Talcott Parsons has elaborately dealt with this concept in his famous work ‘Structure of Social Action.’ A modified version of the Parsonian concept of social action has been “Action is social when the actor behaves in such a manner that his action is intended to influence the actions of one or more other persons”. -Duncan Mitchell Elements of Social Action: As mentioned by Kingsley Davis, Parsons speaks of four elements of action. In our analysis of the action of a single individual these four inseparable factors are to be kept in mind.
They are: (i) an actor, (ii) an end, (iii) a set of conditions, and (iv) a set of means. These four factors are only analytically distinct and no one can analyse a social action in its proper perspective without knowing these elements. 1. Actor: Social action presupposes the existence of an actor who initiates action. He is the agent of action. Here we refer to the ‘ego’ or’ self of the actor concerned rather than to his body. The ‘ego’ then is the subjective entity that possesses awareness and has experience.
It makes decisions and holds together past events and imagines the future ones. To the self the body is only a condition for attaining ends. The self or ‘ego’ is an emergent quality characteristic of highly integrated organisms such as man. With his capacity for symbolic communication man can judge himself as others judge him.
Those who study human life must pay sufficient importance to the internal subjective experience which accompanies his behaviour. Not only the external events that affect the human body must be known but more than that, one must discover the way in which the individual perceives them. “The way a person perceives his world, the way he feels and thinks, is an indispensable clue to his behaviour. True, it is the organism which behaves, but it is the ego which acts”. – K.
Davis 2. End: The ‘end’ which motivates action is another important element. It has reference to the future, to a state of affairs which does not exist now.
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.” The act comes to a finish when the end is attained. When one end is attained another end may crop up in its place which may initiate a new line of action. Thus each person’s behaviour consists of an interrelated series of acts. The end may be conscious or unconscious. We cannot say that all human activities are motivated invariably by some ends. But it could be said that all actions that are social in character have ‘ends’.
An end is not just a resultant. If something is going to happen regardless of the actor’s intervention, it cannot be called end. The end presupposes the desire to attain it and exertion for the same. Example: A local jeweler may want the price of the gold to go up suddenly. But whether or not the price will increase, is beyond his control. Hence the sudden increase in the price of the gold is not, from our point of view, his end. But if he starts hoarding gold immediately with the assumption that if its price increases he will get maximum profit, then it can be said that maximising the profit is his end. If things go as per his expectation, it is partly because; he has acted to attain his end.
The ends are chosen by the individual. The choice of ends is based on values. A value is that which is considered desirable, worthy of being pursued. The source of the value lies chiefly in the sentiments. In making the choice of the ends the actor is influenced partly by his sentiments, and partly by organic needs. The end is thus the particular application of a sentiment or value to a given situation as perceived by the actor.
3. Conditions: The presence of end cannot ensure that there will be no obstacles in the path of its realisation. The conditions that surround the individual will determine whether he will achieve the end or pot. The conditions are actually the obstacles in the way of the realisation of an end’.
According As K. Davis, “the concept of action clearly implies that obstacles can be overcome.” The insuperable obstacles are called ‘conditions.
’ They set the stage for action to take place. Example: If a mangalorean wants to reach Bangalore he has to travel the distance. The distance as a given condition is unalterable. He cannot make a compromise with it. He cannot make an appeal to Bangalore to come near him. But he has to find out means for the realisation of his end. The conditions imposed on the actor may be both external and internal. The physical environment and society or social laws represent external conditions, whereas individual’s inner capacity indicates internal condition.
One’s own personality may set a condition on what one can attain. Example: An individual may aspire to become a great singer, but his voice may not permit it. Another person may aspire to have two wives, but the social laws may not permit it. In brief, the conditions that limit our attainment of ends stem from three sources: physical environment, innate capacity, and society. 4. Means: The end can be achieved only with the application of some means.
Different situations may provide for different ends. In some situations simple means such as speech may be enough, while in some others, elaborate means such as educating the illiterate masses, may be required. Often the same end is attainable by more than one means, by providing the actor considerable choice. Due to this choice the actor may make an error, for the means chosen by him may not be most efficient ones. This may contribute to an element of uncertainty in action. What appears to be a ‘means’ for one actor may prove to be a ‘condition’ for another.
In the same situation, for example, one may feel privileged to tell a lie while another may feel obligated to tell the truth. For a city man who knows driving a vehicle may be useful too or means but for a primitive man, it may be an obstacle, that is, a condition. Whether or not a given part of a situation is a means or a condition depends much on the actor himself and not upon the part as such. What is a means in one situation may be a goal in another. If a man intends to purchase a vehicle he may adopt the means of saving a part of his salary. Here, his saving money becomes an immediate goal and for reaching that goal budgeting the salary may be adopted as means.
But actually his attempt at saving money is only a means towards the realisation of his final goal that is, purchasing the vehicle. The actor’s total behaviour is thus a complicated network of interrelated means and ends.