Alfred Hitchcock and Sociological Theory: Parsons Goes to the Movies

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of an online publication in Sociation Today, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2007.
Also available online from the publisher.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2007. “Alfred Hitchcock and Sociological Theory: Parsons Goes to the Movies.” Sociation Today 5(1).

Previously presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Sociological Society, Charlotte, NC, April 2005. I am grateful to Suzanne Sutphin for her splendid research assistance in the preparation of this paper.


The teaching of sociological theory aims for students to gain an adequate comprehension of theoretical developments in the discipline as well as understand and practice the value of theory in the empirical analysis of society. To show the pragmatic qualities of theory in a useful and enjoyable way, cinematic films can be used as reservoirs of empirical data that theories can analyze in variable ways. I report on the merits of such an approach in the context of a graduate seminar in contemporary theory in which the value of abstract theorizing is demonstrated by an analysis of Hitchcock movies on the basis of the Parsonian perspective of the family.

To benefit the teaching of our sociological scholarship, we continually endeavor to find new and useful ways to effectively communicate the best of our work to a new generation of learners. Searching for appropriate teaching strategies is particularly acute in areas that do not easily lend themselves to be taught with reference to commonly known everyday experiences. Theory and methods come to mind as peculiarly important subject matters in this respect. This essay discusses a sociological teaching strategy that involves the use of cinematic movies. The ambitions of this enterprise are entirely educational, oriented at those of us who are interested in teaching for the sake of student learning, and should not be confused with an exercise in the so-called scholarship of teaching and learning. Movies present an empirical universe of data that can be illuminated with the aid of the analytical tools of sociological theory in a way that enables better understanding of the role and value of theory. Making this argument, I will draw on examples in the teaching of contemporary sociological theory, specifically Talcott Parsons’ functionalist perspective of the family, on the basis of analyses of movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock.


There are at least two traditions in relation to the interconnections between sociological scholarship and the art of the cinema. First, studies in the sociology of culture focus on various aspects of the role and place of film in society, a tradition of research that dates back many years (Mayer 1948; Huaco 1965; Tudor 1974). Second, sociologists use the medium of film, often along with other manifestations of popular culture, in various aspects of their work, chief amongst which is instruction (King 2006; Papademas 2002; Smith 1973, 1982). In teaching sociology with films, several choices can be made. Smith (1973) emphasizes the usefulness of teaching with films in order to hold students’ attention, especially in large classrooms. Maynard (1971) similarly argues that the use of films in teaching can prevent students from getting bored. Films are also judged useful in teaching because they portray various facts of life, although research by Smith (1973) showed that students taught with film and those without film evaluate the same course about as positively.

The use of film in teaching sociology has also been advocated because the availability of video technology has made the medium very easy to use in the setting of a classroom (Burton 1988; Smith 1982). Burton (1988) emphasizes that a guided discussion should follow the showing of a movie in class. This approach ties in with the classroom use of movies to demonstrate the usefulness of various perspectives and themes of sociology to undergraduate students and the public at large (Prendergast 1986; Tipton and Tiemann 1993) and to reveal the applicability of sociological insights in selected specialty areas (Tolich 1992; Pescosolido 1990). The use of film is judged especially useful given the high degree of visual literacy among today’s students. The development of a visual age is further aided by the explosion of video sites on the internet, such as YouTube and Yahoo Video, and technological advances in video compression through, including HDV, Digital8, and portable media players. Dowd (1999) advocates the use of films in teaching but cautions that movies contain perspectives that need to be clarified before a sociological analysis can be undertaken. My own approach to the use of film in the teaching of sociology has learned from, but also departs somewhat from these varied positions.


My observations on film and sociology rely on experiences with using film in the teaching of a contemporary theory seminar in a sociology graduate program. The seminar does not provide a survey of a multitude of contemporary theories but, instead, discusses the merits of a small yet meaningful selection of theories that are explicitly rooted in the sociological classics and that accord centrality to the notions of system and social structure. Emphasis is placed on the conceptual tools and analytically relevant propositions that are advanced in the discussed theories as well as the fruitfulness of these theoretical ideas for the analysis of various substantive issues of society. Students are expected to gain an accurate comprehension of a given theory and be able to compare different theories. Extending this abstract level of theorizing, students are also engaged to apply theoretical insights to empirical issues of society, for we ought to be mindful that when we teach theory we always teach for sociologists, not (only) for theorists (Deflem 1999).

In matters of sociological theory-building, I advocate an approach that pays due attention to the building blocks of contemporary sociological thought. Thus, the course starts with a brief review of the sociological classics and then pays attention to the earliest modern sociological theorists who have contributed to the development of the intellectual contours of the sociological enterprise. The first part of the course is devoted to the masters of structural-functionalist thought (Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Lewis Coser) and thereupon turns to selected modern and contemporary variations of structuralist and systems-theoretical perspectives (Peter Blau, Bruce Mayhew Jr., Donald Black, Jürgen Habermas). The course also includes discussions of theoretical movements that are critical of some of the selected theories (C. Wright Mills, Erving Goffman).

The work of Talcott Parsons is central to the course for a number of reasons. Parsons was not only instrumental in developing a once dominant theoretical movement that, additionally, invoked many criticisms and thus also enable alternative theories, Parsons’ work also bridges classical and contemporary sociological theory. Although there has been something of a revival of Parsonian sociology over the past two decades, it is still far from evident to devote much attention to the theories of Parsons. We all know the familiar criticisms of Parsonian theory’s abstractness, lack of testability, and implied consensus thinking. Although these criticisms are often made in haste and without much substance, it is important to recognize that teaching does not take place in a vacuum. Students come to class with some ideas or preconceptions about the theories that will be discussed. Even if these ideas are largely based on selective rememberings of an undergraduate survey course, such perceptions are real and have to be adequately dealt with. I therefore find it particularly useful in the teaching of Parsons’ theories to communicate to students the notion that the development of abstract theoretical ideas does not imply that such theorizing cannot be applied to the study of empirical phenomena. The exact opposite is true.

In order to apply theory to the analysis of concrete situations, several conditions must be met. Minimally, one must have a firm grasp of the concepts and propositions of a theory and be capable to apply abstract ideas in a logically and methodologically sound manner. Subsequently, a defined empirical universe must be empirically described and theoretically analyzed. Teaching theory through the use of film therefore requires: knowledge of theory at the abstract level; knowledge of how to apply theory to specific cases (deduction); descriptive information of a delineated empirical universe; and analysis of said universe with the theory at hand in order to derive meaningful conclusions (induction). Applying theory to a universe of social facts that is communicated through films can demonstrate in usefully pleasant ways the merits of theory in sociology. It is particularly fortuitous to introduce the value of theory application through the work of Talcott Parsons, precisely because the exercise is counter-intuitive.


The empirical dimensions of social life in the movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock form an empirical universe that is useful for a theoretical application of Parsonian ideas. To make such an exercise meaningful, certain boundaries have to be specified in terms of scope of analysis. Various social institutions can be approached with a theory as general as Parsons’ and a cinematic oeuvre as extensive as Hitchcock’s. In my teaching, I have chosen to focus on the institution of the family.

From Parsons’ systems-theoretical viewpoint, the family is primarily seen in terms of its functional location in the social system. At a general level, Parsons (1977) uses a four-functional model of the social system (adaptation, goal attainment, integration, latency) to identify the economy, the polity, the societal community, and the fiduciary subsystem as the basic subsystems of modern society. The family is primarily conceived in terms of its primary function of socialization as a fiduciary subsystem (Parsons 1942, 1954). But the family also relates to other social subsystems. Most notably, the household is complementary to the economy in that it provides necessary economic roles, such as consumers and workers. Additional functional analysis can be undertaken of the various roles within the family (parents-children, husband-wife). Thus, the differentiation at the societal level between family and economy, or between kinship as an ascribed status and occupation as an achieved status, translates within the family as a tension between diverse parental roles. The working parent fulfills an instrumental role outside the family by virtue of an occupation, whereas the stay-at-home parent has an predominantly expressive role inside the family (care for the children).

