In this essay I will be discussing how action in society can be considered as individual as well as social. I’ll be discussing this relation with reference to Max Weber (1864-1920) and his action theory. I’ll begin by defining individual and social action, and Weber’s four types of action and how they can be socially defined. I will then discuss whether any individual action can avoid being defined as a social action. I will then move on to discuss what Weber’s aim and goal was by defining individual and social action. And then give examples of how this has been used by group-based tactics and organisations such as protest groups and activist writers. I will then conclude with a statement on how action in society is individual as well as social.
An individual action is exactly that – an action performed by an actor, while a social action is that which an individual performs and attaches a meaning to. This meaning attached to the individual socialises the action itself because it adds the social landscape to the action and makes the actor one which others can understand, or at least can be explained with a why. A group can also perform social actions as they are individuals with a common interest and reasoning process.
Max Weber defines social action as: ‘By social action is meant an action in which the meaning intended by the agent or agents involves a relation to another person’s behaviour and in which that relation determines the way in which the action proceeds.’ (1)
From this we can see that social action is the result of individual action, and so society is the result of individuals acting on their social meanings. Thus one can see society as the collective landscape of individual and group social action. The individual being the micro, and the group being the macro, while society is the collective of all individuals and groups.
In talking about social action we need to put forward how Weber defined what made an action. He categorises these into four sets:
‘[F]our types of action:
1. Zweckrational action, or rational action in relation to a goal.
2. Wertrational action, or rational action in relation to a value.
3. Affective or emotional action.
4. Traditional action.’ (2)
These four types of action are better explained with examples. Rational action is that which is expressed in relation to a goal. So, for example Raymond Aron gives the example of an engineer building a bridge or the speculator at the stock exchange looking to make some money. Their goal is clear and in mind while they act towards it, they are bearing in mind their goal at all times, and all of the means are merely to achieve the end goal. The actor conceives of his/her goal clearly and thus combines the means with its view in order to attain it. It is worth mentioning that even if the actor does not have the knowledge to achieve its goal, it is still performing a rational action in relation to a goal. It is always judged by the actor, rather than its failure or those who are observing it.
A rational action in relation to a value is that which is acted upon because of a means, rather than an ends. One could say the goal is the means. For example, Raymond Aron gives the example of a captain going down with his ship. He does not wish to disgrace himself by escaping, so instead he sticks to his value of honour and in relation to this reason he remains on his ship and goes down with it. He also gives the example of a man taking up the challenge to a duel. He accepts not out of anger or because he has to, but because he values his hierarchy position and wants his self-respect and honour to remain. He is acting on his value system. This action is not rational because it wishes or attempts to explain itself by an external actor or goal, but is done exactly because of the internal reasoning which the actor acts on. Thus the rational action in relation to a value is an actor acting on his/her own value system, and obeying that internal rationality. One could say that remaining faithful to one’s own value system is the rational action in relation to a value. This is rational because it is clearly and coherently conceived of and obeyed, even if the value system is nonsense, the actor is still acting rationally by using a reasoning system and value based landscape.
These two types of action are defined as rational: that of rational action in relation to a goal, and that of rational action in relation to a value. Both of these actions are rational because they are conceived of and thought about. They obey value systems or clear objectives which allow the actions to be performed rationally and defined by their rationality. It is worth noting that even if the value system of the goal is irrational, it does not make the action irrational action in a sociological sense. The rational status of the action is not defined by ‘reason’, but reasons, absurd or not. If they are externally or internally consistent and performed because of the actors rationality, they are rational actions based on a value system or an objective.
Barry Hindess describes the way that rational action is not defined by the logical objectivity of the rational action in order to make it rational, but the action is rational because the actor has used his/her cognitive tools and functions in order to come to an action:
‘I argue that there is no good reason to locate rationality at the level of the actor. Insofar as rationality appears at all in human conduct, it is a function of the conceptual tools and techniques employed by the actor in the process of reaching a decision rather than an essential feature of the actor qua actor.’ (3)
The other two types of action are defined somewhat differently to these two rational actions based on value or goal. Affective or emotional action is that which is dictated by the actor’s state of mind or emotional state. It can be defined as instinctual in the sense that is an immediate reaction. Raymond Aron gives the example of smacking a misbehaving child who has been consistently pushing you, or a footballer lashing out and hitting someone because they have lost control of themselves because of the way the match is going. The affective or emotional action is not defined by a value system or a goal, but by the immediate nature of the reactive action. Thus the affective action is not that which is thought about as a value, a goal, nor is it reasoned, it is a reaction and thus an action based off of emotion or an affective mindset. This defines it as irrational.
