Sociology 319

January 15-17, 2003


Max Weber – Theory of social action


The reading for this section is Max Weber, Economy and Society, volume 1, pp. 4-7 and pp. 22-31.  On these pages, Weber outlines and discusses his definition of social action and social relationship.  References to Weber are from this section and references to Cohen are from the second edition of the text.  As you read this, in addition to understanding how Weber defines social action and social relationhips, take note of:


·        How Weber conducts careful analysis.  Each part of this section is an attempt to carefully sort through and categorize the variety of human actions and consider what is socially meaningful and what is not. 

·        Ideal types and averages.  Weber notes how “concrete cases of action” (p. 26) may involve a variety of the modes of orientation and the “conceptually pure form certain sociologically important types” although these can only be demonstrated to be useful “in terms of their results” (p. 26).

·        In this section, Weber is not concerned with what is true or false, good or bad, valid or invalid, cooperative or conflictual – aspects of each of these may be involved in social action.  Rather, he is concerned with their meaning for the actor and the categorization he develops is to define what he considers to be sociologically meaningful action.


1. Sociology 


Prior to defining social action, Weber states that sociology “is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences” (Weber, p. 4).  In other writings, Weber expands more on his definition of sociology and the social, but it is worth noting how this short definition summarizes his approach to the study of society.  Key aspects of this definition are:


·        Scientific systematic – it is possible to study in an objective manner.

·        “Interpretive understanding” as a method or approach to such study.

·        “Social action” as the subject matter, where such action has a “course and consequences.”

·        “Causal explanation” as the method and result of the study.


Later in this set of readings, Weber also states “sociological investigation is concerned with these typical modes of action” (p. 29).  In these pages, Weber distinguishes sociology from:


·        History (p. 29) which deals with important individual events rather than typical modes of action. 

·        Dogmatic disciplines such as jurispridence, logic, ethics that seek to discern true or valid meanings (p. 4).

·        Some aspects of religion (p. 22), i.e. – not contemplation or solitary prayer.

·        Economics (p. 26) i.e. – while recognizing that economic action is rational action, social analysis is not concerned with the price but with the type of instrumentally rational decision-making that results in a particular price.  


Weber notes that sociology “is by no means confined to the study of social action” but he argues that social action is the “central subject matter” for the type of sociology he is describing in this section (p. 24)


2. Social Action


For Weber, meaning is basic to defining social action.  Cohen notes how Weber always defers to the actor, and is always concerned with how actors define their own actions, and how this is defined in terms of some meaning for the actor.  “He defines almost every aspect of the natural environment and the human condition from the actor’s existential point of view” (p. 76), that is from the actor’s own, unique perspective.  Further, unlike some philosophic perspectives that speculate about the essential aspects of human nature, Weber argued that “social scientists respect the social actor’s inalienable right to define what his or her social action means for himself or herself” (Cohen, p. 75). 


In Economy and Society, Weber defines action that is social as those actions

insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence.  Action is “social” insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of other and is thereby oriented in its course.  (Weber, p. 4).

From this, there appear to be three key aspects to defining a human action as social:


·        Meaningful to the actor.  Presumably things that are understandable or are of concern to the social actor, perhaps as a result of experiences, values, and interests.  The four-fold classification of types of social action (Weber, pp. 24-25) gives a guide to types of meaning. 

·        Consider others – other social actors are necessarily involved in order for an individual action to become social action, and they must be explicitly considered by the social actor (whether positively, negatively, or nuetrally).

·        Oriented – some direction or purpose in the action.


While Weber does not initially mention subjective consciousness, this concept becomes important in his later consideration of what forms of action are socially meaningful and what are not.  For example, he notes that it is not always clear what is “unconscious and seldom fully self-conscious” (p. 24) and there are “varying degrees of self-consciouness” (p. 25).  Cohen highlights this focus on consciousness in theories of action and Weber uses this concept to assist in distinguishing habitual, traditional, or imitative forms of behavior from those that are


Several other aspects of Weber’s approach are also worthy of note.  These are as follows.


a. Empirical.  Weber’s method is empirical and social, not abstract and philosophical.  That is, sociologists and historians observe individuals as actors and examine their conduct and social actions – they do not just theorize about abstract or ideal forms of human conduct.  This means careful, empirical study of the social world in which sociologists live and operate, that is, “actual existing meaning in the given concrete case of a particular actor” (Weber, p. 4).    


