1Social Action Theory also known as Interactionism alsoknown as Interpretivism.Interactionism is a social action theoryBackgroundInteractionism begins with the third „founding father‟ of sociology, Max Weber.Weber was writing at the same time as Durkheim and challenged the view thatsociety existed outside of, and independently of, individuals. However, he wouldnot be described as an interactionist, as he accepted a lot of structural ideas,but he did argue for a science of society that included an interpretiveunderstanding of social action. He did think it was important to find out whatbehaviours meant to the people who were doing them. For Weber, the world is asit is because of social action. People do things because they decide to do so inorder to achieve ends they desire. Having selected their goals, and taken accountof the circumstances they find themselves in, they choose to act.Social structures are the outcome of such action; ways of living are the productof choice. According to Weber, sociological theories are not theories of socialsystems, but of the meanings behind actions. Weber called the method by whichthis is done Verstehen, (understanding what their actions mean to the peoplethemselves). Since Weber, other sociologists have moved further away from thestructural approach, and created a distinctly different social action approach.Social Action TheoryNearly all human action is intentional action: we mean to do what we do inorder to achieve our chosen purposes. Where do these chosen purposes, or goals,come from?What action theory emphasises is that we decide what to do in the light of ourinterpretation of the world around us. Being human means walking about in thesocial world, making sense of the settings or situations in which we find ourselvesand choosing to act accordingly. To use the usual action theory phrase for this,we choose what to do in the light of our „definition of the situation’.For example, suppose you wake up one summer morning to find the sun shining ina cloudless sky. You decide to sunbathe all day and to mow your lawn in theevening, when it will be cooler. At lunchtime, you see large clouds beginning toform in the distance. Because you decide there is a chance of a thunderstorm,you cut the grass immediately. You get very hot. It does not rain. In the evening,you go for a walk in the country. You come to a country pub and stop for a drink.As you sit outside you notice smoke rising on a hillside some distance away. Asyou watch the smoke gets thicker and darker. You decide the fire is unattendedand out of control. You dash inside the pub and ring the fire brigade. Shortlyafterwards you hear a fire engine racing to the fire. You climb a nearby hill tohave a better look. When you get there you see that the fire is, in fact,deliberate; it is a bonfire in the garden of a house on the hillside which you had
2been unable to see from the pub. Shortly afterwards you hear the fire enginereturning to its base. You go back to the pub to finish your drink. It has beencleared away in your absence. You have no more money. You decide it is notyour day. You decide to go home.Of course, nearly all of the settings we have to make sense of involve more thanthis. We are not just interpreting the physical world around us because nearlyeverything we do in our lives takes place in the company of others. Most of thesituations we have to define in order to choose how to act are social; theyinvolve other humans doing things. Most of our interpretations are to do withunderstanding other humans.You see a very large man shaking his fist and shouting at you, and conclude thathe is not overjoyed that you have driven into the back of his car. As a result youdecide not to suggest that he was responsible for the accident because of theway he parked. You see a traffic warden slipping a parking ticket under yourwindscreen-wiper, and decide not to contribute to the Police Benevolent Fundafter all. This is social action. It is action we choose to take in the light of whatwe interpret the behaviour of others to mean.There is more to social action than interpretation leading to action, however.Most of the time when we interact with other humans, they want us to arrive atcertain interpretations of their actions — they want us to think one thing ofthem rather than another. The man whose car has just been damaged is notbehaving in the rather distinctive manner described above because he wishes theculprit to come round to his house for tea. The man scratching his nose in theauction room is not (usually) alleviating an itch. He is communicating his bid tothe auctioneer, and he expects that the latter will interpret his actions as hewishes. Pedestrians in London streets do not wave to taxi-drivers because theyare, or want to become, their friends. They do so because they want a lift.Dress can often organise interpretation just as effectively as gestures, of course.Though the punk rocker, the skinhead, the bowler-hatted civil servant, the policeofficer and the traffic warden whom we encounter in the street make noapparent attempt to communicate with us, they are certainly doing so,nevertheless. They want us to think certain things about them when we seethem, so they choose to communicate by the use of uniforms. They are making asymbolic use of dress, if you like; after all, like gestures, garments symbolisewhat their users want us to interpret about them.The most effective symbols humans have at their disposal are words — linguisticsymbols. The most efficient way in which we can get others to understand us isthrough language. This is why action theorists are often interested in the way weuse language to exchange meanings with each other. Language, verbal orwritten, is the uniquely human device which we are able to use to interactmeaningfully with one another, and thereby to create society.From this point of view, societies are made up of individuals engaging in acountless number of meaningful encounters. The result is social order. But this isno determined order. It is not the result of the imposition of cultural rules, as
