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What is Social Action Theory?

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  • 0:04 Application of Social…
  • 1:02 Origins of Social…
  • 2:55 Talcott Parsons
  • 4:08 Karl Mannheim
  • 5:33 Vilfredo Pareto
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

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.

Talcott Parsons

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:

The Voluntaristic Theory of Social Action
principles: voluntaristic theory of 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

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.

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