Max Weber’s Types of Social Action – Explained in Simple Words

Max Weber is credited with introducing interpretivist philosophical traditions in the social sciences. The writings of Wilhelm Dilthey, Rickert, Immanuel Kant, and others who highlighted the distinction between the natural and social worlds served as inspiration for him. The main difference lies in the fact that the subject matter of the social world is humans, who have consciousness. They are not like other non-living things in space and time that have no agency and follow the laws of nature blindly. Thus, he argued that the methodology and philosophy of the natural (hard) sciences cannot be applied directly to understand and explain the social world.

max weber bio,theories,contributions to sociology

In his book “Methodologies of Social Sciences”, Weber defined sociology as a science that attempts an interpretivist understanding of social action in order to arrive at an explanation of its cause and effect. From this definition, it is clear that, to him, the essence of sociology lies in interpreting the actions of social actors in social settings. In social actions, the structural forces of society and their influence on human actions get revealed. Not only that, but one can also observe individuals’ responses to such forces, thus navigating their social reality.

Max Weber defines social action as “an action that is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual, it takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course”. The point to be noted here is that all types of behavior are not considered social action. A behavior has to have a social audience towards which it is directed to be qualified as a social action. Max Weber has identified four ideal types of social actions. But what did he mean by ideal types? Throughout his works, Weber has used some particular tools and concepts, like verstehen, ideal types, etc., with the aim of maintaining objectivity and accuracy in sociological analysis.

He put forth ideal types as models or mental constructs to describe, explain, classify, compare, and analyze empirical situations and conditions. It, however, does not mean that ideal types are entirely creations of the mind. These models are constructed after carefully observing, abstracting, and combining the empirical facts. They refer to particular essential characteristics, thus rarely encompassing the entirety of the empirical phenomenon that is under study. For example, the ideal type of democratic political system will place emphasis on human rights (equality, liberty, and fraternity), free and fair elections, power vested with the people, separation of power (legislature, executive, and judicial), etc., as essential features. However, when we apply this ideal type to a real democracy like the USA, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, etc., we might see that these features do not completely represent the way democracy functions in those countries.

Thus, his ideal types of social action should not be taken as absolute and sacrosanct but seen simply as a tool to understand the varieties of social action prevalent in our society. Most of the time, it has been found that there is a great deal of overlap among these ideal types in empirical situations.



The first ideal type of social action given by Max Weber is Zweckrational. Zweckrational actions are also called goal-controlled, goal-oriented, and goal-rational actions. In these types of actions, goals and means to achieve those goals are decided by following a form of logic, methodological rationality, or objectivity. A social actor wants to reach a goal, so he will follow means that have a direct correlation with his goal. The purpose here is to find the most effective and efficient way to achieve the goal. Here, the social actor does not act based on his feelings and emotions. These kinds of actions are instrumental in nature, as their main concern is with the goal rather than the means. Goals are decided first, and then attention is given to the range of means available corresponding to these goals. Out of the available alternatives, the most logical one is chosen, i.e., the one that makes the utmost sense and seems most doable and efficient as per his social situation.

For example:

  • If an individual wants to maximize his income, he can do that either by getting high-paying jobs, doing multiple jobs, not paying income taxes, or selling drugs. If that individual is a software engineer proficient in coding languages and he chooses to get money by working for big firms, then his action will be called Zweckrational.
  • A student who has the goal of clearing the examination; chooses to do intensive preparation as per the syllabus, gives mock tests, and improves his weak topics, then we can say that he is taking a Zweckrational action.
  • If a fresher has gotten a call for a face-to-face interview, then he has a choice to make in terms of what he wears for the interview. An instrumental action will require that he follow a formal dress code.


The second ideal type of social action given by Max Weber is Wertrational. The means and goals are very much decided under the influence of a person’s value system. Here, rationality (the reasoning process) is based on aesthetic, religious, or constitutional values. If a social actor has a goal and follows value-oriented rationality, then from among the range of means available to him, he will choose those that will align most with his values. In other words, in these types of actions, the focus is on fulfillment derived from pursuing closely held values rather than on the efficiency and effectiveness of means. If individuals are following value-oriented rationality, they commit to a certain subjective goal, which may or may not result in material benefits.

For example:

  • Police, clergy, and lawyers choose goals and means based on abstract values like justice, honor, and patriotism.
  • A student who values honesty refuses to cheat to achieve good grades in the examination.
  • A person who is deeply religious performs his prayers every day.


While the first two types of social actions have some form of reasoning process that they subscribe to, the third type of social action lacks the planning, strategising, and evaluation parts that constitute the essence of the first two. These social actions have more of a spontaneous nature. Here, the underlying force driving social actors is their emotions. No thorough deliberation is undertaken on the goals and means. Sometimes the means used may not even serve the end, but still, the action is carried out in the heat of the moment.

For example:

  • A usually calm and peaceful person in stressful circumstances may commit murder. This phenomenon is well documented as a crime of passion.
  • If a student being bullied chooses to retaliate and hit back on the spur of the moment, it is not either goal-oriented or value-oriented because it does not solve the problem of bullying. On the flip side, his retaliation can provoke his bullies to hurt him more.
  • A person in love makes big proclamations and declarations that are not based on empirical reality.


Traditional social action occurs when the means and ends of the individual are guided by the social customs and traditions of society. There are no alternative means to achieve a certain end that is comprehensible to the individual except the social code. Here, the goal and means are pre-decided by social convention and followed without second-guessing.

For example:

  • The majority of Asian families follow an age-sex-based authority structure leaning heavily towards patriarchy. All actions in the presence of elders in Asian societies are always done by keeping social rules in mind. For example, doing Namaskar or Pranam to elders in India is second nature to the individuals and does not have any logical end to achieve.
  • Rites de passages (puberty rituals) in many communities are performed according to traditions that are passed down through generations.
  • Dowry and caste endogamy traditions still continue to be practiced in India despite the enactment of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 and Special Marriage Act, 1954.

Read: Durkheim’s Works and Contributions


Alharahsheh, H. H., & Pius, A. (2020). A review of key paradigms: Positivism VS interpretivismGlobal Academic Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2 (3), 39-43.

Bhattacherjee, A. (2012). Social science research: Principles, methods, and practices. University of South Florida.

Schwandt, T. A. (1994). Constructivist, interpretivist approaches to human inquiry. Handbook of qualitative research, 1 (1994), 118-137.

Williams, M. (2000). Interpretivism and generalisation. Sociology, 34 (2), 209-224.

Share on:

Aastha Thakur, an engineering graduate turned Sociology student, is a passionate practitioner of self-reflexivity and the Sociological Imagination. Delving deep into sociological theories, she finds joy in experiencing her own 'Eureka' moments when understanding them. Fascinated by Sociology's power to connect her to social reality and ignite her curiosity, Aastha embraces it as a source of inspiration for her writing. As she embarks on her journey as a writer, she eagerly looks forward to sharing her profound insights about Sociology and gaining valuable perspectives from other individuals.