Action theory (sociology)

Action theory (sociology)

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In sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

, action theory refers to the theory of social action presented by the American theorist Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist who served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927 to 1973....


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
Positivism is a a view of scientific methods and a philosophical approach, theory, or system based on the view that, in the social as well as natural sciences, sensory experiences and their logical and mathematical treatment are together the exclusive source of all worthwhile information....

, 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 system theory and cybernetics
Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems. Cybernetics is closely related to information theory, control theory and systems theory, at least in its first-order form...


Action theory in Luhmann and Parsons

System theorists such as Niklas Luhmann
Niklas Luhmann
Niklas Luhmann was a German sociologist, and a prominent thinker in sociological systems theory.-Biography:...

 and Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist who served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927 to 1973....

 can be viewed as at least partially antipositivist
Antipositivism is the view in social science that the social realm may not be subject to the same methods of investigation as the natural world; that academics must reject empiricism and the scientific method in the conduct of research...

. Parsons, however was not against positivism as such but against the absolutation 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 postivists 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," 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) 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 more 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 establish a careful division between cultural and social system, a point which he highlighted in part through the design of the AGIL paradigm
AGIL Paradigm
The AGIL paradigm is a sociological scheme created by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in the 1950s. It is a systematic depiction of certain societal functions, which every society must meet to be able to maintain stable social life...

 and through various writing, including a short statement which he wrote together with Alfred Kroeber.

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
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

, materialism
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance...

 and philosophical and psychological behaviorism
Behaviorism , also called the learning perspective , is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things that organisms do—including acting, thinking, and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior...

 (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. Parsons action theory is characterized by a system-theoretical approach, which integrated a meta-structural analysis with a voluntary theory. (To discuss Parsons theory under the concept of "functionalism," which so often has been done is nothing but a gross distortion, which simply fail to understand the nature of his theory).

See also

  • Structural functionalism
    Structural functionalism
    Structural functionalism is a broad perspective in sociology and anthropology which sets out to interpret society as a structure with interrelated parts. Functionalism addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely norms, customs, traditions and institutions...

  • Functional structuralism
    Functional structuralism
    Functional structuralism is a spin-off from systems theory in sociology. Systems theory, following Talcott Parsons, began as a structural-functionalist theory, that is, social structures were stressed and placed at the center of analysis, and social functions were deduced from these structures...

  • Agency (sociology)
    Agency (sociology)
    In the social sciences, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure" refers to the factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...

  • Structure and agency
    Structure and agency
    The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure", by contrast, refers to the recurrent...

  • Social actions
    Social actions
    In sociology, social action refers to an act which takes into account the actions and reactions of individuals .According to Max Weber, "an Action is 'social' if the acting individual takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course" .- Social action and Max Weber :The...

  • Theory of structuration