Typology of Social Actions based on the Living Systems Theory


  • Ilan Riss


Living systems theory, social actions


It is impossible to make progress in social theory without inquiring about social actions; therefore, many leading sociologists refer to this notion in their work. Max Weber, Talcott Parsons and many other sociologists attempted to ground not only their works but also the science of sociology as a whole on a theory of social actions. Max Weber defined sociology as "the science which attempts the interpretative understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a casual explanation of its course and effects". Moreover, he explicitly singled out social action as the “central subject matter” of his sociology. Hence, comprehensive typology of social actions can be very helpful in sociological analysis.


Usually, social actions are classified by actors’ intentions. In this paper, types of social actions are categorized both by actors’ intentions and by the actions’ results, including both the intentional and unintentional outcomes. This was achieved through consideration of the social actions in the framework of J.G. Miller’s living systems theory. This theory regards each living system as composed of 20 subsystems that process information and matter/energy inside the living system and between the living system and its environment. These 20 subsystems are considered at eight levels: cell, organ, organism, group, organization, community, society and supranational systems. The first three constitute the level of biological living systems; the other five comprise the level of social living systems. Social actions are interactions among living systems or among different parts of one living system at the social level. The proposed typology of social actions is based on analysis of developmental, reproductive and interactional processes in the social systems.


In order to live and function, living systems must allow their matter/energy-processing subsystems to work, so all social actions in social living systems can be associated with the functioning of these subsystems. Seemingly, the number of goals for social actions as well as the number of their outcomes is very high, however, by relating principal intention and main outcome of the considered social action to specific matter/energy-processing subsystems, their number can be significantly reduced. This is done by determining the main subsystem that was intended to be affected by the planned social action, and the main subsystem that was actually impacted by it. In many cases, it is the same subsystem; that is, the intention coincides with the consequence. As a result of this analysis, the two-dimensional matrix of types of social actions was constructed, and the methodology of assigning any social action to a specific cell in the typological matrix was proposed. Every social action in this typology is designated by the names of the pair of the involved subsystems; if they coincide, the type is labeled by the name of one subsystem. Obviously, as in any classification, there also exists an element of arbitrariness in the relating of the social action to its type. More detailed typology of social actions on the basis of the living systems theory can be developed by including in the analysis the information-processing subsystems. 

Author Biography

Ilan Riss

Director of Sector,

IT Department,

Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics