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Parsons and Structure of Social Action

March 6, 2009

  In Parsons’ words “this study is … study of one particular problem … the emergence of the theoretical system which has been called the ‘voluntaristic theory of action’” (14).  A critical point to understand about the purpose of The Structure of Social Action is stated in the Preface To The Second Edition; it is “intended to be primarily a contribution to systematic social science” (A, B).  Accordingly, the analysis is one of comparing and contrasting convergent theoretical development related to the scientific analysis of social phenomena.  This is the starting point for Parsons’ study and endeavor to determine a process by which to maximize the study of social action and dynamics.  What he envisions is development of an indispensable, preliminary, and accurate process by which knowledge may be developed.  The system he envisions provides a systematic understanding of theories and their processes in relation to rational action.

            Although the book in part examines four major social contributors, Alfred Marshall, Vilfredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber it is rather in purpose designed as a primary source material.  Rather than explore these theorists for their particular theoretical contributions, Parsons considers the totality of their contributions as they contribute to the sum total of the scientific structure of the system of theory itself.  This is a key point that the reader must not miss.  Hence, the four theorists are followed in order to better understand the development of the theoretical system (vi).  Through this analysis, it is argued that scientific theory in the social science is a product of observation, reasoning and verification.  This process examines facts, applies reason and then returns to the facts for verification.  A “fact” for this textual study is adopted from Professor Henderson, “empirically verifiable statement about phenomena in terms of a conceptual scheme” (41).  Empiricism refers to the claim that “categories of a given theoretical system are by themselves adequate to explain all scientifically important facts” about the concrete phenomena considered (69-70).


The proper structure of a theoretical system may be stated as a single body of systematic theoretical reasoning traceable through a critical analysis.  Hence, we find that there is a “logical structure” for theory (7).  Therefore, a theoretical system must not simply observe facts and make logical conclusions.  If empirically correct, it must also be capable of allowing for prediction or tell, “what empirical facts it should be possible to observe in a given set of circumstances” (8).  This process requires at a minimum that the theorist take into consideration all relevant known facts that may be obtained and then investigate each to see if they agree with the theory.  After this, the theorist must verify those expectations of theory that appear to agree with the facts as presented.  This process is what makes the “system” of theoretical science.  Only in this way is it possible to simultaneously state what is currently known, allow questions to be formulated about what needs to be known, and then test alternatives and possible answers for answers.

            Facts, which are not yet connected with, or fail to be in relation with theory do not constitute “science” (16).  These residuals, are only bits and pieces of knowledge and are not to be confused with the positive theoretical system.  Theoretical systems must deal with empirically identifiable variables.  A goal of the scientific system is to eliminate from consideration the residual categories from science and focus upon the positively defined, empirical variables (19).  Only such a systematic theoretical study will allow science to progress.  This is a major distinction between science and philosophy.


Science and philosophy are not the same, but they may provide mutual benefits.  The example of Kant is illustrative (24).  Philosophy is a residual category because it is a mere attempt to rationalize cognitive understanding of the human experience in ways other than by empiric evidence (21).  A key concept to consider is that of methodology.  As a preface, consider that for each positive there is a negative (22).  For each scientific theory, there are philosophical consequences and other assumptions.  Good or bad, the duality exists.  Some questions will lead to valid knowledge through empirically valid propositions.  This process is methodology.  Methodology is narrowly defined as “considered general grounds for validity of scientific propositions” (24).  This definition is more than research technique through interview, questionnaire or statistical analysis.  Hence, methodology separates science from philosophy, which is based in logic and epistemology.  


There are different types of theoretical concepts and type determines how the concept is formed (or perhaps framed) for scientific study.  The quote from Henderson illustrates this point well: “all empirical observation is ‘in terms of a conceptual scheme’” (28).  Language differences are good to provide an example of how structure of concepts differs.  Parsons calls these descriptive frames of reference or schemata (28).  These schemata represent a methodological level of scientific observation.  Of these, the schema of social action, proposing that concrete individuals adapt means of reaching ends is instrumental (30).  (This sounds like Weber’s rational action.)  To relate the earlier discussion, empirical facts must be considered within the schema or conceptualization.  Similar to Weber’s historical individual this process of using schema allows for phenomena of interest to be identified and defined within groups (conceptualized) and then studied meaningfully.  Concepts may then be referenced or broken down into parts for further examination.  The goal is to devise observational operations by which the scheme allows examination of empirical evidence and thereby allows problems to be answered (37 – 39).

