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Social action theories are known as micro theories which take a bottom-up approach to studying society; they look at how individuals within society interact with each other. There are many forms of social action theories, the main ones being symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology. They are all based on the work of Max Weber, a sociologist, who acknowledged that structural factors can shape our behaviour but individuals do have reasons for their actions. He used this to explain why people behave in the way in which they do within society.
Weber saw four types of actions which are commonly committed within society; rational, this includes logical plans which are used to achieve goals, traditional-customary behaviour, this is behaviour which is traditional and has always been done; he also saw affectual actions, this includes an emotion associated with an action and value-rational actions, this is behaviour which is seen as logical by an individual. Weber’s discovery of these actions can therefore be seen as useful in the study of society. Weber discovered these actions by using his concept of verstehan, a deeper understanding.
However, some sociologists have criticised him as they argue that verstehan cannot be accomplished as it is not possible to see thing in the way that others see them, leaving sociologists to question whether Weber’s social action theory is useful in the study of society. Social action theories have also been referred to as interactionism as they aim to explain day-to-day interactions between individuals within society. G. H Mead came up with the idea of interactionism and argued that the self is ‘a social construction arising out of social experience’.
This is because, according to Mead, social situations are what influence the way in we act and behave. He claims that we develop a sense of self as a child and this allows us to see ourselves in the way in which other people see us; we act and behave in certain ways depending on the circumstances which we are in. Mead also claimed that we have a number of different selves which we turn into when we are in certain situations; i. e. we may have one self for the work place and another self for home life.
Mead concluded that society is like a stage, in which we are all ‘actors’. Mead’s theory if interactionism is useful in the study of society as it explains why people behave in different ways in certain situations. Mead argues that the social context of a situation is what influences our behaviour, humans use symbols, in the form of language and facial expressions, to communicate, he also argued that humans and animals differ as reasons behind humans’ actions are thought through and not instinctive, unlike those of animals’.
However, it has been argued that not all action is meaningful, as Weber’s category of traditional action suggests that much action is performed unconsciously and may have little meaning. Therefore, mead’s idea of interactionism cannot be seen as an appropriate theory to use when studying society. Blumer, a sociologist, who elaborated on Mead’s concept of the self – ‘I’ and ‘me’ – stated that there were three principles about actions and behaviours within social situations. He argued that our actions are the result of situations and events and they have reasons.
The reasons behind our actions are negotiable and changeable, so they’re not fixed. Our interpretation of a situation is what gives it meaning. Blumer’s three principles can therefore be used in the study of society. However, it has been argued that his principles cannot explain the consistent patterns which we see in people’s behaviours. This therefore leaves many sociologists to question whether Blumer’s principles can be used to study society. Labelling theory has also been used to apply the interactionist theory to society; the theory, like Mead, emphasises the importance of symbols and situations in which they are used.
The main interactionist concepts are the definition of the situation – if we believe in something then it could affect the way in which we behave. The looking glass –self – this was created by Cooley who argues that we see ourselves in a way in which we think others see us. These concepts have been useful in explaining why people act in certain ways in certain situations; therefore, the labelling theory is effective in the study of society. Overall, in conclusion, there are many different social action theories which can be used in the study of society, however, not all of them can be applied to all individuals.