Social Action Theories


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  • Weber argues that we should avoid generalising theories because people are not determined by general laws. Social science should proceed by understanding human action. Weber’s work has been influential in the development of the sociology of everyday life. Weber’s approach lead to a view called methodological individualism which focuses on how people actively engage in social interaction. Structures do not determine our behaviour. Weber is critical of Marx, and believes that it is individuals that shape the development of society.
  • A student may consider various costs and benefits of different courses of action before selecting a particular behaviour. They may put more effort into an essay for one teacher because they write the student reports. Schutz (1972) argues that the action theory is too individualistic and cannot explain the shared nature of meanings. Weber’s typology of action is difficult to apply and some actions belong to more than one type of action identified by Weber. We can never truly understand an individual’s actions so Weber’s idea of verstehen cannot be applied. Lee and Newby (1983) describe Weber as a methodological individualist who ignores how the structure of society.
  • Mead argued that humans interact through the use of symbols such as Symbols can be: Visual signs (red traffic light = stop) Visual gestures (waving = hello) Expressions (frown = angry) Verbal (scream = fear) Sounds (siren = emergency)   Shared understanding of these symbols and how to respond to them form the basis of communication. Whilst we are each conscious individuals, the way in which we choose to behave is influenced by the social context of that behaviour .   To interpret the meaning of ‘symbols’ we use empathy and put ourselves in the place of others. This enables us to understand the meaning behind the action. Blumer: 3 key principles of Symbolic Interactionism; Our actions are based on meanings that we give to situations.   These meanings are negotiable and are not fixed.   The meanings we give are based on interpretive procedures such as empathising.   Interactionist Theories include; The Labelling Theory & Dramaturgical Model. Criticisms of Symbolic Interactionsim: Ignores social structural issues such as poverty and inequality.   Fails to explain how labels are created.   It cannot explain consistent behaviour patterns.   Reynolds (1975) found evidence that interactionists ignore power and class as being important concepts of interactionism. Evaluation: It over-emphasises the significance of the individual. There tends to be little conception of social structures. It cannot explain power relationships in society in the way that Marxists or feminists have. It does not explain why some individuals / social groups are more powerful than others. It concentrates too much on small-scale, trivial aspects of social life, therefore ignoring the much bigger picture of life at a society-wide level of analysis. The dramaturgical analogy is weak because at times we are actors and audience members. Criticisms of Symbolic Interactionsim: Ignores social structural issues such as poverty and inequality.   Fails to explain how labels are created.   It cannot explain consistent behaviour patterns.   Reynolds (1975) found evidence that interactionists ignore power and class as being important concepts of interactionism.
  • It is our job to determine the meaning of these symbols and act accordingly. Understanding the meaning of these symbols to us is the key to understanding human behaviour. How useful is Mead’s theory to an understanding of society? Although Meads theory is over 70 years old, humans do relate the meanings of symbols to what they do, i.e at a red traffic light, the majority of people would stop. Therefore, Mead is correct to an extent. However, Mead states that we as individuals shape society, but for the majority to abide by the symbols, rules and regulations there must be some sort of collective conscience, norms and values. In order to have shared meanings, it must feed of some sort of structural factors .
  • Blumer, 1962 have developed Mead’s approach. Blumer emphasizes that people do not react automatically to external stimuli but interpret their meaning before reacting (for example, interpreting the meaning of a red light before deciding how to react to it) Meanings develop during interaction and are not fixed. Rules and Structures restrict social action and shape the interpretation of meaning to some extent, but they are never absolutely fixed.
  • We all label people and objects Those with power are able to label someone, and make others accept that label Labelling of humans can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy If the label is especially damaging, it can become a master status Look at the work of Goffman and the dramaturgical analogy
  • front regions’ (on stage) in the eyes of the public. In the ‘back regions’ (off stage)
  • Strengths: These are micro approaches that see the individual as having agency, not simply as a recipient of external social forces. Interpretivism enables us to see how social reality is constructed through meanings and negotiations.   Weaknesses: Versethen sociology assumes the individuals engage in rational behaviour and thus are able to understand their own motivations. Ideal types are simply devices to make sense of chaotic reality. Weber’s interpretation of the relationship capitalism and Protestantism has been challenged on historical grounds. Symbolic Interactionism ignores the impact of structural elements on individuals. Labelling assumes that social actors passively accept being labelled and tends to ignore resistance labels.
