From Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action. NewYork: 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 theprocess of scientific conceptualization concrete phenomena come to bedivided into units or parts. The first salient feature of theconceptual scheme to be dealt with lies in the character of the unitswhich it employs in making this division. The basic unit may becalled the "unit act." Just as the units of a mechanical system inthe classical sense, particles, can be defined only in terms of theirproperties, mass, velocity, location is space, direction of motion,etc., so the units of action systems also have certain basicproperties without which it is not possible to conceive of the unitas "existing." Thus, to continue the analogy, the conception of aunit of matter which has mass but which cannot be located in spaceis, in terms of the classical mechanics, nonsensical. It should benoted that the sense in which the unit act is here spoken of as anexistent entity is not that of concrete spatiality or otherwiseseparate existence, but of conceivability as a unit in terms of aframe of reference. There must be a minimum number of descriptiveterms applied to it, a minimum number of facts ascertainable aboutit, 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 theact must have an "end," a future state of affairs toward which theprocess of action is oriented. (3) It must be initiated in a"situation" of which the trends of development differ in one or moreimportant respects from the state of affairs to which the action isoriented, the end. This situation is in turn analyzable into twoelements: those over which the actor has no control, that is which hecannot alter, or prevent from being altered, in conformity with hisend, and those over which he has such control. The former may betermed the "conditions" of action, the latter the "means." Finally(4) there is inherent in the conception of this unit, in itsanalytical uses, a certain mode of relationship between theseelements. That is, in the choice of alternative means to the end, inso far as the situation allows alternatives, there is a "normativeorientation" of action. Within the area of control of the actor, themeans employed cannot, in general, be conceived either as chosen atrandom or as dependent exclusively on the conditions of action, butmust in some sense be subject to the influence of an independent,determinate selective factor, a knowledge of which is necessary tothe understanding of the concrete course of action. What is essentialto the concept of action is that there should be a normativeorientation, not that this should be of any particular type. As willbe seen, the discrimination of various possible modes of normativeorientation is one of the most important questions with which thisstudy will be confronted. But before entering into the definition ofany of them a few of the major implications of the basic conceptualscheme must be outlined.

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

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

Third, the frame of reference of the schema is subjective in aparticular sense. That is, it deals with phenomena, with things andevents as they appear from the point of view of the actor whoseaction is being analyzed and considered. Of course the phenomena ofthe "external world" play a major part in the influencing of action.But in so far as they can be utilized by this particular theoreticalscheme, they must be reducible to terms which are subjective in thisparticular sense. This fact is of cardinal importance inunderstanding some of the peculiarities of the theoretical structuresunder consideration here. The same fact introduces a furthercomplication which must be continually kept in mind. It may be saidthat all empirical science si concerned with the understanding of thephenomena of the external world. Then the facts of action are, to thescientist who studies them, facts of the external world--in thissense, objective facts. That is, the symbolic reference of thepropositions the scientist calls the facts is to phenomena "external"to the scientist, not to the content of his own mind. But in thisparticular case, unlike that of the physical sciences, the phenomenabeing studied have a scientifically relevant subjective aspect. Thatis, while the social scientist is not concerned with studying thecontent of his own mind, he is very much concerned with that of theminds of the persons whose action he studies. This necessitates thedistinction of the objective and subjective points of view. Thedistinction and the relation of the two to each other are of greatimportance. By "objective" in this context will always be meant "fromthe 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 thecategories of the theory of action. When a biologist or abehavioristic psychologist studies a human being it is as anorganism, a spatially distinguishable separate unit in the world. Theunit of reference which we are considering as the actor is not thisorganism but an "ego" or "self." The principal importance of thisconsideration is that the body of the actor forms, for him, just asmuch part of the situation of action as does the "externalenvironment." Among the conditions to which his action is subject arethose relating to his own body and, of course, his "mind." Heanalytical distinction between actor and situation quite definitelycannot be identified with the distinction in the biological sciencesbetween organism and environment. It is not a question ofdistinctions of concrete "things," for the organism is a real unit.It is rather a matter of the analysis required by the categories ofempirically 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 incommon-sense terms the physical environment an the biologicalorganism--to mention only two points. With equal certainty theseelements of the situation of action are capable of analysis in termsof the physical and biological sciences, and the phenomena inquestion are subject to analysis in terms of the units in use inthose sciences. Thus a bridge may, with perfect truth, be said toconsist of atoms of iron, a small amount of carbon, etc., and theirconstituent electrons, protons, neutrons and the like. Must thestudent of action, then, become a physicist, chemist, biologist inorder to understand his subject? In a sense this is true, but forpurposes of the theory of action it is not necessary or desirable tocarry 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 ofaction is working. That is, he is interested in phenomena with anaspect not reducible to action terms only in so far as they impingeon the schema of action in a relevant way--in the role of conditionsor means. So long as their properties, which are important in thiscontext, can be accurately determined these may be taken as datawithout further analysis. Above all, atom, electrons or cells are notto be regarded as units for purposes of the theory of action. Unitanalysis of any phenomenon beyond the point where it constitutes anintegral means or condition of action leads over into terms ofanother theoretical scheme. For the purposes of the theory of actionthe smallest conceivable concrete unit is the unit act, and while itis in turn analyzable into the elements to which reference has beenmade--end, means, conditions and guiding norms--further analysis ofthe phenomena of which these are in turn aspects is relevant to thetheory of action only in so far as the units arrived at can bereferred to as constituting such elements of a unit act or a systemof them.


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