Action Theory

Action theory is a viewpoint that starts with people and how they interact with one another to form society via their normal behaviors. Therefore, a technique for studying social life is action theory.
Action Theory Sociology Definition


Action theory is a viewpoint that starts with people and how they interact with one another to form society via their normal behaviors. Therefore, a technique for studying social life is action theory.

Activity theories consider human action to be sociology’s primary or sole goal. This category comprises structuration theory, symbolic interactionism, phenomenological & hermeneutic sociology, Weberian sociology, and ethnomethodology. These methodologies are interested in interpretation and meaning as well as the character of the action. Actions differ from behaviors because they have a personal significance for the performer.


Although action theory has a lengthy history, it only became well-known in the 1970s as a response to functionalism’s hegemony.


A. Action theories are regarded as voluntaristic in highlighting the individual’s free choice and the idea that their actions impact society.

B. Contrary to structural theories, which start at the level of society, it does not. Instead, the action theory approach aims to comprehend and explain social reality meaningfully, understood as the result of planned social activity.

C. Action theory is a broad approach to sociological study that is most often linked to the work of Weber and the symbolic interactionists.

D. According to action theory, subjective action should be separated from behavior since it incorporates purpose or meaning.

E. Analysis of action that begins with the individual actor is known as action theory.

F. Analysis moves forward in terms of usual actors in familiar situations by identifying, among other elements, the goals, expectations, and values of the actors, the methods used to achieve those goals, the characteristics of the situation, and the actors’ level of situational awareness. Parsons refers to these elements as the “action frame of reference.” This term has a close resemblance to action theory.

In certain instances, such as methodological individualism, action theory is seen as “irredeemably individualistic.”

G. According to action theories, sociology is a science because it provides a logical, cogent explanation of peoples’ behaviors, ideas, and connections rather than because it is a science like the natural sciences that deals with external, independent things.

H. If merely the actor acts rationally, all action theories have something to say, either implicitly or explicitly, about the actor’s rationality.

Two types of action theory: “hermeneutic” and “positivist.”

The two primary schools of action theory are “hermeneutic” and “positivist,” both of which have ties to the philosophy of symbolic interactionism. Moreover, both have their roots in Weber’s writing.

Weber’s four action types

Weber identified the four categories of action: traditional, affective, Zweckrational, and Wertrational.

A. Customary or traditional

Actions that are considered traditional are those that are carried out purely out of habit.

B. Emotional or affective

Affectual acts are carried out only for emotional expression.

C. Wertrational or value-oriented 

In Wertrational, the actor views the objective as a means in and of itself and may not even weigh other means against it. Because it is the correct thing to do, it is value-oriented.

D. Zweckrational or instrumental

It serves a purpose because it is the most efficient means of achieving a specific goal. Zweckrational behavior involves comparing several ways to achieve a goal while simultaneously evaluating the usefulness of the objective itself.

Even though acts may be a combination of one or more of the four forms of action, Weber makes it plain that the four types are ideal types. 

Alfred Schutz – Hermeneutic action

According to Weber, it is crucial to describe an action in terms of “meaningfulness,” Sociological investigation must go forward by determining the significance actors attach to their activities.

According to writers like Schutz, who embrace hermeneutic action theories, which give this meaningfulness the utmost theoretical significance, acting and meaning are intrinsically intertwined.

He contends that Weber does not provide a convincing explanation of meaningful behavior because meaning is too detached from the actor and is instead imposed by the sociologist as an objective concept. According to Schutz, the idea of a stream of experiences through time contains the secret to understanding how to interpret behavior. Human life experiences flow continuously. Each event is meaningless on its own, but it may be given significance via contemplation as it fades into the past.

However, one might reflect on activities in what Schutz termed the future perfect tense, which means that one can consider future actions as if they had already occurred. According to Schutz, this contemplation is essential since action results from purpose and reflection. It is that which a project or plan decides.

Schutz – “because motives” and “in order to motives.”

Schutz further differentiates between “because motives” and “in-order-to motives.”

“In order to motives” are objectives for which actions are the means in the future and are generally identical to the former.

The “because motives” are the urgent causes for taking action and pertain to the past. Social interactions occur when reciprocal social acts are defined as those whose in-order-to motives reference another person’s stream of experience.

