Parsons: The Unit Act Of Action Systems


Parsons, Talcott. 1937. "The Unit Act of Action Systems" (213-215)

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For Parsons, the basic unit of study is the unit act, which involves the following criteria: an actor/agent motivated to action; an end toward which action is oriented and means to reach this end; a situation where the action takes place; and norms and values that shape the choice of means to ends. Actions consist of the structures and processes from which humans are motivated to form meaningful intentions (through available goal-attaining means) that are put into practice within the social system (Parsons 1966). Parsonian “action” is considered from all of the following perspectives: culture (values), society (norms), personality (source of motivation), and organism (source of energy). (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (2008) at


  1. A science has to begin by defining its unit of analysis and its properties.
  2. A unit act has an agent, an end/goal, a situation consisting of means and conditions, and an overall relationship among these such that the actor chooses means neither at random nor as determined by conditions.
  3. An act unfolds in time — the end is a future state.
  4. Choice of means can be right or wrong in terms of whether it achieves the end AND whether or not it is an "acceptable" means.
  5. Subjective will mean "from the perspective of the actor" and objective "from the perspective of the scientific observer."
  6. The "unit" of the actor is not the body, but the self or ego.
  7. The social theorist need not descend to the level of atoms, molecules, etc. (Parsons doesn't quite say it, but the reason is that the actor grasps the world at a higher conceptual level than these micro-objects.)


Parsons: Our excerpt is from The Structure of Social Action (1937). Parsons is "defining" sociology and an important first step is to specify the basic unit of this science (think of how physics has its atoms, economics its buyers and sellers). The unit, for Parsons, is the act (213.4). One "property" of the act is the actor or agent. The act also has an end or goal, and a situation or context. The context has two parts: what the actor can control (means) and what the actor cannot (conditions). The actor's choice of means is not random, not whimsical, and not determined by the situation. [Here Parsons is foreshadowing his notion of "voluntary action — like Weber, he says sociology is not so interested in determined actions (like automatic response to stimuli) — no choice, no sociology.]

Two important things to note here. First, Parsons actor is a goal oriented chooser of means subject to constraints. In this passage we don't have a detailed discussion of constraints, but they are given the label "normative" and there is an implication that they are two-fold — natural and …. Second, we are getting the distinction between subjective and objective as lying in perspectives: the scientist has the objective view (from the outside) whereas the actor has the subjective (from the inside). This is a variation: objective sometimes refers to "the world out there as it is" and the subjective to "how we think it is." Recall Murray Davis' distinction between phenomenological and objective reality.


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