            Therefore, a theoretical system must include a frame of reference, conceptualized structure of concrete systems to which the frame applies and certain “parts”.  The main aspect of the part is related to its structure in systems of action; the skeleton or social structure.  This analysis of social structure is therefore critically related to action schema, and as Parsons notes provides the name of the text The Structure of Social Action (39).


Parsons’ theoretical systems for social science relies upon the finding that an action is a unit or part.  There must be an “actor”, the “end” of the act, and the “situation” which initiated the actor to act.  Note B on page 77 explores this concept in detail.  The situation may allow for control or lack of control over the act.  These may be called means or conditions respectively.  Further, the relationship between the parts may allow for normative alternatives.  Factors of the action are time, choice, actor’s subjective point of view, physical environment/ biological organism,    (45).  Time moves from present to future.  Without the actor doing something the future would not change.  By this process, actors ‘achieve, realize or achieve ends.  In this fashion, the system is its own atom.  Parsons later seems to use this for his basis in listing atomism as the first predominant feature of a developing system (56, 743).  Choice equates to “range of choice open to the actor”.  There is range of choice in the means of acting and in the ends of the future result as affected by the normative orientation.  Error is potential in this process because of error in choice.  The external world interplays upon the individual actor’s subjective state.  Hence, it is necessary to determine whether action is brought about by the external world or the actors’ internal point of view.  Physical environment may impinge upon the action.  As a final note, it is not the actor as an individual that is the atom, but rather the unit act that is the atom (72).

            In his discussion of utilitarianism Parsons notes that a major problem with social thinkers has been to justify (“values”) course of conduct or policy which they propose rather than evaluate objective and understandable facts (53).  He argues his point using primarily the ethical and religious contexts of Christianity and secondarily the cultural thought of the Greek polis (53-55).  The antithesis of the faulty objective to explain based upon value leads to the second predominate feature of a developing system, which is “rationality”.  This is not to be fully explained by a discussion of irrationality or nonrationality.  Rather the positive norm of rationality is action understood to be guided “by scientific or … scientifically sound knowledge of the circumstances of the actor” (58).  This translates to evaluation of what ends are possible within the conditions of the particular situation and then judging which means are reasonably understood and verified to be available and best adapted to meet the ends (the rational acting unit).  This unit (automism, rationality, empiricism, and random ends) allows for concrete empiricism and completes the utilitarian system.  Parsons notes that rationality also plays a role in the theory of action.  Unitarianism, positivism and idealism are synthesized into his theory of action. 

Voluntaristic Action

Action is voluntary and involves an actor, goals of individual actors, alternative means for achieving goals and desires, internal and external constraints that affect choice, and subjective decisions by the actors (60-69).  The utilitarian assigns a degree of rationality to the actor, therefore unitarianism may be said to be positivistic, but there are other positivist examples (62).  Positivist thought was central to Marshal, Pareto, and Durkheim.  


Parsons concludes analysis with a reminder that he has attempted an empirical study.  It does not matter that the theories of the theorists considered dealt with various phenomena; rather these theorists were the empirical data by which the process of development of scientific thought has been studied.  A synthesis of concepts related to the utilitarian, positivist, and idealist leads to a “voluntaristic theory of action”.  By this theory enables the categorization of social phenomena.  From this theory, five particular theses have been concluded.

Five Theses

First, there is an outline or structure called the voluntaristic theory of action (62).  This is so even though different theorists examined used different terminology (720).  Second, these differing categories as a whole create a new system that although it includes parts of earlier systems fails to have all parts of any one system therefore it is individually incompatible with any prior system.  Third, as a whole the new system allows for understanding and explanation (closeness) of each earlier writer’s empirical views whether positivistic, evolutionary, utilitarian or idealistic.  Fourth, there remains much study to be done.  Hence, empirical study is ongoing (721).  Fifth, empirical study is a multifaceted process.  In order to better understand phenomenon there is need for a fully integrated systematic approach to study of empirical facts.  Without this approach, several fallacies arise as set forth on page 726. 

            The bottom line is that the development of empirical knowledge must be an integral part of measuring the development of social change.  This method is not simply of dominating importance to study of dynamics, but of major importance (726). 

Implications of the Study

Many things need to continue to be done.  The verification part of theory requires that scientists continue to test theory against empirical fact.  However, it is fair for scientists to set limits and parameters upon their work and identify the context of their study.  By defining the parameters of investigation a theorist may come to conclude his/her work and leave additional investigation and verification to other scientists (727).  The establishing of parameters of a study relates to the defining of the problem in the initial investigation.           Though attempting to limit the study to empiric evidence Parsons admits that he has had to rely in part upon philosophical considerations (728). 




Parsons, Talcott. [1937] 1961. The Structure of Social Action.  New York, NY: The Free Press of Glencoe.

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