Social Action Theory

Theory and Methods AQA a2 Sociology

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  • Created by: Olivia
  • Created on: 18-04-13 10:15

Social action theory

Be aware that social action theories are sometimes called 'interpretivists', 'interactionist' or 'phenomenological' theories

Social action theorists, or interactionist sociologists, reject the assumption held by functionalists and Marxist sociologists - that social behaviour is constrained and even made predictable by the organization of society.Social action theorists see people as having a much more proactive role in shaping social life.

Social action theorists reject the view that people's behaviour is the product of external forces over which they have little control.Chris Brown argues that people engage in voluntary behaviour. Most people do not feel themselves to be the puppets of society.

However, althogh people opeate as individuals, they are aware of other people around them. Social action theorists argue that the attitudes and actions of others influence the way people think and behave. Social action theorists also argue that society is a product of people interacting in social groups and trying to make sense of their own and each other's behaviour.

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Social Action Thoery

People are able to work out what is happening in any given situation because they bring a set of interpretations to every social interaction and use them to make sense of social behaviour. In particular, people apply meanings to symbolic behaviour. When they interact with others, they are on the lookout for symbols because these give clues as to how the other person is interpreting their behaviour.

For example, similing is symbolic behaviour that might be interpreted as social approval.

Experience of symbolic intereaction results in people acquiting knowledge about what is appropiate behaviour in particular situations. They learn that particular contexts demand particular social responses.

For example, drinking and dancing at a party is regarded as appropiate, yet the same behaviour at a funeral is inappropiate.

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Socialisation and Identity

Social action theorists argue that socialisation involved learning a stock of shared interpretations and meanings for most given social interactions. Families, for example, teach children how to interact with and interpret the actions of others.

Social action theorists suggest that socialisation results in individuals acquiring a social identity, which refers to the personality characteristics and qualities that particular cultures associate with certain social roles or gorups.

In British culture, for example, mothers are expected to be loving, nurturing and selfless, so women who aremothers will attempt to live up to this description and acquire this social identity. As children grow up socialisation and interafction with others will show them what British culture experts of them in terms of obligations, duties and behaviour towards others.

Furthermore, the individual has a subjective sense of her or his uniqueness and identity. Sociologists call this the self. It is partly the product of  what others think is expected of a person's social identity.

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Socialisation and Idenity

However, 'self' is also the products of how the individual interprets her or his experiece and life history. For example, some women may havec, in their own minds, serious misgivings about their role as a mother. The self, then, is the, link between what society expects from a particular role and the individual's interpretations of whether she or he is living up to that role successfully.

The concept of self has been explored extensively by social action sociologists. Some have suggested that the self has two parts - The 'I' and the 'me'. The 'I' is the private inner self, whereas 'me' is the social self that participates in every interaction. When a person plays a social role as a teacher or studene, the 'me' is in action. The 'me' is shaped buy the reactions of others - That is, people act in ways they think are socially desireable. However, the 'I' supplies the confidence of self-esteem to play the role successfully.

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Key Study - Socialization and Identity


Erving Goffman (1959) - Argues that social interaction is about successful role-playing.


He suggests that we are all social actors engaged int he drama of everyday life. Stage directions are symbolized by the social and cultural context in which the action takes place. For example, the classroom as a a stage symbolizes particular rules that must be followed if the interaction is to be successful. For example, students sit as desks while teachers can move around the room freely.

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Socialisation and Identity

Labelling theory is a type of social action theory, which points out that although there s a consensus of meamning on how people should behave, it is constantly evolving and changing.

For example interactionists argue there is no such this and 'right' and 'wrong' behaviour. However, some groups have more power and are able to impose theird meaning or interpretatons argue there is no such thing as 'right' or 'wrong' behaviour.

However, some groupas have more power and are able to impose their meaning or interpretations on the the rest of us. 

They make the rules (e.g. laws) which define the behaviour of groups as deviant or criminal. They are able to apply negative lavels via the mass media (via moral panics), education (e.g. ideal student stereotype) and through the legal system (e.g. police stereotypes of the typical criminal or suspicious person)  

Interactionists point out that labels, applied by means of education a policing, have a powerful effect on the self-esteem and status of groups such as ethnic minorities and can bring about self-fulfilling prophecies and deviant subcultural responses. 

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Evaluation of social action theory

  • The main weakness of social action theory lies in its failure to explore the wider social factors that create the context in which symbols, self and interaction all exist, for example, class and patriarchy. This means that it has no explanation for where the symbolic meanings originate. 
  • It also completely fails to explore power differences between groups and individuals, and why these might occur. For example, Marxists argue that the capitalist class is able to impose its interpretations of reality on less powerful groups in society. 
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