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Social action theory (interactionist
Main Points
• Social action theorists or interactionist sociologists, reject
the view that social behaviour is primarily determined by
society, its social structures and institutions. They believe
that people have a much more proactive role in shaping
social life.
• Chris Brown (2010) argues that most people engage in
voluntary behaviour. They have free will.
Main points
• It is a micro theory.
Key Points
• Although social action theorists argue that people operate as
individuals, they argue that people are aware of other
people around them and the attitudes and actions of other
people influence the way people think and behave.
• Example – synoptic links – draw in material from other
topics to illustrate the above point.
Main points
• Social action theorists/interactionists argue that when we
are interacting with other people in certain social
contexts/situations we are constantly searching for symbolic
behaviour which gives us an indication of how people are
interpreting our behaviour e.g frowning symbolises social
• We may then modify our behaviour (if deemed appropriate)
in subsequent similar social contexts to fit expectations.
Main points
• So experience of symbolic interaction results in people
acquiring knowledge about what is appropriate behaviour in
particular situations. We learn that particular contexts
demand particular social responses.
• Example
• Drinking and dancing at a party is acceptable bt similar
behaviour at a funeral is not.
Main points
• Social action theorists also argue that society is the product
of people interacting in social groups and trying to make
sense of their own and each other’s behaviour.
Key Points
• Social Action approaches do not deny the existence of roles,
norms and values but they see these as flexible guidelines
rather than rigid frameworks over which we have no control.
• Thus our roles as mothers, students or workers are open to
individual interpretation and negotiation.
Key Points – Socialisation and Identity
• Social action theorists argue that socialisation involves
learning how to interact with and interpret the actions of
other people in any given situation.
• Socialisation also results in individuals acquiring a social
identity, which is an identity which corresponds with how
society expects those in a particular role to behave. For
example mothers are expected to be selfless, nurturing and
loving and so mothers will attempt to live up to this
description and acquire this social identity.
Key Points – Labelling theory
• Type of social action theory.
• Looks at the labels that those with a degree of power apply to
those with less and the consequences and effects of labels on a
persons self esteem, self concept and subsequent behaviour.
• Argues that there is no such thing as a right or wrong act. An act
only becomes deviant for example when a dominant group
defines and labels it as such.
Key Points – Labelling theory
• Suggests that being labelled publicly as deviant has important
consequences for individuals in terms of self-concept.
• That is, they often come to see themselves in the light of the
label and it can become a person’s master status.
• This label of deviant can have a major impact on access to future
opportunities. It can also amplify deviance and lead to the
formation of deviant subcultures.
Key Points
• Interactionists such as Becker (1971) argue that the police
and social workers etc have a construct of the typical
delinquent which colours they way they view the behaviour
of groups that fit the label.
• Consequently those who fit the label are more likely to be
labelled as deviants and criminalised than those who do not
fit the image, which highlights the idea that criminal
statistics are both flawed and a social construction.
Key studies
• Jock Young – The Drugtakers. The social meaning of drug
abuse McGibbon and Kee, 1971.
• Edwin Lemert – ‘Stuttering among the North Pacific coastal
Indians’ Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 1952.
• Howard Becker - Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of
Deviance. New York: The Free Press, 1963
• Cicourel - The Social Organisation of Juvenile Justice,
Heinemann, 1976
Challenges to social action theory
• It does not pay sufficient attention to the structures of society, such
as social class, gender and ethnicity and the constraints on individual
behaviour that come from these structures.
• Defining deviance
• Some acts are always going to be seen as deviant.
Premeditated killing for personal gain is always going to be regarded as
deviant in our society – Taylor, Walton and Young (1973). Therefore
some sociologists would argue that it is possible to define deviance in
Challenges to social action theory
• It does not explain the origins of deviant behaviour.
• Labelling theory/interactionism fails to explain why some
groups engage in what they know will be judged as deviant
behaviour in the first place?
Challenges to social action theory
• Labelling theory is overly deterministic
• It suggests that once labelled a deviant person will inevitably
fit the mould.
• People are seen as passive – controlled by the ‘man-on-hisback’ Alvin Gouldner 1975).
Challenges to social action theory
• Interactionists have not provided evidence that labelling
amplifies or increases deviance – the effects of labelling are
seen as ‘self-evident truths’ (Johannes Knutssen 1977)
Challenges to social action theory
• Interactionists fail to explain why some groups are labelled
rather than others.
• Why is a brawl among low income class youths delinquency
while it is high spirits among high income youths?
• Interactionism explains this in terms of labelling, but fails to
explain why the reasons behind the labelling – and so does
not really provide an explanation.