The Theory of Action: Talcott Parsons and After

Jan Balon


This article focuses on the problems and contradictions of sociological theories of action. It investigates critically the development of the theory of action after the Parsonian synthesis, drawing attention to the limitations of articulating the concept of action systematically within a presuppositional framework of analytical theory. Having exposed Parsons general theory of action and some interpretations and criticisms, the paper addresses the so-called “return of grand theory”, spearheaded in the early 1980s by authors such as Alexander, Habermas, Giddens and Luhmann. The article analyses the conceptual innovations introduced by their theories according to Parsons own definition of theoretical work, which – as he said – consists in reconstruction and transformation of categories in the moments of their failure. While it is argued that sociological theory cannot do away with general concepts, it is also argued that these need not have the form of a synthetic theory of action of the kind outlined by Parsons and the Post-Parsonians.


action; Parsons; contradiction; system; general theory; conceptual scheme; voluntarism

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TEORIE VĚDY / THEORY OF SCIENCE – journal for interdisciplinary studies of science is published twice a year by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences (Centre for Science, Technology, and Society Studies). ISSN 1210-0250 (Print) ISSN 1804-6347 (Online) MK ČR E 18677 web: /// email: