Action Theories

Max Weber: Social Action Theory

  • One of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology
  • Structural + action approaches necessary for a full understanding of human behaviour
  • Adequate sociological explanation involves two levels:
  • THE LEVEL OF CAUSE – explaining objective structural factors that shape people’s behaviour
  • THE LEVEL OF MEANING – understanding subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions
  • To illustrate his point, look at The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) – level of structural cause, Protestant Reformation introduced Calvinism, changed people’s worldview, led to changes in behaviour. Level of subjective meaning, work took on a religious meaning for Calvinists; motivated them to work systematically = accumulated wealth, became first modern capitalists

Types of Action

  • Weber attempts to classify actions into 4 types based on meaning for the actor
  • INSTRUMENTAL RATIONAL ACTION: where actor calculates most efficient means of achieving given goal, regardless of desirability. Rational action simply about most efficient way of reaching said goal
  • VALUE-RATIONAL ACTION: involves action towards goal that actor views as desirable for its own sake; unlike IRA, there’s no way to calculate effectivity of means of achieving goal
  • TRADITIONAL ACTION: involves customary, routine or habitual actions. W doesn’t see this type as rational as no conscious thought/choice involved
  • AFFECTUAL ACTION: action that expresses emotion. W sees this type as important in religious + political movements who attract followers through emotional appeal

Evaluation of Weber

  • Valuable corrective to over-emphasis on structural factors seen in functionalism + forms of Marxism; affirmation we must understand actors’ subjective meanings to explain actions adequately
  • Schutz (1972) argues W’s view too individualistic + cannot explain shared nature of meanings
  • W’s typology of action difficult to apply e.g. among Trobriand Islanders, individuals exchange ritual gifts called “kula” with others on neighbouring islands. Could be seen as traditional action (passed on through generations) or instrumentally rational action (good way of cementing trading links between kula partners)
  • W advocated use of verstehen but we can’t actually be that other person, we can’t be truly sure we understand their motives

Symbolic Interactionism

  • Focuses on our ability to create social world through actions/interactions based on meanings we give to situations

G.H. Mead

Symbolic vs Instincts

  • Our behaviour isn’t shaped by fixed, pre-programmed instincts; don’t simply respond to stimuli
  • We respond by giving meanings to things that are significant to us
  • Create and inhabit world of meanings
  • Attach symbols to world; symbol = stands for or represents something else
  • Interpretive phase occurs between stimulus and response
  • E.g. when one dog snarls at another, snarl = direct stimulus, second dog responds instinctively (defensive). But if someone shakes a fist at you, they’re using a symbol, so we must interpret it (serious or joking?)

Taking the Role of the Other

  • We must do this when interpreting other’s meanings
  • This skill develops through social interaction
  • First, among significant others; later, generalised others
  • To function, we need ability to see ourselves as others see us e.g. through shared symbols

Herbert Blumer

  • Identifies three key principles:
  • Our actions based on meanings we give to situations, people etc. Unlike animals, actions not based on stimuli
  • Meanings arise from interaction process, so negotiable + changeable to some extent
  • Meanings we give to situations are result of interpretive procedures we use
  • B’s view of human contrast with functionalism who see individuals as puppets, following norms we are socialised to accept
  • B argues although actions partly predictable, not completely fixed. Always some form of negotiation + choice

Labelling Theory

  • Application of interactionist view, using their concepts; 3 are below:
  • THE DEFINITION OF THE SITUATION: Thomas (1966) argued if people define situation as real, consequences will also be real. That is, if we believe it’s true, we’ll act accordingly, resulting in consequences for those involved e.g. labelling a student as ‘trouble’ will cause the teacher to treat them differently
  • THE LOOKING GLASS SELF: Cooley (1922) uses this idea to describe development of self-concept (idea of who we are). Argues this arises from our ability to take role of others. By taking role of other, see ourselves how they see us. They act as a looking glass to us. Self-fulfilling prophecy can occur; we become what others see. Use this to understand effects of labelling; label becomes part of self-concept
  • CAREER: stages through which individual progresses in occupation, individual status, title, problems etc. But, labelling theorists like Becker (1961;1963) + Lemert (1962) have extended concept to apply to groups like med students, weed smokers and so on.
  • Interactionism regarded as voluntaristic theory which emphasises free will + choice. Labelling theory been accused of determinism!

Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model

  • Describes how we actively construct our ‘self’ by manipulating other’s impressions of us
  • Theory described as dramaturgical as he uses analogies with drama as framework for analysing social interaction
  • All ‘actors’, following ‘scripts’, using ‘props’, resting ‘backstage’ between ‘performances’ for ‘audiences’ = aim to carry off convincing performance

Impression Management

  • Two key concepts = the presentation of self + impression management
  • We seek to present particular personal image for audiences; to do so, must control impression of performance, must constantly study audiences responses, monitoring + adjusting performance to present convincing image
  • Can use language, tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, props, dress, make-up and so on to achieve good image, can ‘pass’ for kind of person we want to portray
  • G uses dramaturgical analogy to describe different settings of interactions e.g. front of stage = classroom where students need to perform for teacher


  • G’s view of roles differs from view of functionalism
  • Functionalism: tightly scripted by society, internalise script through socialisation
  • G rejects this; there is a gap/role distance between real self and our roles; we’re not really the roles we play
  • Roles loosely scripted, good deal of freedom on how we play them
  • Role distance also suggests we don’t always believe in roles we play, and performance might be cynical/calculating
  • In G’s studies, actor can resemble confidence trickster, manipulating audience into accepting impression that conceals true self + real motives

Evaluation of Symbolic Interactionism

  • Largely avoids determinism or structural theories. Recognises people create society through choices + meanings
  • More a loose collection of descriptive concepts than an explanatory theory
  • Focuses on face-to-face interactions, ignores wider social structures like class inequality + fails to explain labels origins
  • Can’t explain consistent patterns we observe in people’s behaviour. Functionalists argue these patterns result of norms dictating behaviour
  • Reynolds (1975) offers evidence to show interactionism lacks idea of structure, sent questionnaire to 124 interactionists (84 responded). Asked to identify concepts they felt most important, most often picked = role, self, interaction. Only two chose power and class – concepts structuralists see as crucial
  • Not all action meaningful – Weber’s category of action mostly unconscious or routine, little meaning – so lack of means to explain it
  • Goffman’s analogy useful, but limited; interactions everyone plays actor + audience often unrehearsed/improvised
  • Ethnomethodologists argue interactionism correct in focussing on actor’s meanings, but fails to explain how meanings created


  • “Phenomenon”: things as they appear to our senses

Husserl’s Philosophy

  • Argues world only makes sense because we impose meaning + order on it by constructing mental categories we use to ‘file’ info coming from senses
  • Can only obtain knowledge about world through mental acts of categorising + giving meaning to our experiences

Schutz’s Phenomenological Sociology

  • Argues that categories + concepts we use aren’t unique to ourselves; we share them with other members of society


  • Shared categories = typifications
  • Meaning of any experience varies according to social context e.g. raising arm in class different to in an auction
  • Meaning not given by action itself but by context
  • So, meanings can be unstable/unclear
  • Typifications stabilise + clarify meanings (we all ‘speak the same language’)
  • Makes it possible to communicate + cooperate with each other + thus to achieve goals
  • Without T’s no social order!
  • In Schutz’s view, members of society to a large extent do have shared ‘life world’ = common sense; includes shared assumptions about the way things are, what certain situations mean and so on
  • Calls this ‘recipe knowledge’; can follow it without thinking too much + still get ideal result
  • For Schutz’s social world is shared, inter-subjective world that can only exist when we share same meanings

The Natural Attitude     

  • Society appears to us as real, objective thing existing outside of us
  • Schutz gives example of posting letter to bookshop to order book; assume unknown, unseen individual will carry out lots of procedures which will result in us getting the book
  • The fact we do encourages us to adopt ‘natural attitude’; believe social world solid, natural
  • But, shows those involved all share same meanings, allows cooperation
  • Berger + Luckmann (1971) argue S right to focus on shared common sense but reject his idea of society being inter-subjective reality; yes, it’s socially constructed, but once it is takes life of its own = external reality that reacts back on to us


  • Garfinkel rejects idea of society as real objective structure ‘out there’, like Schutz
  • Like Parsons, G interested in achievement of social order; has different answer to P who states its made by shared value system (top-down approach). G argues bottom-up approach creates social order. Order not achieved because we’re puppets. Instead, social order = accomplishment – something members construct through common sense knowledge
  • EM interested in methods of rules that we use to produce meaning, while interactionists look at effects of meanings  

Indexicality and Reflexivity

  • EM sees meaning a potentially unclear; G calls this indexicality; nothing has fixed meaning, depends on context
  • This is clearly threat to social order as meanings tend to be unclear/unstable, communication/cooperation becomes difficult, social relations could break down
  • Paradox here, however; indexicality suggest we can’t take any meaning for granted but that’s exactly what we do on daily basis
  • What we have that enables us to behave like meanings are clear is reflexivity; refers to fact that we use common sense knowledge in daily interactions to construct sense of meaning -similar to Schutz’s typifications
  • LANGUAGE is vital in achieving reflexivity; when we describe something, we’re creating it; description gives it reality, removes uncertainty, makes it seem clear, solid and meaningful

Experiments in Disrupted Social Order

  • G + students wanted to demonstrate nature of social order by using ‘breaching-experiments’ e.g. lived as lodgers in own families or tried to bargain price of veg at supermarket
  • Aim was to disrupt people’s sense of order, challenge reflexivity by undermining assumptions
  • G concluded, by challenging said assumptions, experiments show organisation of everyday situations isn’t inevitable but actually an accomplishment of those involved
  • Social order = participant produced

Suicide and Reflexivity

  • G interested in methods to achieve reflexivity
  • In case of suicide, coroners make sense of death by selecting certain features from number of possible ‘facts’ about deceased e.g. mental health. Then treat said features as real pattern
  • For G, humans strive to impose order by seeking patterns even when they’re just socially constructed
  • Then, when faced with future cases with similar features (mental health), coroner interprets them as part of the pattern
  • Cases fitting into pattern classified as suicides and will seem to prove pattern’s existence; becomes self-reinforced, but states nothing about external reality
  • G critical of conventional sociology, accuses it of using same methods as ordinary members of society to create order + meaning, so CS nothing more than common sense, not true, objective knowledge
  • E.g. positivists e.g. Durkheim, take for granted suicide stats are social facts which tell us real suicide rates. Merely decision made by coroners, using common sense. Therefore, ‘laws’ positivists produce just elaborate version of this common sense
  • Sociologists claim no truer than those of members in society as a result

Evaluation of Ethnomethodology

  • EM draws attention to how we actively construct order + meaning, we’re not just puppets!
  • Craib argues findings are trivial; EM spend a lot of time ‘uncovering’ taken-for-granted rules that aren’t surprising to anyone
  • EM argues everyone creates order + meaning by identifying patterns + producing explanations that could be fictious. Same must go for EM’s so we have no major reason to accept their views
  • EM denies existence of wider society, merely a shared fiction. But, when analysing member’s uses of norms/rules with specific context, assumes structure of norms does exist beyond context. For functionalists, these norms = social facts, not fictions
  • EM ignores how wider structures of power + inequality affect meanings individuals construct e.g. Marxists argue ‘common sense knowledge’ = ruling-class ideology

Structure and Action

  • Structural theories e.g. Functionalism + Marxism tend to be deterministic; sees society objectively, external to individual, constraining them
  • Contrastingly, action theories voluntaristic, society created by members through subjective action + meaning
  • Both hold some truth
  • So some sociologists have sought to combine the two  

Giddens’ structuration theory

  • There is duality of structure; structure + action (agency) two sides of same coin; both can only exist together
  • Through our actions we can produce/reproduce structures; these being what makes actions possible in first place: this relationship = STRUCTURATION
  • G illustrates this through language, which is a structure, made up of rules about grammar etc. that govern how we use it to express meaning
  • Structure appears to exist independently of individual, constrains behaviour, like Durkheim’s social facts. We must obey the rules, or we won’t be understood.
  • Structure also depends on action e.g. language wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t used

Reproduction of Structures through agency

  • For G, structure has 2 elements:
  • Rules – norms, customs, laws that govern action
  • Resources – economic (technology etc.) + powers over others
  • Rules + resources can be reproduced or changed by human action
  • But, in G’s view, although action can change structures, tends to reproduce it
  • First, society’s rules contain knowledge about how to live lives e.g. earning a living and so on
  • Second, we reproduce existing structures through action as we have deep-seated need for ontological security (need to feel world, physical and social, is as it appears, especially as its orderly, stable, predictable)
  • Encourages action to maintain structures!

Changes of Structures through Agency

  • Despite tendency to maintain structure, action or agency can change it
  • First, we ‘reflexively monitor’ our actions. Can judge and change actions if need be. Most likely in late modern society as tradition doesn’t dictate action, increases chance of change
  • Second, actions may change the world, but not always as intended; unintended consequences

Evaluation of Giddens

  • Makes attempt to overcome division between structure + action in sociological theory
  • G implies actors can change structures just by deciding to. Archer (1995) argues he underestimates capacity of structures to resist change
  • Craib: structuration theory not a theory at all, doesn’t explain what happens in society just describes things we’ll find when studying it
  • Argues G fails to unite structure + action; G’s theory a ‘thoroughgoing action theory’ that reduces idea of structure to rules governing routine everyday actions. G fails to explain how his theory applies to large-scale structure e.g. economy

Quick-Check Questions

  1. Structural theories view society as objective, external to individuals, constraining them. Action theories see society as created by members within it through subjective meanings and their interactions with one another. 
  2. Four types of action identified by Weber are instrumentally rational action, value‐oriented rational action, traditional action and affectual action. 
  3. Mead’s interactionism is symbolic because it concentrates on the use of symbolic meanings by human beings in constructing reality. 
  4. The ‘dramaturgical model’ makes use of analogies from the theatre e.g. actors and scripts.
  5. Two examples of techniques someone might use for impression management include body language and clothing.
  6. For ethnomethodologists, indexicality means that meanings tend to be unstable or unclear. Reflexivity refers to when someone uses common-sense knowledge to construct a sense of meaning and order. 
  7. Human ‘agency’ tends to reproduce rather than change existing structures as daily life contains rule following and using resources and this therefore reproduces the structure of society.

Ontological security refers to the idea that the world is stable and predictable and is what it appears to be.