Crowd at a concert

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.

Agents and Agency

Politician giving a speech, as an example of an "agent".

In the social sciences, individuals are oftentimes largely denoted by the term “agents.” This is to highlight the fact that people have agency, or the ability to take independent, causal action. Agency is purposive, in that people have goals that their actions are directed toward. Agents are largely considered to negotiate between their own personal desires and the limitations imposed by their social context.

Social Structure

Family unit as an example of a social structure

Social structures are the relatively stable relations between people and institutions in society. Social structures include common roles and expectations that function as determining factors in the way people commonly interact. Social structure imposes limits upon the kinds of actions individuals can take. However, many social structures also function as “enabling constraints,” in that by prescribing the way people act they allow for people to achieve organization, and make it easier for people to achieve common goals.

Social Actions and Social Determinism

Woman doing yoga on a mountain summit

People take action toward their personal goals within the context of their social environment, which both opens up possibilities for them and shuts down others. Indeed, it is a matter of great debate how much people’s desire is a product of pre-existing social structures and norms, and to what extent those same structures are mere products of collective social actions. This debate is usually called the problem of social determinism.

Institutions and Individuals

A group of scientists in a meeting

Institutions are conglomerations of individuals that have agency. The group of people who form the institution share collective goals and take purposive action toward achieving these goals. Institutions usually are made up of a set of roles that people occupy. Institutions are also a kind of social structure, in that they limit the kinds of purposive action people can take, but through these limitations they enable the group to better achieve their goals.


Office with Halloween decorations

Traditions are a kind of institution in that they exist by virtue of people’s collective actions. However, they do not usually tend to function in order to achieve a collective goal; or rather, continuing to practice the tradition is itself the goal. Usually, traditions bind a group of individuals together by providing them with a common set of beliefs, values and practices, but they do not necessarily serve any further utilitarian purpose.