Sociology 319

January 17, 2003


Theories of Action and Praxis – Parsons


B. Talcott Parsons on social action


The reading for this section is Talcott Parsons, “The Unit Act of Action Systems” from The Structure of Social Action, pp. 43-48.


1. Introduction


The second theorist who places an emphasis on subjective consciousness is the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979).  Parsons developed his theoretical model using ideas from Weber, Durkheim, and others, developing a overall theory of social action and the social system.  In doing this, he broadened the scope of sociological analysis, including discussion of issues such as family and body, and attempted to provide a comprehensive model of society.  At the same time, his approach was very abstract, at times it appears more distant from and less engaged with the social world he was analyzing than was the case for the classical writers. 


Cohen argues that Parsons considered that “actors determine the significance of their actions for themselves” (Cohen, p. ~79), combining this with a utilitarian approach. That is, he considered action to be rational and oriented toward an end; such action is an act by an agent or actor who has choices.  Parsons argues that a sociologist should conduct an analysis “from the point of the actor whose action is being analyzed and considered” (Parsons, Unit Act – middle of p. 2); while subjective, this is scientific in that it concerns a study of “the minds of persons.”  This aspect of his approach is very similar to that of Weber.  At the same time, Parsons argues that such action is oriented to, or with a framework of, norms and values – a “normative orientation” for action (Unit Act, near bottom of p. 1).  The actor or agent of Parsons works within a framework of values that is reminiscent of Durkheim, that “society supplies ultimate values to social actors” and “provides actors with a normative set of rules for concrete behavior” (Cohen, p. 82).  Cohen notes that past actions are associated with “extended chains of action” connecting particular acts to ultimate ends, and to the “moral integration of action” and the “problem of order” (Cohen, p. 79).


In the theoretical system of The Structure of Social Action, Parsons began with the unit act, and then examined ways these acts are oriented toward ends.  In other parts of his writings, he argues that the combined results of such acts produce and maintain the institutions and structures of society.  His aim was to build a model of society and the social system and explain the various parts of it, beginning with action theory.  In this, he emphasizes the actor and the way in which subjective consciousness and mental acts shape social action.



2. Utilitarian? 


Cohen begins by arguing that Parsons attempted to avoid an entirely utilitarian analysis.  Means-end rationality refers to actions and situations where an actor has a particular goal and aims at maximizing his or her satisfaction or utility in the face of sets of constraints.  While this guide some forms of action, this may be too narrow an approach when defining and analyzing social action. 


·        Some actors do not calculate and consider some forms of action in such a rational or utilitarian a manner.  This is one of the criticisms that Parsons may not have addressed, but which praxis theorists do. 

·        As Weber noted, there are different types of rationality, in particular value-rationality, involving an absolute value.  Action oriented toward these absolute ends (religion, family or peer group rituals) would not appear to be concerned with the consequences of the action, but concerns the appropriate action itself, one that may be part of some obligation or some specific value that the actor values on its own. 

·        Another issue is consideration of how ends are chosen.  This is usually not part of a utilitarian analysis, and proponents of utilitarian models may argue that the selection of ends and preferences lie outside the model – e.g. many of the powerful economic models do not address the issue of how ends are selected.  For sociologists though, it is difficult to argue that the model is comprehensive if ends and preferences are regarded as given and not subject to analysis. 


Cohen argues this creates a dilemma for the utilitarian approach.  At one level, a utilitarian may argue that ends are outside the scope of the analysis.  But then, the conclusion may be that ends are produced instinctively, from biological or environmental factors.  Cohen also notes this creates a problem for the issue of effort, mobilization, and motivation – how are actors mobilized to act?  Parsons argues that actors are committed to certain ends.  This is an active commitment, the agent is a conscious actor in these models, so that when individuals devote effort to particular actions, they “act on their own initiative” (Cohen,  p. 80).  That is, for Parsons, ends do not vary at random or result merely from strong natural drives (although the latter exist, but are socially directed), but actors select and work toward particular ends.  The issue is how this selection occurs and how this is associated with choices in unit acts.  Cohen argues that Parsons attempted to solve this problem by considering a “chain of analytically connected acts” with “morally valued ends” guiding ends and choices (Cohen, p. 80). 


The handouts of the actions systems of Parsons and the pattern variables are relevant here in that they provide an idea of the structure within which these ends and choices are situated.  Note how the basic drives are mediated through the personality system, influenced by and influencing both the social and cultural system.  The pattern variables demonstrate several different forms of orientation for social action.  While instrumental and expressive stand in contrast, any particular action is likely to combine aspects of these.  Also note that instrumental action is not a single type of action but has several dimensions (and with the AGIL functions or needs, various goals).  For more background on the perspectives of Parsons, consult Sociology 250 notes, November 22, 2002.


3. Unit Act


While Parsons begins his theory of action with the unit act, Cohen does not provide an explanation of this.  A short summary of what Parsons means by the unit act is contained in a selection from The Structure of Social Action entitled “The Unit Act of Action Systems.”  In this selection, Parsons notes that each form of scientific analysis begins with some unit – the molecule, the metre, etc.  For social action, the basic unit for a social system is the unit act.  This has several characteristics that are essential to its definition (2nd paragraph, p. 1). 


a. An actor or agent – presumably a human individual with a mind and body and an individual who is able to exercise some form of action. 


b. An end.  Each act must have some purpose or end – “a future state of affairs through which the process of action is oriented.”  By identifying an end, this identifies the process as in time and resulting in some particular state of affairs.  This may also imply conscious action, in that Parsons implies that the actor is consciously (?) aiming at this end – the action is oriented at some future state of affairs.


c. Situation.  The act is initiated by the actor within a certain situation – again there is an implication here, that of initiative or motivation on the part of the actor.  There are two aspects to the situation:


·        Conditions of action, over which the actor has little or no control.  These refer to the natural environment or the social structures within which the action takes place.  Or in the context of economic or rational choice models, these are the constraints within which the actor makes choices. 


·        Means of action, over which the actor does have some control. These refer to aspects of the situation that the actor can control and can change.  These are items such as particular courses of action or selections that the actor can make. 


As an example, an actor with employment in a workplace situation may have no control over hours of work or structure of the business, but can act with respect to how the work is carried out, and how customers, subordinates, and superiors are dealt with.


d. Normative orientation.  Parsons says that means cannot be selected at random or that any possible means of pursuing the ends are acceptable.  Neither are the means constrained by “conditions of action” – that is, entirely dictated by nature, environment, or other constraining factors.   Rather, the orientation toward the ends is guided by norms.  The actor has some understanding of what these norms are and these guide the actor.  As a result, there is a normative orientation to social action.  Parsons notes that these are of no specific type, just as Weber noted that authority could be based on any characteristic – it was not the nature of the content that was important but its existence.  For example, the normative orientations of Parsons could include the different values in different societies associated with proper forms of childrearing – there is a range of choices in any society, but not a complete or random set of acceptable choices either.


The unit act for Parsons is one where there is an active, conscious agent, with particular ends, a range of choices, an environment exercising various constraints, and a normative orientation.  Action is rational, but not only determined by objectively factors, rather the frame of reference is subjective.  In order to analyze such action, a sociologist has to take on the point of view of the actor whose actions are being considered.


On page 2, Parsons notes other implications of this approach.  These are:


·        Time.  The result or end of the action has yet to occur, otherwise the action would not take place.  As a result the actor is considering something with a future reference so that there is attainment, realization, or achievement – note that this is one of the instrumental pattern variables.


·        Error.  While an actor may aim at some end, given alternative choices it may be that the selection process results in the wrong selection.  This means there is possibility of error.  Note that these may not be so much errors as different selection results that different actors might produce. 


·        Subjective.  For an observer who is not the actor, this means that analysis of the unit act must involve consideration of how the actor understands it.  This may be difficult, but is necessary for sociological analysis.   This appears to be a caution against imposing external criteria for deciding what is a correct or incorrect decision – for example, arguing that actors’ decisions are irrational or not in their own best interests.


·        Mind and body.  While Parsons recognizes the existence of biological influences, it is the social frame of reference that needs consideration.  That is, the biological or physical aspect of bodies of those who take action may not be all that meaningful in terms of conditions or means of action.  On the other hand, where they are relevant, Parsons would seem to open the possibility of including these in an analysis.


4. Acts and Ultimate Ends


Cohen asks the question of how action is ultimately oriented toward particular ends.  Much of human social action appears to be narrowly focused on specific tasks with no apparent connection to ultimate ends, but seemingly concerned only with the task in question.  Are these meaningful actions?   An additional issue is that some forms of action appear to contradict the ultimate ends, or appear to be dictated to the actor by those who are able to control the situation.  That is, conditions of action leave little flexibility for actors.  Cohen uses the example of workers working in an alienated workplace, accepting the directives of the manager, but with the aim of surviving or producing a better life for themselves or their families.  There appear to be two means by which Parsons connects the unit act to the ultimate ends.


