introducing social action

What is social action? What are its key forms and concerns? How does it relate to informal education, social learning and social pedagogy?

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung - Wikipedia CommonsAction is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is therefore oriented in its course. (Weber 1969) [pictured right]

Just what people mean when they talk of 'social action' varies radically. Within sociology the term is wrapped up with the work of Max Weber. He looked to the meanings that people attach to their actions or 'doings' in different social situations - and the ways in which they anticipate what others may think and do, and respond.  One of Weber's key concerns was to explore an important shift within western societies from action guided by tradition, values and emotions, toward 'rational action'. Rational actions (zweckrational) are endeavours where the means to attain a particular goal are chosen through systematic reasoning.

Within educational and welfare arenas 'social action' is often used to simply mean efforts to improve social conditions, or to address the needs of a particular group deemed to constitute a social problem. Others focus on the social - sociality - as the object of action. In this way social action is the pursuit of sociality - building community and group life. Perhaps the best way of approaching social action in this context (and of understanding its historical relationship to informal education) is to attend to both. Social action, thus, can be understood as an endeavour seeking to improve human welfare, deepen civic culture and develop group life and commitment to others. It entails the cultivation of a just and caring communal life. In this view social action involves a direct appeal to values and principles. This is usually grounded in some sort of shared belief system such as those that develop within religious institutions and social movements. Thus Catholic social action is likely to appeal to Catholic social teaching and ideas such as: the dignity of the human person; human rights and duties; the social nature of the person; the common good; relationship, subsidiarity and socialisation; solidarity and options for the poor (Caritas 2003).

The practice of social action

Many of the groups and organizations that today define their activities as social action have religious roots. Quaker Social Action, for example, began in 1867 as the Bedford Institute Association. Its initial work involved education such as children's Sunday schools, and adult schools; religious efforts; moral training (including temperance meetings, penny banks and lending libraries); and relief of the sick and destitute. Settlements and the like were important breeding grounds both for social action thinking and activity, as were the traditions of local organizing that developed with unionism and the emergence of community work, and neighbourhood and community organizing.

Churches and religious organizations remain one of the most significant forces, as do other local groups and institutions. Globalization and around environmental concerns have become significant arenas for action in recent years.

Exploring social action  

To explore some of the above questions, and the history of social action, we have designed a virtual walk (through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe in London). It takes in various forms of social action including local community action, tenants groups, unionism, the work of settlements, missions and other local bodies, and some examples of state intervention. Take the walk.

Further reading

Weber, M. (1969) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York, Macmillan.

Links: caritas - catholic social action; quaker social action

Acknowledgements: Picture of Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung was sourced from the Wikipedia Commons and is deemed by them to be in the public domain as the copyright has expired.

© infed 2007