Besides the family’s instrumental functions, Parsons also noted that the ties among the members in a family unit are affective and strong. In the conjugal family, kinship ties are few in number but intense, especially with the primary care-taker. At the same time, ties with other institutions are also important, particularly with the economy and education. These dual forces of intra-familial and extra-familial relationships may create strains because various roles are taken up by the same people (parent-spouse, employee-parent, children-peers) and because of important societal changes affecting the family. Particularly, Parsons observed in his days that women were beginning to emancipate from their traditional roles as house-keepers, although parental roles were still largely differentiated along gender lines. Inasmuch as one spouse occupies the occupational role and the other spouse the expressive-affective role, Parsons reasoned that competition between the spouses is eliminated. Changes in these role patterns, whatever their form, would have to be functionally resolved.


Applying Parsons’ functionalist theory of the family to an analysis of the American family as it is portrayed in the movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it is important to note that Hitchcock constructed his visual universe imaginatively and deliberately for artistic purposes which do not necessarily meet the analytical goals of the sociological eye. Yet, Hitchcock also drew from societal contexts that were present while making movies over more than half a century. As Hitchcock once observed, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out” (World of Quotes).

There are at least three central ideas of Parsons’ theory of the family that can be illustrated by means of Hitchcock’s cinematic portrayals of family life: 1) the family as a whole and its members individually fulfill important societal functions (statics); 2) the family and its members undergo certain changes (dynamics); and 3) the family and its members can experience strains (conflict). Given the very nature of the instructional use of film, I cannot here do full justice to the technique, but a brief review may indicate its worth nonetheless.

The Functionality of the Family

A first Parsonian idea that can be illustrated with Hitchcock’s movies is the notion of the conjugal family as a place of socialization. This functional perspective of the family is very common in Hitchcock’s world. It is a view of the family that is easily recognizable and accepted as secure and stable, portraying a well-functioning family as part of an everyday environment in which, as the story unfolds, a disturbing element can be injected to arouse drama and suspense. In this context, also, Hitchcock is fond of showing the family as an affective unit with strong emotional ties. These ties involve special care and affection, especially between the mother and the children. Some examples may illustrate this point.

In The Wrong Man (1958), Hitchcock explores one of his favorite topics, that of a man wrongly accused of a crime. In order to increase the level of disturbance that the wrongful arrest brings about, Hitchcock first shows the man with his wife and two children in a very everyday family scene at home. We see the couple jointly doing the dishes. Their two children talk and at some point start to quibble in the living room. The mother is the first to go and check what the children are up to. She tries to get the boys to calm down. Then the husband comes in to settle the matter. The parents’ roles are clearly defined and both make their respective decisions accordingly. Showing the unity of the couple’s parenting roles, some decisions are made jointly. After the children have settled down, one of the boys complains that his brother did not hit the right notes to a song he is playing on piano, upon which both parents remark in unison, “Yes, he did.”

In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a vision of the American family is very central to the plot. A doctor and his wife and child are on vacation in Morocco, where they get involved in a political intrigue that will take them to London. Early in the movie, the mother is helping the child prepare to go to bed while her husband is getting ready to later go out for dinner with his wife. While helping the boy, the mother is singing a song (“Que Sera Sera”) and the boys starts to whistle along. At some point, the boy starts to sing in place of his mother, reciting the words, “When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what will I be?,” upon which his father looks at his wife and responds, “He’ll make a fine doctor.” The parental functions are thus clarified in terms of a differentiation between the mother’s affective role and the father’s instrumental-occupational role. The scene is also a very happy one, almost corny, but it serves an important cinematic purpose. For when later in the story the boy is kidnapped, the sense of loss on the part of the audience is great.

