Social action – Interpretivist theories


The main focus of the Social action/interpretivism perspective in sociology is developing theories on individual behaviour in everyday social situations.  They look not at the metanarratives, the macro approach but by considering the micro, the individual or small group interactions and the meaning given to the interactions in understanding society and societal change.

Society therefore is constructed by people and the interactions and meanings they give to interactions. This means people are not determined by institutions but have Freewill and choice in forming their identities and place in society. Behaviour is viewed as being driven by the beliefs, meanings and emotions people give to situations. Social action therefore employs a more qualitative approach to their research. This means collecting descriptive data rather than numbers.

There are two main branches of social action theories – symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology. Although Weber is strongly linked to Social action he represents more of a middle road between both the macro and micro approaches so along with Gidden’s we’ll address Weber in detail at the end of this chapter.

The following videos outlines symbolic interactionism well. Just a note though the symbols (which aren’t referred to in the video) are things like objects, words, expressions or gestures that stand for something else and to which individuals have attached meanings, and they act towards people and things in accordance to those meanings – in the video they use a tree as an example but don’t explicitly mention symbols.


‘I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am’ Cooley 1902

Symbolic interactionism sees society and social order made possible by and based on  shared meanings which are developed and learnt through both the process of interactions and from how we perceive those interactions.

Goffman 1963 labelling theory

impression management


Garfinkel (1967) – breaching experiments

The following link takes you to a fantastic WordPress which outline Etnomethodology.


Intergrated approaches