Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Social action

core definition

Social action is action taken with account taken of the past, present or future actions, behaviour, and attitudes of others.

explanatory context

Social action, then, is not action in isolation. A solitary act of meditation, for example, is not social action. Conversely, a group of people together does not costitute social action unless they start interacting. Social action should involve meaningful comprehension of the social action of others. So, social action is confined to sitiations where the actor’s behaviour is meaningfully related to behaviour of others.


Social action theory began with the work of Max Weber. In Economy and Society (Weber, [1922] 1978, p. 4), Weber defines action that is social as actions to which the ‘acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behaviour— 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 identified four forms of social action:

1. Rational action: individuals have expectations about the behaviour of others and act to take account of these expectations in order to attain their own rationally chosen outcomes.

2. Evaluative action: individuals take account of absolute values (beliefs, ethics, aesthetics or other form of behaviour) entirely for their own sake and independently of any prospects of external benefit or success.

3. Emotional actions: action based on feelings and emotions of the individual and other actors.

4. Traditional actions: actions that are based on long-established and habitually practiced traditional expectations.


For Weber, sociologyis not just about studying social action, rather it is the interpretative understanding (Verstehen) of the social action.


Vilfredo Pareto, in exploring social action theory, argied that in social reality most of the social actions are not logical. The concern of sociology is thus the analysis of non-logical actions: the meanings, motives and sentiments that actors ascibe to their actions. For Pareto, every social action has two aspects: reality and form. Reality involves the actual existence of the thing (objective aspects) and the form is the way the phenomenon presents itself to the human mind (subjective aspects).


Talcott Parsons was a major United States proponent of social action theory. For him, social action is a process that has motivational significance to the individual actor or the component individuals of a collectivity. He identified various aspects of the systems of social action: personality, cultural and social. These correspond to unique identity, cultural symbols and social interaction. As Bolender Initiatives (2008–13) states:

Parsonian theory abandons the Weberian view of minded actors seeking to define their social universe. Instead, as for Pareto, social action or interaction is a system that responds to other interdependent conditions. Here the systemic focus on stability and order is extended into various analyses of roles and their contribution to social control....
The heart of this theoretical attempt is its dual conceptualization of system. At the highest level, Parsons developed a general system of action that features four divisions, including the general social system. At a lower level, he divided the social system into four distinctive subsystems. Beginning with the general system, we find its four components to include the behavioral-organic, personality, cultural, and social systems (Parsons and Shils, 1951: 4–29).

analytical review

Flamand (undated) states:

Social action theory was originally developed by social theorist Max Weber and later adopted by sociologists. Social action theory seeks to understand how individuals determine and negotiate between their personal desires and the social pressures that largely determine and orient their actions. It also tries to understand the relationship between social structures and the individuals whose behavior and actions produce them.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (undated) discusses social action as follows:

In Weber's sociology, social action is behavior to which human beings attach a specific meaning or set of meanings. It is also behavior that is guided by or takes account of the behavior of other human beings (either as individuals or as a group). Such behavior may be overt and obvious to others, or inward and subjective. Moreover, it may be both active and passive. Thus it may take the form of positive intervention, or of refraining from intervention. Meaningful social behavior—social action—thus contrasts with nonsocial or reactive behavior, undertaken more or less automatically in response to some stimulus. Nevertheless, Weber recognized that the line demarcating the two types is blurred at best; in fact, he argues, "a very considerable part of all sociologically relevant behavior . . . is marginal between the two."

Social action thus conceived forms the basis for Weber's sociology. Just as human beings are seen as acting on the basis of meaning, the sociological enterprise seeks to understand the source of these meanings and thus the motivation behind human social behavior. The bases of social action, Weber argues, are revealed using Verstehen . The simple translation of this term is "understanding." Weber, however, uses Verstehen to mean a method of analysis (putting oneself in the other's shoes, so to speak), whereby the motivations of human social behavior may be fruitfully revealed to the observer.

Weber delimits four basic types of social action. These are (1) action oriented by expectations of the behavior of both objects and other individuals in the surrounding milieu (according to Weber, individuals "make use of these expectations as 'conditions' or 'means' for the successful attainment of the actor's own rationally chosen ends"); (2) action oriented to some absolute value as embodied in some ethical, aesthetic, or perhaps religious code, in other words, action which is morally guided, and not undertaken simply for one's own gain; (3) action guided by emotive response to or feelings about the surrounding milieu; and (4) actions performed as part of long-standing societal tradition.

associated issues

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) states:

Social act(ion): A la Max Weber, any action oriented to or influenced by another or others. Social action means that the behavior or anticipated behavior of others is taken into account by the acting individual. Weber pointed out that social action may occur even when only one person is present, and also that an absence of action or acquiescence to the actions of others is included as a part of social action.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'action' as:

Things that people do that are the result of conscious processes.

related areas

See also

action theory




Researching the Real World Section


Bolender Initiatives, 2008–13, Talcott Parsons: Theoretical Content, available at, accessed 18 April 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, undated, 'Weberian action theory', in William H. Swatos, W.H. Jr. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Hartford, Alta Mira Press, available at, accessed 16 April 2013, still available 14 June 2019.

Flamand, L., undated, 'The Social Action Theory' available at , accessed 16 April 2013, still available 14 June 2019.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Parsons, T. and Shils, E., 1951, Towards a General Theory of Action, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Weber, M., [1922] 1978, Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press,

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