Sociological Theory
Department of Sociology and Anthropology


From Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. New York: Free Press, 1937, pp. 43-48.

The Unit Act of Action Systems

Talcott Parson (1937)

In the first chapter attention was called to the fact that in the process of scientific conceptualization concrete phenomena come to be divided into units or parts. The first salient feature of the conceptual scheme to be dealt with lies in the character of the units which it employs in making this division. The basic unit may be called the "unit act." Just as the units of a mechanical system in the classical sense, particles, can be defined only in terms of their properties, mass, velocity, location is space, direction of motion, etc., so the units of action systems also have certain basic properties without which it is not possible to conceive of the unit as "existing." Thus, to continue the analogy, the conception of a unit of matter which has mass but which cannot be located in space is, in terms of the classical mechanics, nonsensical. It should be noted that the sense in which the unit act is here spoken of as an existent entity is not that of concrete spatiality or otherwise separate existence, but of conceivability as a unit in terms of a frame of reference. There must be a minimum number of descriptive terms applied to it, a minimum number of facts ascertainable about it, before it can be spoken of at all as a unit in a system.

In this sense then, an "act" involves logically the following: (1) It implies an agent, an "actor." (2) For purposes of definition the act must have an "end," a future state of affairs toward which the process of action is oriented. (3) It must be initiated in a "situation" of which the trends of development differ in one or more important respects from the state of affairs to which the action is oriented, the end. This situation is in turn analyzable into two elements: those over which the actor has no control, that is which he cannot alter, or prevent from being altered, in conformity with his end, and those over which he has such control. The former may be termed the "conditions" of action, the latter the "means." Finally (4) there is inherent in the conception of this unit, in its analytical uses, a certain mode of relationship between these elements. That is, in the choice of alternative means to the end, in so far as the situation allows alternatives, there is a "normative orientation" of action. Within the area of control of the actor, the means employed cannot, in general, be conceived either as chosen at random or as dependent exclusively on the conditions of action, but must in some sense be subject to the influence of an independent, determinate selective factor, a knowledge of which is necessary to the understanding of the concrete course of action. What is essential to the concept of action is that there should be a normative orientation, not that this should be of any particular type. As will be seen, the discrimination of various possible modes of normative orientation is one of the most important questions with which this study will be confronted. But before entering into the definition of any of them a few of the major implications of the basic conceptual scheme must be outlined.

The first important implicit is that an act is always a process in time. The time category is basic to the scheme. The concept end always implies a future reference, to a state which is either not yet in existence, and which would not come into existence if something were not done about it by the actor or, if already existent, would not remain unchanged. This process, seen primarily in terms of its relation to ends, is variously called "attainment," "realization," and "achievement."

Second, the fact of a range of choice open to the actor with reference both to ends and to means, in combination with the concept of a normative orientation of action, implies the possibility of "error," of the failure to attain ends or to make the "right" choice of means. The various meanings of error and the various factors to which it may be attributed will form one of the major themes to be discussed.

Third, the frame of reference of the schema is subjective in a particular sense. That is, it deals with phenomena, with things and events as they appear from the point of view of the actor whose action is being analyzed and considered. Of course the phenomena of the "external world" play a major part in the influencing of action. But in so far as they can be utilized by this particular theoretical scheme, they must be reducible to terms which are subjective in this particular sense. This fact is of cardinal importance in understanding some of the peculiarities of the theoretical structures under consideration here. The same fact introduces a further complication which must be continually kept in mind. It may be said that all empirical science si concerned with the understanding of the phenomena of the external world. Then the facts of action are, to the scientist who studies them, facts of the external world--in this sense, objective facts. That is, the symbolic reference of the propositions the scientist calls the facts is to phenomena "external" to the scientist, not to the content of his own mind. But in this particular case, unlike that of the physical sciences, the phenomena being studied have a scientifically relevant subjective aspect. That is, while the social scientist is not concerned with studying the content of his own mind, he is very much concerned with that of the minds of the persons whose action he studies. This necessitates the distinction of the objective and subjective points of view. The distinction and the relation of the two to each other are of great importance. By "objective" in this context will always be meant "from the point of view of the scientific observer of action" and by "subjective," "from the point of view of the actor."

A still further consequence follows from the "subjectivity" of the categories of the theory of action. When a biologist or a behavioristic psychologist studies a human being it is as an organism, a spatially distinguishable separate unit in the world. The unit of reference which we are considering as the actor is not this organism but an "ego" or "self." The principal importance of this consideration is that the body of the actor forms, for him, just as much part of the situation of action as does the "external environment." Among the conditions to which his action is subject are those relating to his own body and, of course, his "mind." He analytical distinction between actor and situation quite definitely cannot be identified with the distinction in the biological sciences between organism and environment. It is not a question of distinctions of concrete "things," for the organism is a real unit. It is rather a matter of the analysis required by the categories of empirically useful theoretical systems.

A fourth implication of the schema of action should be noted. Certainly the situation of action includes parts of what is called in common-sense terms the physical environment an the biological organism--to mention only two points. With equal certainty these elements of the situation of action are capable of analysis in terms of the physical and biological sciences, and the phenomena in question are subject to analysis in terms of the units in use in those sciences. Thus a bridge may, with perfect truth, be said to consist of atoms of iron, a small amount of carbon, etc., and their constituent electrons, protons, neutrons and the like. Must the student of action, then, become a physicist, chemist, biologist in order to understand his subject? In a sense this is true, but for purposes of the theory of action it is not necessary or desirable to carry such analyses as far as science in general is capable of doing. A limit is set by the frame of reference with which the student of action is working. That is, he is interested in phenomena with an aspect not reducible to action terms only in so far as they impinge on the schema of action in a relevant way--in the role of conditions or means. So long as their properties, which are important in this context, can be accurately determined these may be taken as data without further analysis. Above all, atom, electrons or cells are not to be regarded as units for purposes of the theory of action. Unit analysis of any phenomenon beyond the point where it constitutes an integral means or condition of action leads over into terms of another theoretical scheme. For the purposes of the theory of action the smallest conceivable concrete unit is the unit act, and while it is in turn analyzable into the elements to which reference has been made--end, means, conditions and guiding norms--further analysis of the phenomena of which these are in turn aspects is relevant to the theory of action only in so far as the units arrived at can be referred to as constituting such elements of a unit act or a system of them.

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