The action frame of reference is associated with the name of Talcott Parsons, whose theory starts with a systematic analysis of action which sees the social actor as choosing between different means and ends, in an environment which limits choice both physically and socially. The most important social limitations on choice are norms and values. From this, Parsons builds up an elaborate model of the social system, such that his theory arguably loses its voluntaristic character: that is, the notion of the choosing actor disappears, in favour of a theory of structural determination in which norms and values play the determining role.
Apart from Parsons's theory, modern action theories in sociology have three different concerns. The first is the nature of rationality and rational action itself. This focus arises out of Weber's typology and poses questions about the possibility of causal explanations of action. (Are the reasons for doing something a cause in the same way that heating a piece of metal causes it to expand?) It also addresses the issue of whether there are any absolute criteria of rationality, or wether sociological explanations are always in some sense relative. Jon Elster's rational choice theory takes up some of these problems in a more substantive way. The second concern is the taken-for-granted rules and stock of knowledge that underlie action—a theme pursued notably by ethnomethodology and phenomenology. The third, addressed by symbolic interactionism, is the learning and negotiation of meaning that goes on between actors.
All action theories have something to say, implicitly or explicitly, about the rationality of the actor—if only that he or she behaves rationally. See also EXCHANGE THEORY.
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