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on the ontological premise that people jump. For

example, the flow of traffic on a busy street differs

from the flow of electrons on a copper wire. Electrons

are pushed, drivers are not. From a structural

perspective, we can learn a great deal about

the flow of traffic by focusing on exogenous determinants,

without ever knowing much about what

drives human behavior. While few action theorists


would disagree with the value of structural analysis,

they also see the need to look beyond the

constraints on action, to the intentions, purposes,

and goals that motivate efforts to push back.

Action theory has roots in Max Weber’s interpretative

method and in Talcott Parsons’s effort

to integrate this with E´mile Durkheim’s macrosocial

approach. In “The Place of Ultimate Values

in Sociological Theory,” Parsons insisted that

“man is essentially an active, creative, evaluating

creature” whose behavior must be understood in

terms of the ends of action, and not “in terms of

‘causes’ and ‘conditions’” (1935). His “voluntaristic

theory of action” opposed the deterministic account

of human behavior as “pushed,” whether

by Sigmund Freud’s “unconscious” or Pavlov’s bell.

Action theory informs a diverse range of

contemporary sociological theorizing, including

rational action, symbolic interactionism, conflict

theory, and hermeneutics. Conceptually, there are

two main branches – one based on interests, the

other on identity. Rational-action theory posits

instrumental pursuit of self-interest, which can

include an interest in public as well as private

goods and an interest in social approval and avoidance

of sanctions. Using mathematical formalism,

the theory can generate testable predictions

from a relatively small number of assumptions.

However, the scope of the theory is limited by

heroic assumptions about perfect information

and unlimited calculating ability. Even versions

based on “bounded rationality” are limited to

actions intended to maximize utility, which excludes

expressive and enthusiastic behavior and

actions motivated by normative obligation and

moral righteousness.

That void has been addressed by theories of

action based on identity rather than interest. For

identity theorists, “interests are only the surface

of things. What is beneath the surface is a strong

emotion, a feeling of a group of people that they

are alike and belong together,” according to Randall

Collins in Sociological Insight (1992: 28). Individuals

order the social world by carving out

cognitive categories through interaction with

others, leading to stereotyping, in-group favoritism,

and out-group prejudice. Social and moral

boundaries are defined and affirmed by punishing

deviants. Punishment is not calibrated to deter

deviance; rather, it is unleashed as an expression

of indignation at the violation of normative

boundaries, even when this may excite opposition

rather than suppress it.

Interest and identity theories of action both

emphasize the dynamics of interaction among

autonomous but interdependent agents. However,

they differ in how this interdependence is understood.

Interest theory posits strategic interdependence,

in which the consequences of individual

choices depend in part on the choices of others.

Game theorists (see game theory) model this interdependence

as a payoff matrix defined by the

intersection of all possible choices of the players,

with individual payoffs assigned to each cell. For

example, the payoff for providing favors depends

on whether the partner reciprocates. Peer pressure

is also an example of strategic interdependence

created by the application of sanctions conditional

upon compliance with expected behavior.

Identity theorists point instead to the cognitive

interdependence of agents who influence one another

in response to the influences they receive,

through processes like communication, persuasion,

instruction, and imitation. Action theory

poses three related and perplexing puzzles: the

problem of social order, the tension between structure

and action, and the problem of free will and

determinism. Contemporary research on complex

dynamical systems has enriched action theory by

providing plausible solutions to each of these

puzzles, based, in turn, on the principles of selforganization,

emergence, and deterministic chaos.

Macrosocial theories of social order posit a

structured system of institutions and norms that

shape individual behavior from the top down. In

contrast, action theories assume that much of

social life emerges from the bottom up, more like

improvisational jazz than a symphony orchestra.

People do not simply play roles written by elites

and directed by managers. We each chart our own

course, on the fly. How then is social order possible?

If every musician is free to play as they

choose, why do we not end up with a nasty and

brutish cacophony, a noisy war of all against all?

Parsons addressed the “Hobbesian problem of

order” by positing a set of shared norms and

values that secure the cultural consensus necessary

for social systems to function. Yet this is not a

satisfactory solution. In effect, society remains a

symphony orchestra in which the musicians must

still learn their parts, except that now the Leviathan

needs to carry only a thin baton, and not a

lethal weapon.