It is often more challenging for hermeneutic action theorists to include concepts of social structure into their theories the more seriously they regard the meaningfulness of action. Schutz has mixed feelings on the issue of how an individual actor should relate to a commanding social system.

Talcott Parson

In “The Place of Ultimate Values in Sociological Theory,” Parsons argued that conduct must be understood in terms of goals rather than “causes” and “conditions” since “man is fundamentally an active, creative, evaluative creature.” His “voluntaristic theory of action” argued against the deterministic view of human conduct as being “pushed,” whether by Pavlov’s bell or Sigmund Freud’s “unconscious.”

The positivist action theory of Talcott Parson

 Talcott Parsons tends to focus more on social structure and how it determines the objectives and tools at the actors’ disposal.

The analysis of the social system as a whole tends to take precedence in positivist theory over the study of action and interaction residual concepts, which largely abandons the idea that social structure is just the result of the projects and actions of social actors in favor of viewing the human actor as acquainted into a shared heritage.

According to Parsons, action is behavior guided by the interpretations actors give to objects and others. Actors choose the best ways to achieve their aims. Situational constraints and symbols and values serve as a guide for actions.

Interaction, or activity directed towards other actors, is the most significant type. Mutual expectations will form when two parties engage often. Both parties need to modify their expectations and behavior to match the other’s expectations and behavior.

Expectations become the norms controlling the interaction when they become reliable predictors of behavior. Adhering to the norms not only increases the effectiveness of action but also provides actors with intrinsic gratification since, in Parsons’ view, actors “require” the approval of others.


Giddens has tried to get above the constraints of traditional divisions between actions and structures. These standards are the foundation of social order, established in society and internalized in the person. His concept of “duality of structure” emphasizes the actor’s knowledge capacity and the available knowledge resources.

Structuralist vs. action theory approaches

However, there are still substantial distinctions between “action theory,” and other sociological theories that are more overtly structuralist, such as how much voluntarism or autonomous agency social actors are seen to have.

It is common to overstate the differences between action theory and different structuralist sociological approaches. Behavior theorists have often given close attention to the social structures that both influence and are influenced by human action. Structuralists often use instances of individual behavior to describe and demonstrate societal systems.

Three concerns with contemporary action theories

Modern action theories in sociology have three distinct issues beyond Parsons’ theory.

The first is how rational action itself and nationality operate. Based on Weber’s typology, this emphasis raises concerns about the viability of causal justifications for action. Additionally, it examines whether sociological explanations are always relative in some manner or if there are any absolute standards of reason. Finally, the rational choice theory proposed by Jon Elster tackles some of these issues more substantially.

The second issue is the cache of accepted knowledge and principles that underpin action; this is a problem that is particularly studied by ethnomethodology and phenomenology.

The third is the process of actors acquiring and negotiating meaning, which is covered by symbolic interactionism.

Identity theory and rational-action theory

The rational-action theory advocates the instrumental pursuit of one’s self-interest, which may involve a desire for both public and private goods, social acceptance, and the avoidance of penalties. Using mathematical formalism, the theory may provide testable predictions from a minimal set of assumptions.

However, the grandiose assumptions about perfect knowledge and limitless computational power constrain the theory’s applicability. Even “bounded rationality”-based versions are restricted to activities meant to maximize utility, which precludes expressive and impassioned conduct and acts driven by moral responsibility and duty.

Action theories founded upon identity rather than interest have filled this gap. However, according to identity theorists, interests are only the tip of the iceberg. According to Randall Collins in Sociological Insight, What lies under the surface is a powerful emotion, a sense of a group of individuals that they are similar and belong together.

Theories of action based on interest and identity

Individuals organize the social environment by establishing cognitive categories through their interactions with others, which results in stereotypes, in-group bias, and out-group prejudice. By reprimanding offenders, social and moral limits are established and reinforced. The purpose of punishment is not to prevent deviation; instead, it is to demonstrate outrage at the breach of normative limits, even when doing so may arouse rather than quell resistance.

Action theories based on interest and identity emphasize the dynamics of interaction between free-ranging yet interdependent actors. They do have different perspectives on this dependency, however.

Interest theory postulates strategic interdependence, according to which the results of a person’s decisions rely partly on those of other people.

