Sociology 319

January 20, 2000

Theories of Action and Praxis

At the beginning of Chapter 4, "Theories of Action and Praxis" Cohen notes that in our everyday life we "act, interact, and understand the meaning of what" we do (p. 111). He also notes that sociologists may sometimes fail to note this and h ave difficulty defining and explaining it. As individuals, each of us undertakes a wide variety of actions, some conscious, some habit, some reflexive, some in interaction or in concert with others, or possible in opposition to others. These actions are c arried out in the environment around us – in reference to the natural world and within and as part of social structures and institutions. It is these human actions that form the social world, but one that, as Cohen notes, sociologists have trouble explain ing.

What explains social action, which parts are human activity are social, what is the significance of social action, and what type of social world does human social action create? These are some of the questions that this section of the course examines – concentrating on theories of social action and interaction. In Chapter 4, Cohen surveys sociological theories of action, dividing these into two main types: (i) theories of action that are oriented toward subjective consciousness as a means of explaining the roots of social action, and (ii) theories of social action that are oriented more toward human activities, the "pragmatics of action" (p. 108) or "the enactment of performance of social conduct" (p. 112). Weber and Parsons emphasize the former, while Dewey, Mead, Blumer, Garfinkel, and Goffman emphasize the latter. Anthony Giddens attempts to integrate these approaches and provide a solution to the structure-agency debate. Cohen reviews the theoretical approach of each of these authors, summarizing t he essential points, and showing some of the limitations associated with each theory.

Before examining each of these, a few comments on the introduction to this section by Turner (pp. 108-110) and the background to these theories. Overall, these tend to be microsociological theories, and a discussion of the major microsociological theor y – symbolic interactionism is contained in Chapter 8.

1. Various Action Theories. Since all the social sciences are concerned with human action, there is an action theory associated with each discipline. Economic theory focuses on utilitarian human economic activity, choosing what appears to be the best option among a variety of choices, within the context of scarcity and constraint. Political theory is concerned with how people exercise political choices "designed to maximize and conserve power in a context of competition and struggle’ (p. 108). I n an attempt to distinguish sociology from psychology, sociologists focus on action as distinct from behaviour. Instincts and impulses guide the latter, while it is social action in the form of meaningful human action that sociologists have taken as their subject of study.

2. Unified Theory of Social Action? Turner and Cohen argue that there is no unified theory of social action, even though Weber’s approach might be well known and dominant in sociology. But Turner notes the differences between the subjective appr oach of Weber and Parsons, and the more "objective relevance and description of action" of the symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists (108). In addition, Turner argues that sociology may not have paid sufficient attention to unconscious motivati on, the affective, the irrational or nonrational, and emotions. It is some of the latter that more recent theorists, such as Goffman and Hochschild, have attempted to integrate into social theory.

3. Orientation or Pragmatics? Turner notes (p. 108) that Parsons attempted to build a theory of social action that he termed voluntarist – that is, the individual actor has some ability to take action, exercise choice, and understand the meaning of this. In some voluntaristic approaches this may imply some selection of ends as well, not just means. The actor may select what values to pursue, along with selection of means to these ends.

In contrast to the voluntaristic approach, the pragmatic approach is more concerned with what action takes place, description of the variety of such actions, how these actions are created or performed (Goffman’s dramaturgy), and how interactions take p lace. Turner argues that Parsons, following Weber, was unable to integrate the latter or explain the latter. This meant that symbolic interaction and ethnomethodological perspectives were developed to provide an alternative explanation.

4. Action and Structure. Turner notes how this has been the primary focus of recent theorists of action. For many action theorists, beginning with the individual, social institutions "are merely repetitious patterns of individual action. Social structures are simply iterative patterns of action" (p. 108). Giddens has devoted much attention to attempting to integrate actions with structures in his theory of structuration.

5. Utilitarian. Many theorists of action are very critical of utilitarian approaches to human action. Cohen notes how this perspective promotes the view that actors attempt "to satisfy their wants or minimize their losses or discomfort" (p. 111) . The idea is that the action taken produces more good (or less loss) than alternative possible actions. Such a theory emphasizes choice, self-interest, rational consideration of possible choices, and autonomous individuals who "act of their own initiativ e, to mobilize their behavior in pursuit of an end" (p. 117). Parsons, and many other sociologists such as Durkheim, consider this to be too narrow an approach to social action. Economic theories have traditionally been utilitarian, considering that peopl e select a commodity or course of action that produces the maximum utility for them.

There are problems with the utilitarian approach though. One issue is how the actor is motivated and exercises initiative (p. 117). Another is how ultimate ends are selected – economists and utilitarians have difficulty explaining where these come from , often saying that these are tastes or preferences that the individual has, without developing an explanation of how these come about. Sociologists would also question the degree of choice, the extreme individualism such approaches can adopt, whether sel f-interest is primary, whether action is always rational, and whether ends are well-defined and achievable.