  • We can only obtain knowledge about the world through our mental acts of categorising and giving meaning to our experiences. Any meaning given to an experience varies according to its social context. We ‘typify’ meanings to ensure that all members of society are in agreement.   Phenomenology is another branch of social action theory with a slightly different emphasis. It examines the social construction of particular phenomena and the results of this subjective way of seeing and talking about them (a discourse) on people’s attitudes and behaviour. Jack Douglas studied concepts of suicide, suggesting that some people viewed it as a means of crying for help, some as a way to get revenge, others as a spiritual hope of reaching a better place. These different motivations for suicide meant that it could not be regarded as a single type of act, making nonsense of analysing patterns in suicide statistics in the hope of finding causes. How people view childhood, deviance, gender and religion have also been studied extensively. This type of research is also known as social constructionism. Without the process of typification, social order would be impossible!   Members of a society have a shred ‘life world’ – a stock of shared typifications or commonsense knowledge that we use to make sense of our experience. It includes shared assumptions about the way things are, what different situations mean and what other people’s motives are.   A Criticisms of Phenomenology: Berger and Luckmann (1971) reject Schutz’s view that society is merely an inter-subjective reality. Berger and Luckmann claim that once reality has been socially constructed, it takes on a life of its own and becomes and external reality that reacts back on us.   An example of this is religion. Religious ideas may start off in our consciousness but they become embodied in powerful structures such as churches, which then constrain us. For example; influencing laws about sexual relations.  
  • Ethnomethodology, another type of social action approach , can certainly be described as microsociology as it examines how people speak to each other and interact in everyday conversations and in relationships within their own homes. Not to be confused with ethnography, though both words relate to the study of social groups) ethnomethodology reveals that there are unspoken rules when people of a common culture chat to each other. For example we usually take turns and respond to what the other person has just said in an appropriate way. There are conventions such as not describing our ailments in detail if a comparative stranger greets us with ‘How are you?’ Harold Garfinkel (1967) conducted ‘breaching experiments’ in which participants were asked to break these conventions in order to reveal how much we take them for granted. For example students were asked to go home and behave as if they were guests at a hotel run by their parents. The result was that the parents, not aware that an experiment was taking place, believed their children were suffering from some sort of mental illness or had taken drugs.
  • Social Action Theories

    1. 1. Action Theories
    2. 2. Weber and Social Action• Structural and Action approaches arenecessary for understanding humanbehaviour, arguing that an adequateexplanation involves 2 levels:1.Level of cause- explaining the objectivestructural factors that shape behaviour2.Level of meaning- understanding thesubjective meanings that individualsattach to their actions
    3. 3. Weber: Different types of social actionType ExplanationTraditional Action Action that is custom or habit e.g.buying gifts at ChristmasAffectual Action Action that is expresses by anemotional state, such as crying at afuneralValue-rational action Action towards a goal the personregards as desirable e.g. Praying toget to heavenInstrumentally rational actionThis is a highly rational form ofaction where people calculate themost efficient means of achieving agiven goal
    4. 4. Symbolic Interactionism• Symbolic interactionists emphasise theways in which society is actively shapedby individuals and the meanings theyattach to ‘everyday things’.
    5. 5. George Herbert Mead• Noticed most of our communication was symbolic suchas smiles, and frowns.• There is an interpretive phase between a stimulus andour response to it, in which we interpret its meanings.• We interpret other people’s meanings by taking theirrole (putting ourselves in their place, seeing ourselvesas they see us)• This ability develops through social interaction• To function as members of society we need theability to see ourselves as others see us. Throughshared symbols esp. language we become conscious ofthe ways of acting that others require of us
    6. 6. Herbert Blumer• Blumer developed Mead’s approach and identified3 key principles of Interactionism:1. Our actions are based on the meanings we give tosituations, people etc. They are not based onautomatic responses to stimuli e.g. (for example,interpreting the meaning of a red light before deciding how to react to it)2. These meanings arise from interactions and areto some extent negotiable and changeable3. The meanings we give to situations are mainly theresult of taking the role of the other.
    7. 7. Labelling Theory• Perhaps the most well known application of symbolicInteractionism is labelling theory. Used widely in Education andDeviance.• Some groups have more power and are able to impose theirmeanings or interpretations on the rest of us• Charles Cooper (1922) uses labelling to describe how we developour self- conceptUses 3 Interactionist concepts1.Definition of the situation- defining somethinglabels it. If people define a situation as real, itwill have real consequences. Once ‘labelled’ peoplemay changer their behaviour and become deviant-SFP
    8. 8. • Looking-glass self- Cooley argues thatour self concept arises out of our ability totake the role of others. Others act as alooking glass to us: we see our selfmirrored in how they respond to us and webecome what they see us as (why SFP occurs)• Career- apply concept to mental patients.The individual has a career running from‘pre-patient’ with certain symptomsthrough labelling by a psychiatrist tohospital in-patient to discharge etc.‘Mental patient’ becomes the masterstatus
    9. 9. AO2:• Labelling theory has been accused of determinism- of seeingour actions and identities as shaped by the way others labelthem•It fails to explain where labels actually originate from
    10. 10. Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model• Argues that social interaction is aboutsuccessful role playing• We actively construct our ‘self’ bymanipulating other people’s impressions ofus• Uses analogies with drama for analysingsocial interaction e.g. ‘actors’, ,scripts,‘props’, ‘backstage’ etc• We are all social actors engaged in thedrama of everyday life
    11. 11. 1. Presentation of self & impressionmanagement• We seek to present a particular image to ouraudiences, controlling the impression our‘performance’ gives• Impression management techniques includetone of voice, gestures, dress, make up• As in the theatre there is a ‘front stagewhere we act out our roles, while backstagewe can step out of our role and ‘be ourselves’e.g. Teachers behaviour in the class andstaffroom
    12. 12. 2. Roles- There is a gap (role distance)between our real self and our roles,which are only loosely scripted bysociety and allow us a lot of freedom inhow we play them• Role distance implies that we do notalways believe in the role we play. Wemay be calculating, manipulatingaudiences into accepting an impressionthat conceals our true self
    13. 13. Evaluate Weber and SymbolicInteractionism
    14. 14. Phenomenology• Phenomenon- things as they appear to oursenses• We can never have definite knowledge ofwhat the world outside is really like, all we canknow is what our minds tells us about it• It examines the social construction ofparticular phenomena and the results of thissubjective way of seeing and talking aboutthem (a discourse) on people’s attitudes andbehaviour.
    15. 15. Example• Jack Douglas studied concepts of suicide,suggesting that some people viewed it as ameans of crying for help, some as a way toget revenge, others as a spiritual hope ofreaching a better place. These differentmotivations for suicide meant that it couldnot be regarded as a single type of act,making nonsense of analysing patterns insuicide statistics in the hope of findingcauses
    16. 16. Ethnomethodology• Ethnomethodology examines how peoplespeak to each other and interact ineveryday conversations andrelationships• Rejects idea of society as a realobjective structure• Sociologists task is to uncover thetaken-for –granted rules people use toconstruct social reality
    17. 17. • Summarise EthnomethodologyEvaluation (pg 249)
    18. 18. Combining Structure and Action• Action Theories- micro level,voluntaristic that see society as inter-subjective, constructed throughinteraction and meaning• Structural theories- macro,deterministic theories that see societyas objective and external to individuals
    19. 19. Giddens Structuration Theory• Seeks to combine the 2 approaches into asingle unified theory of structure and action• Argues that there is duality of structure.Structure and agency (action) cannot existwithout the other• Our actions produce, reproduce and changestructures over time and space, while thesestructures are what make our actions possible• This is called relationship Structuration
    20. 20. AO2:Criticised for not being a theory at all; it doesn’texplain what happens in society. It just describes thekinds of things we will find when we study societyHe fails to explain how his theory can be applied tolarge scale structures e.g. economy & state
    21. 21. Reproducing Structures throughagencyGiddens- Structure has 2 elements:1. Rules- Norms, customs, laws that govern action2. Resources- economic & power over others• Rules & Resources can either be reproduced or changedthrough human action. However our actions generally tendto reproduce rather than change them. This is becausesociety’s rules contain a stock of knowledge about how tolive our lives, so our routine activities tend to reproducethe existing structure of society• We also reproduce existing structures because we have adeep-seated need to feel the world is orderly, stable andpredictable
    22. 22. Changing Structures through agency• Change can happen because:1.We reflect upon our actions and we candeliberately choose a new course ofaction. In late modern society, wheretradition no longer dictates action thisis even more likely2.Our actions may have unintendedconsequences, producing changes thatwere not part of our goal
    23. 23. AO2:Giddens claim that actors can changestructures underestimates the capacityof structures to resist change e.g. slavesmay wish to abolish the institution ofslavery but lack the power to do so