Social action : Variations, dimensions and dilemmas

Abstract: This study focuses on several key dimensions and types of social action. It examines variousconceptions of action within sociology: in particular, Marx's labour, Durkheim's normativelyregulated action, Weber's typology of instrumentally rational, value-rational, affectual andtraditional action, as well as Goffman's dramaturgical and Habermas's communicative action.The study compares these conceptions and classifies them as types along four dimensions. Thedimensions are: bilateral intentionality, relevant-others-orientation, co-relating and integration.The types of action are envisioned as performable in ideal situations of action when therelations between an actor and others are mutually reinforcing or characterised by legitimatedomination. Under conditions of disoriented relationships or illegitimate relations ofdomination, action situations are impaired - deviant types tend to replace ideal types. Actorsexperience their action situations as frustrating or meaningless. Such situations are manifestedin states of alienation, anomie, disenchantment, distorted communication and constraineddramaturgy. Modes of response toward impaired action situations are diverse. The actor maytotally abstain from action or revolt against the given conditions, or prioritise one aspect ofaction over another, ignoring some other aspects. A number of apparent contradictions orincongruences are shown in the dissertation to be resolvable or manageable by human agentsand their institutions. Nevertheless, in general, concrete circumstances may not always allowactors to draw on all possible ways of conducting themselves. In some situations the range ofchoices is so severely limited, that the actors are likely to find a field of activity, or aninstitutional framework, frustrating or meaningless.Finally, the dissertation argues that, in most cases, a diversity of types of actioncharacterises any given social institution and social life in general. It suggests that the aims orpurposes of an activity or institution may not be realised by one or a few types or aspects ofsocial action. However, the theorists of social action considered in the dissertation have tendedto overemphasise one aspect of social action over others, failing to fully recognise, or tendingto minimise, the complexity and variety of human activities.

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