Social Action Theory Sociology Essays
1. Macro and Micro
The sociological theories of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons and the functional school are primarily large scale, macrosociological, and structural. These theories were developed in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries in Europe (with Parsons adapting these theories and developing a similar model in the United States). These theories were developed by European social theorists who were attempting to understand the new social world of a modern, industrial, urban society. These classical theories established sociology as an academic discipline, their definition of the social world established the scope of sociological study, and their methodologies determined how sociology would be studied and applied.
In North America a different set of questions occupied late nineteenth and early twentieth century sociologists, and a different sociological tradition became established. North American writers were more concerned with understanding the bases of social action and interaction among individual members of society. Since it is these interactions that define the the social world, underly social structures, and create and maintain societies, sociologists need to understand these. These microsociological or interaction perspectives are of several main types. Symbolic interaction examines meaning, action, and interaction at the micro level, and was developed by United States sociologists George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer, with Erving Goffman, a Canadian, being one of its primary practitioners (Wallace and Wolf, Ch. 5). A related approach is that of ethnomethodology, originally developed by Harold Garfinkel. This is referred to as interpretive sociology or interpretive analysis, and is related to the phenomenological approach of the Austrian-American Alfred Schutz (Wallace and Wolf, Ch. 6). Contemporary sociologists have adapted and developed these ideas and have created a great variety of mixed interaction approaches.
Some of the ideas that led to the these microsociological theories are examined in the following sections. A short summary of some of the different aspects of these two levels of sociology is provided first.
a. Structures or Action. The subject of macrosociological theory is the large-scale structures and features of society – social class, division of labour, power, forms of authority, rationalization, and broad historical developments. In contrast, the subject of microsociology is the individual interacting with other individuals, often in small group settings. Where the settings are within larger scale structures, the micro focus is still on how individuals interpret the situation and interact with other individuals in these settings.
The classical approaches often began with what could be considered micro concepts, but use these to develop macrosociological theories. For example, Marx begins with a micro concept, the commodity, but derives this from a study of capitalism as a whole, and uses it to explain the structure of this system. The theories of Weber and Parsons are concerned with social action, and Parsons calls his theory an action theory, so it might be thought that these two writers span macro and micro. While the action approaches of Weber and Parsons could have led to an interaction perspective, neither author really develops such an approach. Weber is concerned with meaning, but does not devote much attention to defining this, and the bulk of his writings is devoted to groups, organizations, history, and structures of power. Parsons begins with the individual act in a situation, and considers interaction, but moves quickly from this to systems and needs. Interaction underlies these, but is not the primary focus of Parsons. The macro theories concentrate on average action and the regularities that are common to large numbers of social actors. The micro focus is on individual action, its meaning, how interaction occurs, and the uniqueness of individuals and the self
b. Determined or Creative. The macro approach to social action tends to be determined by large scale structural features of society or the cultural and value systems. In these theories, there is often little room for, or analysis of, the manner in which people are creative in their interaction with others. That is, action is determined by social norms, cultural values, laws, religion, social class, consciousness, and ideology. These effect of these macro forces on social action is determinate and can be examined empirically in sociological studies (e.g., Marx’s study of capitalism, Durkheim’s analysis of the division of labour and suicide, Weber’s study of rationalization). In contrast, the interaction approach considers humans to be creative, with unique selves and individual forms of interaction. For these sociologists, social action and interaction can only be studied by carefully examining the ways in which symbols, structures, and organizations are understood by individuals and how different individuals come to interpret interaction differently.
The development of the child, socialization, and the formation of self and individual identity form a large part of the interaction perspective. In this perspective, personality and identity are not determined biologically, but are developed actively within the social environment. While the symbolic interaction approach identifies symbols as important, these are not so determined as the values, norms, or consciousness of the classical theorists and Parsons. Rather, sociologists working within the interaction perspective argue that the basis for social interaction is "a common set of symbols and understandings possessed by people in a group" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 191). These are developed through socialization and continual interaction with other individuals. The sociologist must also understand how the development of the self occurs as children and adults "interpret, evaluate, define, and map out their own action" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 191), rather than merely being "passive beings who are impinged upon by outside forces." (Wallace and Wolf, p, 191).
c. Decision or Practice. A third difference is the underlying approach to social action. The theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons tend to look on action as resulting from a conscious and considered decision on the part of the individual actor. This approach to action may derive from the enlightenment view of individuals as rational decision makers, weighing alternatives, and deciding on the best course of action. Parsons is explicit concerning the rational, decision making process in his theory of social action, and the three classical theorists also appear to adopt such an approach, even if only implicitly. In contrast, interaction theories tend to focus more on actual activities and actions, and what people do in social situations. Whether or not such action is consciously considered and aimed at achieving a specific goal is not the focus of the interaction approach. Rather, interaction theorists examine the experiences, practices, actions, and situations of people to see what they do, and then attempt to understand how these features occur. Everyday life, ordinary experiences, and asking how the generally accepted features of society emerge, are the focus of interaction studies.
While interaction theorists may not have an overall theory of society, classical and Parsonian theory has little analysis of social interaction. Both perspectives have been accused of ignoring women and gender issues, and having inadequate analyses of power in society. In order to understand contemporary sociology, it is necessary to study all of these sociological approaches.
Since Weber defined the social world as that of social action, with the aim of the sociologist being to develop an understanding of how individuals act, his theory is one forerunner of some interaction approaches. For Max Weber, each social action has meaning associated with it, in the sense that the individual does not act as a automaton or robot, or on the basis of instinct or stimulae. Some of the acts carried out by individuals are conditioned or automatic, but a large part of what individuals do is to consider a situation, think about how to approach the situation, contemplate the possible actions of others, and act in a way that the individual thinks will best meet his or her goals. This may be entirely a consciously worked out process, but to be considered as social action, there must be some meaning associated with the action. The task of the sociologist is to attempt to see how people interpret and attribute meaning to the situation.
Consider the situation of workers in a job as an example. Marx assumed that the situation of workers was structurally determined to be in opposition to that of the employer. Yet workers may accept the authority and power structure of the employment situation, perhaps because they need to support themselves and their families, and wish to create a reasonably comfortable life for themselves. They may consider their situation and view acceptance of the organizational structure in which they work as their best option. That is, domination within an organizational structure may be viewed as legitimate, so that there is rational-legal authority. If the employment situation becomes intolerable, this may create more active struggle, perhaps with workers combining to form a trade union. But Weber would say though that the latter does not necessarily result. Rather, the sociologist must evaluate each situation through the eyes of the actors, in order to determine what meanings they take out of the situation, how they assess alternatives, and how they decide to act (or not act).
The interactionist approach can be connected to Weber, although contemporary symbolic interactionism has dramatically refined and developed Weberian and other concepts. Historically, more of the roots of the interaction perspective are in philosophical pragmatism, psychological behaviourism, the German writer Simmel, and some early United States social science approaches.
While Simmel is generally not regarded as being as influential in sociology as were Marx, Weber, Durkheim, or even Parsons, several of the early United States sociologists studied with or were influenced by Simmel. This was especially true of those who developed the symbolic interaction approach including writers in the Chicago school, a tradition that dominated United States sociology in the early part of this century, before Parsons.
Georg Simmel (1858-1918, Germany) was born in Berlin and received his doctorate in 1881. He was of Jewish ancestry and was marginalized within the German academic system. Only in 1914 did Simmel obtain a regular academic appointment, and this appointment was in Strasbourg, far from Berlin. In spite of these problems, he wrote extensively on the nature of association, culture, social structure, the city, and the economy. His writings were read by Durkheim and Weber, and Simmel contributed greatly to sociology and European intellectual life in the early part of this century. One of his most famous writings is "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903) and his best known book is The Philosophy of Money (1907). Simmel's ideas were very influential on the Marxist scholar Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) and Simmel's writings on the city and on money are now being used by contemporary sociologists.
