Social Action Background

History of Social Action

Social action, as defined by Random House Dictionary, is "individual or group behavior that involves interaction with other individuals or groups, especially organized action toward social reform."    

The concept of social action, in essence, examines the interaction between humans in society. It rose to prominence due to the studies of Max Weber, one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Sociology is the study of society and behavior, which can also be described as the study of social action. Sociologists study the ways humans adapt their actions according to social context and very their behavior based on how it will affect other people.

Unlike Durkheim's structuralist, more macro-focused theory, Weber's social action perspective focuses on  smaller groups within society and the subjective states of individuals. Weber and his social action theorists see society as a product of human activity. To Weber a ‘social action’ was an action carried out by an individual to which an individual attached a meaning. As defined by Weber, some examples of social action are:

  • When someone engages in a purposeful or goal-oriented rational action, such as an urban planner that designs an efficiently-planned city or a civil engineer that builds a sturdy bridge. 
  • When people’s rational action can be classified as striving for a substantive goal (value-oriented)           
  • When people act from affective or emotional motivations, based on the emotional state of the actor instead of the rational weighing of means and ends.
  • When people engage in traditional action, as defined by their cultural practices.

Social Action: A Success Story

There are examples of social action leading to positive social change in every region in the world, but one of ASAC's favorites is the Green Belt Movement, which was a local movement in Kenya to plant trees and prevent the deforestation that threatened the welfare of local people, especially women. The movement’s founder Wangari Maathai quickly learned that factors of politics, economics and history (going back to colonialism) were responsible for the destruction of the forests in her native Kenya. She decided to take an innovative approach, hiring local women to plant and nurture tress in their own communities, rewarding them financially for looking after the trees. With the local communities invested, her project became a sustainable movement and over time, the Green Belt movement planted millions of trees and provided a model for social activism around the world.

But the movement soon grew to embody more than just trees. Professor Maathai realized that behind the mundane hardships the Kenyan poor faced - deforestation, environmental degradation and food insecurity—were deeper issues of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and a loss of the traditional values that had previously enabled communities to protect their environment and work together. In response to this need, Green Belt began staging seminars in civic and environmental education, now called Community Empowerment and Education seminars (CEE), to encourage stakeholders to examine why they lacked agency to change their political, economic, and environmental circumstances. Participants began to understand that for years they had been placing their trust in leaders who had betrayed them and that they were sabotaging their lives by not working for the common good and failing to use their natural resources wisely.

As a result, the Green Belt Movement began to push for greater democratic freedoms and more accountability from national leaders. They vehemently opposed land-grabbing and the encroachment of agriculture into the forests and famously contested the placement of a tower block in Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi. They also joined others to call for the release of political prisoners. In recent years, they have extended their reach internationally to campaign and advocate on behalf of climate change, the importance of Africa’s rainforests in the Congo, to initiate the mottainai campaign—an effort to instill the notions of “reduce, reuse, recycle” in Kenya and around the world—and has partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its Billion Tree Campaign.

By calling women into action to simply plant more trees, Wangari Maathai emerged as a symbol of opposition against the odds. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and even after her passing in 2011, the movement stands as a testament to the idea that one person can indeed make a difference.

Overview - Social Action in Schools

Teachers and education leaders acknowledge that social action projects are an important part of wider learning, as these projects allow the schools to engage the social consciousness of their students, while also assisting their local communities and addressing global issues as well. 

Recent research conducted by National Schools Partnership showed that the most popular social action projects were those which involved pupils in supporting local charities and community groups (80%+), those which enabled pupils to lead fundraising projects (78%) and peer to peer pupil mentoring projects (70%). All of these projects require skilfully created resources which become part of a school’s training repertoire for delivering effective and enduring social action activity.

The study also reveals that while schools are aware of the need to add a social action dimension to their learning agenda, many they lack the resources to do so. According to their study, more than 65% of teachers would use high-quality, relevant resources which addressed such needs, if they were able to obtain them.

Fortunately, in many cases - as this site illustrates - administering an effective social action strategy does not necessitate a large amount of financial resources.

What Social Issues do we Face?

  • Environmental concerns 
  • Poverty
  • Lack of clean drinking water
  • Human rights
  • Gender equality
  • Malnutrition
  • War/Conflict/Refugees

General Tips for Teaching Social Action

  • Cater to each grade's level of comprehension and integrate with teaching approach for each level 
  • Child-centered learning
  • Find way to connect larger issues to children’s lives 
  • Issues approach: Focus on individual issue, such as environment or poverty
  • Principles approach: Focus on moral dimension of social action, such as empathy

Historical Timeline for Service-based Learning

This brief historical timeline highlights some of the most important dates in the development of service-learning.

