Action theories take an opposite view to structuralist theories. Rather than seeing society shape our behaviour, action theories see behaviour as voluntaristic: i.e. individuals have free will and can make conscious choices about their actions. Action theories are micro theories: they look at individual actions and interactions, rather than society as a whole.
Weber & Social Action
Weber argued that sociological explanations operate on two levels:
- The level of cause: which recognise structural factors
- The level of meaning: to understand the meanings people attach to their actions.
- Therefore, Weber recognised the importance of both structure and action.
Weber’s four types of action
Weber was concerned with verstehen: gaining an empathetic understanding of actions from the viewpoint of the actor involved. Weber attempted to categorise actions based on four different meanings for the individual involved:
Instrumentally rational action: the actor has an individual goal and rationally calculates the most efficient means of achieving it: e.g. the goal of a capitalist may be profit and the most efficient means of achieving this may be through paying low wages.
Value-rational action: the actor has a goal desirable for its own sake; however, there is no rational means of achieving this: e.g. worshipping to get into heaven.
Traditional action: this involves routine activities. This has no conscious thought because the actor automatically does it without thinking: e.g. decorations at Christmas.
Affective action: an expressive emotion without clearly defined goals: e.g. violence as an expression of anger or frustration.
Modern societies have become characterised by rationalisation where actions are shaped through rational thought.
Evaluation of Weber
Weber’s theory is useful because it challenges the structuralist approaches put forward by functionalism and Marxism.
It also recognises that we need to understand actions from the viewpoint of those involved.
However,Shultz uses a phenomenological view by arguing that Weber ignores the shared meanings: e.g. we share the meaning that a nod of the head means ‘yes’. Weber cannot explain why everyone shares this meaning.
Furthermore, Weber’s concept of verstehen is limited: we may be able to understand from another individual’s viewpoint, but we can never actually be that individual.
Symbolic interactionism (SI) sees social life as being based on the interaction of humans via the use of symbols. This interaction creates our social world. The meaning of an object is not intrinsic (i.e. essential to its basic nature) but dependant on how people interact with it. E.g. a red rose tends to be given the meaning of love and romance even though there is nothing about a red rose itself that gives it that meaning. It is simply attached to it by individuals. These meanings can change: e.g. the meaning of a single red rose may differ when given by a partner or given by a teacher.
Mead: the self image
Humans can see themselves from the point of view of others. The self has two concepts: the I and the Me. These enable an individual to understand how others would perceive our actions and so shape our behaviour. E.g. a person sitting in an exam has an urge to shout something out. This is the I and is part of their personality. However, they do not carry out this action because they know how others will react to their behaviour – this is the Me and shapes our behaviour.
The self emerges through social interaction. We learn how others view us, firstly through interaction with significant others e.g. the family and then generalised others e.g. the wider public.
Blumer criticises the view that humans are shaped by forces beyond their control. He argued that it is unacceptable to suggest that behaviour can be examined in terms of response to external forces. Our actions are based on meanings given to all social situations and are shaped by our ability to interpret how others see us.
Labelling theory is underpinned by three key concepts:
· The definition of the situation: i.e. the label, which shapes how we act. E.g. if a teacher defines a pupil as a problem that teacher will treat that pupil as a problem
· The looking glass self: the label creates a self-concept because we can see how others view us, creating a self fulfilling prophecy e.g. the pupil is aware the teacher has labelled them a problem, so they become a problem
· Career: an individual goes through different phases, which may become a master status e.g. a pupil labelled as a problem underperforms in exams, so is seen as a failure, and cannot gain work, meaning they have the master status of failure
However, this assumes we accept the labels others have of us and that we do not have the ability to influence how others see us. Goffman argues this is a weakness of the labelling theory.
Goffman: the dramaturgical analogy
Labelling theorists have been criticised for assuming the actor has little ability to influence the labels applied to them. Goffman argued this is not the case: we are actively involved in the process of image management to construct an image of how others see us.
The dramaturgical analogy illustrates this. We are all ‘actors’ on a ‘stage’ putting on a ‘performance’ with the use of ‘props’. We rehearse this ‘backstage’ before presenting to our ‘audience’.
For example, a teacher (actor) puts on a performance for a class (audience) in the classroom (stage). The teacher may use a variety of props (e.g. their style of dress, notes, laptop, books) to carry out their performance, which they may prepare backstage (e.g. planning a lesson). All this is to create an impression of a teacher on the students, and is carefully managed and controlled by the teacher. Away from the classroom the teacher may present a different performance.
Phenomenologists argue phenomena only exist on the basis of meanings attached to them. Sociology must seek to understand these meanings e.g. Atkinson and suicide (see suicide): suicide has no reality – it is simply a meaning attached to a death by a coroner. To understand suicide we need to understand why coroners give the meaning of suicide to some deaths but not others (based on the coroner’s ‘common sense ideas’ about suicide).
Shuitz points out that meanings are not unique to an individual but shared. These shared meanings are known as typifications and make society work. Thus we all recognise a red traffic light to mean ‘stop/danger’.
Meanings are not fixed but dependent on their context: this is called indexicality. Therefore, we cannot take the meaning of any action for granted – but we do because we use common sense ideas to attach meanings to actions – known as reflexivity.
Structuration theory combines both structure and action, because one cannot exist without the other. E.g. language is made up of a structure: grammar, but it is also reproduced through action where new words enter the language.