At the same time, Weber developed ideal types of subjective meaning.  These could be situations with “subjective meaning attributed to the hypothetical actor or actors in a given type of action” (Weber, p. 4).  Cohen notes how Weber considered these clear and unambiguous, even though “actors often only vaguely understands the meaning of what they do” (Turner, p. 113).   But ideal types come, not only from theorizing, but from careful abstraction after close definition and observation of situations, actions, and actors.  For example, when Weber discusses status honour associated with a peer group, this means carefully examining ways those in a group attach meaning to particular practices or forms of conduct.  While members of the group might not be able to define these  themselves, these practices and forms of conduct would need to have meaning to group members, and sociological study should be able to describe and understand these.


b. Meaning and orientation.  Weber does not appear to define “meaning” so a reader has to infer what it is that Weber associates with this concept.  One guide is the four-fold classification of types of social action (pp. 24-25), although meaning could be broader than this.  This includes actions that are associated with ends that the actor wishes to pursue, actions or ends that have value of their own sake for the actor (spiritual, ethical, emotional), “feeling states” (Weber, p. 25) associated with affectual and emotional activities and interests, and traditional and habitual feelings, concerns, and interests that may derive from experiences and socialization.  Some activities that Weber does not consider to be social action, like contemplation or spiritual activities, also having meaning for the individual but these either do not involved others or are not oriented.


Weber’s first reference to meaning notes that this is “actual existing meaning in the given concrete case of a particular actor” or alternatively, “to the average or approximate meaning attributable to a given plurality of actors” (Weber, p. 4).  In the case of the individual, Cohen notes how this means conduct that the actor subjectively orients to the behaviour of others.  This includes some idea of subjective consciousness, awareness of others, attention to others, having some understanding of how one’s actions respond to others, or are likely to affect others.  It is also oriented in its course, implying that it has some purpose, aim, or end, so that the actor has presumably considered how it takes others into account. 


Weber also discusses a group or plurality, noting that average or approximate meaning is associated with this type of social action.  In a case of such action, the meaning of the action for each actor may differ somewhat, but actors forming the plurality may have similar ways of orienting their action.  A group of workers at a workplace, developing an understanding of workplace problems, might each respond in a similar manner.   This is not automatic reflex action by the workers though, but considered ways that they respond to the situation.  For example, secretaries might each devise ways to create more control over their work situation.


c. Range of social action.  In much of Weber’s discussion on these pages, he defines and analyzes the range of social action and the categorization of such actions. 


One way that social action can be understood is by considering what is not social action.  Among these are actions such as the following:


·        Reactive behaviour where there is “no subjective meaning” (p. 4) and generally “merely reactive imitation” is not socially meaningful.

·        Traditional behaviour although this may cross the line between what is meaningful and not (pp. 4-5) and “almost automatic reation to habitual stimuli” (p. 25).

·        Psychological processes may not be meaningful, at least not discernable by those other than a psychologist (p. 5).

·        Mystical experiences are not ordinarily social since they are entirely personal (p. 5) and “contemplation and solitary prayer” (p. 22).

·        Psychic or psychophysical phenomena such as “fatigue, habituation, memory … states of euphoria” and variations in individual reaction times or precision (p. 7).

·        Non-social if overt action directed toward inanimate objects (p. 22).  What about action directed toward non-human animals, eg. walking a dog?

·        Natural actions such as “a mere collision of two cyclists” (p. 23) although subsequent actions such as insult, blows, or friendly discussion are ordinarily social meaningful.