Changes of the Family

It is the inevitable fate of every family that it will undergo natural but radical changes. Families grow when children are born and dissolve when parents die and children grow up and leave the home to start families anew. Families also overlap because siblings will start their own conjugal units and create extended kinship ties. This dynamic view of the family is more sparingly but very crucially shown in Hitchcock’s movies. Family changes set the tone for other disturbing events that will follow. While a portrayal of the functionality of the family is one of Hitchcock’s techniques to sketch an everyday surrounding in which the movies’ central drama will unfold, changes in the family introduce the beginnings of the drama.

In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a young woman called Charlie is overjoyed when her uncle, also called Charlie, announces that he will visit the family. Upon his arrival, there is a family dinner and the uncle hands out gifts, including pictures of his and his sister’s parents. The dynamics of the family scene reveal the cross-cutting of various families and family roles. The man is an uncle to the young woman and the brother of her mother. He is not of, but in the conjugal family. He has returned for a family visit, which means he will also leave again. Eventually, the young woman discovers her uncle is a murderer.

In Stage Fright (1950), a young woman’s male friend visits her family. Her father notes that the friend has become the woman’s romantic interest, although she earlier expressed interest in another man. The woman’s parents are separated, but her budding romance brings them together again, thereby announcing not only an impending marriage, but also the possible restoration of a failed marriage.

Strains Upon the Family

In the Parsonian perspective, changes in the family can be so unexpected, drastic, and sudden that they create strain and tension. In Hitchcock’s movies, the technique of introducing such critical changes is used very carefully and with extreme dramatic impact. The sources of family strain are multiple but are always events that are out of the ordinary, such as eloping, jealousy, and divorce.

In Suspicion (1941), family problems are shown when a daughter unexpectedly decides to get married to a playboy bachelor. The young woman comes home from a walk one day with a man whose advances she has just rejected. When she arrives at her home, she overhears her parents talk about her as a spinster. She suddenly turns around, kisses the man, and invites him for a visit, even though she thinks he is untrustworthy.

In The Birds (1963), family strain is experienced because of jealousy. A beautiful and wealthy woman visits the family of a man whom she is interested in and who on weekends lives with his mother and younger sister. Since the passing of his father, the man fulfils a father and husband role. When the woman arrives at the family’s home, Hitchcock turns the camera on the eyes of the mother, clearly revealing her jealousy. At some point later in the evening, the mother discusses with her son the woman’s shady past as a socialite. While the man listens patiently, he repeatedly refers to his mother as ‘darling.’

Hitchcock shows a very exceptional family situation in Sabotage (1936). In the movie, a man lives with his wife and her younger brother, Stevie, whom she adores. Unbeknownst to the woman, her husband is a spy for a foreign government. One day, the man is assigned to have a bomb explode in London. Because he cannot do the job himself, he asks Stevie to deliver a package which contains the bomb. On route to delivering what the boy thinks is just a movie can, he is delayed and gets killed when the bomb explodes. The boy’s sister finds out about her husband’s involvement in her brother’s death. Later in the evening, while preparing dinner, she is holding a knife and looks at her husband. He has admitted to his actions. When the man stands up and approaches his wife, she stabs him with the knife and kills him. The detective assigned to the case finds out about the woman's involvement, but because he has fallen in love with her, he covers up the facts and the woman goes free.

In Notorious (1946), an extraordinary family situation is portrayed because of a deceitful marriage. A man who has married a woman against his mother’s wishes finds out that his wife is a spy. Upon his discovery, we see the man slowly walking upstairs to his mother’s bedroom. When she awakens, he confesses, “Mother, I am married to an American agent.” His mother smiles because she has been proven right about her suspicions. Now she can again take charge. The man has become her son again. He obeys his mother and together they plan to poison the woman.


