Talcott Parsons: Structure of Social Action
Talcott Parsons was probably the most prominent theorist of his time, and it is unlikely that any one theoretical approach will so dominate sociological theory again. In the years between 1950 and the late 1970s, Parsonian functionalism was clearly the focal point around which theoretical controversy raged. Even those who despised Parsons; functional approach could not ignore it. Even now, years after his death and more than two decades since its period of dominance, Parsonian functionalism is still the subject of controversy. To appreciate Parsons' achievement in bringing functionalism to the second half of the twentieth century, it is best to start at the beginning, in 1937, when he published his first major work, The Structure of Social Action.
The Structure of Social Action
In The Structure of Social Action, Parsons advocated using an "analytical realism" to build sociological theory. Theory in sociology must use a limited number of important concepts that "adequately 'grasp' aspects of the external world...These concepts do not correspond to concrete phenomena, but to elements in them that are analytically separable from other elements." Thus, first, theory must involve the development of concepts that abstract from empirical reality, in all its diversity and confusion, common analytical elements. In this way, concepts will isolate phenomena from their embeddedness in the complex relations that constitute social reality.
The unique feature of Parsons' analytical realism is the insistence about how these abstract concepts are to be employed in sociological analysis. Parsons did not advocate the immediate incorporation of these concepts into theoretical statements but rather advocated their use to develop a "generalized system of concepts." This use of abstract concepts would involve their ordering into a coherent whole that would reflect the important features of the "real world." What is sought is an organization of concepts into analytical systems that grasp the salient and systemic features of the universe without being overwhelmed by empirical details. This emphasis application of Max Weber's ideal-type strategy for analytically accentuating salient features of the world. Thus, much like Weber, Parsons believed that theory should initially resemble an elaborate classification and categorization of social phenomena that reflects significant features in the organization of these social phenomena. This strategy was evident in Parsons' first major work, where he developed the "voluntaristic theory of action."
Parsons believed that the "voluntaristic theory of action" represented a synthesis of the useful assumptions and concepts of utilitarianism, positivism, and idealism. In reviewing the thought of classical economists, Parsons noted the excessiveness of their utilitarianism: unregulated and atomistic actors in a free and competitive marketplace rationally attempting to choose those behaviors that will maximize their profits in their transactions with others. Parsons believed such a formulation of the social order presented several critical problems: Do humans always behave rationally? Are they indeed free and unregulated? How is order possible in an unregulated and competitive system? Yet Parsons saw as fruitful several features of utilitarian thought, especially the concern with actors as seeking goals and the emphasis on the choice-making capacities of human beings who weigh alternative lines of action. Stated in this minimal form, Parsons felt that the utilitarian heritage could indeed continue to inform sociological theorizing. In a similar critical stance, Parsons rejected the extreme formulations of radical positivists, who tended to view the social world in terms of observable cause-and-effect relationships among physical phenomena. In so doing, he felt, they ignored the complex symbolic functionings of the human mind. Furthermore, Parsons saw the emphasis on observable cause-and-effect relationships as too easily encouraging a sequence of infinite reductionism: groups were reduced to the causal relationships of their individual members; individuals were reducible to the cause-and-effect relationships of their physiological processes; these were reducible to physico-chemical relationships, and so on, down to the most basic cause-and-effect connections among particles of physical matter. Nevertheless, despite these extremes, radical positivism draws attention to the physical parameters of social life and to the deterministic impact of these parameters on much--but of course not all--social organization. Finally, in assessing idealism, Parsons saw the conceptions of "ideas" to circumscribe both individual and social processes as useful, although all too frequently these ideas are seen as detached from the ongoing social life they are supposed to regulate.
The depth of scholarship in Parsons' analysis of these traditions is impossible to communicate. More important than the details of his analysis is the weaving of selected concepts from each of these traditions into a voluntaristic theory of action. At this starting point, in accordance with his theory-building strategy, Parsons began to construct a functional theory of social organization. In this initial formulation, he conceptualized voluntarism as the subjective decision-making process of individual actors, but he viewed such decisions as the partial outcome of certain kinds of constraints, both normative and situational. Voluntaristic action therefore involves these basic elements: (1) Actors, at this point in Parsons' thinking, are individual persons. (2) Actors are viewed as goal seeking. (3) Actors also process alternative means to achieve the goals. (4) Actors are confronted with a variety of situational conditions, such as their own biological makeup and heredity as well as various external ecological constraints that influence the selection of goals and means. (5) Actors are governed by values, norms, and other ideas such that these ideas influence what is considered a goal and what means are selected to achieve it. (6) Action involves actors making subjective decisions about the means to achieve goals, all of which are constrained by ideas and situational conditions.
Figure 4-1 represents this conceptualization of voluntarism. The process diagrammed are often termed the unit act, with social action involving a succession of such unit acts by one or more actors. Parsons chose to focus on such basic units of action for at least two reasons. First, he felt it necessary to synthesize the historical legacy of social thought about the most basic social process and to dissect it into its most elementary components. Second, given his position on what theory should be, the first analytical task in the development of sociological theory is to isolate conceptually the systemic features of the most basic unit from which more complex processes and structures are built.
Once these basic tasks were completed, Parsons began to ask: How are unit acts connected to each other, and how can this connectedness be conceptually represented? Indeed, near the end of The Structure of Social Action, he recognized that "any atomistic system that deals only with properties identifiable in the unit act...will of necessity fail to treat these latter elements adequately and be indeterminate as applied to complex systems." However, only the barest hints of what was to come were evident in those closing pages (Turner, 1998, pp. 30-42).