Social Action Theory by Max Weber explained: a summary
Social Action Theory: in this article you will find a practical explanation of Max Weber’s Social Action Theory. It covers what Social Action Theory is, what its four types are, along with examples, and what the benefits of these four types are. It also touches on the types of domination, the influence of social action and the difference between Social Action Theory and Social Fact Theory by Émile Durkheim. After reading this article, you will understand the basic concepts of this sociological theory of human behaviour and how this behaviour influences the behaviour of other people, their interaction and reaction. Enjoy reading!
What is Max Weber’s Social Action Theory?
The Social Action Theory was developed by the German sociologist Max Weber, who with this theory pursued to highlight the importance of human behaviour as it relates to cause and effect (instrumentally rational) in the social sphere.
According to Max Weber, human beings adapt their actions according to social contexts and how these actions affect the behaviour of others.
For Max Weber, social action explains the behaviours, effects and consequences of human behaviour and how this behaviour can influence the behaviour of other people and become a social movement, where it is no longer an isolated behaviour, but part of a whole (society). Weber relied on existing research to argue that sociology is fundamental for scientific research.
According to Max Weber, social action can trigger means and ends for social actors and social interaction who want to achieve something specific.
For example, a company organises activities for each individual and assigns a different role to each employee, but each action performed by employees is connected to each other in order to keep the organisation going.
The responsibilities and rules that employees take on, help the social action to be organised and these individuals interact with each other in the organisation in order to deliver the results that the organisational hierarchy wants.
The essence of the theory can be summarized by the following sentence: The actions of others develop one’s own behaviour.
Four types of social action according to Max Weber
In his work Economy and Society (1921), Max Weber mentions four forms of social action:
1. Traditional social action (custom)
These are actions which are the result of traditions and customs and which are performed in certain situations.
Traditional social action example
Having lunch with the family every Sunday. Traditional actions can become a cultural reference. Tradition is divided into two subgroups: customs and habits. A custom is a practice that is familiar, normally done and popularised within the culture.
Customs, on the other hand, can last from generation to generation. A habit is something that is learned little by little and is sometimes something that becomes normalised in everyday life and even becomes attached to a person’s personality.
2. Affective social action
Also known as emotional action where the human being acts impulsively and does not necessarily think about the consequences.
Affective social action example
Crying at a victory or crying at a funeral are affective social actions. This social action is divided into two subgroups: uncontrolled reaction and emotional tension.
In the uncontrolled reaction the person takes less account of the feelings of others and puts the feelings of the person him / herself as the main focus. Emotional tension is the frustration that a person may have when not fulfilling his or her aspirations, and it is then where the internal tension creates dissatisfaction.
3. Rational social action with values
This social action, rational action is characterised by moral or ethical principles that are implemented collectively for the good of society. Therefore, the rational action is guided by ideology or collective ethics.
Rational social action with values example
4. Rational-instrumental social action
These are actions that are carried out in order to achieve a specific result.
Rational-instrumental social action Example
Natalia is 19 years old and wants to study medicine, however, she is aware that she has to take a rigorous exam in order to be able to go to university and study what she wants to study. This exam makes Natalia study every day in order to pass the exam and finally study medicine.
If we take this everyday life example into account, we can understand Natalia’s desire to achieve her goal and what she has to do in order to achieve it.
Natalia then applies social instrumental social action because each step she takes to achieve her goal will bring a positive or negative consequence depending on how she carries out the process, in this case her process is one of discipline and study.
Each of these states of action brings their own advantages, some of which are described below.
Social Action Theory advantages of the 4 actions
With the above example, the other missing social actions can be completed, which would really come together in Natalia’s behaviour to achieve her studies in medicine. Natalia, influenced by the requirements of the university to be able to go to medical school, sets out on a journey in order to reach her final goal.
With this, her behaviour is moulded to the university requirements she needs. Her affectivity and emotions make Natalia have the desire to go on to medicine for personal merit and also because her father and grandfather were doctors, something that Natalia wants to honour in order to follow in her family’s footsteps.
To do this, Natalia she must be logical and rational in consequence of the exam she must win, which is why Natalia’s determination and behaviour is moulded by the university to which she wants to apply in order to be able to study.
Social Action Theory: types of domination according to Weber
To exercise the will over others, for Weber there are the following types of domination:
This is the domination of power that is exercised on the other, this is seen a lot in leaders.
This is the domination that can be found in religious or other types of cults that are exercised as traditions that are passed on from generation to generation.
Rational legal domination
Is a type of domination of the modern era and is based on laws and the constitution and which is obeyed by all people. This means that it is the one that all human beings follow as it is a social responsibility and respect for authority.
With the above, Weber relates the ideal types that sociology deals with. These types help to understand the reality of social phenomena. There are no pure social types, but they are always mixed.
Influence of social action
For Max Weber, social action is influenced by the past, present and future. Therefore, social action as a result undergoes changes of some kind over time. Social action can be constantly evolving as times change and human behaviour can develop, improve, modify or change.
Social action cannot be isolated as it needs the behaviour of human beings and how they can influence other people’s behaviour within their social structure in a particular way.
Criteria for the social character of action
- People must take into account the behaviour and existence of others as their own.
- Intention that is directed at other people
- Meaning: the action of the subject must have symbolic meaning.
- The behaviour of people in a social action is influenced by their perception of the significance of the action of others and their own action.
Max Weber versus Émile Durkheim
For Max Weber, social action has a subjective definition whereas for Émile Durkheim social action is objective.
Differences between social action and social facts
In order to understand the difference between these two theories, both of which are of great importance in sociology, one must first understand what the Social Fact Theory is, developed by Émile Durkheim, French sociologist and philosopher.
Social Facts entails the behaviour, way of seeing, thinking, acting and feeling that is external to consciousness. This in a social group may or may not be respected and may or may not be shared.
This means that the social fact is the way of feeling and living of the outside, thus orienting their behaviour. For Émile Durkheim, the social fact is made up of cultural values that mould subjects to act in a certain way.
Thus, he assimilates his exterior and can adapt it to his behaviour, consciously or unconsciously transforming it in order to act and think in a certain way.
Social facts are imposed whether people like it or not.
In contrast, Max Weber with his Theory of Social Action, explains that the behaviour of people is constructed through the interaction of one or more subjects, who modify their behaviour influenced by the other.
Social Action Theory summary
The Social Action Theory is not the imitation of what a person does with behaviour. Social Action goes beyond replication or imitation that can be exercised by human beings.
Max Weber takes social action as a subjective form that a person can have in their way of thinking and acting and how these forms can influence the behaviour of others, forming society as it relates and connects with others. A group of people with similar behaviours who believe in something related, without neglecting their own personality.
Max Weber’s Social Action Theory divided the types of social action into the 4 categories mentioned above: traditional social action, affective social action, rational social action with values and instrumental social action. They guide this theoretical study to understand human actions in society and how behaviour stems from subjectivity and can influence other human beings in their behaviour.
With the social actions explained by Weber, cultures were formed, ways of thinking and acting in community that start from an individual and are generalised by others (society). These social actions have undergone transformations and modifications as times have changed.
Now it’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you believe that the Social Action Theory still has a great impact on human behaviour today? Have you studied Max Weber’s Social Action Theory before, if so, please tell us about it or share your thoughts on this matter. Do you have any suggestions or something else to add?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Ekström, 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.
- Jones, P., Bradbury, L., & LeBoutillier, S. (2011). Introducing social theory. Polity.
- Gane, N. (2005). Max Weber as Social Theorist: ‘Class, Status, Party’. European journal of social theory, 8(2), 211-226.
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Published on: 12/06/2021 | Last update: 03/05/2023
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