Simmel was influenced by Hegel and Kant and developed a sociological analysis with ideas similar to the three major classical writers. When Simmel discusses social structures, the city, money, and modern society, his approach is similar to that of Durkheim (individual and society), Weber (rationalization), and Marx (alienation). Simmel considered society to be an association of free individuals, and argued that it could not be studied in the same way as the physical world, i.e. sociology is more than the discovery of natural laws that govern human interaction. "For Simmel, society is made up of the interactions between and among individuals, and the sociologist should study the patterns and forms of these associations, rather than quest after social laws" (Farganis, p. 133). He analyzed individual behaviour "because some crucial decisions are made on the individual level, among the ‘atoms of society,’ which can cause reverberations throughout an entire nation" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 193). Simmel’s emphasis on social interaction at the individual and small group level, with the study of these interactions being the primary task of sociology, makes Simmel's approach different from that of the classical writers, especially Marx and Durkheim.
It is Simmel's attempt to integrate analysis of individual action with the structural approach that make his writings of contemporary interest.
a. Size of Group. Simmel noted that the number of individuals in a group in which social action takes place affects the form of group interaction. Relationships in a two person group, what Simmel called a dyad, are relatively straightforward, in that each individual can present themselves to the other in a way that maintains their identity, and either party can end the relationship by withdrawing from it. When a dyad changes to a triad, a three person group, the form of interaction may alter. In the triad, there may be strategies that lead to competition, alliances, or mediation. The triad is likely to develop a group structure that is independent of the individuals in it, whereas this is less likely in the dyad (Ritzer, p. 166).
As group size increases even more, "the increase in the size of the group or society increases individual freedom" (Ritzer, p. 167). The small circle of early or premodern times,
As the group grows in numbers and extends itself spatially, "the group's direct, inner unity loosens, and the rigidity of the original demarcation against others is softened through mutual relations and connections" (Farganis, p. 140). This implies much greater possibility of individual freedom and flexibility, with the common culture and form of association greatly weakened. Note the similarity to Durkheim’s analysis.
The metropolis or city becomes the location where the division of labour is the greatest and where this individuality and individual freedom is most expanded. At the same time Simmel notes that for the individual this creates the "difficulty of asserting his own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life" (Farganis, p. 142). The growth of the city, the increasing number of people in the city, and the "brevity and scarcity of the inter-human contacts granted to the metropolitan man, as compared to the social intercourse of the small town" (Farganis, p. 143) makes the "objective spirit" dominate over the "subjective spirit." Modern culture in terms of language, production, art, science, etc. is "at an ever increasing distance." This results from the growth of the division of labour and the specialization in individual pursuits that is a necessary part of this. Subjective culture is "the capacity of the actor to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture. In an ideal sense, individual culture shapes, and is shaped by, objective culture. The problem is that objective culture comes to have a life of its own" (Ritzer, p.162). "The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of objective life" (Farganis, p. 143). This sounds much like Marx's alienation, Durkheim's anomie, or Weber's rationalization, although Simmel associates this with the city, rather than with the society as a whole, as do the other classical writers.
Where Simmel differs from these other classic writers, is that Simmel returns to the individual, analyzes how the individual deals with the developments of modern society, and considers how the individual personality is developed in these circumstances. Simmel notes that one way individuals assert a personality is to "be different," to adopt manners, fashions, styles, "to appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic." The brevity and fleetingness of contact in the city mean that lasting impressions based on regular and habitual interaction with others cannot be developed. In these circumstances, obtaining self-esteem and having "the sense of filling a position" may be developed by seeking "the awareness of others" (Farganis, p. 143). This means that individuals may adopt some characteristic fashions and in their personal mannerisms may try to appear "to the point." Note that the personality is not an isolated entity but also is a social entity, one that depends on interaction. Social interaction, looking to the reaction of others, and seeking the recognition and awareness of others is an essential aspect of individual personality. In this way Simmel ties together the individual and the social, and each requires the existence of the other.
