Social Psychology/Action and person

The elements of action

To many theorists, the locus of interest lies in actors, actions, and interactions between persons. But before any research can be done on those issues, the basic points of discussion that are involved in the above topics need to be laid out. In other words, it must first be asked, "What is a human action?"

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons created a model of human action which stressed that the most basic interesting event to recognize is goal-directed action. It was further refined by his student Robert K. Merton. In this model, human actions are made up of and involve:

  • The actor or agent performing an action (including their intentions, schemas, knowledge, motives, and identity);
  • The goal, or a future state of affairs that is desired (which may be a means to another end or an end in itself; involve human communicative action or be an object-oriented action; and be either a creative goal or reaction to a dilemma);
  • The situation in which action is located, including both:
    • The conditions of action (the things about a situation that the actor cannot influence or change). This includes such things as the normative background (or the relevant norms), the obstacles in the way of achieving the goal, and the human ecology of the setting
    • The means of action (which the actor has some degree of control over)
  • And to this, we can also include:
    • the actual consequences of the action (which may be foreseeable or unforeseeable, and either intended or unintended).

Though immediately intuitive and common-sensical, this model is useful as a preliminary guide by which research can be structured. (In semantics, the analytical tool of thematic roles bears many of the same characteristics. This sort of model is one concern in action theory.)

On its own, the above model describes all voluntary human action. However, social psychologists are more interested in describing a narrower subject matter: namely, social actions and aggregate actions. A "social action" was defined by Max Weber as any action that "takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby orientated in its course"; that is to say, another person may be involved in the means, goal, or context of action (1947). Broader still, social psychologists may be interested in aggregate action, when there are multiple actors attempting to achieve the same ends independently of one another.

Of parallel interest at this level of analysis are the issues involved in socialization. What are the forces that cause people to learn their social roles? What are the mental processes that produce a socialized person? What is the role of biology in determining a person's development?

Last modified on 16 December 2006, at 09:39