Social Action Theory


Social Action Theory - Max Weber

  • concerned with the actions of individuals
  • structural and action are important to understanding human behaviours

2 sociological explanations:

- the level of cause - explaining the structual factors that shape peoples behaviour

- the level of meaning - understanding the meaning that individuals attach to their behaviour

The Protestant Work Ethic: work developed a religious meaning for Calvinists so individuals were motivated to work for God

The Numerous Meanings:

  • instrumentally rational action - the actor calculates their actions and the best way of achieving their goals
  • value-rational action - working towards a desired goal
  • traditional action - customary or routine behaviour
  • affectual action - expressing emotion through action
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Meaning and Interpretation

  • all actions are meaningful to those involved
  • meanings are not fixed entities
  • they depend on the context of the interaction
  • meanings are continually created, modified and developed through interaction

Labelling Theory:

1 - the definition of the situation - when we define, we label it, if we declare it as real, it will have real consequences

2 - the looking glass self - Cooley (1922) we continually take the role of others to develop our own self concept, others responses allow us to judge what we are like

3 - career - occupation and what we are completely defined by e.g. medical students and mental patients

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Symbolic Interaction - Mead

  • our behaviour is fixed and pre programmed by instinct
  • we respond to situations, attaching significance and meaning
  • this is achieved through symbolds
  • humans have no instincts to direct behaviour or genetically programmed to act to certain stimulus


  • developed Mead's work after his death
  • behaviour is partly predictable
  • always room for negotiation and choice in how we perform our roles


  • very descriptive and not explanatory
  • not all actions are meaningfull
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  • reject the idea that there is social structure influencing in behaviour
  • society is a construct
  • we impose order and meaning by contructing mental categories 


  • categories are not unique
  • typifications allow us to organise shared experiences
  • the meanings used will change depending on  social context
  • typifications stablises and clarify meanings
  • we can communicate and cooperate with one another to achieve our goals
  • 'recipe knowledge' - common sense knoweldge is not knowledge, it is the world
  • the world only exists if we share its meaning
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Ethnomethodology - Garfinkel

  • developed in the 1960s
  • society is not a real objective structure
  • members of society actively contruct every day life
  • interested in the methods and rules we use  to produce meanings, not the effects of those meanings
  • nothing has fixed meaning - indexicality
  • we cannot take meanings for granted
  • reflexivity - we use commonsense explanations to construct a sense of meaning and order
  • every time we describe something, we create it


  • shows how we actively contruct order, ratrher than being puppets
  • findings are trivial
  • spend time uncovering things that are already taken for granted
  • their argument is counter - intuitive, by suggesting we create all knowledge, their theory is in fact a creation and fake
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Goffman - Dramaturgical Model

  • uses drama as a framework
  • we must continually give a convincing performance of our roles

Impression Management -

  • language
  • tone
  • gestures
  • facial expression
  • props
  • setting

Presentation of Self -

  • control of our performance
  • we must make it convincing
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