Culture and Action, or Why Action Theory is not Optional25 min read

The main reason social scientists study culture is because of the (sometimes implicit) hypothesis that culture “affects” or “causes” action (Swidler 2001a, 2001b; Vaisey 2009). If culture was a causally inert cloud of stuff floating around doing nothing, it would not be worth anyone’s attention. That is, cultural theory and action theory are not independent pursuits. Social scientists who study culture have implicit or explicit action theories. Social scientists interested in the “explanation of action” have to propose a story (even if it is only to dismiss it) of how culture enters into such an explanation. More ambitiously, an explicit and coherent theory of culture should be linked to an explicit and coherent theory of action (Parsons 1951, 1972). The action theory part of cultural theory tells us how culture actually performs its causal work.

This means that culture is involved in the explanation of action is not a trivial or self-evident statement. However, it seems to have been treated as such in the history of cultural and action theory in anthropology and sociology, with some exceptions. Whether the statement even makes sense depends on what we mean by “culture” in the first place. Consider the simplest version of the thesis:


  1. Culture causes action.

One problem with this (very broad and vague) version of the thesis is that the default (folksy) meanings of the term culture usually imply the existence of some type of “collective mental” phenomenon. This could be, for instance, some kind of belief system, weltanschauung, or collective worldview (Turner 1994, 2014). The default meaning of “action,” on the other hand, is at the individual level. People are doing things, and more literally moving their bodies thus and so to achieve particular goals (e.g., Max Weber’s proverbial woodcutter chopping wood). In the case of CCA, therefore, we have some sort of ghostly, collective mental thing, exercising a direct causal effect on people’s action via unknown mechanisms. This type of “emanationist” picture via which culture exerts effects (e.g., “constraint”) on people was popular in idealist philosophical circles in the 19th-century and anthropological theory in the early twentieth century. It is unclear whether the thesis is conceptually coherent as stated (because it involves ontologically suspect collective abstracta bandying about real people Martin 2015), let alone whether it can ever be stated in a way that can be productively put to the test empirically.

It was not until social and behavioral scientists with interest in both action and cultural theory (such as Talcott Parsons) scrutinized the weaknesses of CCA that its main flaws began to be addressed. One obvious problem is that, even if you think that culture is a collective mental thing, and even if you believe that culture causally affects what people do, it cannot exercise unmediated or direct effects on action. Instead, we need to postulate an indirect causal effect mediated by an individual-level mechanism. The story can then go like this: People internalize collective public culture in the form of mental representations. This reduplicated internalized culture then causes people’s actions.

Thus, the problem of the cultural causation action (a “cultural theory” issue) is rendered equivalent to the problem of the mental causation of action (an “action theory” problem). Proposing a coherent action theory story (or grabbing one off-the-shelf from the storehouse of folk stories) then gives you the solution to the problem of how culture causes action, as long as you have your cultural internalization story straight.

This yields the slightly more complicated, but relatively less problematic, version of the cultural causation of action thesis:


  1. Culture exists as a body of beliefs and ideas external to people.
  2. People internalize external culture so that it becomes personal beliefs and ideas.
  3. Personal beliefs and ideas cause action via an action theory story.

As Swidler (2001b: 75) points out, this is more or less the story of the cultural causation of action that Talcott Parsons developed in a great big heap of writings starting in the early 1950s, when he joined his earlier theory of action (developed in the 1930s) to an analytic concept of culture as a system of collective “patterns” he distilled from the anthropology of the time (1972). For theorists like Parsons, therefore, “the influence of culture depended on showing that certain cultural elements, whether ideas or values, actually operated subjectively, in the heads of actors.”