·        Common actions in a crowd, crowd psychology, mass action (p. 23).  These might be socially meaningful in some circumstances but tend to be more habitual, impulsive (cheering or booing at a sporting event or clapping after a music performance, eg. after every solo in jazz), automatic, or reactive. 

·        Imitation may be meaningful or not, depending on its form and results (pp. 23-4).  Weber argues that this is difficult to analyze – imitation may be merely reactive or it may be a learning process that has subjective meaning associated with this.  The reactive learning of language by children is of this sort and it is difficult to determine the extent to which subjective meaning is involved.

·        “Purely affectual behavior” (p. 25) is also on the borderline – affectual action is one form of social action but if the activity is merely reactive or habitual, it may not be so meaningful in each circumstance.


All of the above show the difficulty of defining social action since the dividing line between what is meaningful or considered differs by individual and situation.  While Weber fairly clearly distinguishes between what is social action and what is not in analytical terms, any study of social action requires careful empirical study and sympathetic understanding by a sociologist. 


Among the types of action that have meaning attached to them and result from conscious consideration, Weber notes the following.


·        Orientation toward “ultimate ends or values” (p. 5), determining the “ends of the participants and [obtaining] adequate knowledge of all the circumstances” (p. 6), and “the various ways in which human action has been oriented to these facts” (p. 7).

·        “Oriented to the past, present, or expected future behavior of others” (p. 22). 

·        May involve others who are “entirely unknown” (p. 22)

·        Use of money and economic exchange are socially meaningful in that they are considered, involve others (including future), and are oriented toward obtaining some end (p. 22). 


d. Four types of social action.  Weber argues that there are four major types of social action.  These are ideal types in that each is analytically distinct from the other, are average forms of behaviour, are “conceptually pure” (p. 26), and “sociologically important” (p. 26).  The four forms are (pp. 24-5):


·        Instrumentally rational action.  These are social actions with “rationally pursued and calculated ends” (p. 24) and where “the end, the means, and the secondary results are rationally taken into account and weighed” (p. 26).  This may involve an actor’s calculation of the best means of achieving a given end (eg. consumption activity in economic sphere) or even a consideration of different ends.  For the latter, Weber notes that the utility of each may be considered and there may  be a ranking of the utility associated with each end so ends having greater utility are pursued first and less important ends may have less urgency associated with them. 


·        Value-rational action.  These are social actions where the end or value may be pursued for its own sake.  In such actions there is “self-conscious formulation of the ultimate values governing the action” and consistently planned orientation of its detailed course” (p. 25).  Examples of this form of social action include religious or spiritual actions, pursuit of ethical ends, or pursuit of artistic or aesthetic goals.  For these actions, it is frequently the case that the action itself may mean both pursuit of and accomplishment of the end.  For example, group prayer or attendance at a memorial service may create the goal of spiritual peace for the individual; performing music for others or creating a work of art to be publicly displayed may be a means by which an artist achieves aesthetic goals.   Weber mentions actions such as personal loyalty, duty, a religious call, whereby “human action is motivated by the fulfillment of such unconditional demands” (p. 25).


·        Affectual action.  These are affectual or emotional forms of action “determined by the actor’s specific affects and feeling states” (p. 25).  Social actions among family members, friends, and intimate partners are examples of these.  However, for Weber it is important to note that these may often be somewhat unconscious, for example “uncontrolled reaction to some exceptional stimulus” (p. 25).  While this may lead to a more “conscious release of emotional tension” (p. 25), an alternative view is that it may be less conscious and more reactive.


·        Traditional action.  This may be the most difficult to distinguish from conscious action in that action that was initially instrumental, value-rational, or affectual social action may become habitual, traditional, and not consciously considered at a later time. 


Affectual or emotional and traditional action may not be as central to Weber’s analysis of social action in that they can become value or instrumentally rational or can become unconscious.  – p. 25.

But if “conscious release of emotional tension” it becomes rationalized – item 2, p. 25.


