Social Action Theory is a theory that attempts to examine people’s actions and the underlying reasons for those actions. Unlike structural-functionalism, this theory looks at how people take actions that are personally meaningful to them and how these (inter)actions affect society and its norms.
Social action theory asks the questions:
“What is a person’s motive for their actions and what implications do their interactions with other people have on society as a whole?”
Key Premises of Social Action Theory
- people act according to their understanding of the meaning of their environment;
- society is a creation of human activity;
- when analyzing society, we should focus on social (inter)actions.
The theory contests the structural-functionalist idea that society is determined from the top down by its structures, instructions, or organizations. Rather, society is a product of the everyday interactions of the people living in the society.
Perhaps the best way to understand its value is to compare it to structural-functionalism:
|Structural-Functionalism||Social Action Theory|
|Premise||People are a product of their backgrounds. We should examine social structures and institutions (e.g., education, religion) in order to understand a person’s behaviors and underlying motives.||People have the agency to construct their own lives through their social actions. They do not merely fit in the positions that society set out for them.|
|Role of Agency||Humans have minimal agency and their actions are shaped by their social contexts.||Humans have agency in everything they do.|
Social action theory marks a clear departure from sociological functionalism.
Rather than thinking that a person’s social background or social context dictates their chances for a successful life, social action theory focuses on the role of the individual.
Social Action Theory Definition and Overview
The most notable sociologist associated with social action theory is Max Weber (1881-1961). Weber argued that people are not passive actors moving through this life. Rather, they are constant participants in creating their own story and social reality by the choices they decide to make.
To Weber, it is imperative that we understand the motivations behind a person’s actions. It was his belief that individuals are motivated to act based on their interpretations of social situations and the meanings they attach to those situations.
Here, we can see that social action theory is much more concerned with people’s subjective realities than the role of social institutions in shaping who they are (Ekstrom, 1992). It is a microsociological perspective rather than a macrosociological perspective.
Nevertheless, Weber was still cognizant that everyone’s interpretations and the meanings they ascribe to things are influenced by the social norms, values, and cultural beliefs of the society in which they live.
Types of Social Action
Social action theory distinguishes between four types of social actions: rationally purposeful action, value reactional action, affective action, and traditional action.
Here, a social action is considered any action that has meaning attached to it. Weber’s intention is to examine the underpinning meaning ascribed to it.
The four social actions are:
- Rationally purposeful action: This is social action that is goal-oriented. It occurs as a result of rational decision-making. For example, it may involve the calculation of risks and rewards or a cost-benefit analysis of taking an action toward a specific goal. Rationally purposeful action is associated with modern, bureaucratic societies and is a core feature of Weber’s rationalization theory.
- Value-rational action: This type of action is based on a commitment to a set of personal values or beliefs. It tends to be directed toward the pursuit of an ideal (justice, freedom, peace, protection) and comes from a sense of duty or obligation to your family or community. It is a type of action that’s regularly associated with religious or ethical systems. Within these systems, adherence to the dogma or principles of the system is highly valued.
- Affective action: Affect mean emotions or feelings. So, affective actions are all about an impulsive or spontaneous emotional response to a situation. It is neither rational nor calculated. Affective action can be positive, such as expressing love or compassion, or negative, such as expressing anger or frustration.
- Traditional action: Traditional action is based on established customs or traditions. We can remember it because it’s action that is not about individual thinking, but carrying on traditions. It can involve following traditional social norms and cultural practices and lacks critical thinking that might deconstruct why the actions are taken within the society. Traditional action is most often associated with pre-modern societies or collectivist cultures where social hierarchies and traditions are highly valued.
Overall, Weber’s typology of four different social actions helps us to explore and categorize the motivations behind human behavior. It helps us to see how people make conscious choices, but also how their motivations and intentions are shaped by the cultural, social, and historical contexts in which they live their lives.
Social Action Theory Examples
- Value-Rational Action: People joining together and protesting something they believe is an injustice may be based on their value-rational behaviors.
- Traditional Action: Choosing to have lunch with your family every Sunday after church may be a traditional action that you engage in our of tradition more than anything else..
- Affective Action: Crying from joy at a victory, or crying from sadness at a funeral, comes from affect.
- Rationally-Purposeful Action: Spending time in the gym training for a wrestling competition may be based on rationally-purposeful thinking.
