Social Action Theory: Revision Notes for A-Level Sociology

The Advance Information for the 2022 Sociology A-levels specifies that students WILL be assessed on the area of consensus, conflict, structural and/ or action theories.

The easiest way to revise these topics at A2 level is to briefly cover the key ideas of each theory AND ALSO revise how each of these theories applies to the topic areas you have studied – usually families, education, crime and deviance and research methods, and then to evaluate.

This post is a summary revision post of the key ideas of social action theory. Before reviewing it you might like to look at these posts:

Social Action Theory Main Ideas

  • We need Verstehen to understand human action, because the same actions can mean different things to different people. Statistical methods and observation alone are not enough to understand human action (Weber)
  • We need to understand action in terms of shared meanings within a group (Mead) and how the members of that group see themselves (their identity) and how the individuals and the group understand society.
  • We need to understand whether an individual is just putting on an act (manipulating props and just managing an impression)
  • We need to understand whether a person has been labelled by agents of social control, whether they have been stigmatised by society.

Research Methods Implications

  • Getting to people’s own motives for action requires in-depth qualitative methods
  • In order to understand shared meanings we need at the very least to use unstructured interviews.
  • In order to assess whether the extent to which people are ‘acting out’ identities we need to use Participant Observation, which in many cases will not be possible.

How Social Action Theorists understand family life

The Personal Life Perspective argues that we need to start by abandoning standard definitions of the family and focus instead on what ‘family’ means to them – when we do this, we find that many people see a whole load of unusual relationships as being more significant to their intimate lives (pets and dead relatives for example) than their actual ‘family members’. This critics the Functionalist idea that families are necessary parts of society – families are much more fluid than ever before, and friends can perform many of the functions as formal family members.

How they understand achievement in education

  • (Following Mead) – In depth research of anti-school subcultures has revealed a wide variety of meanings and identities which different students bring to the school…which conflict with the school’s value system. For example, Paul Willis’ study found that the lads saw school work as irrelevant to their future lives, while Tony Sewel argues that being a ‘swot’ may compromise young black boys’ ideas about masculinity. We thus cannot truly understand underachievement without understanding these boys’ identities and why school doesn’t fit in with their identities.
  • Labelling theory however explains underachievement in terms of middle class white teachers labelling students not like them as problem students, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Goffman’s dramaturgical theory is useful – ‘good’ students may just be better at putting on an act – better at ‘impression manageme

How Social Action Theorists understand Crime and Deviance

  • Following Mead – Research on gangs has shown that being in a gang doesn’t necessarily mean ‘being bad” – gang membership is typically casual and fluid, it does not mean that much at all to many members, and is about protection for many, rather than criminality. There are several different types of gang, several different meanings. This criticise structural subcultural theories of deviance.
  • Following Becker’s labelling theory – The Police act in terms of stereotypes when it comes to stop and search, as do the courts, this goes some way to explaining why there are more EM’s in jail.
  • Following Goffman’s dramaturgical theory – elites may be just as criminal as non-elites, they are just better at acting in ways which mean they avoid attention from the police.

Key Studies

  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  • The ‘action’ bit of Paul Willis’ study of the lads.
  • John Heale’s One blood – gangs as self-defence, gangs as fluid;
  • Gok Wan – People dressing up
  • Facebook;
  • Howard Becker – The Ideal Pupil
  • RJ SFP
  • David Gilborn – Teachers labelling African Caribbean boys

Social Action Theory: Evaluations

  • 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.
  • It 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 representativeness

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