Game theorists represent this interdependence as a reward matrix with individual payoffs allocated to each cell, determined by the intersection of all players’ potential options. For instance, the reward for doing a favor depends on whether the partner returns the favor. Another example of strategic interdependence established by the imposition of punishments contingent upon adherence to anticipated conduct is peer pressure.

As an alternative, identity theorists emphasize the cognitive interconnectedness of the agents that affect one another in response to the influences they get via mechanisms such as communication, persuasion, teaching, and imitation.

Action theory: three discussion points

The issue of social order, the conflict between structure and action, and the subject of free will and determinism are three interrelated yet complex problems that action theory raises.

Action theory has been strengthened by recent research on complex dynamical systems that offers logical answers to each of these conundrums based on the concepts of self-organization, emergence, and deterministic chaos.

In accordance with macrosocial conceptions of social order, an organized system of institutions and norms directs individual conduct. But, on the other hand, action theories presuppose that much of social activity develops gradually, almost like improvisational jazz rather than just a symphony orchestra.

Parsons proposed a set of shared norms and values that establish the cultural agreement required for social organizations to operate to overcome the “Hobbesian issue of order.” This, however, is not an acceptable answer. Society still functions like a symphony orchestra where the players must still understand their parts, but the Leviathan has to carry a small baton rather than a deadly sword.

The connection between action theory and systems theory

By integrating individual actors into a network of interpersonal communication, Niklas Luhmann was able to bridge the gap between action theory and systems theory. As a result, his relatively vague ideas on autopoietic interaction systems are more clearly expressed in complexity theory.

Complex systems

According to S. Kaufman in Origins of Order, “self-organization” refers to the action theory development of sequence out of local interaction in complex systems.

Although biological evolution serves as the archetype, there are instances across the sciences where unexpected global patterns emerge from the interplay among relatively simple but interdependent mechanisms without coordination, direction, or planning from a central authority. These include riots, forest fires, traffic gridlock, fads, bird flocks, and segregated housing. For example, a riot is not overseen by a supervisor.

These processes are instances of complex systems in which a network of local interactions amongst many independent but interdependent actors spontaneously generates a global order.

Emergence and complex systems

The self-organization we see underneath the outward appearance of chaos in nature is ultimately caused by emergent behavior, which is a distinguishing characteristic of complex systems. Emergent properties cannot be reduced to the individual agent attributes.  The concept of emergence is established as a core tenet of the sociological approach.

Durkheim’s idea of social facts as emergent features has been reified by structuralists, leaving individual actors as nothing more than occupants of social spaces and bearers of structural imperatives.

Only the people occupying the “empty slots” will be impacted by heterogeneity in tastes and opinions, which has its roots in social processes.

Parsons supported the emerging characteristics of social systems in The Structure of Social Action (1937), but he thought Durkheim went too far in claiming that these “social truths” are entirely independent of human awareness.

By adopting a crucial insight from Joseph Schumpeter’s “methodological individualism,” the notion that societal patterns develop through motivated decisions rather than from social truths external to people, Parsons corrects the hyperstructuralist reading of Durkheim.

Methodological individualism may indicate that social truths are only the combined manifestation of people’s intents and aspirations. Residential segregation, for instance, means people’s preferences for living among others like themselves.

In contrast, structuralists believe that individual disparities in ethnic identification influence who will reside where in segregated areas but are not the cause of neighborhood segregation, which results from social processes such as redlining and urban growth patterns. When action theory veers between these two extremes, it often performs effectively.

Action theory: Looking both forward and backward

Action theory is now more receptive to “backward-looking” methods where intentionality is empirically varied rather than presupposed due to a rising interest in complex adaptive systems. In models that look backward, actions’ outcomes draw the behaviors that lead to them, whether the agent desired the result or even knew it was there.

This approach seems utterly teleological from a forward-looking viewpoint since the purposes of action are in the future and cannot travel back in time to attract the choices necessary to bring them about. However, complex adaptive system models circumvent this issue by looking backward rather than ahead and attributing the action to past events.

In models of agent-based evolution, the results of a particular action change the population distribution of the agents who do that action. In learning models, the results of a particular action change the probability distribution of the actions in a specific agent’s repertoire. In either case, experiences—not intentions—connect an action to its result. Agents reflect on the past to look forward. When pushed, they spring into action.

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