We can divide sociological theories into two broad types: structural and action theories.
Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism are all structural theories, are interested in ‘society as a whole’ and ask ‘societal level questions’ such as ‘what functions does education perform for society and the individual’? (Functionalism) or ‘why does injustice exist’ (Marxism and Feminism)? They seek to understand the actions of individuals by looking at the structure of wider society and generally believe that ‘society shapes the individual’.
Sociologists who adopt social action perspectives usually reject the view that society has a clear structure that directs individuals to behave in certain ways. Some social action theorists do not deny the existence of a social structure, but see this structure as rising out of the action of individual; others argue that there is no such thing as a social structure. For the purposes of Second Year sociology you need to know about four Action Theories – all of which have slightly different views on the relationship between social structure and social actions.
Max Weber is generally regarded as the founder of social action theory – he believed that we need to develop an empathetic understanding to uncover the personal meanings and motives individuals give to their own actions, and that this was crucial to understanding how social structures changed over time. However, he also believed that we could make generalisations about types of motive people had and that these general motivations were influenced by the wider society – thus he is half way between structure and action theory, rather than a pure ‘social action’ theorist.
George Herbert Mead developed ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, and he put more emphasis on the role of the active individual than Weber.
For Mead, there is still a society ‘out there’ which constrains human action, in the sense that there are a number of pre-existing social roles which people have to take on in order to get by in society. However, individuals have considerable freedom to shape their identities within and between these social roles.
Mead also argued that everything about society is open to multiple interpretations and meanings – the same institutions, social roles and individual-actions can mean very different things to different people. For Mead, individuals are constantly interpreting and re-interpreting each other’s ‘symbolic actions’ – and this is an ongoing, complex process – if we want to understand human action we need to understand the micro-details of how people interpret other people’s actions, and how their re-actions are in turn re-interpreted and so on.
In order to truly understand why people act in the way that they do, we need to understand people’s ‘self-concept’ – their identities, there ideas about the ‘generalised other’ (society) and micro-interpretations.
Erving Goffman’s developed Mead’s work in his Dramaturgical theory of social action – he argued that the most appropriate way to understand people is to view them as if they are actors on a stage – people use props (such as clothes and body-language) to project idealised images of themselves to a social audience – people have multiple identities which change according to the social setting and the audience they find themselves performing in front of. As well as the social world, the front stage, we all have backstage areas (mostly the home) where we prepare for our social performances, and reflect on how good or bad our performances have been, and plan to change them accordingly. For Goffman, individuals are very active and manipulative, and we may never actually get to see people’s real identities unless we spend considerable time with them during their day to day lives.
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) – and argues that people in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless. For example, parents, teachers and the police generally have more power to make labels stick and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory criticises both Mead and Goffman, arguing that while we need to look at micro-level interactions and meanings to examine labelling, we still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labeling and identity construction.
Most posts are adapted from standard degree and ‘A’ Level text books such as Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives