Social Action theories (Weber and Social Interactionism) Flashcards Preview

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Key Ideas

Action theories are micro level, 'bottom up' approaches focussing on the actions and interactions of the individual. Action theories are more voluntaristic than structural theories: individuals have free will and choice.


Max Weber: social action theory

Although widely considered the founding father of Social Action theory, Weber saw both structural and action approaches as necessary for understanding human behaviour, arguing that an adequate explanation involves two levels:
1. the level of cause, explaining the objective structural factors that shape behaviour.
2. the level of meaning, understanding the subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions.


Structural cause

In his study of the rise of capitalism, at the level of structural cause, the Protestant reformation introduced a new belief system, Calvinism. This changed people's world view, leading to changes in their behaviour.


Subjective meaning

Work had a religious meaning for the Calvinists, as a calling by God. This motivated them to work systematically. As a result, they accumulated wealth and became the first modern capitalists.


Although Weber did see the influence of structural factors, he was the first to suggest the importance of individual meanings. Weber classified actions into what four types? (based on their meaning for the actor)

1. INSTRUMENTALLY RATIONAL ACTION, where the actor calculates the most efficient means of achieving a given goal, e.g. capitalist calculating the most efficient way of maximising profit.
2. VALUE RATIONAL ACTION towards a goal that the actor regards as desirable for its own sake, e.g. worshipping god in order to get to heaven.
3. TRADITIONAL ACTION is customary, routine or habitual action, where no thought or choice has gone into it.
4. AFFECTUAL ACTION expresses emotion, e.g. weeping out of grief. Weber sees this as important I political movements for charismatic leaders.



Weber advocated the use of 'Verstehen' or empathetic understanding of the actor's subjective meaning, where we put ourselves in the actor's place to understand their motives and meanings.


Evaluation of Weber

Weber's ideas are a valuable corrective to the over emphasis on the structural factors we see in Marxism and functionalism, and they affirm that we must understand actor's subjective meanings if we want to explain their actions adequately,


Criticisms of Verstehen

- Weber advocated the use of verstehen, where we put ourselves in the actor's place to understand their motives. However, since we cannot actually be that other person, we can never be sure we have truly understood their meanings


Why does Alfred Schutz criticise Weber's view of action

- Alfred Schutz argues that Weber's view of action is too individualistic and cannot explain the shared nature of meanings. For example, when a person at an auction raises their arm, they mean that they are making a bid. But Weber doesn't explain how everyone else present also comes to give this gesture the same meaning.


Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism first developed in the first half of the 20th century. Like other action theories, it focuses on the ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions as based on the meanings we give to situations.


What four key theories are within Symbolic Interactionism?

Mead, Blumer, Labelling theory and Goffman


G.H. Mead- Symbols versus instincts

Unlike animals whose behaviour is governed by instincts, we respond to the world by giving meanings to the things that are significant to us. We create a world of meanings by attaching symbols to the things around us. Therefore there is an interpretive phase between a stimulus and our response to it, in which we interpret its meaning before choosing an appropriate response. E.g.. when one dog snarls at another, the snarl acts as a direct stimulus, to which the second dog responds instinctively. There is no conscious interpretation by the dog of the other's actions. By contrast, shaking a fist could have several possible meanings that must be interpreted.


G.H. Mead- Taking the role of the other

We interpret other people's meanings by taking their role, e.g. putting ourselves in their place and seeing ourselves as they see us. This ability develops through interaction. We first do this as young children , by first seeing ourselves as our parents see us and then from the POV of the wider community.


Herbert Blumer

Blumer identified three key principles of interactionism:
1. Our actions are based on the MEANINGS we give to situations, people etc. They are not automatic responses to stimuli
2. These meanings arise from INTERACTIONS and are to some extent negotiable and changeable
3. The meanings we give to situations as the result of our INTERPRETATIONS- especially taking the role of the other


Blumer's theory contrasts strongly with structural theories

Functionalists see the individual as a puppet, passively responding to the system's needs. Socialisation and social control ensure that individuals conform to society's norms and perform their roles in fixed and predictable ways.


Blumer claimed that action is partly predictable

Blumer argues that although our action is partly predictable because we internalise the expectations of others, there is always some room for choice in how we perform our roles.


Labelling theory

Labelling theories use three key interactionist concepts:
1. Definition of the situation: defining something labels it. Thomas argues that if people define a situation as real, it will have real consequences: if we believe something to be true, it will affect how we act and in turn may affect those involved.
2. Looking glass self: Coley argues that our self concept arises out of our ability to take the role of the other. Others act as a looking glass to us: we see our self mirrored in how they respond to us and we become what they see us as
3. Career: Becker and Lemert argue apply this concept, e.g. to mental patients. The individual has a career running from 'pre patient' with certain symptoms, through labelling by a psychiatrist, to hospital in-patient, to discharge etc. 'Mental patient' may become our master status


Goffman's dramaturgical model

Whereas labelling theory sees the individual as the passive victim of other people's labels, Goffman describes how we actively construct our 'self' by manipulating other people's impressions of us. This is a dramaturgical approach: it uses analogies with drama, e.g. 'actors', 'scripts', 'props', etc.


Goffman- 1. Presentation of self and impression management

Two key dramaturgical concepts are the presentation of self and impression management- we seek to present a particular image to our audiences, controlling the impression our 'performance' gives.
-Impression management techniques include tone of voice, gestures, props and settings such as dress, make-up, equipment, décor and premises.
-As in the theatre, there is a 'front stage' where we act out our roles, while backstage, we can step out of our roles and be ourselves. E.g. teachers' behaviour in the classroom and staffroom


Goffman- 2. Roles

There is a gap or role distance between our real self and our roles , which are only loosely scripted by society and allow us a lot of freedom in how we play them. Role distance implies that we do not always believe in the roles we play. We may be manipulating audiences into accepting an impression that conceals our true self.


Evaluation of Symbolic Interactionism-
+ Avoids the determinism of Structural theories

Interactionism largely avoids the determinism of structural theories, such as functionalism. It recognises that people create society through their choices and meanings.


Evaluation of Symbolic Interactionism-
- Ignores structures in society

It focuses on face to face interactions and ignores wider social structures such as class inequality, and it fails to explain the origins of labels. Similarly, it cannot explain the consistent patterns we observe in people's behaviours. Functionalists argue that these patterns are the result of norms dictating behaviour.


Criticisms from structural perspectives

say that it ignores any influence from society on individuals. We wouldn't see patterns and trends in society if there were no factors that affect the individual


Criticisms from postmodern perspectives

We don't have human interaction in the way that Mead and Blumer describe in the first half of the 20th century. Interaction isn't meaningful anymore, therefore social action theory is outdated.