As Swidler also points out, subsequent cultural analysis in the social sciences became discomfited with the idea of culture being in people’s heads. The complaints seem to have been twofold. Cultural analysts rebelled against CCA*(1) by noting that conceptualizing culture exclusively as abstract symbolic patterns was limited. Culture could also be discursive, or semiotic, or even material. The other versions of public culture can have causal effects on how people act without necessarily going through the internalization process. These alternative variants of how culture shows up outside people not fitting the CCA* story, and not needing to be lodged in people’s heads to affect action can, as Swidler (2001a) does, be used to tell a story of culture affecting action from “the outside in.” Accordingly, in rebelling against the theories of internalization provided by CCA* theorists, cultural analysts in sociology sought other ways in which culture could have causal effects on action that did not rely on internalization stories.

For a while, these seemed like knock-down arguments against CCA* type stories. With the advantage of hindsight, it is not clear whether those were good reasons for completely abandoning the idea that culture operates via internalized beliefs and values (Vaisey 2009; Patterson 2014; Wuthnow 2008). While we can acknowledge that some forms of public culture don’t need to go through people’s heads to affect their actions, a good swath of them actually do (Strauss and Quinn 1997). Ultimately, many of the stories that abandoned CCA* type postulates seem more like changing the subject, and therefore left open a lot of the culture in action problems that CCA* theorists tackled head-on (Strauss and Quinn 1997; Quinn et al. 2018; Patterson 2014). Today, there has been a resurgence of theorizing culture as operating via internalized, or “personal” mechanisms, seeking to avoid the weaknesses of earlier versions of CCA*. For instance, such theories draw on schema theory or dual-process models from cognitive science to show how culture can have (indirect) effects on action as internalized by people.

In this post, I will not address postulates (1) and (2) of CCA*. I will only note that there are ways to conceive of external or public culture in perfectly respectable naturalistic ways that do not make it a ghostly, ontologically suspect entity hovering over people. There are also perfectly respectable ways, consistent with what we know of the cultural neuroscience of learning, to reconceptualize the idea of the internalization of public culture by people. This process also loses the mysterious and problematic cast it acquired in classical cultural theory. As such, there is a path that can get us from CCA*(1) to CCA*(3). Presuming that we have coherent conceptions of public culture and a coherent internalization story, we still need to do the analytic work of providing a story of how internalized mental contents cause action. This is where cultural theorists, even those resurgent “neo-internalization” theorists (Vaisey 2009; Lizardo 2017), have done the least analytic work. However, without an action theory story, there cannot be a “culture causes action” (CCA) story either.

The Standard Action Theory Story

An action theory story is a causal story of how mental states can be (proper, not deviant) causes of action. First, for a mental state to be a cause of action, it has to be the right type of mental state. Mental states with the power to cause action are usually referred to as “motivating,” states. Action theorists in the contemporary philosophy of action disagree on which states (under the usual folk psychological taxonomy of the mental) are motivating in this sense. Humeans say, for instance, that purely representational or cognitive states (like beliefs) cannot be motivational. Instead, only specific types of states, endowed with some sort of conative or affective “oomph” (like wants and desires), can be motivational. Non-Humeans argue that things like beliefs or normative conceptions can be motivational in the sense of being proper causes of action under the right set of conditions. Action here is defined in a commonsensical manner to refer to goal-directed movements of the body (so no reflexes or tics).

What I will refer to as the “standard” action theory story (see Douskos 2017) has been best developed for the case of intentional action. As stated, CCA* is not restricted to intentional actions. It just says that culture can cause action via the mediation of internalized mental states. A lot of recent cultural theory uses a version of CCA*. The internalized mental states take the form of habits, tacit knowledge, skills, etc., to say that culture causes non-intentional actions via the mediation of these types of states. Regardless, I will begin with the standard intentional story, sometimes referred to as “Good Old Fashioned Action Theory” (GOFAT) (Martin 2015; Turner 2018), since if we can make this story work (or at least state the story in a way that could ostensibly work under a charitable interpretation), then it could be possible to derive the non-intentional cases as systematic deviations from the standard case. Besides, it is useful to begin here since “culture causes action” stories were first developed for the intentional case (Parsons 1951). It is only more recently that practice-based versions of CCA stories have been developed for the case of non-intentional action. Still, even here, people have not been prone to state these stories as action theory stories proper (see Lizardo and Strand 2010).

So what is the standard action theory story? It goes like this. Actions begin with the formation of an intention to perform a certain activity in a given context. The intention is an abstract characterization of what the action will be and, most importantly, the action’s goal. Intentions thus have both representational (belief-like) and “motivational” (desire-like) components (which should make both Humeans and non-Humeans happy). Unlike beliefs, however, which are supposed to represent what the actual world is like, intentions represent what a future state of the world will be (if the intention is accomplished). Thus, if I wake up and think to myself, “I will chop some wood this morning,” this mental state counts as an intention because it specifies (represents) the action that I will perform (however sketchily) and stipulates that I have a “pro-attitude” towards that action (I want to chop the wood) (the basics of this story in contemporary action theory are due to Davidson 1980). So unlike desires, which could be things that we want to do but we are not necessarily committed to doing, intentions imply a commitment to engaging in the action represented by the intention. 

Intentions are (typically consciously reportable) representational states because they have propositional content. An action is intentional just in case “what we do causally ensues from mental states with pertinent content” (Douskos 2017: 1129). So, if someone asks what I’m doing with this ax, I can always answer that I intend to use it to “chop some wood.” In that respect, intentions provide reasons for (causes of) action and rationalize action (e.g., make it interpretable after the fact). Note that it is precisely this “contentful” status of intentions that provides the link to their being causal effects of internalized cultural beliefs. In fact, under the sociological version of the standard story, intentions get their contents from the internalized beliefs about what is proper or customary to want to do. Once formed, intentions, by having a specific content, cause the tokening of specific sensorimotor representations of the actions that would properly satisfy their content. For instance, an intention to chop wood causes the tokening of specific mental representations concerning placing large pieces of wood in a chopping block, grabbing an ax, wielding in a way that will strike the wood, and so forth. It is in this way that intentions as mental states can be proper causes of action.

But what is being a “proper” cause of action? In the usual parlance of quantitative social scientists, it means being a non-spurious cause of the action. Thus, just like correlation is necessary but not sufficient for causation, preceding (or accompanying) the action is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an intention to be a proper cause of the action. This is because even though intention X can precede action Y, there can be a third factor, Z, that happens after X, but before Y, which is the actual cause of the action. Thus, if I form an intention to chop wood, place the wood in the chopping block, grab the ax, but exactly at that moment, I have a hallucination in which the piece of wood turns into a giant spider which I then try to kill with the ax, then the intention, even though it preceded the action, and even though the action was accomplished (I chopped the wood in the attempt to kill the imaginary spider) is not a proper cause of the resulting action. Instead, the pathological perceptual state was.

Thus, intentions cannot just be “prior” to action. They must be “in charge” of executing the action during the entire duration of the intention-driven action. If “intentions” were to take a break during action execution, this could threaten their being proper causes as other mental causes of action could then sneak in to do the job, rendering the intention spurious as a cause. Intentions, under the standard story, cannot just be initiators of action. They must also sustain the action until its completion: They are action-guiding mental states (Pacherie 2006).

This has led several philosophers to propose a distinction between the role intentions play before action and their role during intentional action. Pacherie (2006) refers to these as “dual intention” theories; these differentiate between constructs such as prior, future-directed, or prospective intentions, which are mental states happening prior to action that “set” the goals for intentional action, and such constructs as “intentions-in-action,” present-directed, or immediate intentions, which are mental states that accompany action during its execution and make sure that the actual act accords with the previously formed prior intention.

Culture and Intention

Classic sources of the standard action theory story in sociology focused on the role of culture in shaping and determining the content of prior intentions. Here the contemporary theory of action in philosophy makes a couple of points consistent with this classical sociological tradition. First, as Bratman (1984) noted, one thing that intentions do is that they serve as “terminators of practical reasoning.” Once someone forms an intention to do X, they stop batting around ideas as to what to do. Intentions stop the (potentially endless) deliberation as to what to do. If I decide to chop wood in the morning, then that determines my morning plans.

