Action Theory in Population Research

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Understanding social institutions and social behavior, the province of social theory, is clearly relevant to explaining population dynamics. Demographers, however, make little systematic use of social theory. Conversely, the enormous volume of demographic research conducted since the 1950s has had little impact on the development of social theory. A more fruitful interchange between demography and social theory would benefit both fields. This entry reviews a major part of social theory–action theory–and appraises its relevance to explaining demographic change, in particular, fertility transition.

Action theory is concerned with the role of human agency in the development and maintenance of institutional structures and with the meaning of human action "from the actor's point of view." Its intellectual roots run deep in Western cultural history, but modern approaches derive largely from the seminal work of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920). The following sections focus on the work of more recent theorists in the Weberian tradition: Talcott Parsons, Jürgen Habermas, and Anthony Giddens.

Talcott Parsons

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) was probably the world's preeminent sociologist during the 1950s and 1960s. His theory of action was intended to provide a basic conceptual framework for unifying the social and behavioral sciences as well as explaining the development of the distinctive organizational features of modern societies.

Parsons defined action as the structures and processes through which human beings form meaningful intentions and, more or less successfully, implement them in specific situations. The basic unit of analysis is the unit act, which involves an actor (an individual or a collective), an end (a future state of affairs to which the action is oriented), a situation consisting of means (aspects over which the actor has some control) and conditions (aspects over which the actor has no control), and a normative orientation (because means and ends typically are not chosen at random but take into account shared meanings and standards).

These elements of action were seen by Parsons as being invariably organized as systems, with sub-systems nested within larger systems. Cultural, social, personality, and behavioral systems were viewed as different fundamental types of action systems, each with its own distinctive organizing principles. Patterns of shared meaning–referred to as normative culture–are institutionalized in a society's social systems and internalized in its individual members' personalities.

Parsons claimed that his theory was the culmination of theoretical developments immanent in the major traditions of Western social theory. The Anglo-French positivistic tradition, for instance, privileged scientific knowledge as the only valid way to apprehend reality, with the result that it reduces the subjective meaning of action either to rational-scientific knowledge or to deviations from that standard in the form of error and superstition. The German idealistic tradition, according to Parsons, was better able to deal with the meaning of action in cases where it diverges from rational-scientific knowledge. Parsons's theory, building on Weber, was an attempt to synthesize these insights within a single comprehensive framework.

How might Parsonsian action theory bear on efforts to explain changes in fertility behavior? Classical demographic transition theory, which explains changes in fertility behavior in terms of "adaptive response to the requirements of an age of modern science and technology" and treats normative elements as simply "slowing the process of social change" (Notestein, p. 351), has many of the hallmarks of positivistic-utilitarian theory. The criticism during the 1980s and 1990s of transition theory's unilinear view of social change and neglect of cultural factors is anticipated by Parsons almost point by point in his critique of the positivistic-utilitarian system 50 years earlier in The Structure of Social Action, first published in 1937. The cultural theories of fertility change put forth during those decades to overcome these limitations often exhibit what Parsons described as the complementary shortcoming of idealistic theories of action: although they avoid reifying science and technology and treat cultural factors as structuring the choices involved in fertility behavior, they fall short in their treatment of the conditions of action.

Demographers nonetheless need a theory of behavior that goes beyond Parsonsian action theory. Demography lies at the intersection of the social and biological sciences. Fertility outcomes are a result of both biological and behavioral factors acting in combination, and so fertility behavior has to be analyzed in a framework like that developed by Kingsley Davis and Judith Blake (1956), which embraces both intentional behavior and unintentional biological processes. Parsons's theory considers human agency selectively only to the extent that it engages the symbolic or cultural level of representation; it therefore drives a conceptual wedge between social systems composed of meaningful action and population systems composed of discrete biological organisms. Its relevance for developing demographic theory is therefore circumscribed.

Jürgen Habermas

The contemporary German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) offers an alternative action-theoretic approach. Like Parsons, he criticizes positivism for the way it privileges one kind of knowledge and thus reduces the scope of rational action. In his early work (1971) Habermas distinguished three kinds of rational-scientific knowledge: (1) the empirical-analytic sciences, centering on a technical cognitive interest; (2) the historical-hermeneutic sciences, incorporating a practical cognitive interest grounded in communication; and (3) the critically oriented sciences, incorporating an emancipatory cognitive interest (that is, one aimed at overcoming irrational restraints).

Critical theory draws on both empirical-analytic knowledge of nomological (lawlike) regularities in human action and historical-hermeneutical knowledge of cultural meanings. Habermas's concept of an emancipatory cognitive interest is seen as problematic by many commentators, but it has a long intellectual history. Socrates saw self-reflection and dialogue as essential to freedom from tyranny and false beliefs. Habermas examines the conditions and constraints for emancipatory communication that are embedded in social action and modern social institutions.

Habermas's later work (1984, 1987) analyzes the ways in which different types of action can be rationalized and uses this analysis as a foundation for a critical account of the development of modern institutions (and the need for their reconstruction). It is an enormously complex exercise that spans many fields in social science, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy and is widely recognized as one of the most important achievements of late twentieth-century social theory.

