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Action Theory Sociology Essays

Unlike structural theorists, social action theorists argue that people’s behaviour and life-chances are not determined by their social background. Instead, social action theorists emphasises the role of the active individual and interactions between people in shaping personal identity and in turn the wider society. In order to understand human action we need to uncover the individual’s own motives for acting.

Max Weber: Verstehen, and Social Change

  • Observation alone is not enough to understand human action, we need empathetic understanding. Gaining Verstehen is the main point of Sociology.

  • Understanding individual motives is crucial for understanding changes to the social structure (as illustrated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

  • Weber still attempted to make generalisations about types of motive for action – there are four main types of motive for action – Instrumentally rational, value rational, traditional action and affectual action

  • Different societies and different groups emphasise the importance of different types of ‘general motive’ for action’ – so society still affects individual motives, but in a general way.

Symbolic Interactionism

  • People’s self-concepts are based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self).

  • We act towards others on the basis of how we interpret their symbolic action, the same action can be interpreted differently by different people – we need to understand these specific meanings to understanding people’s actions.

  • We ‘are constantly ‘taking on the role of the other’ – thinking about how people see us and reacting accordingly, this is very much an active, conscious process.

  • Each of us has an idea in the back of our minds of ‘the generalised other’ – which is basically society – what society expects of us, which consists of different norms and values associated with different roles in society.

  • These social roles are not specific or fixed; they can be interpreted in various different ways.

Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory

  • People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves

  • When we act in the social world, we put on a ‘front’ in order to project a certain image of ourselves (call this part of our ‘social identity’

  • To create this front we manipulate the setting in which we perform (e.g. our living room), our appearance (e.g. our clothes) and our manner (our emotional demeanour).

  • Impression management involves projecting an ‘idealised image’ of ourselves,

  • We must be constantly on our guard to practice ‘expressive control’ when on the social stage.

  • Acting out social roles is quite demanding and so in addition to the front-stage aspect of our lives, we also have back-stage areas where we can drop our front and be more relaxed, closer to our ‘true-selves’

  • Most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ nor fully ‘contrived’ and most people oscillate between sincerity and cynicism throughout the day and throughout the role they are playing.

Labelling Theory

  • Focuses on how the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality)

  • People in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory

  • We still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labelling and identity construction.

Evaluations of Social Action Theory



  • Recognises that people are complex and active and have their own diverse meanings and motives for acting

  • Overcomes the determinism found in structural theories such as Marxism which tend to see individuals as passive

  • Goffman’s dramaturgical theory seems especially useful today in the age of Social Media

  • Labelling Theory recognizes the importance of micro-level interactions in shaping people’s identities, and the fact that people in power are often more able to ‘define the situation’.

  • In-depth research methods associated with social action theory often have high validity

  • It doesn’t pay sufficient attention to how social structures constrain action – for example, material deprivation can have a real, objective impact on your ability to well at school, thus failure is not just all about labelling.

  • It tends to ignore power-distribution in society – it can’t explain patterns in class, gender, ethnicity.

  • If people are so active, then why do so many people choose to be so normal?

  • Labelling theory can also be criticised for being deterministic

  • The small-scale methods associated with this theory can equally be criticised for lacking reliability and representativeness

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Related Posts 

Max Weber”s Social Action Theory

A Summary of Erving Goffmans’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life


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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.


One of the main studies of social interaction within the education system is ‘Learning to Labour – how working class kids get working class jobs’ by Paul Willis.


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: ParticipantObservation (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

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