Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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In common parlance, action designed to promote social justice, taken on behalf or in support of the disadvantaged in society. The term also has a more technical meaning, originating in the work of Max Weber, who used it to describe action that is socially directed, that is, resulting from the presence of others.

Weberian Action Theory

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.

Of these four types, the last two lie closest to the borderline of what Weber refers to as nonsocial behavior. By contrast, because they are more likely to involve subjective assessment, and result from the process of rationalization, the first two types are inherently more social forms of human action. Moreover, Weber points out, it is unlikely that any of these types operates independently of one another in the human individual. Typically, social action is guided by some combination of motivations, including both rational (1 and 2) and nonrational elements (3 and 4).

Weber examined the concept of social action within a number of sociological fields, from class behavior, to politics, to religion. The best-known example of Weber's study of social action, however, is contained in his now famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Scribner 1930). In this work, Weber examines the motivation behind social action in the economic sphere. Specifically, he suggests that the spirit that drives modern capitalistic enterprise is motivated by the ethical doctrine of Protestantism.

In opening his study, Weber notes a relationship between the zeal for business profit and membership in specific Protestant denominations in post-Reformation Europe. Of interest, he observes, this attitude toward moneymaking is embraced not only by the so-called captains of industry but by ordinary workers and peasants. For Weber, this suggests the existence of a new mentality or attitude toward work, one in which the pursuit of gain (living to labor) has gained supremacy over the more traditional view that sees work simply as necessary for survival (laboring to live).

At base, this new way of thinking—which Weber dubs the "spirit of capitalism"—appears concurrently with basic changes in religious thinking brought about by the Reformation. Two developments figure most prominently in this regard. The first was the notion of the "calling" introduced by the Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther. Luther taught that working in the service of God was the moral duty of all Christians, not just those called to serve the church in the clergy or Holy Orders. Where work was traditionally viewed simply as a means to worldly ends (i.e., survival), Luther argued that individuals must treat their labor as a gift to God. Thus, claims Weber, Luther brought the "monastery into the world," motivating ordinary believers, whatever their worldly occupation, to work hard in the service of God.

The other theological pillar of the new capitalist mentality, Weber argued, was the notion of predestination formulated by John Calvin, a French-Swiss reformer. Calvin taught that salvation was unattainable by the individual alone. Only God had the power to save, and the knowledge of who would enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who would not was His alone. Thus one was born either "saved" or "damned," and there was nothing the individual could do to change his or her fate. Recognizing the fact that such a doctrine would create considerable anxiety among the faithful as they pondered their ultimate fate, Calvin promoted hard work as a means of therapy. Indeed, he claimed, it was a Christian duty always to work hard, to please God. This prescription was combined with a ban on frivolous and/or immoral pleasures (drinking, dancing, sex for purposes other than procreation, and so on), which were seen as displeasing to God.

What both Luther's and Calvin's teachings contributed was the emergence of a new type of Christian who valued work as a moral duty, lived an ascetic lifestyle, and as a result achieved considerable success in material terms. This in turn came to be viewed as a sign of God's favor—that one was indeed saved. The possibility existed, Weber argued, for religious prescription (especially relating to predestination) to lead to fatalism. The fact is, however, that it did not; most believers wanted to work hard in their calling and to achieve material success, if only to show others they were indeed touched by divine grace. In any case, as Protestantism evolved, Weber points out, its harsher elements were softened. The notion of predestination, in particular, eventually lost favor, and it became generally accepted that salvation was attainable, but only through a life of "good works."

Ultimately, claims Weber, the legacy of early Protestantism, in terms of the way in which it motivated capitalistic economic behavior, became widespread in the Western world. At the same time, Weber claims in the closing paragraphs of his classic work that individuals largely have come to reject the religious roots of the spirit of capitalism and have become increasingly consumed instead by the secular passion for profit and the acquisition of material goods.

Social Action and Social Welfare

Aside from the usage promoted by Weber's work, social action also has come to acquire meaning as a concrete expression of social justice. In North America, early involvement in justice-related matters arose with the spread of the Social Gospel movement (1865-1915), which saw a number of Protestant organizations and their members concern themselves with the welfare of the weakest members of society: farmers, factory workers, the poor, the sick and infirm. Not only did many Protestant churches and their members assist these groups directly, they spoke out publicly on their behalf. In Canada, the Social Gospel is credited with forming a major plank in the platform of the continent's first viable socialist political party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), later the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has formed the government in several Canadian provinces since 1930.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, various social action strategies, oriented to diverse ends, also have emerged over the past century. Early Catholic involvement in social action was seen as a way for the church as an organization to operate more directly in the world and to reach sectors of the modern society seen as vulnerable to Protestantism and various secular value movements. Such was the case in turn-of-the-century Europe. While the church retained a strong following in rural areas, its hold on the growing numbers of working people in urban areas became increasingly tenuous. In response, the church moved to enter these milieux and expand its base through involvement in working-class movements. Catholic labor unions emerged as a primary social action strategy around this time. On the political front, Catholic political parties also began to form with the aim of promoting Catholic values at the level of the state.

Later in the twentieth century, efforts on this front gave way to a more formal thrust in the form of Catholic Action, which achieved some measure of success in both Europe and some parts of the developing world, especially Latin America. Spearheaded by clerics, nuns, and activist laypersons, Catholic Action groups were formed to enhance the presence of the church where people lived and worked: in schools and universities, factories, fields, and among the urban and rural poor. Some of these groups eventually moved to espouse not just religious but radical social ends, calling for an end to socioeconomic or political repression within their respective milieux of operation. In Latin America, such groups were seen as the forerunners of base ecclesial communities, which during the 1970s and 1980s emerged as a potent church-based force for popular resistance to dictatorship and economic hardship.

In Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world, social action within the Catholic Church has taken on other forms as well. Since the late 1960s, regional bishops conferences have produced documents condemning the plight of the "poor and oppressed" and calling for a radical restructuring of local or global economies away from capitalistic principles. At the national level, some churches have established bodies and organizations to act on behalf of the poor. In the 1970s in Brazil, for example, the church established a number of agencies and commissions, operating at both the national and the local levels, to speak on behalf of political prisoners, small landholders, native people, and human rights generally. The Brazilian episcopate also regularly published and distributed documents condemning the military government of the time and promoting the creation of a more just social order. Even in developed countries, such as Canada, social action has been vigorously pursued through encouragement of local "social action offices." Run by individual dioceses, such offices have served as a means to disseminate information on social injustice and sometimes to coordinate local protest.

These efforts at promoting social justice achieved some measure of success in a number of countries. In the Philippines, for example, church intervention was seen as critical to the success of the "people power" movement that eventually ended the Marcos dictatorship. In Brazil, social action initiatives made the citizenry more aware of the military regime's arbitrary abuses and also put forth political, social, and economic alternatives to the models that the regime blindly pursued. This in turn helped to facilitate the eventual transition from military to civilian government during the mid-1980s.

By the 1990s, the emphasis on social action within the global Catholic Church, however, began to fade. In its place, the church has begun to focus more diligently on the devotional side of Catholicism, and movements designed to tap spiritual yearning effectively—such as Opus Dei and the Catholic charismatic movement—have begun to flourish. At the same time, elements within the Catholic Church continue to work toward social justice, joined by many within the Protestant community. Quakers, Unitarians, and Mennonites, in particular, have long histories of devotion to working to improve the conditions of the disadvantaged.

W. E. Hewitt


C. Campbell, The Myth of Social Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1930 [1904-1905])

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

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