Social Action Theory – A Summary

A summary of Webers’ Verstehen Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory, Symbolic Interactionism and and Labellling.

Last Updated on August 19, 2021 by

Unlike structural theorists, social action theorists argue that people’s behaviour and life-chances are not determined by their social background. Instead, social action theorists emphasises the role of the active individual and interactions between people in shaping personal identity and in turn the wider society. In order to understand human action we need to uncover the individual’s own motives for acting.

Social Action Theory

This post provides a summary of the key ideas of Social Action Theory for A-level sociology students studying the theory and methods topic in their second year of study, AQA focus.

Max Weber: Verstehen, and Social Change

  • Observation alone is not enough to understand human action, we need empathetic understanding. Gaining Verstehen is the main point of Sociology.
  • Understanding individual motives is crucial for understanding changes to the social structure (as illustrated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
  • Weber still attempted to make generalisations about types of motive for action – there are four main types of motive for action – Instrumentally rational, value rational, traditional action and affectual action
  • Different societies and different groups emphasise the importance of different types of ‘general motive’ for action’ – so society still affects individual motives, but in a general way.

Symbolic Interactionism

  • People’s self-concepts are based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self).
  • We act towards others on the basis of how we interpret their symbolic action, the same action can be interpreted differently by different people – we need to understand these specific meanings to understanding people’s actions.
  • We ‘are constantly ‘taking on the role of the other’ – thinking about how people see us and reacting accordingly, this is very much an active, conscious process.
  • Each of us has an idea in the back of our minds of ‘the generalised other’ – which is basically society – what society expects of us, which consists of different norms and values associated with different roles in society.
  • These social roles are not specific or fixed; they can be interpreted in various different ways.

Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory

  • People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves
  • When we act in the social world, we put on a ‘front’ in order to project a certain image of ourselves (call this part of our ‘social identity’
  • To create this front we manipulate the setting in which we perform (e.g. our living room), our appearance (e.g. our clothes) and our manner (our emotional demeanour).
  • Impression management involves projecting an ‘idealised image’ of ourselves,
  • We must be constantly on our guard to practice ‘expressive control’ when on the social stage.
  • Acting out social roles is quite demanding and so in addition to the front-stage aspect of our lives, we also have back-stage areas where we can drop our front and be more relaxed, closer to our ‘true-selves’
  • Most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ nor fully ‘contrived’ and most people oscillate between sincerity and cynicism throughout the day and throughout the role they are playing.

Labelling Theory

  • Focuses on how the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality)
  • People in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory
  • We still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labelling and identity construction.

Positive Evaluations of Social Action Theory

  • Recognises that people are complex and active and have their own diverse meanings and motives for acting
  • Overcomes the determinism found in structural theories such as Marxism which tend to see individuals as passive
  • Goffman’s dramaturgical theory seems especially useful today in the age of Social Media
  • Labelling Theory recognises the importance of micro-level interactions in shaping people’s identities, and the fact that people in power are often more able to ‘define the situation’.
  • In-depth research methods associated with social action theory often have high valid

Criticisms of Social Action Theory

  • It doesn’t pay sufficient attention to how social structures constrain action – for example, material deprivation can have a real, objective impact on your ability to well at school, thus failure is not just all about labelling.
  • Tends to ignore power-distribution in society – it can’t explain patterns in class, gender, ethnicity.
  • If people are so active, then why do so many people choose to be so normal?
  • Labelling theory can also be criticised for being deterministic
  • The small-scale methods associated with this theory can equally be criticised for lacking reliability and

Signposting and Related Posts 

Social Action theory is usually taught as part of the social theory aspect of the second year A-level sociology module in theory and methods, typically in contrast to the two structural theories Functionalism and Marxism, and is followed by (and in some ways is a pre-cursor of ) Postmodernism.

This post on teacher labelling and the self fulfilling prophecy, taught as part of the first year Education module provides a lot more depth on the micro-interactions which make up the whole process of labelling.

You might also like the following two posts which expand on other aspects of the notes above:

Max Weber”s Social Action Theory

A Summary of Erving Goffmans’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

12 thoughts on “Social Action Theory – A Summary”

  1. is there anything on here about sructural theories, what they are and how theyre different?

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