Barry Hindess describes Weber’s definition of affective or emotional action as different from rational action performed with value or goal as:
‘Weber regards affectual action as on the borderline of what is meaningful. Rational action itself and the calculations that go into it may be oriented primarily to either instrumental or expressive ends, or to some combination of the two.’ (4)
Traditional action is quite self-explanatory but for the sake of being clear: traditional action is an action which is done by an actor from custom. The action is dictated by pre-existing social structures which are cultural, religious, etc.. These traditional actions are so entrenched into us and our society that the actor performs those actions with a habitual nature, a second nature. These actions require no emotion, internal value system or goal. They can be performed without one. Obeying traditional actions reflect that which actions are entrenched by conditioning. A simple example is that of marriage. Of course the concept and performance of marriage can be rational in the sense that it requires reflection and value systems, along with values and emotion. But we can imagine a situation and couple which do not reflect on what marriage means and does, but still perform the action of marrying each other out of the traditional and social conditioning which makes us pre-set up towards wanting marriage as part of our modern life and cultural norms.
Ken Morrison describes Weber’s definition of traditional action as: ‘The first type of action Weber describes is traditional action. In this type of action the actor reacts ‘automatically to habitual stimuli which guide behaviour in a course which has been repeatedly followed.’ (5)
These two types of actions: that of affective or emotional action, and that of traditional action. These two actions are defined as irrational. They are defined as irrational because they require no goal or value system. They only require emotional and affective reaction with a lack of reflection, or a second nature traditional action, thus are defined as irrational against the two rational action. This concludes the four types of action, two rational and two irrational.
So, what would make these four types of actions social? Weber defines this distinction as so:
‘What is social action? Action, Weber tells us, is a form of human conduct – the German word is Verhalten – consisting of an internal or external attitude which is expressed by acting or refraining from action. It is action when man assigns a certain meaning to his conduct, and the action is social when, by the meaning he gives it, it relates to the behaviour of other persons and is oriented toward their behaviour.’ (6)
As can be seen from this statement we can see that what makes these four actions social are there relation to the internal or external attitudes which give the actions meaning and relates to other people with a goal, or is oriented towards other people in order to suggest value systems. For example, inspiring someone towards honour.
What makes these action individual as well social is the fact that they relate to others as a value system or a goal. While affective action or traditional action instil those habitual responses. All four are social action types which are individual as well as social.
While looking at these four types of actions under Weber’s action theory we can see or at least conceive of these actions not being socially based. We can conceive of versions of each action which are and are not social actions.
An example of the first type, that of rational action in relation to a goal can be social in the sense of having the goal of building a bridge in order for others to use and see, this includes yourself but is social because it is internally conceived but externally (in a social sense) manifested. But we can also see the possibility of a rational action in relation to a goal not being social. For example building a house in order to live in with no relation to others or what they think.
Although this seems to contradict itself in the sense that a house is a social construct and isn’t isolated as a concept from your mind, but instead belongs to a tradition or a building nature. The hermit who wishes to define himself as the one who doesn’t take part in society is defining himself by and against society, thus his action is still social even if it is a negation or negative social action. This seems to suggest that any rational action in relation to a goal obeys some form of superstructure which would be determined by several factors such as biology, culture, tradition and so on.
An example of the second type, that of rational action in relation to value can be social in the sense of a husband or wife staying loyal to their other half because of the value of marriage and love. This would be social because it involves another person and thus is a value system which is overtly socialised. While an example of the second type can be an action without a social element such as that of a person studying a subject in their own spare time out of a value for knowledge, shared or not.
But again this seems to contradict itself as the studying of a subject is only done by reading what other people have written, or going and practising Science by yourself with the outside world. But by practising Science by yourself with the outside world you are performing a social action. Again this seems to suggest that all actions performed in relation to a value system relies on a superstructure which is that value system or value system giver. All value systems are social by their very nature.