What Habermas calls purposive-rational action can be rationalized by choosing more efficient or consistent means, but this is quite distinct from the kind of rationalization appropriate for communicative action. Problems of modernity are seen by Habermas as deriving from the dominance of rationalization processes of the purposive-rational type, which undermines the conditions for effective rationalization of communicative action, especially the institutions needed to support a politically vibrant public sphere. Modern societies are suffering from a "colonization of the lifeworld" by systems of purposive-rational action.

Significant links between demography and critical theory have been most striking in their absence. For example, in the 1990s there was a shift in the ideology and organization of national family planning programs from "instrumental" population control to a client-oriented reproductive health approach grounded in human rights and a more "dialogic" approach to provider–client relationships. Demographers working in this policy field faced a newfound nexus of issues involving sexual reproduction, reproductive rights, power, gender, communication, and individuation. They showed scant awareness that these were issues of central interest to critical theory. A plausible reason for this lack of awareness is the fact that demographers usually focus on increasing people's freedom from traditional institutions (e.g., increasing the autonomy of women), whereas critical theorists focus on the less conspicuous loss of freedom engendered by modern "disciplinary" institutions such as the state, the market economy, and even modern medicine.

Knowledge of critical theory would alert demographers involved with public policy to the ways in which the rationalization of conduct in one sphere of life can undermine the chances of appropriate rationalization in another sphere, particularly if the broader context of power relations is not taken into account. Reproductive rights are described in recent international declarations in terms of "the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so" (United Nations, paragraph7.2), yet many women in developed countries (where fertility is below the replacement level) report that they would like more children than they actually have. Their participation in the market economy, which is increasingly rewarded, comes at the cost of time and energy devoted to child rearing. Removing gender inequality and giving people technical control over the number and timing of the children they produce are not sufficient conditions for people to have the number of children they want. This realization may push demographers into the kind of value-driven analysis enjoined by critical theorists, which relates individual behavior to political economy and communication.

Anthony Giddens

The works of Parsons and Habermas are couched in what to many people is impenetrable prose. More accessible are the works of the British sociologist Anthony Giddens (born 1938). In discussing action theory, Giddens adopts a less systematic, more eclectic approach–he calls it structuration theory–several features of which have resonance for demographic research. First, he focuses on the embodied conduct of actors and gives serious attention to the space and time dimensions (acknowledging the contribution of time geographers such as Torsten Hägerstrand). Second, he treats actors as "knowledgeable" (in their practical consciousness) about what they do. Third, he avoids many of the pitfalls associated with the conventional action–structure dualism by arguing, "Structure only exists in so far as people do things knowledgeably and do them in certain contexts that have particular consequences" (Giddens and Pierson, p. 81). Thus, institutions are reproduced through the repeated interactions of everyday life and are both enabling and constraining for human agency. Giddens, however, is of limited help in operationalizing these concepts by, for example, shedding light on the ways in which institutional factors may contribute to falling birthrates.

The Need for an Integrated Theory

None of the versions of action theory to date has integrated causal and interpretive analysis satisfactorily. An important research program in action theory is to develop a perspective on embodied action that would allow one to distinguish the different elements of action in order to clarify which ones are related causally and which ones are related in terms of schemas of meaning. The analysis of fertility behavior not only stands to gain from this program but would provide an ideal empirical case for testing and refining an integrated theory.

Social Theory and Demographic Narratives

As this brief review has tried to show, there are links and potential links between demography and social theory that have been underutilized by both sides. The Dutch demographer Dirk van de Kaa has characterized 50 years of demographic research on fertility as the development of a series of verbal theories from various disciplinary perspectives that attempt to explain some "central action" apparent in the data by locating it in "a setting which allows for an easy interpretation of that action" (van de Kaa, p. 389).

What is striking in many of these "anchored narratives" is the care and precision that go into data collection and analysis and, by contrast, the almost casual manner in which theoretical perspectives and orientations are borrowed and used to fashion interpretive narratives. Theory building in demography has not kept pace with the amassing of data, and what theory there is tends to focus on fragmentary issues and "subnarratives" rather than showing how all the elements fit together. Action theory has no ready-made answers for demographic questions, but it does present a wealth of analytical insight that can be dedicated to that task.

See also: Culture and Population; Social Institutions.


Davis, Kingsley, and Judith Blake. 1956. "Social Structure and Fertility: An Analytic Framework." Economic Development and Cultural Change 4: 211–235.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Giddens, Anthony, and Christopher Pierson. 1998. Conversations with Anthony Giddens. Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1971 (1968). Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press.

——. 1979 (1976). Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

——. 1984, 1987 (1981). The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 Vols. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hayes, Adrian C. 1985. "Causal and Interpretive Analysis in Sociology." Sociological Theory 3(2): 1–10.

McNicoll, Geoffrey. 1994. "Institutional Analysis of Fertility." In Population, Economic Development, and the Environment, ed. Kerstin Lindahl-Kiessling and Hans Lanberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Notestein, Frank W. 1983. "Population Growth and Economic Development." Population and Development Review 9: 345–360.

Parsons, Talcott. 1949 (1937). The Structure of Social Action. New York: Free Press.

——. 1977. The Evolution of Societies, ed. Jackson Toby. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Turner, Bryan S., ed. 2000. The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

United Nations. 1994. Programme of Action Adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 5–13 September 1994. New York: United Nations.

van de Kaa, Dirk J. 1996. "Anchored Narratives: The Story and Findings of Half a Century of Research into the Determinants of Fertility." Population Studies 50: 389–432.

Weber, Max. 1978 (1925). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Adrian C. Hayes