i need help with the social action theory. what is it? what uses has it to understanding society? and what criticisms are there of it? help please!
Max Weber is seen as the founding father of interpretive sociology, and his social action theory argues that humans construct their own social reality. Their ACTIONS are directed by MEANINGS, and so any understanding of these actions must involve an understanding of these meanings. Social actions take account of the behaviour of others and of their likely reactions. So any action that a person does not think about cannot be a social action; the same is true of actions that take no account of the existence and possible reactions of others.
Weber's method of interpreting the MOTIVES behind social actions is called VERSTEHEN - hence the sociologist must see the world through the actor's eyes. This is because action is not merely the product of the operation of external forces over which one has no control, but rather it is the result of one's own interpretation of the world around oneself and of the conscious choices that one makes. The classic example of this 'empathetic understanding' is found in Weber's account of the behaviour of early Calvinists in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'.
There are essentially four types of action, according to Weber:
1. Instrumentally rational action - where the actor assesses both the goals and the means by which they are achieved. If you want to win a marathon, then this requires a strict training and dietary regime. But if the accompanying pain and suffering (e.g. giving up alcohol and smoking) is seen as greater than the benefits of winning marathons, then it becomes rational to abandon the objective of doing so.
2. Value rational action - where again the means are judged to be rational if they are thought to be a successful way of reaching the goal towards which they are directed. But in this case the goal cannot be abandoned even if it is immensely hard to achieve it. A case in point would be a deeply religious person who believes that the only way to achieve salvation is to lead a life of celibacy. He/she will accept such a life no matter how difficult this would prove. Suicide bombers might fall into this category.
3. Traditional action - where there is no assessment of either ends or means. Instead the action occurs simply because tradition dictates that it should happen - it is an ingrained habit. For example, Christmas is celebrated by purchasing and decorating a Christmas tree.
4. Affective action - the result of emotion; the action is second nature, and the actor may have no awareness of motive. So, for example, on hearing of the death of a close relative, we are likely to burst into tears out of grief. There are no well thought out goals involved here.
Weber argued that modern societies are characterised increasingly by a process of RATIONALISATION. In other words the third and fourth types of action above are increasingly replaced by the first and second. He described this as 'disenchantment', or 'the driving out of magic', warning of over-secularisation and of the danger of a 'heartless world'.
Social action theory is often linked with structural-functionalism. This stresses the extent to which the different elements of the social structure fit together harmoniously, in contrast to their being in conflict. (though Weber himself acknowledged that groups may in practice be in conflict - over scarce resources, for example) Society is seen as a system of interconnected parts which together form the whole. Social INSTITUTIONS such as religion and the family make a key contribution to the functioning of the system as a whole - they maintain the system and contribute to its stability, even to its survival. How is this achieved? Religion is an example - you will be able to think of others. Religion reinforces society's basic values, and socirty's NORMS derive from these values. They then structure and direct our behaviour in the various institutions of society. We learn these norms through the processes of primary and secondary socialisation. Hence the different parts of the social system are integrated in that they are largely infused with the same basic values.
Within the social action approach there are different perspectives - such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethomethodology - though the distinctions between them are probably beyond the scope of your course. What they all have in common is that they present a very different view of society from that found in the SOCIAL STRUCTURE approach, where the institutions that make up society are powerful and real, and dominate our lives. By contrast, social action theorists maintain that these institutions exist only because we create and re-create them all the time. They argue that the structure approach makes the error of treating social institutions as though they exist independently of people, when in fact they are simply the sum of the actions of many individuals.
The most obvious criticism of social action theory is that it underestimates the power and influence of social institutions, and the formal socialisation processes that accompany them, and overestimates the influence of individual human agency. The issue is whether reality is socially constructed (as social action theorists believe) or has a separate existence. In practice, social structure and social action cannot exist independently of each other - individuals can only make choices within established social frameworks. Hence Giddens uses the term 'structuration' to bring together the two approaches, referring to the way in which social structures (such as the family, the education system, the media and the legal system) not only limit how people can act but also make it possible for social action to take place at all.
I hope this is helpful.