Materials flow analysis (MFA) is one of the central achievements of industrial ecology. One direction in which one can move MFA beyond mere accounting is by putting the material flows in their social context. This “socially extended MFA” may be carried out at various levels of aggregation. In this article, specific material flows will be linked to concrete actors and mechanisms that cause these flows—using the action‐in‐context (AiC) framework, which contains, inter alia, both proximate and indirect actors and factors. The case study site is of Tat hamlet in Vietnam, set in a landscape of paddy fields on valley floors surrounded by steep, previously forested slopes. Out of the aggregate MFA of Tat, the study focuses on material flows associated with basic needs and sustainability. The most important actors causing these material flows are farming households, politicians, traders, and agribusiness firms—of which local politicians turned out to be pivotal. The study shows the value of combining MFA with actor‐based social analysis. MFA achieves the balanced quantification of the physical system, thus helping to pinpoint key processes. Actor‐based analysis adds the causal understanding of what drives these key processes, leading to improved scenarios of the future and the effective identification of target groups and instruments for policy making.