Action Theory: Why the Holy Grail of Marketing could be Buried in a Field of Study called Sociocybernetics

If you're like me, you'd probably like to think that the social choices you make in your life, relationships, and buying decisions are completely in your control. After all, we have free will - meaning we're in charge of our own social actions. 

To be able to understand how and why people conduct social actions is the holy grail of marketing research. Social actions refer to all the choices we make in terms of our tribal identity, what brands we gravitate towards, which profession we chose as our place in society, and so on. If marketers can calculate and predict all social actions, then they would be able to assume absolute control over consumer behavior. For the longest time, marketers and brand strategists at the highest levels assumed that there is no science behind social action - the social actions that people will choose cannot be predicted or calculated with great certainty. After all, social actions are largely based on human emotion and behavioral psychology - we can't possibly calculate those things, can we?

The field of Sociocybernetics would beg to differ. This field of study, responsible for both Action Theory and Social Control Theory (explained below), isn't studied at all in any marketing or communications curriculum. Yet it probably holds the answers to all of communications' greatest questions.

Social Cybernetics, or 'Sociocybernetics', is the theory that all social actions function as a system (much like a math equation or a machine), and all social actions are entirely predictable assuming you know enough input factors.

But, to understand Action Theory and Social Control Theory, we must first understand basic cybernetics.

Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for understanding the structures, constraints, and possibilities of regulatory systems. The approach of cybernetics focuses exclusively on how ‘circular-causal relationships’ operate in systems of control and communication. The circular-causal relationship refers to the process where an action by a system generates some change in its environment and that change triggers a reaction, or feedback, that causes a system change. The circular-causal relationship (also referred to as a closed signaling loop) was initially most relevant in mechanics/machine science and physics. However, the field of cybernetics was profoundly expanded in scope when social scientists discovered that the systems science of cybernetics could be applied to society to explain group behavior and the development of sociocultural rules such as etiquette and dress codes. This new field, called sociocybernetics, uses both hermeneutics and general systems theory to understand social behavior and emotions.

Social scientist Talcott Parsons is largely credited with being the first to reach the most holistic theory of society with the publishing of his book The Structure of Social Action in 1968. In it, Parsons creates a general framework for understanding cooperative behavior in society – he observes that all living systems operate through six levels of interrelations that result in cooperative behavior;

1.     Aggression - the instinct of survival when faced with mortal danger.

2.     Bureaucracy - the inherent desire to follow norms and rules.

3.     Competition – the understanding that one’s own gain is another individual’s loss.

4.     Decision – one’s desire to disclose their true feelings/intentions.

5.     Empathy – when individuals share a unified interest.

6.     Free will – one’s ability to govern their own existence and not be controlled.

According to Parsons, every instance of cooperative behavior is the result (or feedback) of one or more of the above levels of interrelations. These six phases of social relationships give a theoretical framework for the systemic study of living systems because they serve as an ‘equation for life.’ While the above theory only accounts for cooperative behavior, Parsons conceived of a system that could describe all social functions in society. Predicated on this theoretical framework, Parsons becomes the first academic to describe Action Theory, which is a theory that endeavors to systematically explain all social action. Parsons’ action theory can be understood through the AGIL Paradigm, which outlines four systematic core functions that any society must perform in order to survive;

·       Adaption – a society’s ability to adjust to changes in environmental factors.

·       Goal Attainment – a society’s ability to agree on objectives and make decisions accordingly.

·       Integration – a society’s ability to collectively agree on and follow certain values and norms.

·       Latency – a society’s ability to maintain consistency in its practices by grooming new generations.

Parsons argues that in order to maintain longevity, every social system must maintain at least four core institutions that fulfill the role of each function in the AGIL Paradigm. In today’s society, the functions of the AGIL Paradigm are fulfilled by the economy (responsible for the adaptation function), the political system (responsible for goal attainment), social and religious community (responsible for integration), and educational/domestic institutions (responsible for latency). Parsons’ AGIL Paradigm sets up a structural-functional model for understanding all social action and the interactions between society and institutions – it can be best understood by the following model:


A common critique of the AGIL Paradigm is that this system doesn’t account for deviant behaviors. In order to account for this, sociocybernetic scholars have proposed Social Control Theory – the idea that two control systems (centralized controls and decentralized controls) work against our tendencies to deviate. Centralized controls are created by bureaucratic/hierarchal forces while decentralized controls are created by market/economic forces. A society with strong and effective institutions that perform the AGIL functions will result in stronger centralized and decentralized controls, which results in stronger social bonds. In Causes of Delinquency, Travis Hirschi identifies four measurable indicators that gauge the strength of social bonds – attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Socially deviant acts, including crime, appear attractive to self-interested individuals but social bonds stop most people from committing the acts (Hirschi). Deviance is a result of extensive exposure to certain environmental situations where individuals are distanced from the AGIL institutions and develop deviant behaviors. After conducting a study using a large sample size of adolescents in California, Hirschi was able to empirically confirm Social Control Theory, validating it as a corollary to Parsons’ Action Theory and AGIL Paradigm.

Thus, sociocybernetics presents a viable theory for social action based on the same systems science used in robotics, mechanics, and physics.

The model below explains the social control systems that underpin the most effective potential organizational strategy - for both governments and corporations:

social control theory.png

It’s important to note that the above is an over-simplified overview of Parsons’ theory and his work contains an extremely detailed and meticulous methodology that seemingly accounts for all potential factors and social possibilities. The significance of a theory that can use systems science to account for all social action is profound and its practical applications are many. For instance, a study in 2007 titled Community Isomorphism and Corporate Social Action led by Christopher Marquis analyzed the reasons why corporations engage in social action. Marquis dispelled the commonly-held notion that corporations engage in social action for financial benefits stemming from self-promotion -  he cites an exhaustive analysis of 127 studies which conclude that,” the connection between social and financial performance is mixed and often contradictory,” (Marquis et al.). Considering the high uncertainty of financial benefits from social action, Marquis applied Action Theory to his data and was able to confirm that the primary driver of corporate social action stems from the strength of AGIL institutions in the community where the firm is headquartered (Marquis et al.). Corporations (institutions that fulfill the adaptive function) are interlocked in a systematic positive-feedback loop with institutions that fulfill the latency function. The presence of strong latency institutions (such as schools, charities, and domestic traditions) is found to be the strongest indicator of the volume of corporate social action, confirming the sociocybernetic theory that AGIL institutions behavior according to the circular feedback-loop system.

These insights invalidate the belief that corporations should engage in social action for financial benefits like self-promotion and differentiation. Rather, the sociocybernetic study suggests that, for optimal results and efficiency, the rationale behind corporate social action or social spending should be directly reflective of the latency institutions within the community wherein the firm operates.

Thanks for reading - where communications theory turns into practical advice for real communications executives. 

Sources: The Structure of Social Action by Talcott ParsonsCommunity Isomorphism and Corporate Social Action by Christopher Marquis, Causes of Delinquency by Travis Hirschi.