a. Chains of Rational Action.  Cohen argues that many acts that appear to have no meaning attached to them, have meaning in the sense that the actor understands how these are connected to some ultimate end or purpose.  That is, the actor has some  ultimate end, such as a good life or pursuit of some cultural values, even though this may be only vaguely defined.  Or there may be more specific ends, such as taking a vacation, and this requires earning some extra money to afford it.  In each case, Parsons notes that there are chains of action or series of acts that may be required to obtain these ultimate ends.  There is likely to be a great variety of possible actions that allow the actor to pursue these ends, and within each a great variety of ways each of the actions can be carried out.   Each act may appear to have little connection to the ultimate end, but through these chains of action, individual acts are meaningful to the actor, in that the actor has some idea of how they are ultimately oriented to some overall end.  Cohen thus notes that “values mobilize initiative toward ultimate ends and infuse even alienated action with existential meaning” (p. 81).


b. Multidimensional.  Parsons emphasizes different types of orientation, and his social system includes many aspects of society, not just the narrowly social.  Cohen notes that there are different types of social action, and different forms of orientation, none of which can necessarily be reduced to the other.  This is reminiscent of Weber’s multidimensional approach, with different dimensions of social action such as the cultural, the religious, the economic, each with an independent basis.  Three forms of instrumental orientation are noted on p. 81 – the economic, the technological, and the political.  Each of these is instrumental in that it has a particular form and aim.  Parsons contrasts the instrumental and the expressive in other parts of his work (pattern variables), but this multidimensionality appear to have some flexibility, in that there are different ends and different basic means of achieving those ends. 


5. Order


With a strong focus on the unit act and individual social actors, how is it possible that there can be social order in society?  Parsons generally argues that society tends to be integrated, with consensus and strong forces creating social order.  Recall that the systems of Parsons have strong equilibrating forces built into them.  There appear to be two main questions here:


·        How are ultimate ends determined? 

·        Even if ends are agreed upon, if there is competition for scarce resources, why does this not create chaos and disorder?


Cohen notes that Parsons draws heavily on Durkheim in explaining social order, pointing to the power, strength, and constraining aspects of social and cultural norms.  These norms govern ultimate ends and also the rules of social action.  About both of these there is widespread consensus, although perhaps agreement on ultimate ends is not so great in modern society.  Even in modern society though, there is considerable consensus concerning each of these.


For Parsons, there are various mechanisms that create this social order.  One is the modes of orientation associated with the pattern variables.  These tend to be balancing modes, expressive and instrument, with each having appropriate place and both being necessary in particular institutions, such as the family.  A second aspect is the various systems and subsystems, each inter-related to the other.   The cultural system is flexible and provides a set of symbols and means of passing common cultural values through the different systems.  The values of the cultural system enter the social system through socialization and learning.  Each of the systems has a function, and together the AGIL functions provide integration.  Third, there are sanctions associated with violation of norms – social approval and disapproval, with stronger forms such as penalties or punishment associated with the legal system. 


6. Conclusion


Parsons developed a sophisticated theoretical model that appears to provide a reasonable explanation for social action on the basis of subjective consciousness and rationality.  While focused on instrumental forms of action, it avoids some of the difficulties of the more narrowly utilitarian explanations of social action.  Through the definition of the unit act, considering the viewpoint of the actor, through chains of action, and through some of the systems and structures that form part of the analysis of Parsons, the theory is social and reasonably all-encompassing.  That is, Parsons begins with the unit act and builds an overall model of the systems and structures of society, at the same time keeping in mind the actor and his or her motivation and interests.


One of the great difficulties with the model of Parsons is that it is complex, difficult to understand, and closed to alternative approaches and modifications.  Cohen notes two major problems with the models of Parsons.  First, is that the means may become ends, especially in a capitalist society where money and exchange provide the means by which ultimate ends often must be pursued.  In this context, the means appear to exercise considerable strength of their own, and may become ends.  These take on a power of their own, creating great inequalities, over which there may be no consensus.  Parsons does not deal with how these inequalities of power and wealth may negate much of his theoretical model.  A similar argument could be presented with respect to the political arena, and other areas such as family or male/female relationships, where actions related to maintaining power differentials may take primacy over consideration of ultimate ends.


Second is the problem of whether the unit act, and the chains of action, are as conscious, calculated, and oriented as Parsons claimed.  While Parsons admits a wide variety of action in his theory, he may consider it overly oriented to particular ends.  Just as Weber, enacted conduct is not explained well, and habit, tradition, emotions, and impulses do not form part of the analysis.  It is the praxis theorists who develop a means of discussing these latter issues.


Last edited January 27, 2003


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