An alternative solution was anticipated by Parsons’s

student, Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann bridged

the gap between action theory and systems theory

by placing individual actors in a web of communicative

interaction with others. His rather abstruse

ideas on autopoietic systems of interaction find

clearer expression in complexity theory. The

action theory action theory


emergence of order out of local interaction in

complex systems has come to be known as “selforganization”

according to S. Kaufman in Origins

of Order (1993). The archetype is biological evolution,

but there are parallels across the sciences,

cases in which surprising (and often quite exquisite)

global patterns emerge from interactions

among relatively simple but interdependent processes,

in the absence of central coordination, direction,

or planning. These include flocks of birds,

traffic jams, fads, forest fires, riots, and residential

segregation. There is no leader bird who choreographs

the dance-like movement of a flock of

geese. There is no supervisor in charge of a riot.

There is no conspiracy of banks and realtors who

are assigning people to ethnically homogeneous

neighborhoods. These processes are examples of

complex systems in which global order emerges

spontaneously out of a web of local interactions

among large numbers of autonomous yet interdependent

agents. Emergence is a defining feature

of complex systems and is ultimately responsible

for the self-organization we find beneath the apparent

chaos of nature (Coveney and Highfield,

Frontiers of Complexity, 1995).

Emergent properties are not reducible to the

properties of the individual agents. The idea of

emergence was anticipated by one of the founders

of sociology, who established this as a fundamental

rule of the sociological method. “The hardness

of bronze is not in the copper, the tin, or the lead,

which are its ingredients and which are soft and

malleable bodies,” E´mile Durkheim wrote in The

Rules of the Sociological Method, “it is in their mixture.”

“Let us apply this principle to sociology,” he

continued; “[Social facts] reside exclusively in the

very society itself which produces them, and not

in its parts, i.e., its members” (1986: xlvii).

Structuralists have reified Durkheim’s theory of

social facts as emergent properties, leaving individual

actors as little more than the incumbents

of social locations and the carriers of structural

imperatives. Heterogeneity in preferences and

beliefs affects only which individuals will fill

which “empty slots,” the origin of which lies in

processes that operate at the societal level.

In The Structure of Social Action (1937), Parsons

also argued for the emergent properties of social

systems, but believed Durkheim went too far in

concluding that these “social facts” are entirely

independent of individual consciousness. Parsons

corrects the hyperstructuralist interpretation of

Durkheim by incorporating an essential insight

of Joseph Schumpeter’s “methodological individualism,”

the idea that societal patterns emerge

from motivated choices and not from social facts

external to individuals. Methodological individualism

can be taken to imply that social facts are

but the aggregated expression of individual goals

and intentions. For example, residential segregation

reflects the preferences of individuals for

living among people similar to themselves. In contrast,

structuralists assume that individual differences

in ethnic identity affect who will live where

in segregated neighborhoods but are not the cause

of neighborhood segregation, which emanates

from societal processes like red-lining and patterns

of urban development.

Action theory is often most effective when it

steers between these extremes. A classic example

is Thomas Schelling’s model of neighborhood segregation

in his “Dynamic Model of Segregation”

in the Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1971 (1).

Schelling challenged the macrosocial assumption

that segregation is imposed from the top down,

through institutional means like “red-lining.” At

the same time, his famous experiment also

challenged the microsocial assumption that

segregation floats from the bottom up, through

the aggregation of individual prejudices against

ethnic minorities and outsiders. Schelling randomly

distributed red and green chips on a large

checkerboard and moved individual chips to

empty locations if the number of in-group neighbors

fell below an individual’s threshold of tolerance.

He discovered that extreme segregation

can emerge even in a population that tolerates

diversity, as agents relocate to avoid being in the

minority. This surprisingly strong tendency towards

neighborhood segregation is an emergent

property of the population, generated by local

interactions among large numbers of interdependent

but autonomous agents, even when every

individual is tolerant of diversity.

Action theory explains social life by identifying

the reasons for action (whether instrumental interests

or symbolic meanings). As Anthony Giddens

put it in The Constitution of Society, “I propose simply

to declare that reasons are causes” (1984: 345). Yet

most people now accept that everything in the

universe is physically determined. How can this

determinism be reconciled with a voluntaristic

theory of action? Consider a sunbather who

moves his/her towel to fend off a late afternoon

shadow. Meanwhile, next to the towel, a heliotropic

plant turns to follow the sun’s trajectory,

thereby maximizing its access to an essential resource.