The main difference between sociological and other versions of the standard story is the search for cultural patterning across the intentions that people form. Sociological action theorists think of the consequences of a shared culture (e.g., a unified or coherent belief system) for personal action to provide people with a set of common overall intentions. This is how the social-scientific concept of “values,” is used to this day by heirs of this tradition. Values are “conceptions of the desirable” (Kluckhohn 1951:395), or in the standard folk psychological taxonomy, (relatively abstract) beliefs about what is best to want (thus combining representational and motivational components). In this story, the content of people’s specific intentions can be inherited from the more abstract values that they have internalized.

There is a problem here (which I won’t get into detail in this post) of how to derive specific intentions from abstract values (see Martin and Lembo 2020). An abstract value (e.g., self-transcendence, respect for tradition, and the like) can have many specific realizations at the level of concrete action intentions. In the same way, the same concrete intention (to chop wood) can be the realization of distinct abstract values (e.g., competitive economic achievement, spiritual self-realization via the practice of Zen). These one-to-many and the many-to-one problems are, however, not particular to values as a cultural element. It is pervasive in the standard action theory story, reproducing itself in the relationship between a “concrete” intention (e.g., chop wood) and the specific motor programs or bodily movements that realize that intention. Here we can see that chopping wood can have many practical realizations for the same person on different occasions and across different people sharing the same intention. In the same way, the same concrete set of bodily movements can be the realization of distinct intentions.

The other thing that prior intentions do, according to Bratman, is that they prompt practical reasoning about the best means to accomplish the goals encoded in the intention. This is consistent with classical sociological action theory, which poses another role for a set of shared cultural elements that function as “terminators” of this second bout of practical reasoning: Norms. While an a-cultural or purely Machiavellian actor can theoretically wonder about the best way to accomplish a goal in a relatively unconstrained way, normative considerations collapse this deliberative choice space since they rule out most of the potentially feasible ways to accomplish something as out of bounds due to normative considerations. In this way, institutionalized norms serve as heuristics for reasoning because they prevent people from reconsidering the means every time they form an intention. Instead, the default is to go with the normatively appropriate way to perform the intentional action.

To sum up, according to the standard story, internalized culture plays a central role in action that is (properly) driven by intentions as mental causes of action, thus providing a mechanism via which the third link of the CCA* story can be realized. First, internalized cultural beliefs about what is best to want end up setting the goals of most prior intentions for people. Under this story, people internalize motivational mental states that prescribe what they should strive for. These prior intentions then serve as the templates guiding intentions-in-action as they occur. This means that culture has “direct” causal effects on prior intentions as causally effective mental states and “indirect” causal effects on intentions-in-action via prior intentions. Intentions-in-action then directly affect the motor programs tokened to execute the specific bodily movements that realize the prior intention (Pacherie 2006).

Second, internalized culture collapses the search space for proper ways of achieving the prescribed goals. This is done via the construct of norms which are “canned” or “preset” ways of doing things that have the stamp of collective approval, legitimacy, and so forth. Thus, people are motivated to go with the normatively prescribed way rather than think up the best or most efficient way to achieve goals every time they think up a prior intention. In this way, norms directly affect the intentions-in-action that people pursue because they provide content to the mental states that represent the best manner in which intentional goals are to be achieved.

This is a neat story. It is also the story everyone in contemporary sociology, with some notable exceptions, hates (Martin 2015; Whitford 2002; Swidler 2001b) perhaps because it is too neat. My point here has not been to heap hate on this story for the umpteenth time. Instead, it has been to reconstruct the standard story as charitably as possible, showing the linkages between classical action theory in sociology and the contemporary theory of action in the philosophy of mind. The basic idea is that if we are going to tell heterodox stories, the content of the story can change, but not the format. If we are going to say that culture causes action, you cannot skip the step where you specify what type of culture you are talking about, how people internalize it, and how once internalized, this culture links up to some sort of mental cause of action. In future posts, we will see examples of what such heterodox stories might look like.


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  1. Pingback: Can Schemas Motivate? – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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