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action theorya general orientation to sociological analysis particularly associated with the work of WEBER and the SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISTS (see also ETHNOMETHODOLOGY). The aim of the approach is the MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND EXPLANATION of social reality, which is seen as the outcome of purposive social action. See ACT, ACTION, VERSTEHEN, INTERPRETATIVE SOCIOLOGY.
While all action theorists regard explanation with reference to actors' meanings (purposes, values, etc.) as an essential first step in sociological explanations, this is seen by some (notably P. WINCH, 1958) as removing all possibility of more general explanations. For most sociologists, including Weber, meaningful explanation and other types of EXPLANATION are complementary forms. See also STRUCTURATION THEORY.
Although it is sometimes suggested that action theory is ‘irredeemably individualistic’, this is only so in some cases (e.g. METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM).
That the contrary can be true is illustrated by the work of Weber (especially his comparative studies of European and Asiatic religions). Nevertheless, there remain significant differences between ‘action theory’ and other more avowedly STRUCTURALIST approaches in sociological theory, for example in the degree of VOLUNTARISM or independent AGENCY seen for social actors.