Elements of Social Action-Talcott Parsons!
Sociology is the study of man’s behaviour in society. Man’s behaviour is defined by the norms and statuses. But norms alone do not explain as why a man behaves in a particular way in a given situation because such things as choice, thought, emotion and perception are inextricably involved in every action that he does.
Every social science makes some assumptions about the internal working of human mind and to understand man’s behaviour it is necessary that these assumptions must be brought into open. Thus any theory of social behaviour must take into account the elements of human action.
Definition of the Elements:
Action is that behaviour which is initiated with an end in view. It involves a thought and exertion process. It is some intelligible unit of voluntary behaviour—voluntary in the sense that it is not a mere reflex action like the knee jerk. Thus every activity of an individual like, singing, laughing, weeping, eating, studying, playing and quarrelling, etc. can be called his action.
But man being a social animal does his actions in a social context. The actions of an individual done in a social context are termed social action. Max Weber writes. “Action is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals) it takes account of the behaviour of others and thereby oriented in its course.”
According to Anderson and Parker, “Human actions when meaningfully oriented to those of others through the use of a common set of symbols are social actions.” Talcott Parsons has enumerated four elements of social action (i) An actor, (ii) An end, a future state of affairs towards which in the mind of the actor, the process of action is arrived, (iii) A set of conditions, aspects of the situation over which the actor has no control, and (iv) A set of means, aspects of the situation over which the actor has control.
Thus while analysing the action of an individual, the above four factors are to be kept in mind. Each of these factors is indispensable since the one cannot be deprived from the other. They are analytically distinct. Ends cannot be derived from means, or means from conditions.
A brief description of these factors follows:
An actor is the first element of social action. Though every action involves an actor so the element of actor can be taken for granted without needing any explanation yet it is better to keep the element of actor as an independent element. When it is said that every action has its agent, what is implied in the statement is actually not the body of the actor but the ‘ego’ or ‘self’.
It is the ego which acts. The ego is the subjective entity that possesses awareness and has experience. The development of this awareness comes in the course of the development of the self. As the self develops man comes to develop the feeling of the T and the ‘Me’.
It is the ‘I’ which reflects and acts. Because of his possession of language and a superior intelligence, man has unique capacity for thinking. On account of this capacity man becomes an object to him and develops an “ego”.
Thus to study man’s behaviour, one must not feel satisfies with merely observing the external aspect of the behaviour but must also look for the internal subjective experience which accompanies the behaviour. The way a person thinks, the way he perceives the world, the way he feels is an indispensable clue to his behaviour.
Another element which helps to explain the behaviour of an individual is the end which motivates his action. To be defined the end is “that part of the future state of affairs which would not eventuate if the actor did not want it and did not exert himself to attain it.”
An end may be distinguished from a sheer resultant. If a future state of affairs comes about regardless of the actor’s intervention, it is not an end. The end presupposes both the desire to attain and the exertion for the same.
A farmer may want it to rain next week, but whether or not it actually will rain is beyond his control. Rainfall is not, therefore, one of his ends. But he sows the seeds on the assumption that it rains, the seeds will grow, the future growth of the crop is an end that he has and if the things turn out well and the crop does grow, it is parity because he has acted to attain that end.
It may be noted that ends are chosen. The choice of the ends is influenced by the values. A value is that which is considered desirable, worthy of being pursued. In making his choice the actor is influenced partly by his sentiments and partly by organic urges. In other words, the end is the particular application of a sentiment or value to a given situation as perceived by the actor.
The end has always reference to the future and so it is defined as “the future state of affairs,” something which does not exist now. A man exercises his imagination to choose the end and makes efforts to realize that end. Therefore, the end requires the use of imagination, efforts and will.
Some sociologists, anthropologists and social psychologists have taken the view that a person’s behaviour is mostly a reflection of the situation he happens to be in. Inherent in the situation are the social forces that shape and determine his behaviour at any given moment.
No doubt, the social forces do influence man’s behaviour; however, the end element cannot be neglected in interpreting behaviour. Though all activity may not be motive ted in the sense of having an end in view, yet much of the activity that is social in character does have an end in view.
