion, in terms of
a conceptual scheme. [] In principle the situation is not
different for the scientific observer whose treatment of the sub-
jective point of view must also in my opinion take place in
terms of a conceptual scheme [] (Parsons, 1978: p. 123)3.
Parsons does not mention in this statement that it must be
necessarily the same conceptual scheme, but I think this is the
only possibility to avoid the problem of intersubjective under-
standing. To deny my strict interpretation means to accept the
intersubjectivity problem as a relevant problem, because if the
scientific and common-sense concepts are not equivalent, then
the researcher has to show how he wants to close the gap. How-
ever, the fact that Parsons excluded the intersubjectivity prob-
lem by choosing an objective starting point leads to two prob-
lems: one is a theoretical and the other a methodological prob-
lem. The theoretical problem is that Parsons not only excluded
the problem of intersubjective understanding but also any form
of individuality of the actor4. If an actor wants to be under-
stood and to understand other people, he/she has to use the
objective meaning structure based on the normative values, but
if he/she uses these cultural entities, then he/she will be over-
determined by the values of the society. And there is no way
out of this dilemma (cf. Etzrodt, 2008). Therefore Anthony
Giddens (1976: p. 16) came to the conclusion that
[t]here is no action in Parsonss action frame of reference”,
only behaviour which is propelled by need-dispositions or role
expectations. The stage is set, but the actors only perform ac-
cording to scripts which have already been written out for
The methodological problem which arises out of Parsons’s
position is indeed the problem discussed by Alfred Schutz. If a
social scientist makes no distinction between the concepts
which direct the behavior of the observed people and the scien-
tific concepts he/she uses, then he/she loses the chance to test
his scientific concepts against the common-sense concepts. As
a result of this, he/she can never be sure that the concepts which
inform his/her analysis have anything to do with the subjective
point of view of the actors. Only by safeguarding the subjective
point of view can he/she “guarantee that social reality will not
be replaced by a fictional nonexisting world constructed by
some scientific observer” (Rehorick, 1980: p. 350; cf. Nasu,
1999: p. 71; Barber, 2004: p. 95)5. It becomes especially prob-
lematic if the theory is applied as a universal theory, because
the scientific concepts could have a specific ethnocentric back-
ground, which leads to systematic misinterpretations in other
Professor Parsons has the right insight that a theory of ac-
tion would be meaningless without the application of the sub-
jective point of view. But he does not follow this principle to its
roots. He replaces subjective events in the mind of the actor by
a scheme of interpretation for such events []. [T]he only ques-
tion Professor Parsons never asks is, what really does happen,
in the mind of the actor from his subjective point of view.
(Schutz, 1940: p. 36).
[T]he formation of the type, the choice of the typical event,
and the elements considered as typical are all conceptual con-
structions which can be discussed objectively and which are
open to criticism and verification. They are not formed by so-
cial scientists at random without check or restraint (Schutz,
1940: p. 59).
The contrasts between Schutz and Parsons can be seen as a
consequence of the different theoretical aims. Schutz tried to
solve the main methodological problem—the problem of inter-
subjective understanding—with an action theory based on the
subjective point of view of the actor (Schutz, 1940: p. 36). Par-
sons, on the other hand, found a solution for the Hobbes-Par-
sons problem in the idea of the internalization of objective
norms, which as a spin-off also solved the intersubjectivity pro-
blem, but with the cost of the exclusion of real individuality.
The Kantian Problem
The third and final methodological topic of the Schutz-Par-
sons Debate was called by Grathoff the Kantian Problem. The
Kantian Problem is closely related to the Cartesian Dilemma.
The Cartesian Dilemma describes the problem that for an in-
tersubjective understanding, the concepts used by an observer
for interpretation have to be related to the concepts used by the
observed actor. On the other hand, the Kantian Problem deals
with the relationship between concepts and “facts” (or sensory
data). Facts are only perceptible and understandable if they are
interpreted on the basis of common-sense knowledge or a sci-
entific theory. But our schemes of interpretation in the sense of
common-sense knowledge or a scientific theory will only lead
to a correct interpretation if they provide an adequate pheno-
5This argument is also a serious challenge to Valone’s (1980: p. 379f.; cf.
