Concept of Social Action

Social action is considered an auxiliary method of professional social work. As one of the methods of working with people, it has remained a debatable issue among social work professionals. Social action is a method of social work used to mobilize the masses in order to bring about structural changes in the social system or to prevent adverse changes. It is an organized effort to change or improve social and economic institutions. Some of the social problems like the dowry system, destruction of natural resources, alcoholism, poor housing, health, etc. can be tackled through social action.

As a method of professional social work, social action has remained an issue with wide-ranging of opinions regarding its scope, strategies, and tactics to be used, its status as a method, and its relevance to social work practice. Mary Richmond was the first social worker to use the word ‘social action’ in 1922. She defines social action as “mass betterment through propaganda and social legislation”. However, Sydney Maslin (1947) limits the scope of social action by considering it as a process of social work mainly concerned with securing legislation to meet mass problems. Baldwin broadens the scope of social action by emphasizing bringing about structural changes in the social system through social action. Baldwin (1966) defines social action as “an organized effort to change social and economic institutions as distinguished from social work or social service, the fields which do not characteristically cover essential changes in established institutions. Social action covers movements of political reforms, industrial democracy, social legislation, racial and social justice, religious freedom, and civic liberty and its techniques include propaganda, research, and lobbying”. Along the same line, Friedlander (1977) defines social action as an individual, group, or community effort within the framework of social work philosophy and practice that aims to achieve social progress, modify social policies, and improve social legislation and health and welfare services. Similar views are expressed by Lee (1937) who says “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”.

According to Coyle (1937), social action is the attempt to change the social environment in ways, which will make life more satisfactory. It aims to affect not only individuals but also social institutions, laws, customs, and communities. Fitch (1940) considers social action as legally permissible action by a group (or by an individual trying to promote group action) for the purpose of furthering objectives that are both legal and socially desirable. A broad outlook has also been given by Hill (1951) who describes social action as “organized group effort to solve mass social problems or to further socially desirable objectives by attempting to influence basic social and economic conditions or practices”.

Further, social action is a term applied to that aspect of organized social welfare actively directed towards shaping, modifying, or maintaining the social institutions and policies that collectively constitute the social environment (Wickendon, 1956). Solender (1957) states that social action in the field of social work is a process of individual, group, or inter-group endeavor, within the context of social work philosophy, knowledge, and skill. Its objective is to enhance the welfare of society through modifying social policy and the functioning of social structure, working to obtain greater progress and better services. It is, therefore, evident that social action has been viewed as a method of bringing about structural changes along with social legislation.

Let us see some of the viewpoints of Indian social work authors about the definition and scope of social action. Moorthy (1966) states that the scope of social action includes work during catastrophic situations such as fires, floods, epidemics, famines, etc., besides securing social legislation. Nanawati (1965) views social action as “a process of bringing about the desired changes by deliberate group and community efforts. Social action does not end with the enactment of social legislation, but the execution of the policies was the real test of success or failure of social action”. The Institute of Gandhian Studies defines social action as the term commonly applied to social welfare activity which is directed towards shaping or modifying the social institutions and policies that constitute the social environment in which we live.

Similarly, Singh (1986) maintains that social action is a process in which conscious, systematic, and organized efforts are made by some elites and/or people themselves to bring about change in the system which is instrumental in solving problems and improving conditions that limit the social functioning of weaker and vulnerable sections. It is, on the practical plane, nearer to social reform than to social revolution, which aims at smashing the entire existing social structure and building up a new social set[1]up. It is conflictual in nature but at the same time non-violent.

The objective of social action is the proper shaping and development of socio-cultural environment in which a richer and fuller life may be possible for all the citizens. Mishra (1992) has identified the following goals of social action:

  • Prevention of needs;
  • Solution of mass problems;
  • Improvement in mass conditions;
  • Influencing institutions, policies and practices;
  • Introduction of new mechanisms or programs;
  • Redistribution of power and resources (human, material, and moral);
  • Decision-making;
  • Effect on thought and action structure; and
  • Improvement in health, education and welfare.

Thus, we see that social action is seen as a method of professional social work to be used to bring about or prevent changes in the social system through the process of making people aware of the socio-political and economic realities that influence or condition their lives. This is done by mobilizing them to organize themselves to bring about the desired results through the use of appropriately worked-out strategies, with the exception of violence. Some examples of social action are socio-religious movements in the medieval period targeted against superstition, orthodox religious practices, and various other social evils. The underlying philosophy of these social actions was humanitarian in nature based on the principles of justice, equality, and fraternity.

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