Theory and Method Notes


Social Structure and Social Action:

Social structure shapes individual behaviour, it refers to pre-existing social structures in which people live. It represents a macro level of analysis and suggests that society shapes behaviour.

The idea assumes that society consists of reproduced patterns that cause behaviour, behaviour is determined by social structure. A number of sociological approaches adopt this thinking and can be criticised for denying the importance of choice and creativity expressed in everyday social action:

  • Durkheim used the theory of external, constraining and objective social facts.
  • Parsons described a set of institutions which fulfil basic needs in society as a functional unit.
  • Marx explained the idea of the bourgeousie exploiting the proletariat.
  • Althusser suggested the ideological state apparatus, with society form of economic, political and ideological levels.
  • Walby described the structures of patriachy which oppress women.

Weber is also seen as a founding father of sociology, he argued overgeneralised theories should be avoided as people are not governed by general laws. He suggested that sociology should be studied by constructing ideal types of action:

  • traditional - done due to custom or habit
  • affective - done due to emotion
  • rational value orientated action - led by an overiding value or belief
  • rational goal orientated action - likely results of behaviour are calculated in reference to a goal

The last two of these types of action are suitable for interpretative analysis based on reflective action not automatic behaviour and can be applied to all groups in society. A focus on RGOA leads to the iron cage of rationality. Ritzer used a case study of McDonaldisation to demonstrate this point.

Weber's work has led to the creation of methodological individualism which focuses on how people actively engage in social interaction. Structures don't determine our behaviour and all explanations can be reduced to individuals.


  • rejects general theories and then creates one
  • assumes human behaviour is coopretive
  • ignores conflict
  • micro sociology cannot explain wider pictures.

Mead believed that all indiviuals use social interaction to understand symbols with common meanings because everyone has two parts of the self: the 'I' and 'me'.  The I describes our capacity to reflect and the me is the part which exists for others. Role taking and reflexivity lead to social interaction. 

This led to the foundation of an appoach called social interactionism which suggests that people react towards objects based on the meanings which have been constructed (rose = love), these meanings are a product of social interactions (rose given to grandma is not romantic) and these meanings are handled via reflection.

The dramaturgical analogy suggests that actors plan their performace to give a certain impression. Social order rests on social actors using impression management alongside props to stage a performance. This theory develops the I and me with the I being the backstage, and the me being the onstage performance.

Labelling theory has its beginnings in social interactionism, as a person defines social situations as real, this was applied to deviance by Becker who argued that deviant…


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