Further, the intellect and personal psyche develop in a different way in traditional and in modern society. In rural and small town settings, impressions of others are built up gradually, over time, on the basis of habit. Many of these impressions are less conscious and are built on more deeply felt and emotional relationships. (Farganis, p. 136). In contrast, in the city, there is sharp discontinuity, single glances, a multitude of quick impressions.
Thus Simmel views objective culture as having an effect on the individual, but at the same time considers how this alters the development of the individual, how the individual understands this and develops in this context, how the individual interacts with other individuals, and how these interactions form the social life of the city. Simmel concludes his essay by noting how the city influences individuals and provides the "opportunities and the stimuli for the development of ... ways of allocating roles to men. Therewith these conditions gain a unique place, pregnant with inestimable meanings for the development of psychic existence" (Farganis, p. 144). Note "allocating roles to men" rather than "men to roles" as the structural functionalist might describe this process. While Simmel is concerned with the possible negative effects of objective culture, he considers it possible for personalities to develop within these conditions.
b. Individual and Society. For Simmel, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and society – individuals are free and creative spirits, yet are part of the socialization process. Simmel was troubled by this relationship. He viewed modern society as freeing the individual from historical and traditional bonds and creating much greater individual freedom, but with individuals also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. Simmel notes:
Simmel makes three assumptions about the individual and society. (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 312). These are:
In the social world, the various forms and styles of interaction are brought into existence by people and the above assumptions are realized as individuals interact with one another. Humans possess creative consciousness and the basis of social life is "conscious individuals or groups of individuals who interact with one another for a variety of motives, purposes, and interests" (Ritzer, p. 163) People are conscious and creative individuals and the mind plays a crucial role in this mutual orientation and social interaction. This creativity allows for flexibility and freedom on the part of the individual, and at the same time helps to create the structures of objective culture that may constrain and stifle this freedom. That is, social interaction becomes regularized and has patterns to it, and these become forms of association. These patterns and forms, regardless of their content, is what sociologists should study.
This means that society is not a separate reality of its own, but "society merely is the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction ... society certainly is not a 'substance,' nothing concrete, but an event: it is the function of receiving and affecting the fate and development of one individual by the other." For Simmel, society is nothing but lived experience, and social forces are not external to, nor necessarily constraining for the individual, rather it is individuals who reproduce society every living moment through their actions and interactions. Simmel disagreed with Durkheim that "society is a real, material entity" and did not view society as merely a collection of individuals. Rather, he adopted the position of "society as a set of interactions" (Ritzer, p. 170).
The individual in a social unit must be an entity or constituent part of the unit, and Simmel distinguishes between a personal self and a social self. If there is no self-consciousness, symbolic interaction would disappear and human experience would just be the responses to stimuli. Instead, we live and die in terms of what is intersubjectively meaningful – i. e. we view ourselves in terms of responses of others – even others who we have never met.
c. Fashion. An example of how Simmel examines some of these connections in a concrete connection is his discussion of fashion. (See Ritzer p. 161 and Ashley and Orenstein, pp. 314-5). Simmel notes that fashion develops in the city, "because it intensifies a multiplicity of social relations, increases the rate of social mobility and permits individuals from lower strata to become conscious of the styles and fashions of upper classes" (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 314). In the traditional and small circle setting, fashion would have no meaning or be unnecessary. Since modern individuals tend to be detached from traditional anchors of social support, fashion allows the individual to signal or express his or her own personality or personal values. Simmel noted that fashion provides
Ritzer notes that fashion can be considered to be a part of objective culture in that it allows the individual to come into conformity with norms of a group. At the same time, it expresses individuality, because the individual may differ from the norm. Fashion is dynamic and has an historical dimension to it, with acceptance of a fashion being followed by some deviation from this fashion, change in the fashion, and perhaps ultimate abandonment of the original norm, so that a new norm is established. This is a dialectical process, with initial success, widespread acceptance, followed by eventual abandonment and failure. Leadership in a fashion means that the leader actually follows the fashion better than others. Mavericks are those who reject the fashion, and this may become an inverse form of imitation.
In summary, fashion allows personal values to be expressed at the same time as norms are followed. The two exist together, and the one without the other would be meaningless. In all of this, social interaction is of the essence – what others think, what one thinks that others think, and how one conceives of fashion.
d. Philosophy of Money. Simmel's major work concerns money and the social meaning of money. In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel is concerned with large social issues, and this book can be thought of as on a par with The Division of Labour of Durkheim, although not as extensive and thorough as Marx's Capital or Weber's Economy and Society. Simmel considers money as a symbol, and examines some of its effects on people and society. In modern society, money becomes an impersonal or objectified measure of value. This implies impersonal, rational ties among people that are institutionalized in the money form. For example, relations of domination and subordination become quantitative relationships of more or less money – impersonal and measurable in a rational and calculated manner. The use of money distances individuals from objects and also provides a means of overcoming this distance. The use of money allows much greater flexibility for individuals in society – to travel greater distances and to overcome person-to-person limitations.
At the same time, personal identity becomes problematic, so that development of monetary exchange has both positive and negative implications. That is, individual freedom is potentially increased, but alienation and fragmentation may occur.
e. Conclusion. In some senses, Simmel's sociology is similar to that of the other classic writers, although he had less to say about social structure or its dynamics than did Marx, Weber, or Durkheim. He discussed objective culture and his writings on money have some affinity with Weber's rationalization. Simmel’s emphasis on social interaction and the resulting social world provide a unique contribution to the interaction perspective from the European classical period. His analysis of fashion, money, and the city also make his writings worthwhile reading.
4. Philosophical and Psychological Approaches
The symbolic interaction approach was first developed in the United States by social scientists who were familiar with pragmatism and behaviouralism.
According to the pragmatist view, reality is not "out there" in the world, but exists only as it is actively created by individuals in the world. Several principles of pragmatist thought are as follows:
All of these fatures of social life are demonstrated through the way that we use language and the manner in which we fill our various social roles. The philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey was an important influence on Mead, Blumer, and other symbolic interaction writers.
a. William James(1842-1910) taught at Harvard and wrote about psychology and philosophy and attempted to develop moral and ethical principles for meaning and truth that depend on the definite difference these make to people (Knapp, p. 180). For James, consciousness is active, selective and interested, and direct experience is an especially important aspect of this. Ideas are not absolutes, but are a way of preparing for and anticipating experiences.
b. John Dewey(1859-1952) was an important American writer who spent most of his academic life at Columbia University. Dewey argued that the various types of human activity are instruments that are developed to solve the various problems faced by humans. There is no eternal truth, but rather truth is based on experience, testable by all who investigate it. For Dewey, the human mind was not just a thing or a structure, but an active process by which the individual imagines, interprets, decides, defines, and acts in the world. Dewey attempted to work out principles for a democratic and industrial society, and was an opponent of authoritarian methods in education. As founding president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dewey was an important intellectual influence in American life. (Knapp, p. 180 and Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 756).
c. Behaviourismis the psychological approach that explains animal and human behaviour in terms of observable and measurable responses to stimuli (Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 261). In this approach, mental processes are not as important as the stimulus and the response so that the observed stimuli and the observed set of behaviours should be the subject of psychological study. The behaviourist approach was influential on interaction theory in a negative way, with the latter developing to counter the former. While the unit of study for Mead was the act, Mead argued that there were mental processes involved in actions, processes that the behaviourists ignored. Human mental processes differed from those of non-human animals, and this meant that human behaviour had to be studied differently than non-human behaviour. Mead's approach can be considered to be a social behaviourist approach, emphasizing social rather than biological or mental processes (Ritzer, pp. 327-30).
