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The Myth of Social Action

Colin Campbell
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
1998
0521646367 (pb); 0521550793 (hb)
14.95 (pb); 32.50 (hb)
viii + 200

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Campbell's cogent, tightly argued, critique of dominant trends in sociological metatheories of action was published originally in hard covers in 1996. Reading it for the first time in 2000, I found it impressive, very thought-provoking and am very pleased to have examined it closely. I doubt it will be a popular book. It is somewhat repetitive; building the argument involves frequent return to similar points, in different steps. It is distinctly unfashionable in style and content. But above all, being a hostile critique of virtually all microsociologies - phenomenology, ethnomethodology, interactionism and rational action theory - most of its potential audience will be in profound disagreement and/or consider themselves misrepresented or misunderstood.

The central argument of the book is that a 'social situationalist' dogma has suffused almost all micro-sociology. A 'preoccupation with the problem of intersubjectivity' and with 'verbal and non-verbal forms of communication' precludes concern with subjective meaning and the motives and intentions of actors. (37) Thus Campbell claims that neither inter-subjectivist nor rational action approaches show sufficient interest in 'the emotive or conative dimensions of conduct or in the aetiology of action' (17). He explicates his position by rescuing Weber's categories of behaviour, action and social action. Action is defined as 'voluntary and subjectively meaningful conduct' and is social if 'the meaningful orientation is to others' (25). Social action is thus a sub- type of action. The situationalist tendency to collapse this three- fold distinction into a dichotomy between behaviour and social action is the trick by which its hegemony has been achieved, and Campbell devotes several chapters to criticising arguments which have been deployed to eliminate 'action'.

The core of Campbell's case is that not all meaning is social, not all action oriented towards others. Most actions are privately and personally inspired, undertaken alone, without direct regard for others. He argues that 'The vast majority of human actions are not symbolic, communicative acts (whether socially or culturally constituted), nor are they interactions. They are, on the contrary, instrumental actions designed primarily to achieve a change in the actor's state of being or relationship to his or her environment.' (131) Much of the power of Campbell's critique emerges from the claim that communicative action is a special case, which, while very interesting to sociologists, is of restricted provenance (121). Thus we are invited to recognise the frequent redundant and misleading use of the adjective 'social' with respect to actions. A strange habit of consulting philosophers about linguisitic meaning rather than psychologists about the cognitive preconditions of action is identified. The ubiquity of the methodological injunction to examine negotiated meanings and situated conduct is revealed, the consequence of which is lack of attention to 'doing' - the subjective meaning and motivation resulting in action which can only be recovered from people's reports of their conduct. These are among the many aspects of the critique that I found persuasive.

Nevertheless, I wondered whether social situationalism was as dominant or monolithic as Campbell suggested - the claim being demonstrated rather oddly by citing examples of the promiscuous (mis)use of the term 'social action' in elementary British textbooks (23-28). In particular, there seems to me considerable distance between the metatheoretical position attributed to situationalists and their research practice. Contrary to the impression derived from Campbell, the substantive accounts of micro-sociologists seem to me generally to use agents' accounts and to identify specific and conscious intention when describing what actors do.

However, most disappointing was the alternative programme espoused. It amounted to little more than recommending a faithful return to the prescriptions of Weber. Interrogating reports of individuals about the meanings of their actions, thereby to uncover their intentions and motives and thereafter to explain them causally, seems close to endorsing the most commonsensical notion of conduct. Moreover, while Campbell perfectly legitimately brackets off concern with macro-sociology for the purposes of this treatise, I was left fearing that sociology's explanatory endeavours would be reduced to identifying the unintended consequences of the intersection of innumerable voluntary acts of individuals. Indeed, ultimately, it is probably because theories of voluntaristic action were shown to be problematic in accounting for social institutions and collective behaviour that sociologists adopted situationist paradigms in the first place.

Alan Warde
University of Manchester

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