Voluntaristic functionalism and conservative modernity : a late parsonian reading of Robert Nisbet’s The quest for community

Document Type

Book chapter

Source Publication

A Conservative in Academe: Critical Studies in the Social and Political Thought of Robert A. Nisbet / Edited by Peter Baehr & Bryan Turner

Publication Date



Transaction Books


In this paper I propose that Robert Nisbet’s classic, The Quest for Community (1953) can be conceived as the theoretical and sociological basis of his distinctive programme for conservative modernity. The cultural and political thrust of this programme can be best understood by a comparison with Talcott Parsons’ theory of societal community. Like Nisbet, Parsons sought to critically reformulate the sociological concept of community. Unlike Nisbet, he did this as a liberal defense of modernity. Notwithstanding their diametrically opposed judgments on the project and prospect of modernity as it stood in post-War America, at a more generalized level the two theorists converge in what can be called “voluntaristic functionalism.” Such a convergence assumes that the interpenetration of “society” and “community” (in Toennies’s original dichotomous sense) is possible and is ultimately inseparable from the social meaning of action. From this perspective, Nisbet’s and Parsons’ understandings of community, in particular the condition of possibility of its becoming “societal” and thereby modern, is summarily contrasted with “state-centered” and “society-centered” approaches.



Recommended Citation

Chen, H. F. (in press). Voluntaristic functionalism and conservative modernity :A late parsonian reading of Robert Nisbet’s The quest for community. In P. Baehr & B. Turner (Eds.), A conservative in academe: Critical studies in the social and political thought of Robert A. Nisbet. New Brunswick, NJ.: Transaction Books.

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