Bernstein, 1976: p. 164; McLain, 1981: p. 110) statement that Parsons’s
standpoint is superior to Schutz’s, because the researcher is able to recog-
nize the actor’s ideology and false consciousness, of which the actor him-
self/herself is unaware. The problem with this statement is of course that
also the researcher could be a victim of his/her ideology, and as a result
could see the world in an even more distorted way. Ideologies can only be
revealed if it can be shown that ideological statements contradict reality.
Therefore it is necessary to confront the researcher’s interpretation of the
situation with the actor’s definition of the situation in order to reveal possi-
ble ideological distortions (Etzrodt, 2007: p. 70ff.).
3Wagner (1980: p. 399) pointed out correctly that this argumentation o
Parsons is very close to Schutz’s phenomenological thinking. However, in
contrast to Parsons, Schutz consequently addressed the question of how
individually constructed schemes of interpretation (or better, ideal-types)
can produce an adequate understanding. It is therefore not the case as Wil-
son (2005) and Chew (2009) argued that the acceptance of shared schemes
of interpretation (or ideal-types) rendered irrelevant the subjective point o
view in both Parsons’s and Schutz’s approaches. Only in Parsons’s theory is
the subjective point of view of the actor neglected.
4At least Parsons left the question of how individuals can preserve their
autonomy in such a norm ative system unanswered (Kim, 200 3 : p. 44).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
menon (or mental image) of the objects that have effected the
sensory data. The Kantian Problem is therefore the dilemma
that we cannot be sure about the correctness of our theories
without a test against the facts, but that these facts do not exist
without a theory, which again could be wrong.
Parsons dealt with the Kantian Problem in his methodologi-
cal theory of analytical realism. Parsons claimed that 1) the
objective world exists independent of the human mind, that 2)
logically interrelated universal concepts (in the sense of a frame
of reference) can correspond to the natural order of the objec-
tive world, and consequently that 3) the objective world can be
analyzed, if a generalized scheme of interpretation is applied
(Rehorick, 1980: p. 349; Münch, 1981: p. 727; Schmid, 1994: p.
280f.; cf. Parsons, 1938: p. 18), which 4) “must conform with
the ‘structural-functional’ type” (Parsons, 1948: p. 158). This
methodological standpoint was interpreted “as a derivative of
Kant’s epistemology”, although it has its roots in Whitehead’s
philosophy (Münch, 1981: p. 727)6. It seems that Parsons had
accepted Kant’s insight and assumed that the difference be-
tween his and Schutz’s position in relation to the Kantian Prob-
lem lay in Schutz’s denial of Kant’s methodology.
The fundamental point here is that I defined a fact as a state-
ment about one or more phenomena of the external world
rather than as itself a phenomenon. Schutz takes issue with this
and suggests that something like experience of phenomena is
attainable without the mediation of what Henderson called a
conceptual scheme, Kant the categories of the understanding
(Parsons, 1978: p. 115f.)
But this is in my opinion clearly a misinterpretation of Alfred
Schutz’s position (cf. Wagner, 1980: p. 390ff.)7. Schutz agreed
with the statement, that facts must be interpreted through a con-
ceptual scheme to become understandable.
All our knowledge of the world, in common-sense as well as
in scientific thinking, involves constructs, i.e., a set of abstrac-
tions, generalizations, formalizations, idealizations specific to
the respective level of thought organization. Strictly speaking,
there are no such things as facts, pure and simple. All facts are
from the outset facts selected from a universal context by the
activities of our mind. They are, therefore, always interpreted
facts []. (Schutz, 1953: p. 3)
Ultimately, both agreed with the Kantian proposition. But
the difference between Schutz’s and Parsons’s position had its
origin in the incompatibility of the usage of the term “fact”.
Schutz was criticizing Parsons for using the term “fact” in the
sense of an “empirically verifiable statement about phenomena
in terms of a conceptual scheme” (Schutz, 1940: p. 10, empha-
sis added). Instead of this, he insisted that facts, concepts, and
statements about facts (by using signs) are, from a methodo-
logical point of view, three different elements.
First: facts and phenomena as they are given to the human
mind. Secondly: interpretation of these facts and phenomena
within the framework of a conceptual scheme. Thirdly: state-
ments about the facts and their interpretation (Schutz, 1940: p.
10, emphases added).
Parsons defended his position, because for him “observed
phenomena relevant to social science are treated as symbols
with meanings” (Parsons, 1941a: p. 69). For him, scientific con-
cepts were constructed on the basis of a language (related signs),
and therefore also the experienced facts are necessarily state-
ments about facts, because they only become facts in the mo-
ment they are interpreted through concepts (represented by
signs) and stated.
We always observe, i.e. we experience, in terms of a concep-
tual scheme. Furthermore, precisely because and insofar as
experience is conceptualized it is a matter of statements or
propositions []. [T]o me, facts are not described but are
stated (Parsons, 1941a: p. 68).
The problem of this argumentation is that as a result of the
lack of distinction between facts and statements about facts,
Parsons forewent the possibility of testing his theory against
reality. Parsons’s theory becomes tautological. First he formu-
lated concepts in the form of a theory, then he interpreted so-
cieties with these concepts, and finally he made statements
based on these concepts, which he again defined as “facts.” Of
course, there cannot be any contradiction in his theory.
Summary of Schutz’s and Parsons’s
Methodological Thinking
Tables 1 and 2 are summaries of the methodological thinking
of Alfred Schutz and Talcott Parsons. Each table is divided into
the three methodological elements facts, concepts, and signs
and into four levels of abstractness of facts. The level of ab-
stractness depends on the question of how directly a fact can be
experienced. The first level of abstractness contains facts that
can be seen or touched. For example, fire is a fact belonging to
this level. The natural sciences normally deal with these kinds
of facts. These facts can be experienced even without knowing
the concept behind the fact. We can experience the heat of a
flame even if we do not understand the physical and chemical
processes behind it. But of course, to understand why a flame
produces heat, physical and chemical concepts are necessary.
6I disagree here with Münch’s interpretation that Parsons’s methodology is a
derivation of Kant’s epistemology. Since Kant only provided a proof that
there is a possibility of true theories and not a method of finding true theo-
ries nor of proposing a “true” theory, Parsons’s statement that sociologists
“must” apply a structural-functional theory stands in sharp contradiction to
Kant’s critical rationalism. Kant would have rejected Parsons’s (1948:
159) bel ief that th e existence an d the char acteristics o f a social s ystem have
to be “assumed as a matter of fact”. This is exactly the kind of belief—a
riori given and treated as truth—that Kant criticized (cf. Schmid,1989:
chapter 2; Savage, 1981: p. 8 3ff.).
7In order to be fair, Parsons’s critique is justified if it is applied to Husserl’s
transcendental reduction. Husserl inverted the order of Kant’s argument that
a logical scheme is the foundation of experiences
y stating that schemes o
interpretation are themselves the result of experiences. However, Schutz’s
osition is more complicated, since he applied only a mundane reduction.
On the one hand, newborn members of a society have to construct their
ideal-typ es bas ed on t hei r sub ject iv e exper ien ces. Bu t o n the o th er h and th ey
are born into a pre-existing society in which the actors use culturally specific
ideal-types. The common-sense scheme of interpretation exists before the
newborn member has his/her first experienc es (cf. Fergus on, 2006: p. 91f.).
At the second level, the facts cannot be seen or touched di-
rectly any more, but products of these facts can be seen or
touched. For example, a stock corporation cannot be seen or
touched, but it is possible to buy a product or to receive a letter
from this corporation, which again can be seen or touched. In
contrast to the first level, which is mainly the domain of the
natural sciences, the facts on all the higher levels can only be
experienced if the observer possesses a concept that can explain
the fact. If a researcher has for example no concept of “father”
in his/her mind and if he/she observes an adult man holding the
hand of a child, then he/she will only recognize them as an
adult man and a child, without experiencing the specific rela-
tionship between the two. At the higher levels, concepts are a
necessary prerequisite for experiencing facts. This is the main
difference between the natural and the social sciences (Natan-
son, 1962: p. xxxvf.).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 33
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 1.