  • 1903 — Cooperative Education Movement founded at the University of Cincinnati
  • Circa 1905 — William James, John Dewey developing intellectual foundations to service-based learning
  • 1910 — American philosopher William James envisions non-military national service in his essay "The Moral Equivalent of War"
  • Circa 1915 — Some Folk Schools in Appalachia become two- and four-year colleges with work, service, and learning connected
  • 1933-1942 — Through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created by Franklin D. Roosevelt, millions of young people serve terms of 6 to 18 months to help restore the nation's parks, revitalize the economy, and support their families and themselves
  • 1935 — Work Projects Administration established (needed public work for people who needed jobs)
  • 1944 — The GI Bill links service and education, offering Americans educational opportunity in return for service to their country
  • 1960s — The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), the Foster Grandparent Program, and the Senior Companion Program are developed to engage older Americans in the work of improving the nation
  • 1961 — President John F. Kennedy establishes the Peace Corps, with authorizing legislation approved by Congress on September 22, 1961
  • 1964 — As part of the "War on Poverty," President Lyndon B. Johnson creates VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a National Teacher Corps, the Job Corps, and University Year of Action. VISTA provides opportunities for Americans to serve full-time to help thousands of low-income communities. White House Fellows program established
  • 1965 — College work-study programs established
  • 1966 — Urban Corps emerged, funded with federal work-study dollars
  • 1966-1967 — "Service-learning" phrase used to describe a TVA-funded project in East Tennessee with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, linking students and faculty with tributary area development organizations
  • 1968 — National Service Secretariat Conference on National Service held in Washington, D.C
  • 1969 — Atlanta Service-Learning Conference (sponsors included Southern Regional Education Board, U.S. Dept. HEW, City of Atlanta, Atlanta Urban Corps, Peace Corps, and VISTA)
  • 1970 — The Youth Conservation Corps engages 38,000 people age 14 to 18 in summer environmental programs
  • 1971 — White House Conference on Youth report full of calls for linking service and learning. Also, the National Center for Public Service Internships was established, and the Society for Field Experience Education (these two merged in 1978 to become the National Society for Internships and Experiential Education)
  • Circa 1971 — National Student Volunteer Program (became the National Center for Service-Learning in 1979) established. Published Synergist, a journal promoting linking service and learning
  • 1976 — California Governor Jerry Brown establishes the California Conservation Corps, the first non-federal youth corps at the state level
  • 1978 — The Young Adult Conservation Corps creates small conservation corps in the states with 22,500 participants age 16 to 23
  • 1979 — "Three Principles of Service-Learning" published in the Synergist
  • 1980s — National service efforts are launched at the grassroots level, including the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (1984) and Campus Compact (1985), which help mobilize service programs in higher education; the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (1985), which helps replicate youth corps in states and cities; National Youth Leadership Council (1982), which helps to prepare future leaders; and Youth Service America (1985), through which many young people are given a chance to serve
  • 1981 — National Center for Service-Learning for Early Adolescents established
  • 1989 — Wingspread Principles of Good Practice in Service-Learning written-more than seventy organizations collaborate to produce the ten principles
  • 1989-1990 — President George Bush creates the Office of National Service in the White House and the Points of Light Foundation to foster volunteering
  • 1990 — Congress Passes, and President Bush signs, the National and Community Service Act of 1990. The legislation authorizes grants to schools to support service-learning and demonstration grants for national service programs to youth corps, nonprofits, and colleges and universities. Learn and Serve America established (as Serve-America). The legislation also authorizes establishment of the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse
  • 1992 — The Maryland State Board of Education adopts mandatory service requirement which becomes effective in 1993 and affects the graduating class of 1997 and beyond
  • 1993 — Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development endorse the importance of linking service with learning
  • Sept. 1993 — President Bill Clinton signs the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, creating AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National Service. The legislation unites Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA and Learn and Serve America into one independent federal agency
  • 1994 — Congress passes the King Holiday and Service Act of 1994, charging the Corporation for National Service with taking the lead in organizing Martin Luther King Day as a day of service. The Stanford Service-Learning Institute created. The Ford Foundation/United Negro College Fund Community Service Partnership Project (a 10-college program linking direct service and learning) begun
  • 1995 — Service-Learning network on the internet, via the University of Colorado Peace Studies Center
  • April 1997 — The Presidents' Summit for America's Future, chaired by General Colin Powell, brings together President Clinton, former Presidents Bush, Ford, and Carter, and Mrs. Reagan to recognize and expand the role of AmeriCorps and other service programs in meeting the needs of America's youth
  • 1997 — Fourth of July Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education published — Wingspread Declaration Renewing the Civic Mission of theAmericanUniversitypublished
  • 2001 — First International Conference on Service-Learning Research held — Wingspread conference on student civic engagement held
  • 2002 — The USA Freedom Corps, a coordinating council and White House office, was launched to help Americans answer President George W. Bush's nationwide call to service
  • 2003 — President Bush created the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation to find ways to recognize the valuable contributions volunteers are making in our Nation. The council created the President's Volunteer Service Award program as a way to thank and honor Americans who, by their demonstrated commitment and example, inspire others to engage in volunteer service
* Timeline courtesy of National Service Learning Clearinghouse