The problem that sociologists have faced is to come up with an alternative explanation, which explains the roots of the various types of human action, the variety of human motivations, and the diversity of forms of action that occur. Cohen also notes t hat "actors may improvise new forms of conduct that depart from established routines," and it is difficult to explain the different meanings, rhythms, forms, and patterns of social action (p. 112). In addition to the problem of developing a theory of soci al action at the individual level, the sociologist also has to develop a model of social institutions and social structures built on the theory of social action.


a. 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 ac tor. "He defines almost every aspect of the natural environment and the human condition from the actor’s existential point of view" (p. 113), that is from the actor’s own, unique perspective. In Economy and Society, Weber defines action which is so cial 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).

i. Empirical. Note that this approach is empirical and social, not abstract and philosophical. That is, the sociologist and historian must observe actual actors, conduct and social actions – not just theorize about some abstract form of human co nduct. This means careful, empirical study of the social world in which sociologists live and operate. At the same time, Weber did allow for ideal types of subjective meaning. These could be where there is "subjective meaning attributed to the hypothetica l actor or actors in a given type of action" (Weber, p. 4, A. 1) and 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). However, these ideal types do not just come from the author’s theorizing, but from careful abstraction after close definition and observation of situations, actions, and actors. For example, status honour associated with a peer group would carefully examine the various ways that t hose associated with the group attach meaning to particular practices or forms of conduct. While members of the group might not be able to define these carefully themselves, these practices and forms of conduct would have some meaning to group members, an d sociological study should be able to describe and understand these.

ii. Meaning. 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 unde rstanding 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 pluralit y 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.

iii. Range of Social Action.

Distinguishes meaningful action and merely reactive behaviour – p. 4.

Traditional behavior – crosses between the two – pp. 4-5.

Psychological processes – may not be meaningful – p. 5.

Mystical experiences – would not be social since they are entirely personal – p. 5.

Rational action – achieve certain ends by choosing appropriate means on basis of facts of situation – p. 5.

Past, present, or expected future behaviour of others – p. 22

Others may be known to actor or be a plurality – p. 22

Money as an example – p. 22.

Non-social if oriented toward inanimate objects – p. 22.


Note that Weber admits that sociology might not study only social action, but this is central to the study – p. 24.


4 types of social action and examples – pp. 24-26.

Note importance on the conscious in instrumentally and value rational action, the two main forms of social action – p. 24-25. item 3, p. 25 – conscious formulation of values.

Note affectual or emotional is not considered central to Weber’s action – 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.

b. Social Relationship. Action in itself is social for Weber, in that it is oriented toward others and involves meaning. Cohen notes how Weber takes this further by connecting the actions of one individual with the actions of others. For Cohen, this allows Weber to move beyond the study of individual social action to the defining of social relationships.

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 consi sts 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 notes how this helps Weber to create "a social conception of individual action" (p. 114). Note that each part of social action is meaningful, or Weber considers only the "meaningful content" aspect of the conduct. There is orientation of each to others. Finally, Weber is not concerned with what type of action this is, he is concerned with defining the essence of a social relationship. There could be many such relations – in the workplace, in groups, or politics. At this point he is defining what is the basis for social relationships of a plurality of actors. Note that this 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 t oward others.

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

Note that Weber does not consider this interaction in the same sense that interactionist theorists do. That is, at no point does Weber discuss the possibility that how others see you will affect this action, or how the potential response of others is p art of 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.

c. Stable Patterns and Maxims. Cohen notes how Weber next develops a notion of permanency of social relationships by noting that there is repeated recurrence of such relationships and that patterns develop. This provides a way to connect action and structure, because it is these patterns and recurrent relationships that form the institutions and structures of society.

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 Societ y, 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. Par sons, in particular, noted factors such as social approval and disapproval.

On p. 115, 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 author ity, means by which 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 provid es an explanation of structural orders that is rooted on meaning and individual social action – thus providing a solution to the action-structure problem.

d. Problems of Weber’s Approach

Focus on conscious – throughout social action, Weber emphasizes the conscious aspect. While useful, this may be too narrow a view of the variety of human social actions and what is socially meaningful in terms of social conduct and social instituti ons.

Little analysis of why people adhere to the 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.

Power. Cohen notes the ad hoc nature of power for Weber. While Weber’s definition 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 wi ll or determination with meaningful intent, but where do will and determination come from? Weber is very careful to work with meaning, but will is then introduced without an explanation. This seems to be a problem for interaction theorists as well.

Cohen also considers Weber to have no theory of inequality within the concept of meaningful action. In fact, a certain equality might be implied, although neither Weber nor Cohen note that. As a result, Cohen notes that he uses ad hoc explanations 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 Webe r does not follow this up with a discussion of these different forms of social relationships.

e. 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 roote d 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.

Last edited on January 20, 2000.

Return to Sociology 319.