Action Theory

Max Weber: Social Action Theory

Weber - structural and action theories are important in understanding human behaviour.

Two levels of sociological explanation are required:

  • The level of cause - explains objective structural factors that shape behaviour.
  • The level of meaning - understanding the subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions. 

Weber classifies the subjective meanings that people may give to their actions into four types:

  • Instrumentally rational action - individual calculates most efficient way of achieving goal.
  • Value rational action - action towards a goal which is desirable for own sake.
  • Traditional action - involves customary, routine, or habitual actions.
  • Affectual action - action that expresses emotion.

Evaluation - Schutz argues that Weber's view is too individualistic, cannot explain the shared nature of meanings.

Weber's typology of actions is difficult to apply.

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Husserl, Schutz: Phenomonology

Husserl -

  • World only makes sense as we impose meaning on it by using our senses and categorising our experiences - identifies each aspect of the world around us.
  • We can only gain information about the world by giving meaning to our experiences.
  • The world around us is a product of our mind.

Schutz -

  • In social world, the categories and concepts we identify are shared with other members of society - called typifications.
  • Meanings of our experiences vary within context, making them unclear and unstable.
  • Typifications define meanings by ensuring all individuals agree on meanings of our actions.
  • Large proportion of society share large amount of typficiations.
  • Schutz sees the world as shared and inter-subjective. Can only exist when we share same meanings.

Evaluation: Berger and Luckmann - reject view that the world is inter-subjective reality. Society has been socially constructed and become external reality which reacts back on us,

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Mead, Blumer: Symbolic Interactionism

Mead -

  • We respond to the world by giving meanings to things that are significant to us by attaching symbols to the world.
  • Believes that we interpret other people's meanings by putting ourselves in the place of that person.
  • Belives that for society to function, we must see ourselves as others see us, and become conscious of how others expect us to behave.

Blumer - continued Mead's idea through three key principles:

  • Actions are based on meanings we give to situations.
  • Meanings arise from interactions process and are not fixed at the outset.
  • The meanings we give to situations are a result of the interpretive procedures we use.

Blumer's view of human behaviour contrasts with structural theories (functionalism). Our behaviour is partly predictiable, but not completely fixed.

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Goffman, Labelling Theory: Symbolic Interactionism

Labelling theory - three key interactionist concepts that highlight labelling theory:

  • The definition of the situation - if a situation is labelled as real, it will have real consequences.
  • The looking glass self - our ideas of who we are arise from our ability to see ourselves as others see us. Self-fulfilling prophecy arises from this.
  • Career - stages in which someone progresses in their occupation. Can be applied to medical students, marijuana smokers etc.

Goffman -

  • Argues how we actively construct our 'self' by manipulating impressions of us.
  • Dramaturgical approach - uses analogies with drama as a framework for social interaction (e.g. social stage)

Evaluation -

  • Some argue that symbolic interactionism is more a collection of descriptive concepts than an explanatory theory.
  • Focuses on face-to-face interactions and ignores social structures such as inequality.
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