Even the most dedicated Cartesian would

not suggest that a sunflower is a purposive agent

whose actions can be explained by the plant’s

action theory action theory


need for photosynthesis. How do we know that the

sunbather is any different? One answer is that

the sunbather could have chosen to remain in the

shadow, while the sunflower could not. However,

it is trivial to construct a stochastic sunflower that

“chooses” to move, based on a probability distribution

given by the location of the sun. A better

answer is that the sunbather can tell you that

the desire for sunlight is the reason for the action,

while the sunflower will tell you nothing of

the kind. Plants cannot provide reasons for their

behavior, humans can. But does this mean that the

sunbather is right? Is it possible that the sunbather,

like the sunflower, is simply responding to physical

stimuli that induce heliotropic movement,

and, unlike for the sunflower, this movement is

accompanied by the epiphenomenal feeling of


There is mounting evidence from neuroscientists

and experimental psychologists that supports

that possibility. In 1983, Benjamin Libet found

that “cerebral neural activity (‘readiness potential’)

precedes the subject’s awareness of his/her

intention or wish to act by at least 350 msec”

(“Commentary on ‘Free Will in the Light of

Neuropsychiatry,’” 1996). More recently, in The

Illusion of Conscious Will (2002), Daniel Wegner

reported substantial evidence to support the hypothesis

that “conscious will” is largely an illusion,

useful to help us remember our authorship

of actions whose causes lie elsewhere. These and

other studies point to the possibility that our intentions

are formed in the course of initiating

action, but in a separate cognitive subsystem

that assigns authorship after the fact. If so, then

perhaps humans are unique in the ability to provide

rational accounts for our actions, but we have

no more free will than does a sunflower.

The theory of complex systems suggests an alternative

possibility – that free will is compatible with

determinism. Even relatively simple dynamical

systems can require exponential amounts of computing

power for every additional input into the

system, until the number of bits required to predict

system behavior, even in the near term, can exceed

the number of particles in the universe. Thus, a

highly nonlinear deterministic system like the

brain can be indeterminable, which leaves open a

window for intentional choice that is not reducible

to system determinants (James P. Crutchfield,

“Complexity: Order Contra Chaos,” 1989).

Meanwhile, a growing interest in complex

adaptive systems has opened up action theory to

“backward-looking” approaches in which intentionality

is empirically variable rather than

presupposed. In backward-looking models, the

ends of action attract the behaviors that produce

them, whether or not the agent intended the outcome

or is even aware of its existence. From a

forward-looking perspective, this idea appears

hopelessly teleological since the ends of action

are located in the future and cannot reach back

through time to attract the choices needed to

bring them about. Models of complex adaptive

systems avoid this problem by pointing backward,

not forward – attributing action to outcomes that

have already occurred. In agent-based evolutionary

models, outcomes of a given action alter the

population distribution of agents who engage in

that action. In learning models, outcomes of a

given action alter the probability distribution of

actions within the repertoire of any given agent.

Either way, the link between action and outcome

is a set of experiences, not intentions. Agents look

forward by holding a mirror to the past. They

jump when they are pushed. MICHAEL W. MACY

actor network theory

Actor network theory (ANT) is a family of approaches

to social analysis that rests on six core

assumptions. First, it treats institutions, practices,

and actors as materially heterogeneous, composed

not only of people but also of technologies and

other materials. Second, it assumes that the elements

making up practices are relational, achieving

their shape and attributes only in interaction with

other elements. Nothing is intrinsically fixed or

has reality outside the web of interactions. Third,

it assumes that the network of heterogeneous relations

and practices is a process. If structures,

institutions, or realities are not continuously

enacted then they disappear. Fourth, it therefore

assumes that realities and structures are precarious

in principle, if not in practice. Fifth, this

implies that the world might be different, a suggestion

that opens up interesting political possibilities.

And sixth, it explores how rather than why

realities are generated and maintained. This is

because even the most obvious social causes are

relational effects and therefore themselves subject

to change.

