Sociology 319

January 25, 2000

Theories of Action and Praxis – II


B. Parsons

1. Introduction

The second theorist who places an emphasis on subjective consciousness is the American sociologist Talcott Parsons. Parsons used ideas from Weber and Durkheim, as well as many other writers, and attempted to develop an overall theory of social action and the social system.

Parsons argues that "actors determine the significance of their actions for themselves" (p. 117), and is concerned with how action is rational, in the sense of being oriented toward an end and is an act by an agent or actor who is faced with some choices. He considers it important to conduct an analysis "from the point of the actor whose action is being analyzed and considered" (Parsons, Unit Act). This aspect of his approach is very similar to that of Weber. At the same time, Parsons notes that such action is oriented on the basis, or in the framework of norms – a normative orientation for action. 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" (p. 119).

The theoretical system of Parsons is an attempt to begin analysis with the unit act, and from that examine the ways in which these acts are oriented and together create 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 all of this, he emphasizes the actor and the way in which subjective consciousness and mental acts shape social action.

2. Utilitarian?

Cohen begins by noting that Parsons attempted to avoid an entirely utilitarian analysis. Means-end rationality refers to where an actor has a particular goal and is attempting to maximize their satisfaction or utility in the face of various constraints that they face. While this guide some forms of action, this may be too narrow a way of defining social action. (i) Some types of action are not so rationally calculated. This is one of the criticisms that Parsons may not have addressed, but which the praxis theorists do. (ii) In addition, 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. (iii) Another problem is how ends are chosen. This is usually not part of a utilitarian analysis, but often is said to be outside the model – e.g. many of the powerful economic models do not address the issue of how ends are selected.

At the bottom of p. 117, Cohen notes how this creates a dilemma for the utilitarian approach. At one level, the utilitarian may argue that ends are outside the scope of the analysis. But then, the conclusion may be that ends are selected instinctively, as a result of biology or the environment. Cohen also notes how 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, and the agent is a conscious actor, so that when individuals devote effort to particular actions, they "act on their own initiative" (p. 117). The ends of social action do not vary at random, with people happening to select particular ends, but instead the actor does have particular ends in mind.

3. Unit Act

While Cohen notes that Parsons begins from the idea of the unit act, he 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. (Notes for this section from the Unit Act).

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.

c. Situation. The act is initiated by the actor within a certain situation. For Parsons, there are two aspects to the situation, the conditions of action, over which the actor has little or no control, and the means of action, over which the actor does have some control. The former might refer to the natural environment or the social structures within which the action takes place. The latter refer to those aspects of the situation that the actor can control and can change. For example, a workplace situation may be such that the actor has no control over hours of work or the 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, so that any possible means of pursuing the ends are acceptable. 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. The normative orientations of Parsons could include the different values in different societies associated with proper forms of childrearing.

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 to be just objectively determined, rather the frame of reference is to be subjective, with the sociologist having to take on the point of view of the actor whose actions are being considered.

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 that appear to have no connection with ultimate ends, but rather is concerned only with the task in question. Are these meaningful actions? Second, 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. 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 would initially appear to have no meaning attached to them, may have meaning in the sense that the actor understands that there is some ultimate end or purpose. That is, the actor has some very general 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 a 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. 118).

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. 118 – 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, 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? The view of Parsons is that there generally tends to be that society is integrated, with much consensus, and with 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:

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. There are also sanctions associated with rules – social approval and disapproval, with stronger forms 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 on January 27, 2000.

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