- Value-Rational Action: Joining the military because you want to defend your country may come from a value-rational orientation.
- Rationally-Purposeful Action: A businessman who fires his workers because he found AI to do the job for him is a typical example of rationally-purposeful actions.
- Traditional Action: A woman and her husband get married and have a baby at 19. When asked why, they says it’s because their mothers and fathers expected it of them.
Case Studies of Social Action
1. Value-Rational Action
When a person’s action is based on either their moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, it can be classified as a “value-rational action”.
These actions can be selfless and charitable, or at least well intended, or these actions can an example of a stance a person takes against something that is based on their core moral beliefs.
A few examples could be donating money to a charity organization that you want to support, or doing volunteer work to help people who are in need (e.g., homeless shelters, orphaned children, etc.).
On the other hand, a value-rational action can be an action of defiance, or an action you take as a result of a moral dilemma.
For instance, quitting your job after your boss instructs you to do something unethical, or leaving an organization because their value system differs from yours. Funk (2021) explains:
“When people follow value-rational acting, they are authors of their aims, self- determining the ends of their actions. As Weber defined acting value rational, he thought of an actor, who is determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake some ethical, aesthetic, religious or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success. In other words, value-rational action presupposes normative judgements. The actor is not merely deliberating about how to do something, but deliberating why we should do something, and how we should do something.”(Funk, 2021, p. 95)
2. Rationally-Purposeful Action
Rationally-purposeful action is action that people take in order to pursue their own goals, often through the use of a mental cost-benefit analysis before taking action.
In order to achieve a goal, people will intentionally act in a way that has the highest like-hood of leading to their desired outcome. It could be as simple as preparing for a test by studying the test material for months, or it could be a larger goal or dream.
For example, a person wants to become a successful chef. Through a process trial and error, and practicing the art of cooking for many years, they hope it will lead to achievement of that personal goal.
Moreover, Weber suggests that humans will go through certain extremes, forfeiting luxuries, and even do things that may be detrimental to themselves, to ultimately get what they want.
For instance, a company CEO lays off 50% of the company’s work force to cut expenses, and make a profit for share-holders.
Or in another case, a government body devises aggressive reform policies to guarantee public services are provided for citizens.
3. Traditional Action
Traditional action is action that’s involves taking ritualistic actions that are out of deference to your cultural norms.
Prosch (2004) states that this sort of action is habit oriented. He argues:
“In the case of such a habitual action, a person follows traditional expectations. For instance, going to church on Sunday and acting in a certain way in church can be traditional action”(p. 33).
Most of us have customs or traditions that they follow as a result of our ethnicity, religion, or countries’ culture.
Additionally, we may have inter-familial customs and traditions; things that we do that are only specific to our own family circles. Social action theory states that this traditional action is dictated by these norms.
Some examples might include: eating with chopsticks instead of fork, going to church every Sunday, meeting for annual camping trip with your family every year in the same place, putting a Christmas tree in your house around Christmas, or going to a shrine to pray at the beginning of each new year.
According to social action theory, these inherited traditions and customs are integral to social solidity and cohesion within societies.
Rosenberg (2013) adds:
“The critical issue for Weber was not how specific induvial understand their own actions but how typical members of social strata typically understand themselves, their relations with others, and the world around them; how they formulate and participate in, a shared way of life”(p. 43; 46-47).
4. Affective Action
Affective action, according to Weber is not based in rationality, Max Weber, he believed that people’s behaviors were also heavily influenced emotions.
Rather than a thought-out action or response, this action was impulsive, and remains unpredictable.
An example is unexpectedly crying to during a scene in a movie.
It is also an action in which a person may act solely based on that emotion (e.g., fear, anger, sadness).
Barbalet (2000) explains Weber’s perspective in greater detail:
“Against such endeavors emotion is understood by Weber to be spontaneous, unruly and disorganizing. Rational action, therefore, in realizing motives that are long-held and seriously regarded, must be against the emotions because, as Weber explains, the emotions are spontaneous and impulsive forces that distract a person from their purposes. The implication is that emotion will create disorder in human affairs where rationality will ‘Bring order into the conduct’ of persons.”(Barbalet, 2000, p. 336)
Understanding Social Action
Weber believed that we must use qualitative methods to understand behaviors rather than quantitative or positivist methods.