An example of the third type, that of an affective or emotional action can be social in the sense that it relies on other agents in order for the action to be performed. For example a person angering me and having me react with a punch requires a social interaction for it to trigger that reaction in the first place. Thus this affective or emotional action must be a social action because it directly relates and is dictated by a social interaction. While an example of the affective or emotional action not being social would be one in which the actor harms themselves by banging their arm, and thus punching the object which they banged their arm on. Clearly this is not a social reaction because it involves no person.
Although again one could say that our reaction of annoyance to an object is a socialised action because of what annoyance is. This could be defined by our very human nature and body, our need to express our pain or annoyance in a socially understandable sense so that any agent who were to be watching us would understand our behaviour in a social sense.
An example of the fourth type, that of a traditional action can be social in the sense that one can perform a social action based on tradition such as marriage which of course involves another person and a considering of that love and relationship in order to perform the act of marriage. This is overtly social because it involves the needs and wants of another person and yourself, making marriage a social action held within a social landscape. While an example of a traditional action not being social would be that of the tradition of harming oneself in confession when you’re alone in punishment of your sins. This action requires no social relation, only a relation to yourself and when not thought about as a value or goal could be defined as a traditional action with no social content.
But as with the other three types of action, this action can also be considered social in every case. For example the case of self harming in confession could also be defined by the structure of religion which is so widely disseminated in our culture that performing such an action in a society based on Catholicism would be a traditional action, but social as well because it directly relates to the other people through the religion, culture and social structure which connects all humans and God in a social connection and community.
So, if all of these actions can be considered social even when they seem not to be, is there any action type or act which can be performed with no social action contained within it? It certainly seems so until we dig a little deeper and find all of our actions, even that of the individual are based on social relations.
For example, language. We think while alone, thinking in a corner or writing a paper that we are indeed alone and acting alone. But we are using a shared language and thus performing a social action: one with a goal (that of writing a paper), or that of a sense of duty (writing in order to fulfil a social status). Both of these are rational and also social because they relate to internal goals which are informed by the external superstructure of culture, humanity and society, and also that of a value system which was constructed by our culture, humanity and society and dwells within us because of that social nature of the human being.
Even the actions of affective or tradition are informed by the social relations to our external world. Writing the essay out of a reflex to write is us using our human beingness which all of us share in order to act out a social action (that of writing), and using an emotion or reflex is also that of a social action because it is something within us which is contained within all of us. While that of writing in a traditional sense is informed by our culture of writing essays, reading and writing in general, and the language which we are using. While these two actions are irrationally based, they are still social because of how they relate to our internal inclinations based on our human beingness, and because of how they relate to our external inclinations based on our culture and the way which we are taught to express ourselves. Both of these are based on social institutions, that of internal and external.
So, if we consider the question is there any form of individual action which could not be considered social action? It seems we cannot clearly define an action which is not socially based in the sense that Weber mean when he says social action. Action from how we are built, raised, our biology and genetics can be considered a form of traditional action. Traditional action comes from the superstructure of society and thus is always a social action. Thus even the most basic of informers for our actions are socially based, making it impossible to perform an action without it being a social action. From this we can see that action in society is individual as well as social.
Max Weber’s point in defining what these four actions are and thus what social action is is in order to show that the individual is the actor of meaningful action. He expresses this as so:
‘Interpretative sociology considers the individual [Einzelindividuum] and his action as the basic unit, as its ‘atom’ – if the disputable comparison for once may be permitted. In this approach, the individual is also the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct…In general, for sociology, such concepts as ‘state’, ‘association,’ ‘feudalism,’ and the like, designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to ‘understandable’ action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individual men.’ (7)
Because Max Weber considers the individual as the ‘sole carrier of meaningful conduct’, this makes group action complicated. He seems to be suggesting that group action can be nothing but individual actions and meanings which agree with each other, rather than a group act of meaning.
An example of a group of individuals trying to make the group the individual itself is that of the Black bloc tactic. This tactic is used by Anarchist groups, and notably that of ANTIFA (Anti-Fascism) in more recently times. (8) The tactic is that of unifying the individuals within a group under one identity, and thus ascending the group as a superstructural individual: that of the individual action unified as one group. Somewhat absurdly this tactic fulfils the definition of fascism, which ANTIFA stand against. The tactic is commonly defined as:
‘A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items such as pepper-spray which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.’ (9)
This type of action is social action, but would be considered dangerous by the likes of Weber because instead of it being an individual performing an individual social action which is the sole carrier of meaningful action, it gives the group as a whole the title of being a carrier of meaningful action as if it is unified and rational in the same way that an individual’s rational action would be.
