Social action

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

Article Summary

Most of our actions take place in a social context and are, accordingly, in one way or another, dependent on the existence of other persons and their relevant actions, social institutions, conventions, or the like (for example, saluting, voting, drawing money from one’s bank account, using lipstick, buying something). But people also perform actions jointly or collectively, to achieve some joint goal. Thus they may jointly sing a duet, play tennis, build a house, or conserve energy. This is collective social action in its most central sense. Such action is based on the participants’ mutually known joint intention (‘joint plan’) to perform it. In weaker kinds of collective social action the participants are interdependent – as to their actions or thoughts – in some other ways.

This entry shall concentrate on collective social action, indeed on the central case: joint action based on joint intentions. Thus, you and I may form the joint intention to paint the house together and agree upon some method of doing it, for instance, that you paint the front while I paint the back of the house. We also agree upon which paint to use and other similar things. Carrying out our joint intention, we come to paint the house jointly. This kind of intentional joint action can be characterized more generally as follows, taking a joint action to be an action divisible into single-agent parts, that generate a purported outcome: the participants have formed a joint plan for a joint action; the plan is taken to involve a relevant joint intention, entailing for each participant the intention to perform their part of the joint action. The participant is assumed to believe that the various conditions for the success of the joint action will be fulfilled at least with some probability, and also to believe that this is mutually believed by the participants. The performance of a joint action can be regarded as agreement-based if the plan has been accepted by the participants and if they have appropriately communicated their acceptances to the others so that a joint obligation to perform the joint action has come about. Joint action in the fullest sense can be argued to be based on either explicit or implicit agreement (in a wide sense) (see Intention).

Over and above the standard sense of joint action based on the participants’ joint intention we may also speak of joint action in a somewhat wider sense not necessarily involving joint intention. For example: some persons, seeing a car starting to slide down a hill, together start pushing it up the hill. I am passing and form the intention to push the car together with the others, an intention with a collective action as its content, and take part in the pushing. There may even be a belief among all the pushers that I also am participating. All this can take place without these car-pushers (or at least all of them) having a joint intention (joint plan) to push the car together with the others. So understood, we do not have here more than joint action in a wide sense – namely joint activity based on shared collective intention but not full-blown joint intention. The participants’ intentions, when the participants are mutually aware of them, can still be regarded as social attitudes (‘we-attitudes’ in the sense of Tuomela 1994). Ideally, a person has such a social attitude (for example, an intention to do something together) relative to their group if and only if they (1) have (or share) this attitude, (2) believe the group members have it, and also (3) believe that there is a mutual belief that the members have this attitude. The broadest sense of joint action can be taken to be collective action performed because of a shared social attitude.

Joint action in this wide sense excludes such ‘mere co-action’ as people acting simultaneously in the direction of the same goal but (possibly) independently of each other (for instance, Max Weber’s example of people simultaneously opening their umbrellas when it starts to rain). Such co-action does not deserve to be called social action at all.

We can, however, include among social action the following two kinds of collective action with social features – although they do not quite amount to collective social action in our previous sense:

  1. Collective action which is merely accompanied by (but not performed because of) a social attitude (we-attitude). The participants may be performing an action (for example, selling shoes at a department store) either separately or ‘together’ as their parts of a collective project (or believed project), planned or structured by them or by somebody else.

  2. Collective action consisting of separate individual actions directed towards and performed because of a shared, possibly merely personal goal (the realization of which normally requires several agents’ participation).

In the literature on collective action either social action in the strict sense or cases of the kind (1) and even of the kind (2) may be involved. In those cases there is often a public good to which individual actions contribute, although they normally are relatively costly to the contributors. It is worth noting, too, that the interaction (either ‘parametric’ or ‘strategic’ interaction) is typically present in joint action in the wide sense and sometimes also in cases of the kinds (1) and (2).

The participants’ preference structures in a joint action can be fully cooperative (for example, carrying a table) or they can be to some extent noncooperative (for example, chess, buying and selling). Furthermore, joint action can be physical (for example, carrying a table) or it can involve a conventional or normative element such as transfer of rights (for instance, toasting a national victory, making a business deal, getting married).

Joint action as collective action performed because of a social attitude and social action in the broader senses (1) and (2) are all cases of collective social action and seem to make the classification exhaustive.

Citing this article:
Tuomela, Raimo. Social action, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles