The Architecture of Social Action

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Jonathan Barker
University of Toronto

In what terms can we describe the social architecture that sets the context in which participation and power shape social activity? We need an approach that works in all kinds of societies to identify basic units of social action in the way that cells are basic elements of living organisms or rooms are basic parts of buildings. The approach needs to fit well with the idea of pattern language.


In order to locate the sites of citizen participation and the barriers to collective action, an inclusive map of social action is essential. There are many social sites where people exercise the power of participation. The multiplication and enlargement of businesses, the spread of non-governmental organizations, and the rise and ebb of social movements all underline the need to look broadly and beyond government for a way to describe the architecture of social action.


The approach holds that activity settings are foci of social energy; they contain and organize social forces that impel action just as surely as individual needs, desires, and strategies do. It was pioneered by ecological psychologists looking for a way to describe and compare differing and changing contexts of human behavior. It has wide application for understanding how collective activity is structured, how it is stabilized or altered, and how it shapes and is shaped by individual intentions and experience. One important recent innovation is the invention and multiplication of virtual activity settings like internet chat rooms that have some of the features of physically situated activity settings.

All action by all people takes place in one or another activity setting. Activity settings form the immediate environment of individuals. They limit and create opportunities for action and experience. They are the contexts of choice and of the realization of individual and group projects. From the standpoint of the pattern language project those settings are most interesting in which people discuss, plan, and take action that brings about social change.

At the core of each setting is the program of the setting, a body of knowledge and instruction that gives direction about what activities should be undertaken and how to carry them out. Usually the program is found in the minds of participants, especially leaders, in the setting; sometimes a written constitution or a rule book gives it formal expression. Preserving and transmitting knowledge of the program is crucial for maintaining the setting. In some settings the program of activity is determined locally, in the setting itself or in a nearby setting. But often settings are arranged in hierarchies of power in which the controlling setting is remote.

Time-space units are familiar in social analysis and everyday language. On a very large scale historians discover distinct epochs, eras, and episodes which divide the flow of historical time into units with some homogeneity and logical integrity. Modern Europe, classical Greece, frontier America, Mogul India are social-historical entities recognized by historians whose interpretive strategies may differ in important ways. Social geographers find large geo-social units where human settlement and transportation patterns have received an impress which marks them off from neighboring regions: the Andean highlands, the great plains of North America, the Maghreb, the Ganges basin. On a much smaller scale journalists trained to flag the “where” and the “when” of the news, report “the meeting of the Security Council on February 12”, “last Wednesday’s press conference by the Prime Minister in Ottawa”, or “the robbery Sunday night at Hugo’s Convienience Store.” And ordinary people record in their calendars commitments like “Julia Roberts film at the Century Cinema” and “dinner 7 pm with Alex at Ben’s Smoked Meat Restaurant.” In all these cases there is a perception of an activity unit bounded or unified by the nature of the activity itself.

To see the world of human action in terms of activity settings is to see units of the following kinds: trafficways (people and vehicles in roads and streets moving about, talking, and looking around); retail shops (customers entering shops, looking around, choosing objects, exchanging words with a proprietor or employee, giving of money, getting of object, exiting shop); meetings (people sitting in a room facing a table with several people behind it, chair presents agenda, participants discuss items and make motions, chair calls for vote). Many activity settings repeat themselves at regular intervals and become well-known features of the social landscape; they may even be marked on maps and catalogued in the pages of the telephone book. All are specific entities with a unique address in time and space; most have a name familiar to their participants.

Activity settings are especially useful intermediate units for relating to the experience of individual persons on one side and to social organizations and structures on the other side. Persons are essential parts of activity settings: no people, no setting. But few settings are dependent upon any particular person for their existence. From the standpoint of the setting, people are among its components. In fact activity settings can be seen as fields of social forces which attract some people to them and repel others and which steer or regulate the activity of their participants within rather narrow limits. Individuals experience the different fields of social forces as they move in the course of their day from one activity setting to another.

They are also often organized into hierarchies in which executive settings control, or attempt to control, activity in subordinate settings. Power over individuals and the participatory powers of individuals are invariable mediated by activity settings with patterns and programs of action that can be observed and mapped. They can also be created, changed, and destroyed.

R.D. Laing notes that each setting

"requires a more or less radical transformation of the persons who comprise it. Consider the metamorphoses that one man must go through in one day as he moves from one form of sociality to another -- family man, speck of crowd dust, functionary in the organization, friend. These are not simply different roles; each is a whole past and present and future, offering different options and constraints, different degrees of change or inertia, different kinds of closeness and distance, different sets of rights and obligations, different pledges and promises. "

The interplay between individual motives and situational forces is a fundamental theme in the politics of political settings. You may have had occasion personally to experience the powerful pull of a large political demonstration, or felt the revulsion mixed with fear inspired by a rally of a movement you believed to be dangerous. We have all been driven against some part of our will to attend a gathering we wanted to avoid. And many of us have brought social pressures to bear on other people to attend a meeting that we believed merited attendance. Such experiences constitute introspective evidence for the existence of social forces attracting or repelling participation in activity settings.

For a fuller discussion see the entry for Political Space.


The settings approach focuses on the most basic unit of collective action: activity setting. It is a pattern of people’s activity in a particular place and time together with the objects and environmental features to which the activity is coordinated. Most settings have clear space/time boundaries and names that are well-known to the people familiar with them. Many activity settings -- shops, offices, school classes, and legislative sessions are examples -- occur at regular times. Others, like political demonstrations, occur irregularly. All have characteristic programs of action that may include elements of the pattern language of social activism. Seeing social action in terms of activity settings is a useful way to map the interaction of popular participation and centralizing power.

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