Instrumental action (also known as goal-instrumental action, zweckrational) is a social action pursued after evaluating its consequences and consideration of the various means to achieve it. They are usually planned and taken after considering costs and consequences. An example would be most economic transactions of Homo economicus.
When employing this type of action, a person views his/her opponent as if he/she were a mere object or organizational resource (rather than another actor) and attempts to manipulate the opponent to act according to his/her wishes. Depending on the authority and status of the relationships between these two persons within the organizational context, one could issue an order to the opponent or use other means to obtain compliance. In trying to enact coherent meaning of the action and the action situation, the person who is subjected to instrumental action will normally reflect upon the appropriateness of the action. Is the action efficient for achieving the required ends (MIS Quarterly 1997, p. 154).
Since the 1960s, Jürgen Habermas has made notable contributions to many aspects of sociology and philosophy. He is probably best known for his first major work, Theory of Communicative Action (1982). In Habermas' action typology, he draws a distinction between two types of action: communicative action, where actions are based on the recognition of validity claims; and instrumental action. Habermas argues that instrumental action is always parasitic on communicative action. Therefore instrumental action alone can not form a stable system of social action (). Habermas' entire work aims to defend and continue the enlightenment project against the challenge of Max Weber's instrumental action ().
Max Weber (1921) presented the idea of instrumental action as the "highest form of rational conduct"(Scott p. 570). The orientation of instrumental action is an ideal type in more than just a methodological sense (Scott). Weber's concept of instrumental action is known as "zweckrational". Zweckrational is just one of Weber's four ideal types of social action, which also includes wertrational (rational action in relation to a value), affective or emotional action, and traditional action. Weber believed that human behavior was increasingly becoming guided more by zweckrational action and less by tradition, values and emotions ().
Karl Marx used instrumental action in connection to the philosophy of labor. Marx reduced the process of reflection to the level of instrumental action. By doing this Marx reduces the self-positing of the absolute ego down to more physical productive activity (Habermas, 1968). Marx also connects instrumental action to his concept of Versachlichung. This is because of the idea that "communicative social relations can and are being replaced by objectified and externalized relations between things" (Scott p. 571).
Related theories and concepts
Instrumental action plays a huge role in social labor. There is a lack of living social communication that is replaced by rationally organized systems of action. Habermas concentrates on the distinction between work and interaction in regard to instrumental and communicative action. The execution of instrumental acts within social production play the same role as capitalist exchange.
"the system of drives, the chronically over stimulated perceptual system and the essentially shapeless motor system with which man is physically equipped, force him to engage in goal-oriented activity, which shapes his needs and structures his perception" (Honneth p.51).
Instrumental action is the "medium within which a system of drives reorganizes itself" (Honneth). Each individual controls his activity according to the success with which he can manipulate things to achieve a previously determined purpose (Honneth p. 51). "In socially organized work processes, these instrumental acts are then coordinated among the individual working subjects according to rules of cooperation developed in the interest of the common goal of production" (Honneth p. 51).
Instrumental action is also connected to Habermas' Lifeworld. Lifeworld deals with lived experience of everyday life in which the interactions amongst people are coordinated through speech and validity-claims. In this there are real patterns of instrumental action instantiated by money and power. Through instrumental action the state "colonised the lifeworld and dried up the natural reservoir of communicative action. Hence capitalist societies give rise to institutions, policies and laws which cannot find reasoned public agreement" ( ).
Some theorists believe that Habermas's idea of action typologies is too hard to apply in a world with so many different cultures and ideologies. In addition the recognition that neither universal norms nor instrumental action are self-sufficient and yet rely upon non-reducible substantive ethics and social practices (Scott, p. 572). Talcott Parsons argues that the "subjective meanings, expectations and motives of individuals, through which social action occurs, in being the orientations of relating individuals, constitutes the structure within which social action is located" (Barbalet, p. 402). Theorists such as Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills both agree that Weber's methodology is ill-equipped to explain social structure. Mills stated that Weber's reflections could not justify his theory and operates through structural action rather than an action explanation (Barbalet p. 403).
Barbalet, Jack M. Principles of Stratification in Max Weber(1980), British Journal Of Sociology, Vol 31, No.3, p. 401-416
Habermas, Jürgen. The Idea of the Theory of Knowledge as Social Theory(1987), Knowledge & Human Interest, Polity Press, Chapter3
Honneth, Axel. Work and Instrumental Action(1982), Journal of Critical Theory and Modernity, No. 26, p. 31-54
Scott, Alan. Modernity's Machine Metaphor(1997), The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 4, p. 561-575