Note that the forms of action are ideal type modes of orientation – last paragraph before section 3, p. 26.  Any particular action is a mix of these different types of rational action, or may also involve non-rational or other forms of conduct which may have little meaning associated with them.


Note the emphasis on consciousness throughout this section 2, pp. 24-26.


e. Understanding social action.  On pp. 5-6, Weber provides some methodological guidelines to how sociologists can understand social action.  Among the factors he mentions are:


·        Empathetic or appreciative accuracy (p. 5).  this is obtaining “a completely clear intellectual grasp of the action-elements” by grasping “the emotional context in which the action took place” (p. 5).  Note how this involves a particular mode of thinking on the part of the sociologist, but also careful empirical investigation of the individual and situation so there can be “clarity and verifiable accuracy of insight and comprehension” (p. 5).  For Weber, these are scientific observations.

·        There may be less sociological certainty in terms of understanding the sources of errors and confusions.  Since the sociologist thinks rationally (according to Weber) it may be somewhat more straightforward for the sociologist to understand rational than irrational action.  For the latter, it may also be more difficult to verify circumstances and considerations made.

·        Value-rational action may be more difficult to understand sociologically since the sociologist may have different values and ends than other social actors.  Religious or spiritual considerations are an example of this.  While I may understand the spirituality of aboriginal people in an intellectual sense, I may not develop a thorough understanding of all aspects of meaning that aboriginal people associate with this.

·        Emotional or affectual forms of action may be more understandable in that most individuals have similar emotional reactions, even though they may hide them or not express them in behaviour and action.

·        Methodologically, Weber argues that “it is convenient to treat all irrational, affectually determined elements of behavior as factors of deviation” from an ideal type (p. 6).  That is, obtain an understanding of the rational course of action and, from this, it may be possible to determine errors, deviations, ambiguities, and uncertainties that lead to “irrational” action.


3. Social relationship.  For Weber, individual social action in sociologically significant since it is oriented toward others and involves subjective meaning on the part of the actor.  Cohen argues that in section 3, “The Concept of Social Relationship,” Weber expands the meaning of social action by connecting actions of one individual with actions of others – the result is to move beyond the study of individual social action to defining and analyzing social relationships.  Weber begins this section by stating:

The term “social relationship” will be used to denote the behavior of a plurality of actors insofar as, in its meaningful content, the action of each takes account of that of the others and is oriented in these terms.  The social relationship thus consists entirely and exclusively in the existence of a probability that there will be a meaningful course of social action – irrespective, for the time being, of the basis for this probability.  (Weber, pp. 26-27).

Cohen argues this helps Weber to create “a social conception of individual action” (p. 77).  Each aspect of social action is meaningful for an individual, or at least it has a  “meaningful content.”  For a social relationship though, there must be orientation of individual actions to each other.  That is, for each individual a social action is meaningful and oriented to others, and when two or more actors each mutually orient these meaningful social actions to each other, there is a social relationship.  Such a social relationship itself has meaningful content for the actors involved.  Finally, Weber is not concerned with the content of such action, rather he is concerned with defining the essence of a social relationship and the aspects of form or structure that makes it social.  There could be many such relations – emotional and affectual relationships in a family, friendship or formal workplace relationships, small group interaction, or political interaction.   The actors involved in such a relationship need not be a group in the sense of a status or ethnic group, with status honour.  Rather, the plurality is a set of social actors, each undertaking meaningful action oriented toward others.  The result is “a meaningful course of social action” (p. 27).


It might be worthwhile to consider actions of a plurality of actors that might not be social relationships in the Weberian sense.  Examples might include pedestrian or vehicle driving activity or common reactions in a religious service or a crowd.  While purely economic activity or bureaucratic relationships may involve meaning for one individual, it would seem that they do not lead to a social relationship, or at least not a continuing one – there is mutual orientation but in many cases meaning appears one-sided and there is certainly no continued “meaningful course of social action.”


In the paragraphs that follow on pp. 27-28, Weber expands on the meaning of social relationsihp, providing examples and showing the range of social relationships that can occur. 