Schutz’s methodological thinkinga.
Facts “experienced” Concepts “understood” Signs “described”
f1, f1(c1),
(I can feel the heat, without
knowing the concept fire.)
The fire is an object of the physical
and the social world. s1 The “fire” is a meaningful object,
which produces heat.
“father” or “ mother’s brother” (I
can count the inte ractions
between S and F or MB.)
The father is a cultural concept as
social or biological father. s2 The “father” is a social construct that
serves a differr ent purpose in different
(I can measure the GNP.)
The GNP is a cultural concept
dependent on what is counted. s3 The “GNP” is an indicator for
economic success.
“God” (I cannot see god, but I can
ask, what oth ers think a bout god.)
God as one of others or the only one
dependent on the religion. s4 “God” is a social construct that
explains our existence.
Note: aSchutz’s problem is the analysis of the relationship between the fact and the concept on the one side and between the common-sense concept and the scientific
concept on the other.
Table 2.
Parsons’s methodological thinkinga.
Concepts “understood” Signs “described” Facts “stated”
The fire is a cultural object of
the physical world. = s1 “fire” s1(1
) The “fire” is a cultural object.
Concepts and signs are a cultural entity
The father is a role-set for a
man in the ins t itution family. = s2 “father” s2(2
) The positio n of the “father ” is a
functional p rerequisite of societies.
The GNP is an element of the
economic system. = s3 “GNP” s3(3
) The “GNP” functions as a unit of
measurement for economic success.
c The cultural system is the
basic system of a society. = s4 “cultural system”
) The “cultura l system” has the functi on
of providin g common norms for
institutions and individ uals.
Note: aParsons’s pr o blem is the analysis of th e relationship between the concepts, including the relations h ip between c oncepts of di fferent levels of abstractness (the system
of concept s).
At the third level of abstraction, facts and their products
cannot be seen or touched anymore, but they can be measured.
An example at this level is the “gross national product”. No-
body has ever seen or touched a GNP, but for economists it is
one of the most important facts. What is counted (and therefore
measured) depends of course on the scientific (economic) con-
cept of the GNP. It is, for example, a result of the concept’s de-
finition, whether the offshore production of national companies
is counted or not. However, without this concept, economic
success could only be experienced after several years (for in-
stance, it could be possible to see the differences of Japan’s
economic capabilities between the 1950’s and 1980’s, but not
the differences between 1999 and 2000, because these differ-
ences are too small to be recognized without any statistical mea-
impossibility of experiencing these “facts” directly, it is also
impossible to verify or to falsify hypotheses about these “facts.”
But if you cannot prove the existence of a “fact,” then it be-
comes a question of belief in the “fact.”
Using these differentiations of facts, concepts, and signs on
the one hand and four levels of abstractness of the facts on the
other, it becomes possible to compare the methodological
thinking of Alfred Schutz and Talcott Parsons. Both accept the
point that facts, f, must be interpreted through concepts f(c) or
f(c*) to become observable (the “*” indicates scientific con-
cepts)8. But the first striking difference between their positions
is the definition of the fact.” For Parsons, facts are symbols
with meanings, or to put it in the described terminology, Par-
sons defined facts in the social sciences as signs interpreted
8In the case o f Schutz, one excep tion to this r ule exists. Facts f1on the first
level of abstractness (like, for example, fire) do not necessarily require
pre-given concepts in order to be experienced, because they can be experi-
enced through immediate bodily contact. Srubar (2008: p. 46) called this an
“asemiot ic mechanism of constitution”.
The fourth level contains facts which cannot be seen, touched
or measured. In other words, it is nearly impossible to experi-
ence these facts at this level of abstractness. Examples of such
“facts” are the “cultural system” or “god.” As a result of the
through concepts s(c*). Therefore facts for him are not experi-
enced but stated. In opposition to Parsons, Schutz made a clear
distinction between facts and statements about facts (by using
signs). He insisted on the difference between the written word
“fire” on paper s1 and fire as a physical process f1. The question
mark in Table 1 for the forth level of the facts indicates that
Schutz never talked about “facts” f4 at this level of abstractness,
and as such, it is my reconstruction of his possible standpoint in
this question. Schutz said that in order to understand and ex-
plain facts, it is necessary to relate them to the categories of an
action theory, but “facts” like the “cultural system” or “god”
are not at all related to any human behavior (by definition of the
concepts), therefore I would conclude that it is impossible to
deal with these “facts” in an interpretative sociology in the
Schutzian sense. But although it is impossible to deal with these
“facts” f4, it is not impossible to deal with the concepts c4
which people use in their life-world. For example, it makes no
sense to discuss the existence of “god” in the social sciences,
but it can be very interesting to analyze the common-sense
beliefs c4(4) about “god.” And indeed it is not an implausible
hypothesis that belief in a specific religion influences behavior.
It is therefore possible to deal with common-sense concepts of
god or the cultural system, but not with “god” or the “cultural
system” as facts themselves. The difference in the positions of
Schutz and Parsons is therefore that in Schutz’s methodological
position facts f1 - f3 or common-sense concepts of “facts” c4
dependent on the level of the facts’ abstractness are analyzed,
whereas Parsons’s position deals with linguistic statements
about facts si independent of the level of abstractness.
The second difference between Schutz’s and Parsons’s me-
thodology is the relationship between facts and concepts. In
Parsons’s position, signs (signifier) and concepts (signified) are
a cultural entity, which everybody internalizes in the process of
socialization. Therefore also statements about facts by using
signs interpreted through concepts are necessarily equivalent to
the concept itself:
ii i
sc c
. For example, the sign “father”
exists in every language in the world. The sign “father” can be
interpreted through the concept father as a role-set for a man in
the family-institution, in the sense of the head of the family
(based on the experience of the researcher), and therefore he is
responsible for his children. The existence of the sign “father”
in every culture “proves” the important role of the father’s po-
sition as a functional prerequisite for a society in general. The
following statement will reveal the problems of this argumenta-
Parsons draws attention to what he regards as the four fun-
damental empirical clusterings of every society: kinship, social
classes, territorially based organizations of force, and religious
institutions and associations. His thesis here is that these struc-
tures are indispensable to any society and that their variation
both historically and cross-culturally is severely limited [].
The argument is tautological, resting on the assumptions and
concepts of functionalism. He reflects on societies of the past
and present, including one that professes to be fundamentally
different, and all of which have kinship forms falling within
what he defines as a narrow sector. From this he infers the
existence of certain functional imperatives—which, in turn, he
employs to argue the necessity of the narrow sector []. This
is speculation, not science, and may even be ideology. (Zeitlin,
1973: p. 26f.)
In the Schutzian position, the relationship between facts and
concepts is based on a mutual dependency. Concepts are ne-
cessary to understand and to experience the facts:
But on the other hand the researcher has to prove the usefulness
of his or her concepts. This is possible by testing the concepts
empirically against the facts and by developing new concepts
out of the results of these tests:
ii i
fc c
9. Schutz de-
manded that concepts be verified (Schutz, 1940: p. 60; Schutz,
1943: p. 147). I, however, prefer to use a falsification strategy
instead of a verification strategy, because of Karl Popper’s
(1935: p. 6f.) argument that verification is logically impossible,
although I am aware that Popper’s position is also not without
problems. But I am talking here about a theory-internal test and
not about a test of two theories with different research strategies
against each other. Therefore in my opinion it is possible to
test10 two concepts under a given perspective in a given re-
search strategy against each other, and to falsify the concept
which is less successful in explaining an experienced fact.
