Social Action Theory – Theory and Methods

Lesson objectiveTo explore what Social Action Theorists believe
Lesson outcomes• Compare Social Action Theory to different perspectives
• Evaluate Social Action Theory
• Explain what Social Action Theorists believe

Social action theories

Social action theories are led by Weber (1864–1920) who counter the macro theory approach and instead focuses on a micro level. He believes society is seen to be the end-product of all this, whereas to a structural theorist society is seen as the starting point. In other words, society is made by people’s views and does not control them. This is based on human interaction. As humans interact with society, their norms and values are established, thus creating society. The purpose of social action theories focus on individual actions and the meanings behind them. They try to understand how human actions are connected. Because of how human actions can be interpreted in a variety of ways, this attempt of surveying society is often called an interpretivist perspective. 

In order to study society on a micro level two assessments are taken:

The level of cause: 

  1. level of meaning- (objective) structural factors that shape peoples behaviour.
  2. The level of meaning: (subjective) meaning that the individual attaches to their action. 

Weber (watch the video below) stated that there are four different types of social action. 

Traditional Action: This action is what it says on the tin, an action which is usually a habit. E.g. Birthday or Valentines day celebrations. 

Affectual Action: This action stems from emotions such as laughter or crying. 

Value Rational Action: This is a long term goal e.g. becoming a doctor. 

​Instrumentally Rational Action: This action acts as a stepping stone to the action above e.g. going to university to become a doctor. This is usually the most efficient. 

Symbolic Interactionism ​

Symbolic Interactionists’ attempt to assess human actions by analysing their meanings. A key theorist in this exploration is MEAD.


Mead stated that most interactions which occur are symbolic such as smiling.

Actions are interpreted by the following structure: External action (an action another person is doing), Interpretation Stimulus (an assessment of how we interpret the action), Responsive Action (how we respond to the action). 

The interpretation phase is assessed by placing ourselves in the other person’s shoes and how the consequence will be accepted by society (acceptance of norms and values). 


Blumer advanced Mead’s work and stated 3 key principles:

1) He developed the response phase of Mead and added that the responsive action depends on the individual meanings that people attribute to the external action and are not automatic. 

2) Blumer agreed that the interpretations are based on previous interactions, however, he adds that these interpretations are constantly changing and developing and are not fixed as Mead suggests. 

3) He further supported Mead’s point that this process occurs by placing ourselves in another person’s shoes. 

Labelling Theory.

This focuses on categorising objects or actions in an attempt to understand and organise them. A hierarchy is introduced when studying this as a common belief is that people who are regarded as having more power have the ability to label others more effectively. E.g. teachers, police. The labelling theory directly criticises Mead, Goffman and Blumer as the labelling theory offers a balance between macro and micro when assessing society (60%ish micro). By disregarding all macro theories, we limit our understanding of constructing identity. 

Goffman’s Dramaturgical Model

Social interaction refers to understanding behaviour through imagining the world’s a state and we are all actors. All of us are actors in a performance and the aim of a performance is to convince the audience of a message. In order to manage this tools are used, such as clothing and prompts etc, in an attempt to persuade the audience of our image. Not all actors, however, are on the stage all the time. There is on and off stage, where the on stage is our public act and the off stage is our private act. The gap between our public and private act is regarding as the “Gap” and insinuates that the actor doesn’t always agree or believe the role that they are playing. 

Goffman regards people’s identities as being fluid and ever changing. Discovering a person’s real identity may never occur. ​


Ethnomethodology surrounds communication and how they can be interpreted differently. They criticise other theories for their objective stance and attempting to measure interpretation. The fact is, interpretations are subjective and can mean different things, to different people, at different times. 

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