The logic of action: Indeterminacy, emotion, and historical narrative


Journal Article

Modern social theory, by and large, has aimed at reducing the complexity of action situations to a set of manageable abstractions. But these abstractions, whether functionalist or linguistic, fail to grasp the indeterminacy of action situations. Action proceeds by discovery and combination. The logic of action is serendipitous and combinative. From these characteristics, a number of consequences flow: The whole field of our intentions is engaged in each action situation, and cannot really be understood apart from the situation itself. In action situations we remain aware of the problems of categorization, including the dangers of infinite regress and the difficulties of specifying borders and ranges of categories. In action situations, attention is in permanent danger of being overwhelmed. We must deal with many features of action situations outside of attention; in doing so, we must entertain simultaneously numerous possibilities of action. Emotional expression is a way of talking about the kinds of possibilities we entertain. Expression and action have a rebound effect on attention. "Effort" is required to find appropriate expressions and actions, and rebound effects play a role in such effort, making it either easier or more difficult. Recent theoretical trends have failed to capture these irreducible characteristics of action situations, and have slipped into a number of errors. Language is not rich in meanings or multivocal, except as put to use in action situations. The role of "convention" in action situations is problematic, and therefore one ought not to talk of "culture." Contrary to the assertions of certain theorists, actors do not follow strategies, except when they decide to do so. Actors do not "communicate," in the sense of exchanging information, except in specially arranged situations. More frequently, they intervene in the effortful management of attention of their interlocutors. Dialogue, that is, very commonly becomes a form of cooperative emotional effort. From these considerations, it follows that the proper method for gaining social knowledge is to examine the history of action and of emotional effort, and to report findings in the form of narrative. © Wesleyan University 2001.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Reddy, WM

Published Date

  • January 1, 2001

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 40 / 4

Start / End Page

  • 10 - 33

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0018-2656

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1111/0018-2656.00180

Citation Source

  • Scopus