Assess the contribution of social action theory to our understanding of how society operates

Published: 2021-07-09 08:20:05
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For years, social action theorists have sought out to understand how society operates. Unlike structuralists for example Marxists, action theorists are a micro level approach where they find the study of the individual and their interactions within society more important to our understanding. Action theorists are more voluntaristic, they believe that individuals possess agency where they have the ability to be free agents in themselves and in shaping society.
Max Weber is well known within sociology as one of the founding fathers. He believes that over-generalisation should be avoided as much as possible and we should understand human action, hence ‘social action theory’. Weber contributed four ideal types that should be used to study particular situations; traditional action, affective action, rational value-oriented action and rational goal-oriented action.
Weber’s approach of these four different ideal types led him to methodological individualism, this is a focal point on how people interact in social situations and how these interactions are not determined by a social structure but by the individuals response to the situation that develops society and is what keeps society operating. However, Weber’s approach to society has been criticised on a couple of grounds. Phenomenologist, Schutz argued against Weber for him being too individualistic in his views of societal interaction.
This is because Schutz argues that it cannot explain the shared natures of meanings that society has and therefore the deeper meanings that people label particular actions too cannot be uncovered. For example, within the education system when a child raises their hand in class they mean to answer a question, however Schutz states that Weber fails to develop how the child’s peers come to have a collective meaning to the hand-raising.
Weber has also been criticised for using verstehen because this implies that we can put yourself in another individual’s place, when in actual fact we cannot be the other person and understand their deeper motives. Developing from Weber’s idea that social order in in actual a product of methodological individualism, G. H. Mead believed in social interaction which is the idea that all individuals have a common meaning of symbols. Mead argued that a persons self has two parts the ‘I’ and the ‘me’, the ‘I’ is the part that reflects on our actions and the ‘me’ is the self the exists in interactions with others.
For example, a student takes on the role of the teacher in a classroom when the teacher is speaking, Mead argues this is because society has shared symbols that engages individuals within social interaction. Symbolic Interactionist, Blumer used Mead’s work to outline his assumption that depending on the object depends on how the person acts towards it however these meanings are the product of the social interaction and then these meanings are filtered through a persons reflective sense where they make sense of the situation.
Similar to Blumer, Goffman uses a dramaturgical analogy to describe social interaction. He argues that social order is down to the actors using impression management within a social interaction. Goffman uses a backstage where an individuals performance is planned and an onstage analysis where the individual plays the role. In this way Goffman has a performance analogy where people play their roles to scripts and this is how people then interact within their society. However, symbolic interactionism has been criticised on many grounds.
Firstly, it doesn’t take into account the structural problems, it focuses on one-to-one interactions and doesn’t explain class or ethnic inequalities. It also fails to explain the consistent patterns in behaviour, Functionalists argue these patterns result from shared norms that dictate behaviour. Other critics such as Ethnomethodologists argue that interactionists fail to explain how actors create the meanings of the symbols. Phenomenologists like Ethnomethodologists believe there is not social structure out there but it is a social construct made by the individuals.
Phenomenologist, Husserl argues that the society we live in is a product of our mind because we get information from mental acts that are categories we use to group information and give them meaning. Schutz uses this idea and argues it applies to how people share them in society. Using the term typification Schutz, explains how people have shared meanings of particular social contexts. These are agreed upon to stabilise and clarify within a social interaction as commonsense knowledge and without these social order would not be possible.
Luckmann argues against Schutz rejecting his view that society is only an inter-subjective reality. Luckmann points out that Schutz sees all of society socially constructed by individuals that create the society which then takes on a life of its own. Luckman sees Schutz as failing to see the the structures in society that constrain us to become an individual in society, for example laws in the Catholic Church about homosexual relations. Ethnomethodology (EM), like all action theorists discussed use a micro approach, and it studies the methods that people use to create social order.
Garfinkel arguedit is a shared system between people in social interactions that creates the shared meanings and makes them possible. Garfinkel used indexicality to describe how nothing has a fixed meaning and it always depends on the context. This is a threat to social order because of the instability, however Garfinkel uses reflexivity to the commonsense knowledge we use to construct a sense of meaning, maintaining the social order. However, EM’s have been criticised because it assumes that human behaviour is cooperative and ignores the conflict and power within society that disrupts the social order.
For example, Marxist Althusser would argue that the commonsense knowledge is really just the bourgeoisie using the ideological state apparatus (ISA) that maintains the social cohesion for capitalism. Another argument is In conclusion, social action theorists move away from the macro structuralist approach and takes a more micro approach that helps them to understand the meanings and focus in on the social interactions. However, by ignoring the macro approaches, social action theories fail to recognise the larger scale conflicts in society that Marxists and Feminists are able to understand because of the macro structural approach.

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