In this lesson, we will examine a few different sociological theoretical perspectives on social action theory and describe how they interrelate with each other.
A brief quiz follows the lesson.
Application of Social Action Theory
If you’ve watched the TV sitcom Friends you might remember this scene: Rachel tells her friends that she is pregnant but refuses to identify the father. While she’s taking a nap, her roommate Joey and her friends Monica and Phoebe are talking inside Monica’s apartment across the hall. During their conversation about who the baby’s father is, Joey runs home and returns with a red sweater. He says that someone recently spent the night with Rachel and left this it at their apartment. At this point Ross walks in and sees the sweater.
He grabs it and remarks, ‘My sweater! I’ve been looking for this for like, a month!’Gasp! We now know who the father of Rachel’s baby is.There was a meaning attached to the sweater that was set in motion by Joey, and the motion continued with the actions of Ross. It also related to past actions by Ross and Rachel, which answered a current question. Understanding the past, present, and future implications of the actions in this scene ties into social action theory.
Origins of Social Action Theory
Max Weber is one of the founders of sociology, a field of study that examines how people interact with one another. He is credited with creating social action theory, which examines the actions of people in the context of the meanings that they assign to them and the relationship these actions have with the actions of others.Weber also examined the cause and effect relationship of actions that are considered to be social.
For example, if while cooking you place a skillet near the edge of the stove and burn your arm, this wouldn’t be considered a ‘social action’. Weber argued that no action is considered a social action unless it has a relationship with the present, past, or future behavior of others. So, since no one moved the skillet and made you burn your arm, this episode would not be considered a social action.
In addition, actions that are social will impact (or influence, or be influenced by) others, as seen in our Friends example earlier.Furthermore, Weber argued that social action occurs as the result of cooperation and struggle between the individual and the wider society. The act of Ross grabbing his sweater had meaning not only by him declaring the sweater was his, but also by making this declaration after Joey indicated that it had been left in the apartment by whoever fathered Rachel’s baby.Lastly, in order to explain an action we must interpret it according to its subjectively intended meaning. What did the person who performed an action mean by his action?To elaborate on this last point, consider this example: In a court proceeding, a witness is called to testify against a gang leader.
As the witness completes his testimony, the gang leader, sitting in the audience drags a finger across his throat. What did he mean by this? The gang leader was signaling to the witness the slicing of the throat, which we could interpret as a physical threat.
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons built onto Weber’s theory by introducing a structural functionalist perspective of how society is organized. Structural functionalism holds that society functions the way it does because of how major institutions within society (for example religion, education, law, government, etc.) interact with each other.
In particular, Parsons is credited with the voluntaristic theory of social action, which has six basic principles governing social action:
Thus, much of Parsons’ contributions to the theory regarded the actor in a given situation and how circumstances and social institutions shape actions.
Karl Mannheim was an academic who took a philosophical approach toward how people learn, how that learning relates to their social situation, and how these in turn affect their actions.
Mannheim proposed the concept of social reality, where what people believe to be real is based upon their interactions with others. Accordingly, social reality also affects social action, which is the underlying assumption to the field of study known as sociology of knowledge.Mannheim also contended that social class (i.e. one’s position in society as a result of their economic situation) shapes both a person’s social reality and how one perceives the world.
According to Mannheim, social class cannot be separated from how one learns. For example, say a child lives in a quiet suburb with his parents. When the mother tells the child that they’re going to the store, the child knows to wait by the door.
The mother and child drive to a grocery store just a few minutes away. Half an hour later they’re right back in their kitchen and the mother is making dinner.In contrast, consider a poor woman living in a small urban apartment. She tells her son to get ready to go to the store. Together they walk to a bus stop and wait twenty minutes for the next bus. The round trip to the store and back takes nearly two hours to complete.
Thus, ‘going to the store’ has a very different meaning for these two children. Accordingly, how they learn about other things will differ as well.
Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian sociologist/economist. His contribution concerned the notion of logical and illogical action and how these contribute to social action in general. Pareto disagreed with the notion of cause and effect; rather, he argued that relationships between humans and the social system are reciprocally dependent.
There is an infinite cycle of behavior that is constantly being influenced by the behavior of others.Logical action occurs when an individual researches a course of action and the best way to achieve a goal before proceeding. However, Pareto admitted that this is rare and limited to specific circumstances (for example, like economic decisions, like deciding to buy a car or a house). In contrast, illogical action is much more common, far less calculated, and generally rooted in human instinct (like deciding to take the next interstate exit to try another route when you see traffic slowing down). According to Pareto, illogical action is what often occurs in the social realm and is rooted in an instinctive response to the actions of others.
Social action theory originated in the works of Max Weber and contributed substantially to founding the field of sociology. Weber proposed the notion of what a social action is and how it functions. Later, Talcott Parsons added the components, which focused on the actor, the action, and the circumstances that determine the relationship between each. Karl Mannheim contributed to the theory of social action via the social processes involved in how individuals learn. Vilfredo Pareto went on to examine the logic behind actions.
Each of these theorists contributed much to our understanding of social processes.