Social Action Theory: Definition, Concepts & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published June 08, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Points

  • Social action theories examine the motives and meanings of individuals as they decide to take on their behaviors.
  • Max Weber (1864-1920), the originator of social action theory believed that there are four types of social action, two rational, and two social.
  • The symbolic interactionist school of social action theory posits that social actions are created through the meanings that people create in situations.
  • Goffman's dramatulogical theory, meanwhile, envisions all human action as taking place on a stage, with actors undertaking actions based of the "front" or image they want to project to the world.

Social action theory is a critical theory in sociology that holds that society is construted through the interactions and meanings of the people who make up society.

Max Weber originated social action theory. He examined social action within a number of sociological fields, ranging from class behavior to politics and religion.

Types of Social Action

  1. Instrumental Rational Action: Social actors works out the most efficient way to achieve a goal. E.g. the most efficient way to make profit is to pay low wages.
  2. Value Rational Action: Action towards a goal that seen as desirable for its own sake. E.G. Believing in God and completing rituals in order to reach salvation.
  3. Traditional Action: Routine, customary or habitual actions that are done without thought or choice; more like “we have always don this”
  4. Affectual Action: Action that expresses emotion. Weber saw this as important in religious and political movements with charismatic leaders who attract followers based on emotional appeal. E.g. weeping with grief or violence caused by anger.

Branches of Social Action Theory


Verstehenn is a German term that means to understand, perceive, know, and comprehend the nature and significance of a phenomenon, or to grasp or comprehend the meaning intended or expressed by another.

Weber (1936) used this term to refer to the attempts of social scientists to understand both the intent and context of human action.

Weber defined four basic types of social action. These are:

  1. Actions that are guided by the expectations of how the things and people in someone's environment will both act and react.
  2. Actions that are guided by someone's absolute values. These could be embodied in an ethical, aesthetic, or religious code.
  3. Actions guided by an emotional response to or feelings about the people and things surrounding someone.
  4. Actions that are performed as parts of a long-standing societal tradition.

Of these four types of social action, the last two are considered to be more rationalized, and less social than the first two.

Weber believed that, typically, actions tend to be guided by some combination of these social and rational factors (Campbell, 1996).

Weber went further with this typology, motivated by understanding how modern society differs from those of the past (Dawe, 1970).

Weber proposed that the basic distinguishing feature of modern society was a shift in the motivation of individual behaviors.

He believed that social-focused behavior had been consumed by rational, means-too-an end ones.

Symbolic Interactionism

The biggest idea in symbolic interactionism is that people's self-concepts are based on their understanding of how others perceive them. This is called the looking glass self (Cooley, 1902)

As a result, people act Their actions are based on the meaning that they give to situations, people, and so forth.

Everyone acts towards others on the basis of how they interpret their own symbolic actions; however, the same action can be interpreted differently by different people.

This is why symbolic interactionism considers it to be a key role of sociologists to understand these specific meanings in order to understand peoples' actions.

People also, in the view of symbolic interactionism, are constantly taking on the role of "the other." This "other" is what society expects of people, as well as the different norms and values of different roles in society (Blumer, 1986).

This means that they are thinking about how people see them and acting accordingly. This is an active and conscious process. Regardless, social roles can change over time.

The interpretation of one's social roles is in itself up to interpretation.

For example, what is considered to constitute "being a parent" may differ dramatically from one individual to another (Thompson, 2016).

Labelling Theory

Labeling theory focuses on how the meanings that people attach to situations or other people can have consequences as to how they and the ones being labeled behavior (Becker, 1963)

One of the largest arguments of labeling theory is that the people in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than those without.

As a result, labeling theory demands that sociologists understand where people are located in this societal power structure in order to fully understand the process of labeling and identity construction (Thompson, 2016).

Dramaturgical Theory

Goffman's (1959) dramaturical model of social action likens ordinary social interaction to theatrical performance.

Thus, the setting, or context, of interaction is considered to be a stage. The people who act are actors; and, those who watch are the audience.

The roles that people take in interaction are performances strategically crafted to project particular images to others, the audience.

When people act in a social world, they create a front to project a certain, desired image of themselves. In order to create this front, they manipulate the setting in which they perform, their appearance, and how they behavior.

This manipulation constitutes impression management, and actors must constantly be on guard to control their expression on stage.

These fronts are neither fully sincere nor fully contrived, and most people go between sincerity and cynicism throughout their lives and roles.

Because constantly acting out social roles is demanding in people's front-stage lives, they also have back-stage areas where they can drop their front and be more relaxed, or closed to their "true selves." (Wood, 2004)

Critical Evaluation

Social action theories have both received great amounts of praise and criticism. Social action theories have been favored over structuralist theories of action because they recognize that people are complex, attach their own meanings to the world, and that motives are diverse and can vary from person to person.

Social action theories also take individuals out of the passive role in society. Unlike Marxism, say, where people are determined to be inherently exploited by others on the basis of their social class and said to have a "False consciousness" immersing them in their exploitation, social action theories argue that people do not necessarily hold the individual beliefs and motivations associated with their role (Tuomela, 2012).

Labeling theory in particular has also highlighted the importance of small-level interactions in shaping people's identities, and the fact that those with power are more able to define others.

For example, a number of criminologists have used labelling theory to explain why certain groups (such as childhood delinquents) are more likely to commit future crimes than others, and that those who mostly put these labels on children are those in power, such as school administrators.

Nonetheless, social action theory has received equal criticism for not paying sufficient attention to how social structures constrain action; and ignoring power distribution in society, such as influence gaps between classes, genders and ethnicities.

Labeling theory has been criticized for being deterministic — assuming that "powerless" people given labels are bound to assume them (Tuomela, 2012).

Social Action Theory vs. Structuralism

While structural theorists argue that people's behaviors and life chances are determined largely by their social background, social action theorists argue that they are not.

This perspective emphasizes the role of individual identity. In order to understand how human actions work, sociologists must understand that individual's own motives for acting (Thompson, 2016).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, June 08). Social Action Theory: Definition, Concepts & Examples . Simply Sociology.


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