5. Chicago School
In 1890, the department of sociology at the University of Chicago was founded by Albion Small. This department was dominant in American sociology for 40-50 years, until Parsons and Harvard University became more influential. The Chicago school also had an impact on Canadian sociology and one of the major figures in the Chicago school (Ernest Burgess) was from Canada. Small also founded the American Journal of Sociology in 1895 and translated some of Simmel's essays for this journal.
One of the major figures in the Chicago school was Robert Park (1864-1944). After working as a journalist, he graduated from the University of Michigan, studied in Germany with Simmel, and obtained a doctorate at Heidelberg in 1904. He was associated with Booker T. Washington until 1914, when he joined the University of Chicago. Park published Introduction to the Science of Society, which introduced some of the major European theorists to the United States. Park looked on "the city as a giant social experiment, consisting of different worlds, neighbourhoods, and groups which are connected to each other and in conflict with each other" (Knapp, p. 175). Some of Park’s ideas were derived directly from Simmel. Park told his students:
In order to understand society, Park considered it necessary to study the city, the structure of the social world in which people live, and the relationships of people to each other – using "the ‘moving camera’ of the naturalistic approach to catch life as it was happening" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 195). He emphasized communities and changes in these, how individuals were shaped by and integrated into these communities, and how people and groups formed communities. Park stressed the importance of both social research and social reform. For Park and others in the Chicago school, the city was "a social laboratory in which human nature and social processes could be examined" (Shore, p. 127). These researchers were also concerned with the "expanding metropolis and the influence it exerts over contiguous regions" (Shore, p. 121).
Another Chicago school sociologist was W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), co-author of the two volumes of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918, 1920), an important empirical study of immigration and immigrant adjustment in the United States. W. I. Thomas, along with Dorothy Swaine Thomas, noted how individuals involved in interaction define the situation as important in understanding how interaction occurs. If the individual defines situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Wallace and Wolf, p. 194). Sociological researchers must "pay attention to subject meanings or definitions" in order to understand human activity (Wallace and Wolf, p. 194). The Thomases noted that individuals can ignore a particular stimulus or examine and deliberate concerning a situation, before taking action (or not acting).
Mead is generally regarded as the founder of the symbolic interaction approach. George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was trained in social psychology and philosophy and spent most of his academic career at the University of Chicago. Mead's major work is Mind, Self and Society, a series of his essays put together after Mead's death and originally published in 1934, a work in which he emphasizes how the social world develops various mental states in an individual.
Mead looked on the "self as an acting organism, not a passive receptacle that simply receives and responds to stimuli" (Wallace and Wolf, p, 197), as Durkheim and Parsons may have thought. People are not merely media that can be put into action by appropriate stimuli, but that "we are thoughtful and reflective creatures whose identities and actions arise as a result of our interactions with others" (Farganis, p. 145).
For Mead, what distinguishes humans from non-human animals is that humans have the ability to delay their reactions to a stimulus. Intelligence is the ability to mutually adjust actions. Non-human animals also have intelligence because they often can act together or adjust what they do to the actions of other animals. Humans differ from non-human animals in that they have a much greater ability to do this. While humans may do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that it is only humans that can adjust actions by using significant or meaningful symbols. As a result of this greater intelligence, humans can communicate, plan, and work out responses, rather than merely reacting in an instinctive or stimulus-response manner.
Mead notes that human actions have three characteristics: (i) humans are able to organize their minds concerning the array of possible responses open to them; (ii) humans can consider the likely implications of different actions, and test possible outcomes mentally in their own minds; and (iii) since there are a range of stimuli that impinge upon an individual, a human need not react to the immediate stimulus, but may react to one of the lesser stimuli. This means that humans are able to make choices that are better adapted to the situation and "intelligence is largely a matter of selectivity" (Ritzer, p. 339).
For Mead, rather than action being defined by:
action is more appropriately identified with the following sequence of events:
Stimulus Interpet and Define Response
That is, the stimulus-response pattern is not what characterizes social interaction, but rather what happens between stimulus and response. Here humans go through a process of interpreting and defining the stimulus before providing a response. Associated with this is meaning – "the wedding of different attitudes and the use of significant symbols that have the same import for all concerned" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202). "When individuals share symbolic interpretations, the act is meaningful to them" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202). For Mead, symbols are important in allowing human interaction to occur, and it is the shared understanding of the significance of symbols that and what they denote that makes for social interaction.
a. Mind. Mead conceived of the mind as the processes involved in responding to stimuli and contemplating action, with these being almost more important than the physiological processes of the brain, the structure of knowledge, or the contents of individual knowledge. The mind is also social, rather than being purely a characteristic of the brain or the individual. That is, the mind develops as a result of social interaction, the mind is part of social processes, and since the latter precede the mind, society is prior to the mind and self for Mead. While Mead's concept of the mind is less clear than that of the self, Ritzer notes that the mind "has the ability to respond to the overall community and put forth an organized response." This is not just a particular response, but one that can have meaning for the community as a whole, with symbols playing a major role. Further, the mind "involves thought processes oriented toward problem solving."
b. Self. The self is the central social feature in the symbolic interaction approach. Instead of being passive and being influenced by values or structures, Mead considers the self as a process that is active and creative – taking on the role of others, addressing the self by considering these roles, and then responding. This is a reflexive process, whereby an individual can take himself or herself to be both subject and object. This means that "the individual is an object to himself, and, so far as I can see, the individual is not a self in the reflexive sense unless he is an object to himself" (Mead, quoted in Farganis, p. 148).
Wallace and Wolf note that Mead distinguished "things" from "objects" and the "I" from the "me." When an individual is involved in a situation and acts, this action occurs in an environment. Physical things or stimulae exist in the environment, prior to action, and people encounter these. By considering these things and acting in response to them, following self-reflection and interpretation, these things become objects. In doing this, individuals are active and creative. Those things of which the individual is conscious are those that the individual takes note of and indicates to the self. This has two consequences. (i) By being conscious of certain things, the individual makes these things into objects, and these are more than stimuli. The individual "constructs his objects on the basis of his on-going activity." These objects then become meaningful for the individual and "This is what is meant by interpretation or acting on the basis of symbols" (Blumer in Wells, p. 92). (ii) This also means that acts are "constructed or built up instead of being a mere release." The act is considered, in the context of the surroundings including the possible responses of others, and the overall consequences that are anticipated by the actor. Action is thus conscious and is not just a reaction to a stimulus.
Similarly, the I is the impulsive and spontaneous, unorganized response of the individual, whereas the me is the organized self that is learned in interaction with others and which guides the behaviour of the socialized person. The I allows for spontaneity, innovation, and individuality, and the me is that part of the self which involves the influence of others. The self involves both the I and the me, with acts resulting from the dialogue between the two.
Self-interaction is the way in which the individual takes things into account and organizes himself or herself for action. As the social environment changes, or as individuals encounter new or altered experiences, they experiment and interact with themselves in order to find an appropriate response. This involves taking on the role of the other, considering how others will respond, having a conversation with oneself, and forming a means of response which takes all these considerations into account. This may sometimes be quick and not entirely conscious, as in fairly routine situations such as buying food at the cafeteria. At other times, it may involve a long period of conscious role-playing, for example in preparing for a job interview. In either case though, some self-interaction does take place, in that each action is unique and is a result of the individual using the information from previous experiences and what the individual understands about the environment and situation, in order to act appropriately in the future.
Humans are distinctive in having the ability to be able to have a conversation with themselves, to imagine themselves in the position of other people, to consider what the other person imagines, and contemplates what the reaction of the other person is likely to be. This is evident in communication with the other person, where the individual carries on a conversation with himself or herself (although this is covert and in the mind, and is not stated for others to hear) at the same time as the conversation with the other person is carried on.
