Action theory (sociology)

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In sociology, action theory is the theory of social action presented by the American theorist Talcott Parsons.

Parsons established action theory in order to integrate the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors. In other words it may be described as an attempt to maintain the scientific rigour of positivism, while acknowledging the necessity of the "subjective dimension" of human action incorporated in hermeneutic types of sociological theorizing. Parsons sees motives as part of our actions. Therefore, he thought that social science must consider ends, purposes and ideals when looking at actions. Parsons placed his discussion within a higher epistemological and explanatory context of systems theory and cybernetics.

Action theory in Luhmann and Parsons

System theorists such as Niklas Luhmann and Talcott Parsons can be viewed as at least partially antipositivist.[1] Parsons, however was not against positivism as such but against the absolution of positivism. Parsons shared positivism's desire for a general unified theory, not only for the social science but for the whole realm of action systems (in which Parsons included the concept of "living systems"). Where Parsons departed from the positivists was on the criteria for science. Thus, at least for the social sciences, Parsons maintained that a full and meaningful theory had to include the question of "ultimate values,"[2] which by their very nature and definition, included questions of metaphysics and for this and for other reasons, Parsons theory stands at least with one foot in the sphere of hermeneutics and similar spheres of thinking, which somehow become relevant when the question of "ends" need to be considered within systems of action-orientation.

Parsons first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1937)[3] where he discussed the methodological and meta-theoretical premises for his general theory, contained among others an argument for the necessity for an action theory to be based on a voluntaristic foundation and why both a sheer positivistic-utilitarian approach as well as a sheer "idealistic" approach will not satisfy the necessary prerequisites for the foundation of an action-theory (within the realm of the social sciences). The most metaphysical questions in his theory laid embedded in the concept of "Constitutive Symbolization," which represented the pattern maintenance of the cultural system (or the L subsystem of that system). Later the metaphysical questions became more specified in the Paradigm of the Human Condition, which was an extension of the AGIL-system, which Parsons developed in the years before his death. One of the main differences, which characterized Parsons' approach to Sociology, was the way in which he theoretically specified the fact that cultural objects form an autonomous type. This is one of the reason why Parsons established a careful division between cultural and social system, a point which he highlighted in part through the design of the AGIL paradigm and through various writing, including a short statement which he wrote together with Alfred Kroeber.[4]

The separation of the cultural and social system had various implications for the nature of the basic categories of the cultural system; especially it had implications for the way cognitive capital is perceived as a factor in history. In contrast to pragmatism, materialism and philosophical and psychological behaviorism (and other anti-Kantian types of epistemological paradigms), which tended to regard the role of cognitive capital as identical with the basic rationalization processes in history; Parsons regarded this question fundamentally different. Cognitive capital, Parsons maintained, is bound to passion and faith and is entangled as promotional factors in rationalization processes but is not absorb or identical with these processes per se.

Whether there exists a high level of integration in a culture or not, is an historical question; but the typical cultural system has generally a comparatively low level of harmony and "order." Parsons was not a functionalist but an action theorist (he never used the term functionalism about this own theory); his use of the term "structural functionalism" has generally been misunderstood. It does not describe Parsons' theory in any way but was used in a special context to describe a particular stage in the methodological development of the social sciences.[5] Parsons action theory is characterized by a system-theoretical approach, which integrated a meta-structural analysis with a voluntary theory. Therefore, to discuss action theory under the concept of "functionalism," as so often has been done, is to fail to understand Parsons.

See also


  1. Bourricaud, F. 'The Sociology of Talcott Parsons' Chicago University Press. ISBN 0-226-06756-4. p. 94
  2. Talcott Parsons, "The Place of Ultimate Values in Sociological Theory." International Journal of Ethics, Vol.45. 1935. pp.282-316.
  3. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. The Free Press, 1968 (1937).
  4. Talcott Parsons & Alfred L. Kroeber, The Concepts of Culture and Social System. American Sociological Review. October, 1958. p.582.
  5. Talcott Parsons, "The Present Status of "Structural-Functional" Theory in Sociology." In Talcott Parsons, Social Systems and The Evolution of Action Theory New York: The Free Press, 1975.