The social action theory was founded by Max Weber. There are two main types of sociological theories; the first is the structural or macro theory while the other is social action, interpretive or micro perspectives. At the two ends of the argument as to which is a better theory are Durkheim, the founding father of functionalism, and Weber, the mastermind behind social action theory.
As the ‘micro’ name suggests, social action perspectives examine smaller groups within society. Unlike structuralism, they are also concerned with the subjective states of individuals. Very much unlike a structuralist perspective, social action theorists see society as a product of human activity.
Structuralism is a top-down, deterministic perspective that examines the way in which society as a whole fits together. Functionalism and Marxism are both structuralist perspectives: as such, they both perceive human activity as the result of social structure.
Giddens “Theory of Structuration" (1979) sees structure and action theories as two sides of the same coin: structures make social action possible, but social action creates the structures. He calls this the ‘duality of structure’. Critics of Giddens, such as Archer (1982) or (1995), argue that he placed far too much emphasis on the individual’s ability to change social structure simply by acting differently.
Interestingly, although Weber believed that sociology was a study of social action, he also advocated the combination structuralist and interpretative approaches in his general approach to research.
Max Weber believed that it was social actions that should be the focus of study in sociology. To Weber, a ‘social action’ was an action carried out by an individual to which an individual attached a meaning.
Therefore, an action that a person does not think about cannot be a social action. Eg. An accidental collision of bicycles is not a social action as they are not a result of any conscious thought process. On the other hand, a wood cutter cutting wood has a motive, an intention behind that action. It is therefore ‘a social action’.
Social action sociologists reject the views of structuralists. However, Weber acknowledges the existence of classes, status groups and parties, but challenges Durkheim’s view that society exists independently of the individuals who make up society. Phenomenology and ethnomethodology deny the existence of any sort of social structure.
Most of the social action and interpretavists perspectives deny the existence of a clear social structure that directs human behaviour. However, those who do believe in a social structure see it as being shaped by individuals.
Weber referred to two types of understanding:
‘Aktuelles verstehen’, which is direct observational understanding.
And ‘erklärendes verstehen’, where the sociologist must try to understand the meaning of an act in terms of the motives that have given rise to it. To achieve this type of understanding you must put yourself in the shoes of the person whose behaviour you are explaining to try and understand their motives.
In social action theory, Weber believes that bureaucratic organisations are the dominant institutions in society. Weber believes that bureaucracies (institutions) consist of individuals carrying out rational social actions designed to achieve the goals of bureaucracies. Weber views the whole development of modern societies in terms of a move towards rational social action. Thus, modern societies are undergoing the process of rationalization.
Weber argues that all human action is directed by meanings. He identified various types of action that are distinguished by the meanings on which they are based:
Affective or emotional action – this stems from an individual’s emotional state at a particular time. Traditional action – this is based on established custom; people act in a certain way because of built-in habits: they have always done things that way. Rational action – involves a clear awareness of a goal.
Willis attempted to discover the meanings the ‘lads’ gave to their actions and to those of others.
Interpretive studies of the family seek to explore its role as one of the key groups within which we share our experience of the social world.
In this way, it is similar to the functionalist view. However social action theorists are concerned with individual roles within the family as opposed to the family’s relationship to wider society.
Using an interpretivist approach, Berger and Kellner (1964) argued that individuals need to make sense of and create order in the world around them in order to avoid anomie. They also argued that in an increasingly impersonal world, the role of the private sphere of marriage and the family is essential for self-realisation of the individual, i.e. making sense of their social world.
The main weakness of the interpretivist approach when researching the family is the tendency to ignore wider social structure. For example, both Marxists and Feminists argue that the way in which roles are constructed in the family is not merely a matter of individual negotiation, but a reflection of how power is distributed in wider society.
The social action perspective is to examine how and why particular individuals and groups are defined as ‘deviant’ where deviance can be defined as “behaviour that does not follow the norms of a particular social group." Such a definition may impact their future actions within society.
Becker (1963) believed that the way in which he interpreted ‘deviance’ was that an act only becomes deviant when others perceive it as such.
Interpretivists or social action theorists use qualitative research methods to gather an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and the reasons behind such behaviour. The qualitative method investigates the whyand how of decision making, not just what, where, when. Examples: Participant Observation (either overt or covert) and unstructured interviews.
The social action theory gives researchers a better understanding of actions behind human behaviour, be they ‘traditional’, ‘affective’ or ‘rational’.
However, the social action theory tends to ignore wider social structure. There are also notions that research is biased due to the subjectivity of researchers, thus results are, at least partially ‘fictional’ accounts. It would seem that as social action theory is generally subjective, it is not as ‘solid’ as structuralist approaches where research is based on facts.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex