An Introduction to Social Action Theory

This post introduces the key idea of social action theory in simplified form for first year A-level sociology students…

Unlike structural consensus and conflict theorists social action theorists do not try to explain human behaviour in terms of an objective social structure that passes down norms, values, or disadvantage. Instead, they try to understand human action by looking at how people interpret their world and the actions of others. They make the following points…

  1. Individuals are Active

According to Social Action Theory, individuals are active, complex and react to the social structures around them in very different ways.  People don’t just passively respond to social norms and institutions and go along with them, rather, we examine them and decide whether to accept or reject certain norms and values.

  1. We need to understand people’s understanding of their own identities

Interactionists argue that we can’t understand individuals without understanding how they see themselves (their identity). A considerable amount of our time in modern society is devoted to constructing and expressing ‘my’ identity, which involves communicating something about myself to others through the use of shared symbols (symbolic action). Unraveling the complexities of how people construct their identities is one of the main things symbolic interactionists contributed to modern sociology, and the main man that looked at this was Erving Goffman in his classic text The presentation of the Self in everyday life

Goffman demonstrated how complex symbolic interaction is in modern life. Goffman argued that when we are out and about ‘in society’, it is like we are on stage, acting for the benefit of others. The ‘self’ that we present others requires careful behind the scenes management of the smallest detail. This is carried out at home, the equivalent of back stage. Such careful management of the self is required because of the dense array of meanings associated with such mundane things as dress, speech and body language. We need to understand these meanings to understand people.

  1. Social Action theory criticises Structuralist Social Theory

Sociologists such as Goffman argue that Social Norms don’t have as much power over us as Functionalists suggest. Rather, most people learn what norms are appropriate and ‘act them out’ when they are in particular social roles (at school, at work, with parents etc), returning to their more complex ‘true selves’ when by themselves or with their friends and family. This is why societies can change unpredictably – what appears to be mass conformity with social norms isn’t, it’s just masses of people going along with existing norms in a kind of illusory mass performance. If we want to get to the truth of who people really are, we need to dig deeper.

  1. Sociologists Should Aim for Empathetic Understanding

Because individuals are active, Social Action theorists aim for empathetic understanding – trying to see the world through the eyes of the people acting and they believe that individual action can only be understood by understanding the how people define their ‘realities’ and uncovering the meanings humans give to their actions. [1]

There are several different reasons why someone might wear something to college on one particular day, and there are several different ways other people might interpret that action. According to Interactionists, there isn’t simply one correct interpretation of human action – someone’s decision to wear a mini-skirt can’t be reduced to the influence of the patriarchal media making that woman think she needs to wear a particular item to impress men (like Radical Feminists might argue), there are lots of possible reasons.

Individuals make hundreds of thousands of ‘choices’ throughout the course of their lives, and so social life is full of hundreds of thousands of decisions, interpretations and mis-interpretations, and if we want to understand people, we need to understand their own personal motives, and how they see themselves in relation to others.

This means research is a complex, and very involved business, it won’t result in nice neat theories of why people act like they do, like you get with Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism, you end up with lots of stories about how people shape their identities.

(Also, you may have noticed that if you want to know why someone acts in the way they do, you need more details in the question – How warm? How short? Did they go out the night before and not go home?)

  1. Labelling Theory is an important part of Interactionism. It argues that there are existing power-structures that constrain people, and that these power structures are kept going by people in power labelling themselves as superior and people not-like them as inferior. Power inequalities are maintained by the powerless accepting their inferior labels.

Labelling theory was developed by Howard Becker in the 1960s. Becker argued that agents of social control often work in narrow stereotypes and label people like them as being ‘good’ and people not like them as being ‘bad’. He argued, for example, that white middle class teachers had an idea of the ‘ideal pupil’ as being middle class, well spoken, quite, respectful of authority, polite and well dressed, and often gave these middle class children positive labels, irrespective of their intelligence. Similarly, working class or underclass children, who tended to be scruffier and more energetic than middle class children, were seen as inferior.

According to Rosenthal and Jacobsen, this could result in a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy which is the process where an individual accepts the label given to them and acts accordingly. If middle class children are labelled positively and working class children negatively we end up with a social pattern: Middle class children do better than working class children. According to labelling theory this structural trend emerges not because of structural disadvantages working class children face as a result of their background, but because they are labelled negatively by middle class teachers. Thus the social structure emerges out of social interaction.

[1] Max Weber, the founding father of social action theory used a German word ’Verstehen’ to describe this type of understanding, which loosely translated means ‘empathetic understanding’

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