·        In item 1, Weber notes many possible forms of content – friendship, exchange, competition, conflict, and economic exchange.

·        Meaning is not true or correct in any absolute or theoretical sense.  That is, each social relationship is associated with some meaningful action that is appropriate to the relationship.  Again, Weber is more concerned with what defines the social aspect of the relationship, rather than arguing that it results from some formal aspect such as church or marriage.  In each case, the social relationship is not the institution but the  meaningful conduct of people involved in the institution.  Of course, an institution such as marriage is quite likely to be associated with a meaningful social relationship.

·        Weber does not want to “reify” the concept of social relationship – i.e. to make it more fixed and having a distinct status of its own.  While Marxists make not of reification of economic concepts in that exploitative relationships are hidden, Weber makes a similar point about social institutions and structures.  Here he argues that it makes sense to discuss concepts such as the state, but only so long as there are actual social relationships associated with this – it is these relationships that constitute the institution and make it meaningful.  If such relationships disappear, then it no longer exists sociologically.

·        Relationships may be asymmetrical – this would appear to be the case in many relationships of consumers and sellers.  Item 3 expands on this asymmetry, noting that the understanding may not be the same for different individuals in the relationship.  Such asymmetrical relationships may be more prone to dissolution or misunderstanding than are symmetrical one, although not necessarily in the case of duty or loyalty.  Note this possibility in item 5, p. 28, where a political relationship changes. 

·        Varying degrees of permanence of a relationship exist (item 4, p. 28).  While Weber argues that a “fleeting” relationship may be a social relationship, repeated occurrence or continued and regular social relationships appear to be more socially significant for the social patterns, maxims, usage, or custom to develop.  In item 6, Weber notes that “relatively constant” social relationships are associated with maxims or commonly expected and understood forms of action by the partners to the relationship.  This is especially the case for rational relationships, whereas the scope and types of more emotional relationships can vary more widely (consider the pattern variables of Parsons).  For example, a marital relationship may vary from love and affection to violence and distrust, and back again.  Rational relationships in business or bureaucracy cannot generally withstand such wide swings. 

·        In item 7, Weber comments on consent, loyalty, and duty.  For understanding legitimacy and authority, these are important for Weber. 

·        Some of these examples show the variety of ways that social relationships can occur and continue.  By refusing to reify the relationships, Weber also points out the flexible nature of each social relationship.  That is, while we may label situations as institutions such as workplace or family, Weber argues that these are not set, predetermined form, rather the social relationship is defined by how individuals in this relationship develop and use meaning in their actions that maintain the social relationship.


Note that Weber does not consider this interaction in the same manner as symbolic interactionist theorists, although he comes close to doing this.  He admits that there is mutual orientation of actors to each other, but does not raise the possibility that how others see you will affect this action, or how the potential response of others is part of what determines a social action, or how mutual interaction involves processes of interpretation and accommodation.  Rather, Weber focuses on each actor, pursuing action for himself or herself, and orienting this action to others.  


4. Stable patterns and maxims.  Cohen notes how Weber develops a notion of permanency of social relationships by noting that there is repeated recurrence of social relationships so patterns and regularities of social action develop.  This provides a way to connect individual social actions with institutions and structures – it is these patterns and recurrent relationships that form the institutions and structures of society.  Cohen states this “allows for ideal-types of large-scale institutional orders” (p. 77).  Weber notes:

4. A social relationship can be of a very fleeting character or of varying degrees of permanence.  In the latter case there is a probability of the repeated recurrence of the behavior which corresponds to its subjective meaning and hence is expected.

6. The meaningful content which remains relatively constant in a social relationship is capable of formulation in terms of maxims which the parties concerned expect to be adhered to by their partners on the average and approximately.  The more rational is relation to values or to given ends the action is, the more likely this is to be the case.  (Weber, p. 28).

