What is action theory? It seems every sociology student asks this question at one time or another. The confusion about action theory centers around the profuse use of professional terminology to describe a relatively simple concept. The foundations of social action theory rest in the fundamental premises that form the structure of society.
During the 20th century, two principal arguments on what creates a society emerged. The two arguments counter one another. One is Structuralism which sees social structures as elements built from the top down. The Action theory contends that social structure is born and nourished through the activity of individuals or small organizations. A discussion of either argument must consider the existence of the other to hope for any validity. Historically, since the dawn of the Age of Reason, these two social structure arguments have pulled and pushed civilizations either into a new form or to oblivion. It is a war of beliefs, ideas, and civil methodology that still goes on today in every society. The cycle of events is phenomenal. Pilgrims came to America to exercise their religious beliefs in a free environment. Their original purpose of free thought transferred into how they related to the indigenous population. Cooperation and mutual respect. Then the Puritans arrived in overwhelming numbers, and even the high intentions of the Pilgrims were buried under a religious structure that ruled from the top down. The cycle of revolving social structure principles repeated again and again. The social revolution of the 1960s is a recent example of how turmoil created at the individual level influences structural decisions at a national level.
How Action Theory Works
Examples of how action theory works are found on History Learning Site. Just as in any discussion of human creations, the duality of those creations is dependent on the point of view. As the different social structures emerged in the new world, the northern and southern hemispheres developed contrasting foundations. In the northern hemisphere, the lowest step on the social ladder was originally occupied by the “indentured servant.” Persons could immigrate to America for the cost of seven years of servitude at the end of which they were guaranteed 50-acres of land as personal property. In the southern hemisphere, a social construct formed, based on a top-down formula. No one owned lands; they were merely caretakers of the lands for the King. In the end, the personal rewards generated by the bottom-up formula took over most of the “New World” as agitations from individual elements built and exploded.
Why is Action Theory Important?
Action theory validates the value of every component of a society. A structure built from the lowest ranks to the highest has the strongest foundations from which to work. The cycles that emerge during times of change always originate from the lowest step on the ladder. In the U.S. the vote is what instigates change. During the 1960s, agitation changed voting patterns and 50 years later, in the 2016 election, the vote—an act of will by the individual—also created a change. Sometimes the change is not for the better and is countered by the next vote, which delivers the judgment on whether or not the change was necessary. It is the individual in American society that decides the social structure.
The answer to the question, “What is action theory,” is delivered by the founding documents of the U.S. society. Most times, that theory lies dormant, but when there is a reason to act, the theory raises its head and howls. No society dependent on the top to set the pattern can hope to stand when the foundation crumbles away.