Action and Praxis
The sociological approach to action
An act is something undertaken (1) by an actor, (2) oriented to a specific future end; (3) in a situation that channels how this end can be reached; and (4) in a normative environment constraining how these are combined. Or so wrote Talcott Parsons ( 1968). This conception of action still seems to be the fundamental one assumed in most sociological work, even much American theory, despite it being the focus of vigorous attack from the most important American school of social thought, the pragmatists.
Still, a revolt against this conception began to pick up steam in the early 1970s, mostly originating in anthropology (see Ortner 1984), though – significantly, as I will make clear in closing – preceded by political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1962, 62). In American sociology, it was Bourdieu who first arrived, like an explorer from a foreign land, with this alternative conception as cargo ( 1977). Yet as Bourdieu's visibility grew, the crusty barnacles of traditional action theory began covering the hull of the vessel he had come on – certainly this is true of his reception in the United States, in which Bourdieu became little more than a rational choice theorist for agents with a multiple personality disorder. Field theory devolved into the implicit claim that there were different arenas of striving, each with a potentially independent preference structure.
It is for this reason that Arendt's work may be so important for the social sciences, which have largely lapsed back into traditional action theories, not even understanding what the alternative might be. While one could attempt to recreate such a theory of practice from the works of John Dewey, his writing often lacks the painterly qualities necessary to show, and not merely tell, what this other vision of action might be (e.g.,  1930). The Human Condition is a remarkable work of conceptual history and critique, one that questions assumptions that sociology has deemed unquestionable, and, in particular, one that offers a deeper understanding of the nature of politics than is to be found among any of our theorists. To be able to even appreciate what Arendt was trying to do, we must first free ourselves from the assumption that action just is as Parsons defined it. To do this, I briefly summarize Aristotle's approach to action, to which Arendt was to return.