ANT developed initially in the 1980s in Paris

with the work of such authors as Michel Callon,

Bruno Latour (Science in Action, 1987), and John Law

(Organizing Modernity, 1994). It grew (and grows)

through empirical studies of technologies, science

practices, organizations, markets, health care,

spatial practices, and the natural world. Indeed it

is not possible to appreciate ANT without exploring

such case studies. Philosophically, it owes

action theory actor network theory


much to Michel Serres (1930–5) and is generally

poststructuralist in inspiration. It thus shares

with the writing of Michel Foucault an empirical

concern with material–semiotic patterns of relations,

though the patterns that it discerns are

smaller in scope than those identified by Foucault.

The approach is controversial. First, since it is

non-humanist it analytically privileges neither

people nor the social, which sets it apart from

much English-language sociology. Second, since

it offers accounts of how rather than why institutions

take shape, it is sometimes accused of

explanatory weakness. Third, political critics

have suggested that it is insensitive to the “invisible

work” of low-status actors. Fourth, it has been

accused in some of its earlier versions of a bias

towards centering, ordering, or even managerialism.

And fifth, feminists have observed that it has

shown little sensitivity to embodiment (see body).

Whether these complaints are now justified is a

matter for debate. Indeed, ANT is probably better

seen as a toolkit and a set of methodological sensibilities

rather than as a single theory. Recently

there has been much interchange between ANT,

feminist material-semiotics (Donna J. Haraway)

and postcolonial theory, and there is newer

“after-ANT” work that is much more sensitive to

the politics of domination, to embodiment, to

“othering,” and to the possible multiplicity and

non-coherence of relations. A key issue remains

politics. Such “after-ANT” writers as Annemarie

Mol (The Body Multiple, 2002) and Helen Verran

argue that relations are non-coherent and enact

overlapping but different versions of reality, so

there is space for “ontics,” or an “ontological politics”

about what can and should be made real. This

means that alternative and preferable realities

might be enacted into being or made stronger:

reality is not destiny. JOHN LAW


– see evolutionary theory.


In its original usage, addiction meant simply to be

given over to someone or something. It was a term

used widely to describe passionate investments in

various sorts of activities, as can be seen in Shakespeare’s

Othello where we read “Each man to what

sport and revel his addiction leads him.” Well into

the nineteenth century the concept of addiction

was used to describe a diverse assortment of

human fixations. But as Temperance movements

grew in the mid nineteenth century, the term

was increasingly considered as a medical or

quasi-medical term of art and its scope was delimited

to describing an individual’s seeming

enslavement to alcohol or drugs. A multitude of

efforts have been made to provide biological explanations

for some people’s apparently pathological

attachment to alcohol or drug use but

each has met with rather serious conceptual obstacles.

In response to these difficulties, most medical

lexicons have now dispensed with the term

addiction in favor of the presumably less conceptually

troubling concept dependence. However,

the term addiction continues to be found in both

clinical and popular discourse regarding alcohol

and drug problems and has indeed been extended

to new forms of apparently compulsive behavior

including over-eating, gambling, compulsive

sexual behavior, and others.

In sociology, addiction has been approached

from several distinct theoretical vantage points.

Regrettably, the term has often been used interchangeably

with other terms including deviant

drug use, drug misuse, and drug abuse. Such imprecision

results in a confusion of questions concerning

the social approval of various sorts of

alcohol or drug use with questions concerning

whether this use is voluntary. Much of the history

of social policy concerning alcohol and psychoactive

drugs has been predicated, at least ostensibly,

on the claim that these substances possess

unusual powers over people and must be regulated

to protect citizens from their own personal

proclivities to succumb to addictive use. If we are

not able to distinguish claims regarding the putative

morality of alcohol or drug use from claims

regarding people’s ability to control their use, we

are poorly equipped to evaluate effectively the history

of policies predicated on the notion that

people need protection from putatively addictive

substances. We are also poorly equipped to evaluate

social research which either endorses or rejects

this idea. If it is to have any meaning at all, the term

addiction cannot be considered as synonymous

with terms denoting voluntary substance use.

The earliest sociological research concerned

specifically with addiction was conducted by

Alfred Lindesmith under the tutelage of Herbert

Blumer at the University of Chicago. Lindesmith

noted that, whereas users who acquired heroin on

the street were often vulnerable to addictive patterns

of use, those who had been administered

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