Action Theory


Structural Functionalism


Interpreting human action in systemic terms

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … achievement, accomplishment
  • Knowing is … goal-oriented action
  • Learner is … an actor (situated individual)
  • Learning is … progressing, gaining
  • Teaching is … N/A




Action Theory is a sociological perspective on social science research that asserts personal motivations (e.g., ends, purposes, ideals) must be considered when examining human actions. Action Theory explicitly rejected a realist/idealist (positivist/interpretivist) dichotomy, grounding itself instead in more systemic and contingent notions that compel simultaneous consideration of micro and macro factors contributing to human action. (There’s also a version of Action Theory in the field of philosophy, which covers similar topics but that focuses more on matters of personal agency, conscious choice, and free will.) Prominent contemporary subdiscourses include:
  • Social Action Theory (rooted in the work of Max Weber, elaborated by George Herbert Mead; 1910s), interprets social interaction as a negotiated tension between personal desires and social pressures. Although Social Action Theory technically predates Action Theory, the latter is usually considered the broader, more encompassing frame.
  • Contextual Action Theory (Richard Young, Ladislav Valach; 1990s) looks across immediate goal directed behaviors (“actions”), clusters of longer-duration actions focused on a common goal (“projects”), and long-term clusters of projects (“careers”).
  • Mediated Action (James Wertsch, 1990s) is a notion that encompasses knowers’ engagements with (i.e., incidental encounters with, deliberate uses of, etc.) all varieties of tools (both physical and conceptual) to support their actions (i.e., thinking, communications, coordinated activity, etc.). A complexified notion, Mediated Action is understood to have multiple simultaneous goals and to be associated with power and authority.
(Note: Action Theory should not be confused with Action Learning or Activity Theory.)


As might be inferred from the pseudonym of “Structural Functionalism,” Action Theory combines Structural Psychology and Functionalism:
  • Structural Psychology (Wilhelm Wundt, Edward Bradford Titchener, 1890s) – the investigation of mental content through systematic experiments based on Introspection, aimed at identifying states of consciousness
  • Functionalism (Functional Psychology) (John Dewey, James Angell, Harvey Carr, 1910s) – a domain that regards human activity in terms of ongoing (evolutionary) adaptation to evolving contexts
Thus, while predating  Complex Systems Research and Cybernetics by several decades, Action Theory can be properly aligned with both, both theoretically and methodologically. More critically, Action Theory might be interpreted as an attempt to complexify the Attainment Metaphor, as the discourse relies heavily on notions of goals and goal-directed action.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Talcott Parsons

Status as a Theory of Learning

Action Theory is properly interpreted as a discourse intended to make sense of personal action, and hence might be construed as mainly concerned with interpreting learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Action Theory say little about teaching beyond citing education as a useful means for achieving one’s goals.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Action Theory was proposed, in part, as a critique of narrow, positivistic conceptions of science that prevailed across the human and social sciences in the early 1900s. At that time, it was not broadly embraced as scientific. Since then, however, its orienting assertions and assumptions have been demonstrated to have anticipated the insights of Emergent Complexity Discourses and related discourses – although its grounding metaphors, which are reliant on the Attainment Metaphor reveal some underdeveloped aspects. Thus, in our analysis, Action Theory satisfies most, but not all our criteria for a scientific discourse.


  • Contextual Action Theory
  • Functionalism (Functional Psychology)
  • Mediated Action
  • Social Action Theory
  • Structural Psychology

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Action Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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