The use of Hitchcock movies on the basis of Parsons’ theory of the family implies specific considerations on the use of film in teaching sociology that should lead to set appropriate ways in which movies can serve as vehicles for the teaching of sociological ideas. This analysis was primarily meant to demonstrate the value of abstract theorizing. With Parsons and other theorists like him, I argue that the abstractness of theoretical ideas precisely allows for, rather than inhibits, the analyses of empirical dimensions of society. Parsons was very clear about the pragmatic objectives of theory in aiding to explain the facts of empirical experience (Parsons 1937). The concepts of a theory must be abstract and its propositions general precisely in order to apply and test theory and account for variation in empirical reality (Blau 1995:5-6). Thus, the analysis of Hitchcock’s family portrayals were meant to show the worth of Parsons’ theory as an analytical tool. While I have not systematically investigated the impact of the use of this teaching tool in my theory seminar, indications are that the strategy has educational benefits for student learning. Besides the positive feedback I have received from my students, they have also demonstrated a knowledge of Parsons’ theory and an ability to apply his concepts in their written work. Students, also, have similarly used video and other mediums in in-class presentations about other contemporary theories.

The analysis of Hitchcock’s movies with functionalist tools does not and cannot prove the empirical adequacy of Parsons’ theory, even though one may assume that Hitchcock’s portrayal of the family, filmed around the same time as when Parsons wrote, may harmonize with some of the empirical conditions that then existed in society at large. Yet, a test of the validity of Parsons’ propositions can only be undertaken through a systematic research that relies on data of actually existing family structures and processes. Hitchcock’s universe is his, and one must be careful to avoid drawing conclusions from it as a representation of society that would be sociologically accurate.

Because movies cannot be assumed to portray as reality that empirically valid, they cannot be used at face value to make sociological statements about the conditions of society. Sociologists have occasionally used movies as sources of information about various aspects of society (e.g., Smith 1973; Pescosolido 1990). Such perspectives not only overlook that a movie is not a sociological work, they also fail to recognize the difference between teaching about society and teaching sociology. Because a movie is a constructed environment with artistic purposes, its relation to the structure of society can never be judged alone from interpreting the movie, but only from a comparison of the information in the movie with a systematically derived body of knowledge about society. Whatever the value of a hermeneutics of a film, it must be situated within a socio-historical context that needs an independent sociological analysis (see, generally, Habermas 1988). In the case of Hitchcock and Parsons on the family, therefore, students are not primarily meant to learn about the conditions of the American family, but about the value of analytical reasoning in the case of a particular sociological theory. It could be argued that one might also analyze backward, from film to sociology. However, I would caution against such an approach. Although it is nowadays in certain quarters fashionable to argue for a so-called broader vision of sociology, any presumed sociological imagination on the part of a moviemaker (and, possibly, the movie-going public) must itself already be part of a sociological analysis. The factual accuracy of societal conditions and processes portrayed in a movie, in any case, cannot be confused with the conscious knowledge thereof from a sociologically meaningful framework that is systematically derived at and, moreover, subject to falsification. Cinematic authenticity is not identical to sociological validity.

Finally, these observations also imply opposition to the showing of complete movies as part of sociological instruction to demonstrate the value or validity of a sociological idea or theory. The reasons for this limitation are not only pragmatic, relating to the relative brevity of our classroom times and the fact that most movies will contain information that is redundant from the viewpoint of the teacher (Demerath 1981; Dowd 1999). More fundamentally, I believe we must be mindful of the fact that the cinema is an art form and that movies are works of art that must be experienced as such. It would be disrespectful to the art of the cinema to pervert the very nature of movies in the form of their complete airing in an educational settings for instructional purposes. It is therefore, conversely, appropriate for our teaching objectives as well as in view of the art forms on which we rely to show carefully chosen segments within a sociologically appropriate framework. Thus, the analysis presented in this paper can be broadened to conceive of other pairings of film and theory, of director and theorist, centered on a variety of sociologically relevant topics. But no matter the choice of theory and movie, analysis must proceed from the fact that, as Dowd (1999:327) argues, “the director is not a sociologist.” Such a restriction on the use of movies will also apply to documentary films inasmuch as they have an author who has purposes beyond sociology (see Contemporary Sociology 2004; Deflem 2005). Yet, precisely because movies are a-sociological realities, they can offer the raw materials which sociologists can analyze in an analytically meaningful framework.

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