What a man may achieve and what he may fail to achieve is largely determined by the conditions he is surrounded with. The conditions are the obstacles in the way of the realization of an end. They set the stage within which the end may be realized. In order to successfully realize the end these obstacles must be overcome.
The conditions imposed on the actor may be both external and internal. The external conditions may consist of physical environment or social laws. The internal conditions are those which lie in the actor’s own organism. Many persons who aspire to be great poets may fail because they lack the talent. Thus a poor personality may set a condition on what one can attain.
If conditions prove obstacles, they may also be the sources of the means. Physical environment, social laws and personal qualities may help the actor in the realization of his end. Whether something is a condition or means depends upon the situation.
It may be referred that the individuals should not cherish ends that are incapable of realization because if one constantly fails to realize the end it may lead to the disintegration of personality. Their flights of imagination should be weighed against reality to save from despair. One should wish for neither too much nor for too little.
To reach an end one must employ means. The means are to be carefully chosen. Mahatma Gandhi laid great stress on the purity of means. Means and ends are co-related. As the means, so the end. Sometimes, the same end may be attainable by more than one means, giving the actor considerable choice as to which he shall utilize. In such a situation, the actor may make an error, for the means chosen by him may not be most efficient.
What is a means for one may be a condition for another. For a man who knows to operate a machine it may be a useful tool, but for one who does not know its operation, it may be a condition. Thus whether or not a given part of the situation is a means or a condition depends not so much upon the part itself as upon the actor.
The Problem of Rationality of Means:
In order to attain the end, the means, as we have remarked above, should be properly chosen. The means must be adapted to the end. But sometimes means adopted do not lead to the end. In such cases the means may not have been rationally chosen. As a rational and striving being man tries to adopt only rational means but still error occurs.
There are several causes of error:
(i) Super-Empirical Ends:
The first cause of the error may be in the ends themselves. Some men strive for imaginary ends, for example, the end of realizing salvation. Such an end can be realized only by the ‘next life’ and since this end visualizes a future state of affairs in the super-empirical world, it is difficult to prove in scientific terms that any means chosen is adequate.
The result is that in such cases the question of rationality of means becomes irrelevant. The person who kills his child as an offering to the goddess ‘Kali’ to win her favour is adopting a means to his end, but his choice of means has arisen from no knowledge of cause and effect but rather from arbitrary tradition.
Though the man believes that his action will realize the end but the connection between means and end cannot be rationally perceived. He simply accepts the connection on faith rather than on evidence.
Among the Hindus a number of religious ceremonies represent non- rational conduct, nevertheless these ceremonies motivate people to behave in a way useful to social survival. In such ceremonies the question of proof is ruled out. Neither the error can be demonstrated nor the rationality be proved.
(ii) Haziness of the End:
Sometimes the actor may fail in the realization of his end due to the end not being clear. He may desire a particular end without carefully distinguishing between the future states of affairs as it would be with or without effort.
He may also have not been able to distinguish between different ends in the same action. When he has not clear perception of the end he aspires, he naturally fails to judge accurately the effect of the means he utilizes. He may succeed or fail without knowing why.
Ignorance or lack of knowledge may be another cause for non- rational behaviour. The actor can utilize only what he knows, and he never knows all the possible means in his situation. He may wrongly perceive something that would be of use to him, for example when a person boards a wrong train.
Again, he may be ignorant of something that he could have known because it is a part of his culture, but which he either never learned or has forgotten. The man is blamed for such errors because he is ignorant of something which he should have known.
(iv) Normative Restriction:
The norms exercise a great influence upon man’s behaviour in society. They not only control the ends to be pursued by a man but also control the means which can be utilized to attain those ends. The norms debar a man from utilizing certain means which would gain the end but which are taboo to him.
The Brahmin, for example, who does not want to get himself examined by a doctor because he is of a low caste, is debarred from utilizing the right means due to the taboo of untouchability. Such taboos placed on the use of means coalesce with ignorance. The Brahmin is supposed not to allow a scheduled caste doctor to feel his pulse and treat him for his illness even when he knows that the doctor can cure him.
Thus the norms limit that actor’s available means. Though something may be said on the value of norms in maintaining the solidarity of groups, however, the reasons which are given for the necessity of norms are fallacious explanations of why the choice of means is narrowed.
