What is Social Action? Meaning and Definition

What is Social Action? Meaning and Definition

An Introduction

Social work is a practice-based profession that assists people in addressing difficulties and connecting them with the tools they require to live healthy and productive lives. Underneath this pragmatism is a strong value system that may be summed up in two words: social justice. The most crucial distinction is that social workers are trained to comprehend the close and intricate relationship that exists between human suffering and the social context in which it occurs. Environmental correlates and causes of human suffering are taught to social workers from the start, and long-term solutions to the conditions that cause human suffering must be addressed in the political and policy arenas. The belief that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities is referred to as social justice. Social workers strive to make access and opportunity available to everyone, especially those in the most need (NASW, 1999). Social justice is one of the objectives of social work that focuses on human relationships and the equitable or just distribution of various benefits in a particular society. It is concerned with the equitable distribution and utilization of power, wealth, and resources in a society. Power and money are used for the advantage of all groups in a just society; they are not used by one group to subjugate another (Singh & Kurian, 2016). The preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics expresses the social work profession's a truly unique commitment to social justice: "The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people with disabilities."

Who are defenseless, oppressed, and impoverished A historical and defining feature of power dynamics and resource accumulation in the hands of a few creates barriers to assuring the well-being of disadvantaged clients. And social workers have no choice but to confront the prevailing architecture of inequality.

We, the social workers, address the fundamental issues generating inequities and injustice within the social system and structure that push a certain population group to the margins through social action.

Social Action is one of the most contentious ways of social work practise, causing much disagreement among social workers, because it tackles and leverages conflict in the social system to achieve the objective of social justice and empowerment.

Social workers advocate for the rights of society's marginalised groups. They may have to resort to techniques such as hunger strikes, sit-ins, protests, and other forms of protest to express their dissatisfaction. It is the application of such tactics that has made social action a contentious issue and a contentious practise of social work.

There are situations in the social environment that precipitate inequity and injustice, contributing to the vulnerabilities and destitution, suffering and misery of certain sections of society, which are not resolved amicably despite extensive attempts — such circumstances necessitate social action. It is a social work method that protects the rights and interests of marginalised people by coming into conflict with systems and structures that perpetuate the accumulation of resources and the power to disburse those resources in the hands of a few who are insensitive to the needs of the weaker sections of society. Through social action, imbalanced resources and power are reallocated to help the society's most vulnerable sections. In addition, the goal of social action is to create a democratic, just, transparent, and harmonious social structure, and efforts are being made to achieve these goals as well.

The meaning, process, relevance, and scope of social action would be thoroughly discussed in this chapter. You may notice that social action is one of the most relevant and acceptable methods in the context of India. The Narmada Bachao Andolan and the campaign that resulted in the passage of the Right to Information Act are two of the best instances of how important social action is in today's society. Let's take a closer look at the concept of social action.

Social Action: Concept and Related Terms

The word "Social Action" refers to a range of voluntary actions or projects aimed at addressing significant social, political, economic, ecological, and ethical challenges in the country. With the interaction of diverse meanings and settings, the phrase has become increasingly equivocal and ambiguous during the last few decades. Charity, humanitarian work, service delivery, public policy efforts, advocacy campaigns, social movements, socio-political mobilisation, and networking for desired social change have all been lumped together under the umbrella word – social action.

In a layman's conception, social action would encompass a wide range of activities aimed at achieving desired social change for the benefit of the masses. The various meanings that emerge from various types and situations of problems and their interventions make social action a complex and yet dynamic concept.

In the Indian context, the social reform movement and subsequent movements for political freedom, as well as the Gandhian approach to social work and social action, have all played important roles in creating the perspective of social action aimed at the upliftment of the oppressed. Social action is viewed as a transformational practise with the goal of increasing well-being by bringing about change in the social system arrangements that lead to inequity and injustice, hindering people from reaching their full potential as self-determining agents. Similarly, from a Gandhian standpoint, social action as a practise encompasses varied degrees of samrachana (reconstruction) and sangharsh (struggle).

Let's look at various definitions of social action from the social work literature to get a better understanding of the topic.

In 1922, Mary Richmond used the word "social action" in social work for the first time. Social action, according to her, is "mass betterment through publicity and social legislation." This concept emphasizes the goal of social action as changing the conditions of large segments of the population, with propaganda and social legislation serving as primary tools.


Lee (1937) stated, “social action seems to suggest efforts directed towards changes in law or social structure or towards the initiation of new movements for the modification of the current social practices”. Planned social change seems to be the aim of social action as per this definition

Coyle (1937) noted, “social action is the attempt to change the social environment in ways, which will make life more satisfactory. It aims to affect not individuals but social institutions, laws, customs, communities”. This definition stresses on collectivistic approach of social action rather than individualistic. 

