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Voluntaristic Theory of Action – Talcott Parsons

The Voluntaristic theory of action represented by Parsons had a synthesis of the useful assumptions and concepts of utilitarianism, positivism and Idealism. He noted the thought of classical economists who stood for utilitarianism: unregulated and atomistic actors in a free and competitive market place rationally attempting to choose those behaviors that will maximize their profits in their transactions with others. This created some of the critical problems for Parsons like do humans always behave rationally? How order is possible in an unregulated and competitive system. Yet Parsons saw several features of Utilitarian thought as relevant especially the concern with actors seeking goals and emphasis on the choice making capacities of human beings who weigh alternative lines of action. He rejected the extreme formulations of radical positivists who tended to view the social world in terms of observable cause and effect relationships among physical phenomena.

They ignored the complex symbolic functioning of the human mind. Finally in assessing idealism Parsons saw useful their conception of ideas as circumscribing both individual and social processes although these ideas were seen detached from the ongoing social life they are supposed to relate. Parsons took selected concepts from each of these traditions namely Positivism, Utilitarianism and Idealism into a Voluntaristic theory of action. It involves basic elements- Actors who are individual persons. Actors are viewed as goal seeking. Actors are also in possession of alternative means to achieve the goals. Actors are confronted with a variety of situational conditions such as their own biological make-up and heredity as well as various external ecological constraints that actors are seen to be governed by values, norms and other ideas in that these ideas influence what is considered a goal and what means is selected to achieve it.

Action involves actors making subjective decisions about the means to achieve goals all of which are constrained by ideas and situational conditions. He diagnosed social action into unit acts. He focused on basic units of action because in his development of sociological theory isolates conceptually the systematic feature of the most basic unit from which more complex processes and structures are built. He emphasized that the concept of action points again to the organic property of action systems.