In item 4, Weber notes that relationships may be regularly repeated, so that the actions that have meaning associated with them come to be expected.  It is this repetition on a regular basis that creates the patterns that we may call institutions.  While these may be formal institutions such as a workplace or school, many of them are formed on a more voluntary basis – institutions such as family, peer groups, or friendship.  But note that while these regular patterns are expected, Weber argues that these are still social action and based on meaning for the actors.


In item 6, Weber notes that the content of these regularized social relationships can become maxims – forms of action that are adhered to and expected to be adhered to, at least on average and approximately.  In the next section of Economy and Society, Weber notes how these can become even more regularized and uniform as they develop into usage, custom, convention, or even laws. 


Weber also notes that the regularization is more likely to occur when there is rational action.  If the action is affectual or associated with personal connections, then there is less likelihood of it becoming uniform.


Weber does not appear to focus much on what happens in the case of unexpected forms of action, or what happens when people do not adhere to the maxims and expectations.  It was these situations that Durkheim and Parsons focused on in greater detail.  Parsons, in particular, noted factors such as social approval and disapproval.


On p. 78, Cohen connects these “supra-individual norms” that develop out of stable patterns of social action and social relationships to the question of order, which he notes is “conduct oriented to a maxim, norm, or rule.”  The various forms of authority, ways that legitimacy is created, are discussed by Weber in this context (traditional, charismatic, rational-legal).  As Cohen notes, legitimacy cannot be assumed, but must be demonstrated in each case.  But if this can be demonstrated, this provides an explanation of structural orders that is rooted on meaning and individual social action – thus providing a solution to the action-structure problem.


In the final section of the reading, Weber connects such repeated patterns to “usage” – regular occurrences of actual practices, including fashion, and “custom” – longer lasting or more permanent practices.  Again these can be considered to be a basis for the development of social institutions.


5. Problems of Weber’s approach


a. Focus on conscious – throughout his discussion of social action, Weber emphasizes the conscious aspect and attempts to eliminate from the discussion those aspects that are not so conscious.  While systematic, thorough, and useful, his approach may be an overly narrow view of what constitutes human social actions and what is socially meaningful in terms of social conduct and social institutions.


b. Reasons.  Weber provides little analysis of why people adhere to maxims and conventions.  Weber provides a reasonable explanation of how people interpet them and how they are social in that individuals attribute meaning to them.  But there is little explanation of why these recur, other than that they do because people expect them to.


c. Power.  Cohen notes (p. 78) the ad hoc nature of power for Weber.  While Weber’s definition of power has been widely used – able to carry out will even against opposition from others – it does not seem well founded in Weber’s theory of action.  Cohen notes how it mixes will or determination with meaningful intent, but where do will and determination come from?  Weber is very careful to work with meaning, but Weber introduces will without an explanation.  This seems to be a problem for interaction theorists as well.


d. Inequality.  Cohen also considers Weber to have no theory of inequality within the concept of meaningful action (p. 78).  In fact, some degree of equality might be implied in the definition of social relationship, although neither Weber nor Cohen note this.  Cohen notes that Weber employs an ad hoc explanation for inequality, saying it emerges from conflict or selection.  Recall that the definition of social relationship did not consider the nature of the relationship, i.e., both cooperation and conflict were allowed in social relationships.  The problem is that Weber does not follow this up with a discussion of these different forms of social relationships.


6. Conclusion


Weber’s focus on consciousness and meaning have provided a very useful way to consider how social action can be considered.  This always forces the sociologist to understand the actor, consider the position of the actor, and study how meaning exists in any social action.  By connecting social action to social relationship, and arguing that these develop patterns which become regularized, Weber is able to integrate action and structure, and provide an explanation for social structures ultimately rooted in individual social action.  At the same time, Weber may have defined the social too narrowly, and not paid sufficient attention to a number of aspects such as accommodation, interaction, power, and inequality.  But in the end, Weber’s approach that “actors define their own conduct” (Cohen, p. 78) seems worthy of recommendation to sociological study.  Too often, judgments about the actions of social actors are made by others without a good understanding of the position, definition, and situation of the actor.


Last edited January 18, 2003


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