3the consensus theorist sees it. Nor is it the result of limitations imposed byinequalities as the conflict theorist sees it. Instead, society is an order achievedby the capacities of the members themselves. It is the result of numerousoccasions of interaction, carried out by actors who can interpret and make senseof the social settings in which they find themselves and who choose courses ofaction accordingly.Symbolic interactionism (SI)Symbolic interactionism is the name given to one of the best-known social actiontheories. It was developed by George Mead and it was he who stressed the waythat humans use symbols to interact with each other. He looked at how peopledevelop a sense of who they are, a sense of self.In Mead‟s view developing a sense of self is an essential part of the process ofbecoming human. With a sense of self we can mentally put ourselves “insomeone else‟s shoes” and interpret what they mean by their actions. Thisinterpretation process is the basis of all human interaction.One of the principal interests of SI has been to consider the effects ofinterpretation on the person whose actions are being interpreted. SI stressesthat interaction is a two-way interpretive process. We must not onlyunderstand that someone‟s action is a product of how they have interpreted thebehaviour of someone else, but that this interpretation will have an impact onthe actor whose behaviour has been interpreted in certain ways too.For example:A girl may dress in a certain way because she wants to fit in with a particularfriendship group. She is manipulating the symbolic meaning of her clothing inorder to achieve an interpretation by others that she wants, (she might not thinkabout it in these terms but that is what she is doing). If others interpret herbehaviour as she intends, then they will accept her in the group and she will goon to behave as a group member. If they do not interpret her behaviour as sheintended but thinks she means something else (she is taking the micky, forexample) they will respond differently, and then her behaviour will be different.Labelling TheoryLabelling Theory has developed out of symbolic interactionism and focuses onthe power of labelling by others on the development of a sense of self. Labellingtheorists do acknowledge that labels can be negotiated; people are notnecessarily powerless victims of labels, they can encourage certain labels andresist others; but labelling theorists are particularly interested in the effects oflabels on the people receiving them.Labels can bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. If someone gets themessage from others that they are a certain type of person (eg: shy), that initself can cause them to accept the label (eg: behave like a shy person).
4CRITICISMS OF INTERACTIONISM1. European criticismInteractionism developed in America and is criticised for reflectingAmerican values of freedom and individualism. Traditional structuralconstraints are thought to be more significant in European societies.2. Structural criticismStructural theorists criticise social action theories for notexplaining how people come to choose to behave in the sameway. They do not explain large scale patterns in humanbehaviour, and do not examine how norms and values affectbehaviour.3. Marxist criticismInteractionists do not explain where meanings come from in the firstplace. For example: Marxists would claim that meanings come fromclass relationships and limitations to choices caused by classinequality.4. Feminist criticismInteractionists do not explain where meanings come from in the firstplace. For example: feminists would say that meanings come fromgender relationships, and limitations to choices caused by genderinequality.
5NOW fill in the answers to the following questions.1. Which sociologist challenged the structural approach?2. What did he say should be included in a science of society?3. According to interactionists what causes social structures (ways of doingthings) in society?4. According to interactionists what should sociologists want to achieve whenthey study human behaviour?5. How do people choose how to behave?6. What are humans interpreting most of the time?7. What are people trying to achieve when they interact with others?8. Give an example of some clothing, and say what you think it symbolises.9. What is meant by linguistic symbols?10. How is social order achieved in society?
611.Who developed symbolic interactionism?12. What is meant by a “sense of self”?13.Why is having a “sense of self” important to symbolic interactionists?14.What is meant by a two-way interpretive process?15.What does labelling theory focus on?16.What does it mean to say a label can be negotiated?17.What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?18.Identify four criticisms of interactionismA.B.C.D.