Development of the Self. Mead spends considerable time discussing the development of the child, because this is how the self is created. The first stage of development of the self involves imitative acts on the part of the child. This is the pre-play stage, around age two, where the child does not have the ability to take on the role of others, but merely imitates the actions of others. A play stage follows, where the child can act out the parts of others but cannot yet relate to the role of others. That is, the child repeats what others say, and takes on several roles, one at a time. Later, the child is able to act with others and anticipate the actions of others. This is the game stage, where the child can take on the role of all the others involved in the game or situation. In doing this, the child learns the organized attitudes of the whole community, and is able to act in common with others. The final stage in socialization is the internalization of the generalized other, whereby people can put themselves in the position of the other person, imagine how others will react, and from that contemplate various courses of action. Once this ability is developed, the individual has a self which is individual, yet could not have developed apart from the community. That is, "one has to be a member of a community to be a self" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202).
Simple and then more complex situations and games are means by which the child develops a self, and these situations illustrate the nature of more general social processes – interacting with family and friends and taking part in social relationships. Other than games, the development of the individual's ability to communicate using language and other symbols also play an important role in this. In the use of different forms of language, the child learns what others think and how others might respond. Games and learning a language are both social – they could not occur in the isolated individual.
c. Society. The third major part of Mead's approach is society. The ongoing symbols and social processes that exist are logically and historically prior to the development of the mind and self. Institutions that give the common responses of society and the regular habits of the community are the context within which the mind and self are created. Socialization and education are the means by which individuals internalize these common habits. Mead does not see these as coercive or oppressive, and feels that individual creativity can exist within this. Social institutions can be viewed as constraining on individuals but these same institutions can also be viewed as enabling people to become creative individuals (Ritzer, p. 347). Mead did not develop a macro view of society and social institutions as a whole, but his approach might be combined with some of the more structural approaches to provide a more integrated view of the macro and micro approaches. Note that the classical sociologists have a similar conception of society to that of Mead, but they do not have a theory of the self, and they do not emphasize interaction.
d. Symbolic Meaning. For Mead, significant symbols are those "which will call out in another that which it calls out in the thinker" (Mead in Farganis, p. 150). Symbols of this sort are universal (rather than particular) and are involved in the process of thinking – "an internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself" (Mead in Ritzer, p. 338) using gestures or symbols. Language is a set of vocal gestures which are significant symbols carrying social meaning. Thinking is implicit conversation, or covert behaviour -- that is, it "is not a mentalistic definition of thinking; it is decidedly behavioristic" (Ritzer, p. 338).
While Weber considered meaning to be essential to defining what is social, he did not provide a very clear idea of how he defined meaning or what aspects of meaning were important. In contrast, Mead makes meaning an essential part of definition and development of self. "Meaning as such, i.e., the object of thought, arises in experience through the individual stimulating himself to take the attitude of the other in his reactions toward the object" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 201). That is, meaning develops through experiences, as different individuals develop a common understanding of social situations and symbols. When symbolic interpretation is shared, people see things in the same light, and acts are meaningful to actors. As a result of this common understanding, the gesture or symbol arouses the same attitude in the individuals, and this is sufficient to trigger a reaction.
A symbol is "the stimulus whose response is given in advance" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 204). This could be a set of words, a gesture, a look, or a more fixed, material symbol such as a flag, crest, or money. When actors in a situation have developed a common understanding of symbols, it is significant for them and has meaning, in that they understand how the symbol will be interpreted by others and what the response is likely to be. This understanding is developed from previous experiences where the likely responses of others to the symbols has been observed or understood. As a result, the symbols have meaning for the individuals, and these allow individuals to interact with each other.
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Denzin, Norman K., Interpretive Interactionism, Sage, Newbury Park, California, 1989, Applied Social Research Methods Series, Volume 16. HM 24 D438 1989
Denzin, Norman K., Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: the Politics of Interpretation, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992. HM 291 D454 1992
Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism,McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993.
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Last edited on November 9, 1999
Return to Sociology 250.
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