I will explain this method by using the above discussed ex-
ample of the fact “father”. A researcher could start with the
concept of a father as a role-set for a man in the family-institu-
tion with responsibility for his children. He/she could opera-
tionalize the idea of responsibility through the number of inter-
actions between the father and the children. And then he could
test his hypothesis that this concept of a father is a functional
prerequisite of societies against an alternative hypothesis that
the concept of a mother is fundamental for societies, and that
the man in the family is exchangeable. He could test these al-
ternative hypotheses for white American middle-class families
and for Khasi families (a matrilineal tribe in North-Eastern
India). The researcher could compare the number of interac-
tions, and I presume that he would get the result that in both
societies the mother interacts very often with the children, but
only in the white American middle-class family does the father
play an important role, whereas in the Khasi society the moth-
er’s brother is more important than the father, in the sense of
the number of interactions. Finally the researcher would falsify
the hypothesis that the father is a functional prerequisite of
societies, and he would accept the hypothesis that mothers are
the heart of the family, whereas the man is exchangeable, as
long as no other hypothesis fits better to the facts and as long as
no other facts contradict this hypothesis. The mutual depend-
ency between facts and concepts is easy to recognize in this
example. Without the concepts of father, mother, and mother’s
brother, a researcher would count only interactions without
identifying the relevant persons. And without the empirical test,
9Nasu (1999: p. 74; cf. Hama, 1999: p. 185) seems to imply that Schutz was
not interested in the connection between fact s and concepts: “ As a phenome-
nologist, he [Schutz] follows the thesis of Husserl that ‘[a]ll real unities are
unities of meaning.” “This is the reason why Schutz ‘does not have to do
with the objects themselves; he is interested in their meaning, as it is consti-
tuted by the activities of our mind’” (Schutz, 1962: p. 115). I think that such
an interpretation is incorrect. Schutz’s statement—cited by Nasu—referred
to the eidetical approach in phenomenology and not to an empirical investi-
gation. And Schutz (1962: p. 113) made clear that such an eidetic approach
does not exclude empirical investigations: “Phenomenological methods can
of cour se be ap pli ed with the g reates t su ccess withi n th e emp irical sph ere as
well. But o nly by recou rse to the eid etical sph ere can the ap rioristic ch arac-
ter of phenomenology as a prima philosophia and even as a phenomeno-
logical psychology be assured.” (Cf. also Nenon, 1999: pp. 182-185) Be-
sides, Schutz’s concepts of Wirken and Wir kw el t would make no sense at all
if the material reality or the physical world were unrelated to the actor’s
experiences and concepts (cf. Yu, 1999: p. 162).
10I am not talking here about a singular test but about a series of tests. The
naive belief that a concept or a theory can be falsified as a result of one
failed test is not compatible with Popper’s critical rationalism, because it
implies a b li nd trust in test results (K ageyama, 2003: p. 115).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 35
he would not recognize that the ethnocentric hypothesis of the
important role of the father is universally simply wrong.
What separates the position of Schutz from Parsons’s is that
Schutz accepted not only specific methods in the social sciences
but also the methods applied in the natural sciences as funda-
mental for the social sciences (Schutz, 1954: p. 258; Eberle,
1984: p. 107; see Jung, 1999: p. 100f. for a contradictary inter-
pretation). The scientific concepts in the social sciences must
not only survive the test against the facts (the Kantian Problem),
they must also be related to the common-sense concepts of the
actors (the Cartesian Dilemma), if the researcher really wants to
understand and expla i n social facts (the Weberian Suggestion).
[A] word on the problem of the methodological unity of the
empirical sciences. It seems to me that the social scientist can
agree with the statement that the principal differences between
the social and the natural sciences must not be looked for in a
different logic governing each branch of knowledge. But this
does not involve the admittance that the social sciences have to
abandon the particular devices they use for exploring social
reality for the sake of an ideal unity of methods which is
founded on the entirely unwarranted assumption that only
methods used by the natural sciences, and especially by physic s,
are scientific ones (Schutz, 1954: p. 272).
