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Categories of the Orientation and Organization of Action

Toward a General Theory of Action, by Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils, is classic structural–functionalism: grandiose, complex, and impressive in its sophistication and scope. In this excerpt, Parsons and Shils outline their theory of action and the pattern variables around which people orient their behaviors and decisions so as to satisfy individual needs and social expectations. Read the passage carefully and answer the following questions.


1. Parsons and Shils are primarily concerned with how action at the individual and collective levels is shaped by larger systems. Identify and briefly summarize these three systems.

2. Pattern-variables refer to choices an individual must make in order for a situation to be meaningful. Pick two of these five pattern-variables and provide a concrete example of each within the social system.

3. Parsons and Shils argue that within social systems there is an “interdependent and, in part, concerted action in which the concert is a function of collective goal orientation and common values, and of a consensus of normative and cognitive expectations.” In other words, action within a social system is primarily directed toward building and maintaining equilibrium, or adherence to particular normative frameworks. Do you agree with their assessment that social action is primarily about maintaining consensus in society? Why or why not? Use a concrete example to support your conclusion.

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