In sum, the man may adopt non-rational means because,
(i) His ends are super empirical
(ii) He has vague and confused conception of ends,
(iii) He is ignorant of means,
(iv) His choice of means has been controlled by the norms.
Though the conduct of a man may be non-rational, however, the actor carries the illusion of rationality. This is because his attention is concentrated on those means only which are known to him. This illusion of rationality acts as a protection both to his ego and to his society.
No social order could be made up entirely of rational behaviour nor could it be as rational as it seems to the members of society. The illusion of rationality is all pervasive so much so that it permeates the social sciences and prevents their taking an entirely objective and clear view of their own subject matter.
Many social sciences analyze human behaviour only in so far as such behaviour can be assumed to be rational with the result that many errors with reference to human behaviour have been made.
To conclude, a man’s action is not all rational nor has it to be rational to succeed. Rationality is only an element. There are always other factors which influence the result.
Integration of Ends:
The problem of integration of ends is an important problem for social harmony. Just as a single individual has to adjust his different ends in a harmonious way to avoid disappointment, so in the society the ends of the different individuals are to be adjusted harmoniously to make social living peaceful and happier.
The ends of one individual must be balanced against the ends of another to avoid conflict. In a society, as we know, there is a constant need to allocate scarce goods and services to the different ends of the different individuals in a way that the individuals may be satisfied with the social order.
It is easier for an individual to allocate his scarce means among his various ends, but it is difficult for the society to allocate the scarce means and services among the various ends of the individuals in a way which may satisfy all the individuals, because the individual has a guide in his own case while the society has no such guide to judge the relative importance of the ends of the different individuals for them.
Each individual feels his ends more important and wants them to be given priority over the ends of the others. Thus the society is faced with a difficult situation of finding out a basis for allocating scarce goods among the different members of the community. Yet there is an integration of ends within the society as without such integration the social structure could not survive. The question then is how is this integration achieved?
Economic Integration of Ends:
While there is competition in the satisfaction of ends, there are limits on the means that may be utilized. Anybody cannot pursue one’s ends in a rational manner, for example, one cannot play fraud upon others to satisfy his ends. If he plays fraud, others also may retaliate. This would lead to a state of conflict in which no group can remain intact.
Thus to maintain the group some limitations are imposed on the means. The individual in order to gain something agrees to give up something in return. Thus many of the means for satisfying different ends are distributed through competitive exchange of services and commodities.
One gives up something to gain something in return. But the exchange is regulated by a set of rules or norms. These rules are framed and enforced by the political organisation or the community through laws or norms.
Political Integration of Ends:
The Government enforces the rules of competition. But what gives to the Government the authority to enforce these rules? How are the individuals exercising political authority to be distinguished from the other individuals? Certainly they do not differ in a biological sense. What make them different are their socially defined positions.
They represent the group in their positions and action and are authorised by the groups to use force in order to see that the rules of the group are observed. Though there is the risk of the persons exercising political authority using their power to satisfy their own ends, yet the society cannot pull on without them.
There must be some people in authority. As already said, a society can exist with a tyrant, a king, an elected president or a gangster at the top; it cannot exist with nobody at the top. The political authority accomplishes the integration of ends of different individuals by issuing decrees and orders with force in the background to make those orders acceptable.
Religious-Moral Integration of Ends:
If the ends of the individuals are competitive, they also have some common ends—common in the sense that they are shared by the whole community and are known to be so shared. These ends do not refer so much to a future state of the individual himself as to the future state of the group itself.
These ends become identified with the group mores and simply express how the people think the group should be organised, for example, the mores that nobody should marry his daughter expresses an idea as to how the group should be organized. This is an end towards which ever}’ member of the group functions.
Not only that he sees to it that no member of the group violates this mores; he considers this end more important than many others. He would rather go hungry than marry his daughter. He is willing to suppress and ostracize anyone who does not aspire for this end.
Such ends are held in common by the group. These are not only common ends but also ultimate. There are no ends above them. They are simply held to be good in themselves. The individual’s own satisfaction is subordinated to them.
These common ultimate ends possessed by the members of the society provide Integration to the ends in human societies. Such ends stand at the top of the hierarchy of ends and control all the ends below. It is in terms of these common ultimate ends that the ends of the different individuals are valued and integrated within the society.