For Weber, can understand social action in two ways – Aktuelles Verstehen (Direct understanding) and Erklärendes Verstehen (Empathetic understanding).
- Aktuelles Verstehen (Direct understanding): We can observe someone’s behaviors and ascertain some understanding of why they do what they do. For example, when a person is riding their bike to work, we can understand that they’re taking that action in order to achieve the goal of getting to work on time, but we might not know the underlying purpose.
- Erklärendes Verstehen (Empathetic understanding): Weber then proposes we use empathetic understanding by trying to get into their shoes – why are they really riding the bike? By asking them, we may learn that they’re driven by a motivation to reduce their ecological footprint, they want to get exercise, or maybe they simply can’t afford a car.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Social Action Theory
|Emphasizes the importance of agency and individual decision-making in shaping social phenomena||Overemphasizes the role of individual agency at the expense of broader structural factors|
|Acknowledges the complexity and diversity of human motivations and actions||Can be criticized for its lack of a coherent theoretical framework|
|Provides a useful framework for understanding social change and social movements||Can be difficult to study empirically due to its focus on subjectivity (requires operationalization)|
|Focuses on the subjective experiences and interpretations of individuals||Can be accused of neglecting the role of power and inequality in shaping social phenomena|
|Offers a flexible and adaptable approach to understanding social phenomena||Can be criticized for its reliance on qualitative rather than quantitative methods|
|Emphasizes the importance of context and the situational factors that shape social behavior||Can be accused of ignoring the broader historical and cultural contexts that shape social behavior|
Social Action Theory vs Structuralism
Social action theory, based on symbolic interactions, is one of the major sociological paradigms. It’s contrasted to Structural-Functionalism, which is its competing paradigm:
|Social Action Theory||Structuralism|
|Basic Premise||People are a product of their backgrounds. We should examine social structures and institutions (e.g., education, religion) in order to understand a person’s behaviors and underlying motives.||People have the agency to construct their own lives through their social actions. They do not merely fit in the positions that society set out for them.|
|Focus||The subjective experiences of individuals and their interactions with the social world||The social institutions and social structures that shape people’s social behaviors|
|Explanation of Behavior||Individuals actively create and shape cultures, societies, and norms through their mundane actions||Social structures and systems determine individual behavior (it’s a deterministic theory)|
|Emphasis on||Understanding individual agency and intentionality. Respects that people have agency and free will.||Understanding the overarching social system and its impact on individuals.|
|Examples||Studying how and why individuals make decisions that are personally meaningful to them.||Studying how people’s actions and life courses have been shaped by imposing social structures.|
|Criticisms||Tends to overemphasize individual agency and doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the social forces, cultural factors, and contextual issues that shape what we do.||Tends to overemphasize social structures and fails to understand the depth of individuals’ thought processes.|
Relevant Concepts for Social Action Theory research:
- Dramaturgical Analysis (We are all actors on a stage!)
- Ethnomethodology (How to study social actors)
Social action theory was a revolutionary theory that challenged the supremacy of structural-functionalism in sociological analysis. Weber’s focus on individual agency and thought processes helped to challenge prevailing thought and show due respect to his research participants.
Barbalet, J. (2000). Beruf, rationality and emotion in Max Weber’s sociology. Archives Europeennes De Sociologie, 41(2), 329–351. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003975600007062
Ekstrom, M. (1992). Causal Explanation of Social Action: The Contribution of Max Weber and of Critical Realism to a Generative View of Causal Explanation in Social Science. Acta Sociologica, 35(2), 107–122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4194762
Funk, J. K. (2021). Beyond instrumental rationality. For a critical theory of freedom. Estudios De Filosofía, 63, 91–108. https://www.redalyc.org/journal/3798/379866186005/html/
Prosch, B. (2004). Max Weber, Action, and Sociological Explanations: Methodological Individualism in Sociology. Acta Universitatis Carounae- Philosophica Et Historica, 15, 31–38. Doi: https://karolinum.cz/data/clanek/4588/PheH_2004_1_0031.pdf
Rosenberg, M. M. (2013). Generally Intended Meaning, the ‘Average’ Actor, and Max Weber’s Interpretive Sociology. Max Weber Studies, 13(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.15543/mws/2013/1/4
Weber M. (1989) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.