A theory of action is one component of a meta-framework for sociology. It is an organized set of ideas about what individuals are doing when they engage in interactions in the world, and what we think at the highest level of generality about why they behave as they do. Individuals within social interactions constitute the social world; they do things; and they do things for reasons that we would like to understand. A theory of action ought to give us a basic vocabulary for describing behavior in the social world. And it ought to provide some framing hypotheses about the causes or motivations of behavior.
An important aspect of action theory is the idea of “intensionality” and mental representation. This is the conception of the individual as possessing consciousness, purposes, and a mental orientation to the world. He or she “understands” the events that surround him/her — that is, the individual forms a mental representation of the swirling set of actions and events that surround him or her. And the individual places him/herself within this representation by conceptualizing wants, aversions, aspirations, and intentions concerning what might be achieved through intentional behavior.
This description may seem obvious. Or it may seem to reflect a set of assumptions about how to parse the social world that are substantive, consequential, and debatable. They are consequential because they push our sociological researches in a particular direction: who are the actors that make up a social ensemble? What are they doing? Why are they doing these things?
They are debatable because — as we’ve seen in discussions of Abbott and Gross previously — they privilege the actor over the action, the individual over the interaction. They push us in the direction of a social ontology that is individualistic and perhaps reductionist. Abbott proposes, in contrast, that we begin with the interaction, the flow of moves and responses. Tilly suggests that we start with the relationships and turn to the individual actors only later in the analysis. And Gross suggests starting with the creativity inherent in any complex flow of human activities and interactions.
Each of these thinkers point in the direction of a pragmatist theory of action. So what might a pragmatist theory involve?
One avenue for getting a handle on this question is to turn to the work of Hans Joas, who has contributed deeply to the question of how pragmatism intersects with sociology. His article with Jens Beckert in Jonathan Turner’s Handbook of Sociological Theory is a good place to start, since he is specifically concerned there to give an exposition of a theory of action that acknowledges several important sources for such a theory while specifically developing a pragmatist account. (The article covers a lot of the ground presented in Joas’s 1997 book, The Creativity of Action. Also important is hisPragmatism and Social Theory.)
Joas begins his account by framing the standard assumptions of existing action theory in terms of two poles: action as rational choice (e.g. James Coleman) and action as conformance to a set of prescriptions and norms (e.g. Durkheim, Parsons). He argues for a view that is separate from both of these, under the heading of “creative action”.
However, the alternative that reaches even further beyond the routinized exchanges between rationalist and normativist theories of action seems to us an action-theoretic conceptualization that focuses on the notion of the creativity of human action. Such a theory can be based primarily on the tradition of American pragmatism that originated in philosophy and psychology but also has a significant sociological tradition. (270)
Common to both traditional views, Joas argues, is the assumption of purposiveness: that action proceeds to bring about explicit pre-articulated goals subject to antecedently recognized constraints. The pragmatist view of action rejects this separation between goals, action, and outcome, and focuses on the fact that goals and actions themselves are formulated within a dynamic and extended process of thought and movement. (Dewey is the chief source of this view.) Tactics, movements, and responses are creative adaptations to fluidly changing circumstances. The basketball player driving to the basket is looking to score a goal or find an open teammate. But it is the rapid flow of movement, response by other players, and position on the floor that shapes the extended action of “driving for a layup.” Likewise, a talented public speaker approaches the podium with a few goals and ideas for the speech. But the actual flow of ideas, words, gestures, and flourishes is the result of the thinking speaker interacting dynamically with the audience. Joas puts his view in these terms:
At the beginning of an action process goals are frequently unspecific and only vaguely understood. They become clearer once the actor has a better understanding of the possible means to achieve the ends; even new goals will arise on the basis of newly available means. (273)
For the theory of creativity of action the significance of the situation is far greater: Action is not only contingent on the structure of the situation but the situation is constitutive of action. (274)
So what are the features of the situation that intersect with the thinking actor to create the temporally extended action? Joas refers to corporality and sociality. The body is not simply the instrument of the agent. Rather, the physical features and limitations of the body themselves contribute to the unfolding of the action. (This aspect of the theory has much to do with phenomenology.) And the other persons involved in an action are not simply subjects of manipulation. Their own creativity in movement and action defines the changing parameters of the actor’s course of action. (Again, think of the analogy of 10 players in a basketball game.)
Joas thinks that this interpretation of action as extended intelligent adaptation to shifting circumstances helps to account for complex social circumstances that rational-actor and normative-actor theories have difficulty with. He illustrates this claim with the extended examples of reciprocity and innovation.
This is a rich and nuanced theory of action, and one that has the potential for offering a basis of a much richer analysis of concrete social circumstances than we currently have. At the same time it should not be thought to be in contradiction to either rational-deliberation or normative-deliberation theories. These creative actors whom Joas describes are purposive in a more diffuse sense, and they are responsive to norms in action. It seems to me that the chief tension Joas offers is between stylized, mono-stranded models of action, and thick theories that incorporate the plain fact of intelligent adaptation and shaping of behavior that occurs in virtually all human activities.