Role of the
3 key principles:
• Actions are based on meanings
• Meanings come from interactions
• And from how we interpret these
The looking glass
Impression management and roles
There is no social structure out
Society doesn’t exist – it is a social
Schutzclaims that we
make sense of the world
through typifications –
generally agreed meanings.
These give the appearance
of an ordered world and
Garfinkleclaims that even
though meanings are
(indexicality) we are always
trying to impose order on
our worlds and use
reflexivity to do this.
can influence how
Social Action Theory Evaluation / Evidence
Action is carried out because of custom
or habit, such as buying gifts at Christmas
Action that is influenced by an emotional
state, such as crying at a funeral
Action that is led by an overriding ideal or
value. If a person is committed to a
particular religious belief, it is rational
within that belief system to prey.
This is a highly rational form of action
where people calculate the likely results
of behaviour in relation to a goal. 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
Social Action theory addresses some of the weaknesses
of the structural approach.
One of the criticisms made of some structuralist
research, such as work by Functionalists and Marxists,
has been that all-embracing theories may be thought of
first and then evidence selected to back them up.
Instead they recommended doing close and detailed
observation of some aspect of social life first and then
deriving a groundedtheory from their findings.
Weber argues that we should avoid generalising
theories because people are not determined by general
Social science should proceed by understanding human
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.
Schutz (1972) argues that the action theory is too
individualistic and cannot explain the shared nature of
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
Social action theorists believe that the best approach to the understanding of society is by studying small
Weber argues that we should avoid generalising theories because people are not determined by general
Social science should proceed by understanding human action.
He proposed 4 types of action
Max Weber 1864 - 1920
Symbolic interactionism: A sociological perspective on self and society based on the ideas of George Mead (1934). The central theme of symbolic
interactionism is that human life is based on the use of symbols. Through language and communication, symbols provide the means by which reality is
constructed.Examines meaning in context of small-scale interaction within small social groups.
Meaning is basis of small group interaction, which shapes society. Meaning is important because “when men define situations as real, they become real in
their consequences” (W.I. Thomas)
Successful interaction takes place when group members share meaning of nature of situation.
Intro Detail Evaluation / Example / How it helps us
Mead (1863 – 1931)
Regarded as the founder of Symbolic
We create our world through _______________ _____
___ ___________________, which are based on the
meanings we give to situations.
Our behaviour is not fixed / instinctive. We give
_______________ to the things which are important to
us. We do this by attaching symbols to the world, the
symbol represents something else. When something
happens we go through an _______________
______________before responding to it. This gives us a
chance to choose an appropriate response. For example
if someone shakes their fist at someone the person will
think about the meaning of the _____________ – is the
fist shaker angry or joking. We work out the meanings
by taking the role of the ______________ – which is an
ability which develops through social interaction. To
function in society we must be able to see ourselves as
others do which then helps us share symbols and
language and to _______ as others require us to. (Mead)
Although Meads theory is over 70 years old,
humans do relate the _____________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________________
__________________, norms and values.
In order to have shared meanings, it must feed
of some sort of structural factors and it
therefore over-emphasises the significance of
It cannot explain ______________ 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,
____________ aspects of social life, therefore
ignoring the much bigger picture of life at a
society-wide level of analysis.
It fails to explain social _____________and
Interpretive- phase actpower actions-and-
interactions other change symbol
Blumer was a student of Mead
He developed Mead’s ideas
Blumer, 1962 developed Mead’s approach. Blumer
emphasizes that meanings develop during interaction
and are not fixed.
There are three key principles to actions:
1. Our _______________are based on the meanings we
give to situations and are not instinctive like those of
animals. 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)These
meanings come from the interaction process, they
are not fixed but are changeable to an extent.
2. The _______________we give to situations are
dependant on the interpretive process we use –
especially taking on the role of the other.
3. Action is partly ______________ as we internalise
the expectations of others, however it is not
completely fixed and there is room for personal
choice. Rules and Structures restrict social action and
shape the interpretation of meaning to some extent,
but they are never absolutely fixed.
He criticises the positivist stress on establishing
correlations and laws of human behaviour in that they do
not capture meaning and essence of human behaviour.
He advocates __________________ methods so that the
sociologist is “feeling ones way inside the experience of
It examines interaction ‘in a vacuum’, makes no
reference to the social, economic, political or
historical context of interaction. Marxists in
particular criticise its lack of consideration of the
nature and distribution of _____________.
It exaggerates extent to which interpretation of
meaning is________________. We do not ‘start
from scratch’ each time we interact, most of our
behaviour is based on habit, we perform it
It reflects the individualistic culture of USA
where it was developed. European culture has
more of an appreciation of the role of
Cooley We use the way other people interpret our behaviour as evidence of who and what we
are. Charles Cooley referred to this idea as the _______________________________
We interpret what the behaviour of other people towards us tells us about ourselves. We
frequently interpret the behaviour of others in ways that confirm the image we have of our
selves. Some people _________________________are more significant to us than others
and their views carry more weight with us. We try to manipulate the impression that other
people have of us __________________________
Structure Meanings Predictable
conscious qualitative Actions power
‘significant others’Impression management“looking-glass self”
“Social groups create deviance by making rules,
whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by
applying those rules to particular people and
labelling them as outsiders.”
The key concepts which underpin this theory are:
The definition of the situation – its____________– if
people define a situation as real it will have real
consequences. So if we believe something to be true,
then this belief affects how we __________and therefore
The looking glass self (___________________) - self-
concept comes from our ability to take the role of the
other. This allows us to see ourselves as they see us. So
others act as a looking glass mirroring our actions. This
leads to a___________________________________– we
become as others see us. Our label becomes part of our
Career (_________________) – suggested our career is
our membership of a group. Being part of this group can
give us _____________ in the eyes of society. (Labelling)
The reaction of society marginalises individuals
This process that alters their self-perception and identity
This process creates ______________
Those with power are able to label someone, and make
others accept that label
If the label is especially damaging, it can become a
Symbolic Interactionism led to the development
of important concepts such as: labelling, deviant
career, subculture and self fulfilling prophecy.
These have been employed to great effect in
study of education, ____________________and
Goffman’s Dramaturgical model
Erving Goffman (1922 –1982),
We actively ‘construct’ ourselves though manipulating other
peoples____________________ of us. We are actors, with scripts
and use props with the aim of giving a convincing performance.We
seek to control the presentation of self – so give people a particular
impression of us. To do this we must control the impression our
performance gives. (________________).
This approach suggests that there is a ____________ stage where
we act out our roles and a __________stage where we can be
ourselves. This also suggests we can play roles that we don’t really
believe in - like a confidence trickster we can __________________
others views of us. (Goffman)
The dramaturgical __________ is weak
because at times we are actors and
It established the need to go beyond statistical
correlations and take into account the view of
Ethnomethodologists believe it fails to explain
how actors create meanings.
Someone in authority
labels an individual as
different or deviant
The labelled person is
treated differently by
others they interact
Internalisation of the label
Individuals come to see
themselves as different and
associate with others who
are seen as different and
The individual becomes
more different or
Cooley – 1922Becker – 1963
Back audienceImpressions Impression
management manipulate analogy front
Intro Detail Evaluation / Example / How it helps us
The world only makes sense because we classify and
file information into mental categories. We can only
get knowledge through this process of categorising.
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.
We share ____________________________with
other members of society and these shared
categories are called_____________________.
These allow us to organise our experiences into a
shared world of meaning.
The meaning of an experience comes from its social
context. This makes meanings
allow us to ______________________and make
sure we agree on the meanings of things, which makes
it possible for us to cooperate
and_______________. Without typifications social
_______________ would be impossible.
However society appears to be real and objective
which leads us to adopt the ________________
that the social world is real. (Schutz)
Berger and Luckmann argue that although
life is socially constructed – once
constructed it has a life of its own and
becomes an external _____________that
has an effect on us. E.g. religious ideas may
start in consciousness but are embodied in
religious organisations and structures and
influence us through laws.
Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011)
Ethnomethodology, another type of
social action approach, can
certainly be described as micro
sociology as it examines how
people speak to each other and
interact in everyday conversations
and in relationships within their
EM is different to interactionism as
it is not interested in the effects of
the meanings but in how the
meanings were produced in the first place.
Social order is created from the bottom up, order
and meaning are something the members actively
construct in everyday life using commonsense
Meanings are potentially unclear – this is called
________________– nothing has a fixed meaning it
all depends on the context. ________________is a
threat to social order because with meanings
unstable, communication can break down. However we
have ________________which allows us to
construct a sense of meaning and order which stop
________________from happening. Language is key
to________________as it allows us to remove
uncertainty and give clear meanings. (Garfinkel)
Exampled with his ‘________________
experiments’ – (living as a lodger in their own
Good in that it highlights how we actively
construct order – and are not just puppets of
the social system – so voluntaristic and choice.
Craig argues that findings are trivial and
commonsensical and so don’t add much to our
understanding of society.
What EM sees as a structure of norms –
Functionalism calls ‘social facts’ and denies
that society is merely a shared fiction – but
actually is out there to be studies in its own
meanings ‘natural attitude’ categories
unclear and unstable
• Assess the usefulness of micro sociology to our understanding of society.
Examiners advice: You should begin by explaining what is meant by ‘action’ theories, contrasting them with structural approaches. You need to use
the appropriate terminology: determinism versus voluntarism, ‘top-down’ versus ‘bottom-up’, macro versus micro, objective versus subjective etc. You
should refer to all four major theories; social action theory, Interactionism, phenomenology, and ethnomethodology. However, it is reasonable t focus
on one – probably Interactionism, ensuring you deal with both labelling theory and Goffman. Refer to the differences between action approaches,
especially in relation to how far they give some role to structural factors. A useful way to end is to briefly discuss Giddens’ structuration theory –
does it bring action and structuralist approach together or is it a weak compromise.