They see people as having a much more active role in society, as opposed to the passive puppets that Structuralists make us out to be. They reject the view that our behaviour is the product of these organisations and structure. Although Social Action Theorists do look very much as individual behaviour, they also take into account the fact that we are aware of the people around us, they argue that our behaviour is influenced by how other individuals react to us and behave, so society is made up because people come together and interact.
We are able to react to each other’s behaviour in this way because we have learnt how to expect what people should and shouldn’t do, and how to interpret behaviour. We have meanings for various symbols during interactions, for example, someone frowning may show confusion or anger, and someone swearing with a hand gesture may be insulting, because of these codes and symbols, we are able to anticipate behaviour, and judge how people are feeling.
This also gives us a knowledge about what behaviour is and isn’t appropriate in certain situations. These different situations can also affect how we behave and what behaviour is acceptable, for example shouting and swearing may be seen as acceptable at a football match, but this would be highly inappropriate in the middle of a supermarket or library. These behaviours and expected ways of carrying ourselves, or norms and values, (especially the basic ones, such as how to act around others) are learnt from the family at a young age.
However education teaches us how to act in a larger range of social situations. The acquiring of this knowledge is what leads to us gaining our identity. Social action theorists suggest that there are three main parts to our identity. The first of these parts is the things that make us individual, such as name, signature and photograph. The second aspect is social identity, which is made up of the personality characteristics that are associated with our role in society.
For example, I am seen as an older brother, which society may make me out to be annoying and protective of my younger sibling, but I am also seen as a student, who is perceived to be hard-working and well-behaved. The final part of our identity is the concept of ‘self’, or what we think of ourselves, and how we think we play our respective roles. This concept of ‘self’ has been developed further by social action theorists, who believe that this can be further broken down into two components, the ‘I’ and the ‘me’.
The ‘I’ is the private inner self, what we truly think of ourselves, whereas ‘me’ is the social self, and is the one that carries out the roles of brother and student. Goffman referred to society as a play, and that we are all as individuals, actors in this play, or in the drama of everyday life. The expected ways of behaving, or social norms are the script, for example, greeting someone with ‘Good morning’ is expected. He suggests that the roles we carry out are simply a performance designed to create a particular impression.
For example in front of grandparents, I put on this performance of being exceptionally well mannered (believe it or not). Another part of social action theory is the concept of labelling. This is when someone is put into a group, or stereotyped, because of the way they look or act. For example a young person may be labelled as a ‘goth’ because they have pale skin, black hair, and listen to a certain type of music. Becker came up with the idea of a Master Status. This means that an individual can have a status (normally negative) which overrides all other labels.
For example, someone may be a very good brother and son, but then may be arrested for robbery, and then the label of ‘criminal’ will become his master status, and people won’t see the brother or the son they saw before, they will simply see him as a criminal. It is believed that these labels lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. This means that someone will react to the label they have been given, and this label will become true. For example, if a teacher (very wrongly) labels a student as ‘dumb’ they may think they genuinely are dumb, and will not do well at school.
However it has been argued that the opposite can occur, and people may go out of their way to disprove their label, to carry on with the example before, the ‘dumb’ student may try exceptionally hard at home and at school, to prove the teacher wrong, the label may act as motivation. There are many criticisms of Social Action Theory, one being that they tend to be very vague when describing who is responsible for creating these norms and values, and interpretations that mean we know how to act around people and in certain situations. They fail to explain power, and factors which may affect these norms such as class or gender.