Actions Theories

  • Created by: Minah
  • Created on: 15-06-14 15:39

Action Approaches

Key Characteristics;

  • Opposite of systems/structural approaches
  • Individuals shape society
  • Micro
  • Individuals have more free will


The four most important action theories in Sociology are;

  • Weber (structure can influence action)
  • Symbolic Interactionism/Interactionism/Labelling Theory (structure can influence action)
  • Phenomenology (reject social structures and believe that society is constructed)
  • Ethnomethodology (reject social structures and believe that society is constructed)

N.B  Although all four emphasise action they do vary in the degree to which they believe structures influencing behaviour (see above in brackets).



Weber was one of the founders of Sociology and saw both structural and action approaches as necessary for a full understanding of human behaviour.  He argued that an adequate sociological explanation involved two levels;

1. The level of cause – explaining the structural factors that shape peoples behaviour

2.  The level of meaning – understanding the subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions.

Thus, we need to take account of structure and action according to Weber.  This can be seen in his work on the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of capitalism (1905) what caused Calvinism? What was the result of Calvinist beliefs?

 However, according to Weber there are a number of meaning people can give to their actions.  Weber attempted to classify all action into 4 types (typology).   Identify and explain these 4 types (p243)



Instrumentally rational action is where the actor calculates the most efficient means of achieving a given goal. E.g. a capitalist may calculate that the most efficient way of maximising profit is to pay low wages. This action is not about the whether the goal itself is desirable- e.g. it could be disturbing charity or committing genocide. It is simply about the most efficient way of reaching that goal, whatever it may be.


Value-rational action involve actions towards a goal that the actor regards as desirable for its own sake- e.g. a believer worshipping their god in order to get to heaven. Unlike instrumental rationality, there is no way of calculating whether the means of achieving the goal are effective. E.g. the believer has no way of knowing whether performing a particular ritual will gain him salvation.


Traditional action involves customary, routine or habitual actions. WEBER does not see this type of action as rational, because no conscious thought or choice has gone into it. Rather the actor does it because ‘we have always done it.’


Affectual action is action that expresses emotion- for example, weeping out of grief, or violence sparked by anger. WEBER sees affectual action as important in religious and political movements with charismatic leader who attract a following based on their emotional appeal.

Strengths-  Valuable corrective to the over emphasis on structural factors that we see in functionalism and many forms of Marxism, and affirmation that we must also understand actors’ subjective meanings if we want to explain their actions adequately.

Criticisms- SCHUTZ argues that WEBER view of action is too individualistic cannot explain the shared


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