Instead of turning the individual’s actions, which are unified in a group, into a rational action, instead it brings them in line with the two irrational actions. Weber warned against this as it is how bureaucracy works and takes over rational actions in a way that subverts them. For example:
‘Once it is fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy. Bureaucracy is the means of carrying ‘community action’ over into rationally ordered ‘societal action.’ Therefore, as an instrument for ‘societalizing’ relations of power, bureaucracy has been and is a power instrument of the first order – for the one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus.
Under otherwise equal conditions, a ‘societal action,’ which is methodically ordered and led, is superior to every resistance of ‘mass’ or even of ‘communal action.’ And where the bureaucratization of administration has been completely carried through, a form of power relation is established that is practically unshatterable.’ (10)
As can be seen from this, bureaucracy turns rational action into affective or traditional action by being irrational based. It takes the individual away from the rational action, and turns it into a group irrational social action. It thus becomes ‘unshatterable’. The group attempting to become a superstructure of individuals of meaningful action is dangerous whether that is from the dominate ideology or the oppressed.
Another example of how tactics which use the bureaucratisation of the individual into one unified group individual is that of the activist writer Saul Alinsky. He wrote two books on activism: ‘Reveille for radicals‘ (11) in 1946, and ‘Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals‘ (12), in 1971. His books and tactics are so widely disseminated that he is not even referenced or mentioned anymore. He defines his enemy as an individual even when it is a group, and he defines his allies as himself, even when they are a group. This is how his tactics work. The best example of this is in the rules contained in ‘Rules for radicals’. Rules eight to eleven:
‘The eighth rule: Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of he period for your purpose.
The ninth rule: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
The tenth rule: The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign. It should be remembered not only that the action is in the reaction but that action is itself the consequence of reaction and of reaction to the reaction, ad infinitum. The pressure produces the reaction, and constant pressure sustains action.
The eleventh rule is: If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative. We have already already seen the conversion of the negative into the positive, in Mahatma Gandhi’s development of the tactic of passive resistance.’ (13)
As can be seen from this reaction is key, not action. This form of action would be defined as affective action, and when it becomes ingrained in a culture it would become traditional action. This is how you turn a collection of individuals into a group of affective reactionaries. A great example of this which is used by Anarchist groups is that of the riot disguised as the protest. How this works is that you assume the enemy is evil and will crush you with police brutality – the enemy is personalised and treated like an individual, instead of a group of individuals with different lives and choices. From this assertion of the enemy being an evil individual you form a riot and get violent on purpose. This will be met with a strong police response which will attempt to arrest you and take you down with non-lethal weapons: but this just reinforces your assertion that you’re living in a police state, while ignoring you made the arrests and violence happen and are the exact reason it occurred. You make the police state come true in order to legitimise and justify yourself and your movement. (14) Saul Alinsky has been so widely disseminated into activist and protest culture that his reaction based tactics are no longer rational with a clear goal, nor form a value based system, nor even from affective response or a reflex. Alinsky’s tactics are now so ingrained and institionlised into such movements that they can only be defined as tradition action, and thus irrational, but of course still a social action although at a pseudo individual level.
From this you treat the enemy as if it is a individual with a monolith of a superstructure internally within them, while you yourself define your group as a superstructure within you. While everyone does indeed contain a superstructure within them because of culture and tradition, etc.. This is a polarised tactic in order to obtain political gain. This tactic transforms an otherwise individual social action of rationality, into a group social action of irrationality: that of reaction and affective. This is an example of the bureaucratisation of social action.
In conclusion it seems that all four types of action defined by Max Weber cannot avoid being social actions, thus all individual action is indeed social action. All individual action is indeed social action because it always has a social relation whether internally or externally via culture, religion, other people, biology, genetics, society or the superstructures of hierarchy and so on. Thus, all individual action is indeed social action in the sense that all individual action is performed within a social landscape which is unavoidable for any human being because of how ingrained our superstructures are.
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8. A contemporary example:
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14. Article: The left, riots and Alinsky.
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