Further, Sydney Maslin (1947) presented limited scope of social action by regarding it as a process of social work mainly concerned with securing legislation to meet mass problems. This definition confines the scope of social action in securing social legislations 

Wickendon (1956) applied the term social action to that aspect of organized social welfare actively directed towards shaping, modifying or maintaining the social institution and policies that collectively constitute the social environment. 

Friedlander (1977) stated that social action is an individual, group or community effort within the framework of social work philosophy and practice that aims to achieve social progress, to modify social policies and to improve social legislation and health and welfare services. 

This definition emphasises the importance of changing social policies and strengthening legislation.

All of these definitions provide diverse perspectives on social action while sharing numerous similarities. Some consider it to have a broad scope, but others limit its relevance and significance in their definitions. Similarly, differing perspectives are voiced on the use of social action methods and tactics. Let us look at some more definitions of social activity, particularly those by Indian authors of social work.

According to Nanawati (1965), social action is "a process of bringing about the desired changes by purposeful group and community initiatives." Social action does not end with the enactment and signing of social legislation; rather, the implementation of policies was the true litmus test of social action's success or failure." This definition emphasises the long-term influence of social action as a measure of its success.

According to Moorthy (1966), "the scope of social action includes activity during catastrophic crises such as fires, floods, epidemics, famines, and so on, in addition to establishing social laws." This definition emphasises work during crises and disasters. The Institute of Gandhian Studies defines social action as "social welfare activity aimed at altering or modifying the social structures and policies that comprise the social environment in which we live."

According to Singh (1986), "social action is a process in which some elite(s) and/or people themselves make conscious, systematic, and organised efforts to bring about change in the system that is instrumental in solving problems and improving conditions that limit the social functioning of weaker and vulnerable sections."

On the practical level, it is closer to social reform than to social revolution, which attempts to demolish the entire present social system and establish a new one. It has a conflicting nature, but it is nonviolent." This wide description encompasses many facets of social action, clarifying the process, objective, target groups, nature, similarity to social transformation, and ethical foundation of nonviolence.

As a result, we may say that social action is a style of social work practise that tries to bring about structural changes in the social and economic systems, primarily through social legislation and changes in social policy. The target population is disadvantaged, and mass mobilization is critical; nevertheless, the target group may or may not actively participate in the proposed intervention. It is a deliberate and organised endeavor with specific strategies and techniques to attain the aims of equality, social justice, and empowerment.

Now, focus may shift to some of the social interventions and processes that have comparable goals and objectives to social action. Advocacy is one such term. Advocacy is a Latin word that means "raising one's voice on behalf of others" [ad- on behalf of others and voca-raising one's voice]. It is an action that affects, stimulates, and promotes democratic powers to make decisions on a variety of social concerns and challenges that benefit the oppressed and disenfranchised community. Advocacy can be defined as the process of influencing and convincing individuals with social, political, and economic authority to make desired changes in policies with the goal of ensuring equitable resource allocation in the social system.

Advocacy is quite similar to social action in its goal and even in its use of techniques. They share the same ideals and principles, as well as a belief in equitable resource allocation, human rights, and social justice. Indeed, many social workers regard advocacy as one of the social action techniques, the latter being broader and more complicated.

Social Movement is another concept that is comparable to social action. Wilkinson (1971) described social movement as "a conscious communal effort to promote change in any direction and by any means, including but not limited to violence, illegality, revolution, or withdrawal into 'utopian' society." Blumer (1957) defines social movements as "collective efforts to construct a new order of life." Social movements include peasant movements, tribal movements, dalit movements, women's movements, student movements, and so on. The oppressed and marginalised communities have mobilised and spoken out against the inability of the state and society to protect their livelihoods and rights. Social action and social movement share similar ideological ideas and ideals, but social movements are more often than not unplanned and spontaneous, whereas social action is a welldefined process launched and managed by social work professionals based on theoretical and conceptual foundations. However, you may recall that the Narmada Bachao Movement is led by Ms. Medha Patekar, a social work professional.

  • Social action is viewed as a supplement to professional social work. It refers to a concerted effort to alter or improve social and economic structures.
  • Some societal problems, such as the dowry system, natural resource depletion, alcoholism, housing, and health, can and have been addressed by social action.
  • The goal of social action is to properly shape and build a socio-cultural environment in which all citizens can live a richer and more fulfilling existence.
  • Certain special properties of social action can be deduced from the preceding explanation. It is simply an intervention aiming at solving a mass problem(s) and improving mass conditions. It discusses how to influence institutions, policies, and practises.
  • The purpose of social action is to redistribute power, resources, both human and material. It seeks to advocate on behalf of or with mobilised segments of the underprivileged client community. It has a tendency to impact decision-making at the political and social levels.

Thus, social action is viewed as a method of professional social work to be used to bring about or prevent change in the social system through a process of making people aware of the socio-political and economic realities that influence or condition their lives and mobilizing them to organise themselves for the purpose of achieving the desired results through the use of appropriately devised strategies, with the exception of violence. Let us examine the historical processes that led to the emergence of social action as a way of professional social work practise. 


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