On the other hand, Parsons’s position is not only in contra-
diction to the specific (hermeneutic) methods in the social sci-
ences as the discussion of the Cartesian Dilemma showed, but
also in contradiction to the methods applied in the natural sci-
ences, although the oft-cited analogies between the natural
sciences and system theory in Parsons’s work (e.g. Parsons,
1941b: p. 87). For example, Parsons criticized Herbert Spen-
cer’s proto-sociology for its “premature closure”. He regarded a
theory as an open construct that should be modified whenever
facts contradict theoretical expectations (Parsons, 1950: p. 6).
However, this implies that theories are no longer falsifiable,
because a theory is never abandoned as a result of a bad em-
pirical performance. In other words, Parsons’s methodology
demands that theories should not preclude the appearance of
any facts. This is like stating that tomorrow it will rain, not rain,
or another unexpected fact will be observed. Of course, such a
statement is true. But unfortunately, it is also useless as a scien-
tific statement, because it has no empirical content. Obviously,
Parsons was not aware of the fundamental discrepancies of his
methodological proposal and the methodology applied in the
natural sciences.
The third striking difference between Schutz’s and Parsons’s
position is related to the Cartesian Dilemma. On the one hand,
Schutz—in order to bridge the gap between common-sense and
scientific constructs (Psathas, 1999: p. 47)—demanded that
scientific concepts have to be understandable by the persons
who are the objects of the observation. The scientific concepts
i are understandable for these persons if they are related to
the common-sense concepts ci in their life-world. For Parsons
on the other hand, the link between scientific concepts and
common-sense concepts was not important for his scientific
work. Parsons was interested in the relationship of scientific
concepts from different levels (e.g. 34
c). However, in
contrast to Talcott Parsons, Alfred Schutz could avoid an eth-
nocentric position with his research strategy. For example, a
researcher who uses a Schutzian strategy would recognize that
the Khasi possess two different concepts of a father in their
life-world. One is the “father” as a “biological father” and the
other is the “mother’s brother” as a “social father”. In white
American middle-class families the “father”, in contrast to this,
is typically both. This example shows that Parsons’s hypothesis
of the important role of the “father” in the family is probably
not so wrong if the ethnocentric concept of the “biological fa-
ther” is replaced with the concept of the “social father”. Some
problems can be avoided if the scientific concepts are tested
against the common-sense concepts in different cultural groups,
before they are tested against the facts.
In my opinion it is obvious that Parsons’s methodological
position is oversimplified and deficient. This kind of methodo-
logical thinking produces three main problems:
1) The usage of a statement about facts as the facts leads to a
linguistic analysis, but not to an analysis of social facts.
2) The declaration of facts/signs and concepts as cultural en-
tities excludes any possibility of an empirical test of the theory,
especially if the concepts are constructed arbitrarily (Mikl-
Horke, 2001: p. 231).
3) The neglect of the difference between common-sense and
scientific concepts leads necessarily to an ethnocentric point of
view, if the theory is constructed as a universal theory, and in
every case to a naïve scientific position (cf. Natanson, 1978: p.
xi; Nasu, 1999: p. 71).
Nevertheless, Parsonss methodological position is not un-
reasonable. Of course, his position is implausible for the first
three levels of abstractness of facts, and therefore unacceptable.
But it was not Parsons’s aim to talk about these levels. He
wanted to analyze the highly abstract social facts, and for this
analysis Schutz’s methodological implications are not very
useful, because they exclude these facts from the research
program. And if a “cultural system” were really to exist with its
own dynamic independent of the actors’ behavior, then it would
be a serious mistake not to deal with such a topic in sociology.
Parsons’s position on this point is consistent: constructing the
concepts first and then analyzing societies based on this con-
ceptual scheme.
However, I have two objections to such a position. The first
is that it is not possible to test the concepts against the facts,
because of their high degree of abstractness. Out of this follows
that theories dealing with the system level cannot be evaluated.
Nobody can say that one theory is better than any other theory.
And the second objection is that to assume the independence of
a “cultural system” from human actions sounds for me like an
excuse for avoiding a careful and detailed study of mutual de-
pendencies between culture a n d h u m a n beha v i or.
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