Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Conventionally considered to refer to any condition or event within an organism that impels or directs behavior toward the attainment of a goal; current sociological usage differs radically from this usage.

For Max Weber, the concept of motive, defined as "a complex of subjective meaning which seems to the actor himself or to the observer an adequate ground for the conduct in question" (1964: 98), was central to wissenschaftlich ("scientific") sociology. For, once an individual's action had been identified through a process of direct observation, the sociologist was required to engage in "explanatory" or "motivational" understanding of the act. However, this central role accorded to motive in the sociological analysis of action was not echoed by subsequent generations.

Specifically, C. Wright Mills (1940) radically shifted the focus of attention from an inquiry into motive considered as either an initiating or a maintaining force, or even as the reason or reasons for an action, to the words employed in the process of justifying it to others. Thus Mills (together with Burke 1969) helped to initiate the "vocabulary of motives" tradition of inquiry that has come to predominate within the discipline of sociology, an approach subsequently endorsed by Lyman and Scott (1989 [1964]) and Blum and McHugh (1971).

This approach, which has lasted to the present day, effectively treats human conduct as if it were unmotivated, while focusing instead on the topic of "motive talk" (Semin and Manstead 1983). Contemporary sociologists have largely accepted this approach (although see Campbell [1996] for a strongly dissenting view), espousing a broadly functional theory concerning the way that actors' accounts serve to meet the needs experienced in social situations, and thus serve as "justifications," "excuses," "apologies," or "disclaimers" for their actions. Consequently, the study of motives, in the Weberian sense, is absent from contemporary social science.

Motivation is a psychological term not widely employed in social science. It refers to any organismic state that mobilizes activity that is in some sense selective, or directive, with respect to the environment.

Colin Campbell


A. F. Blum and P. McHugh, "The Social Ascription of Motives," American Sociological Review 36(1971):98-109

K. Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969)

C. Campbell, "On the Concept of Motive in Sociology," Sociology 30(1996):1-14

S. M. Lyman and M. B. Scott, A Sociology of the Absurd (Dix Hills, N.Y.: General Hall, 1989 [1970])

C. W. Mills, "Situated Action and the Vocabulary of Motives," American Sociological Review 5(1940):904-913

M. B. Scott and S. M. Lyman, "Accounts," American Sociological Review 33(1968):46-62

G. R. Semin and A. S. R. Manstead, The Accountability of Conduct (London: Academic Press, 1983)

M. Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York: Free Press, 1964).

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