Theories of the actor

I’m attracted to an approach to sociological thinking that can be described as “actor-centered.”  The basic idea is that social phenomena are constituted by the actions of individuals, oriented by their own subjectivities and mental frameworks.  It is recognized, of course, that the subjectivity of the actor doesn’t come full-blown into his or her mind at adulthood; rather, we recognize that individuals are “socialized”; their thought processes and mental frameworks are developed through myriad social relationships and institutions. So the actor is a socially constituted individual.

If we take the approach to social explanation that demands that we understand how complex social processes and assemblages supervene on the actions and thoughts of individuals, then it is logical that we would want to develop a theory of the actor.  We would like to have a justifiable set of ideas about how individuals perceive the social world, how they think about their own lives and commitments, and how they move from thought to action.  But we have many alternatives available as we attempt to grapple with this task.

We might begin by asking, what work should a theory of the actor do?  Here are a set of questions that a theory of the actor ought to consider:

  1. How does the actor represent the world of action — the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor’s mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor’s mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.

Aristotle guides much philosophical thinking on these questions by offering an orderly theory of the practical agent (The Nicomachean Ethics).  His theory is centered on the idea of deliberative rationality, but he leaves a place for the emotions in action as well (to be controlled by the faculty of reason).  Deliberation, in Aristotle’s view, amounts to reflecting on one’s goals and arranging them into a hierarchy; then choosing actions that permit the achievement of one’s highest goals.

Formal rational choice theory provides a set of answers to several of these questions.  Actors have preferences and beliefs; their preferences are well ordered; they assign probabilities and utilities to outcomes (the results of actions); and they choose a given action to maximize the satisfaction of their preferences.

Ethnographic thinkers such as Clifford Geertz or Irving Goffman take a different tack altogether; they give a lot of attention to questions 1 and 2; they provide “thick” descriptions of the motives and meanings of the actors (3); and they indicate a diverse set of answers to question 5.  (Geertz and Goffman are discussed in other posts.)

Other anthropologists have favored a “performative” understanding of agency.  The actor is understood as carrying out a culturally prescribed script in response to stereotyped social settings.  Victor Turner’s anthropology is a leading example of this approach to action (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society).

Mayer Zald recommends the work of Karl Weick on the first question (Sensemaking in Organizations (Foundations for Organizational Science)).  Here is how Weick explains sensemaking:

The concept of sensemaking is well named because, literally, it means the making of sense. Active agents construct sensible, sensable events. They “structure the unknown”. How they construct what they construct, why, and with what effects are the central questions for people interested in sensemaking.  Investigators who sensemaking define it in quite different ways. Many investigators imply what Starbuck and Milliken make explicit, namely, that sensemaking involves placing stimuli into some kind of framework. The well-known phrase “frame of reference” has traditionally meant a generalized point of view that directs interpretations. (4) (references omitted)

It’s worthwhile addressing this topic, because it would appear that we don’t yet have a particularly good vocabulary for formulating questions about agency.  As indicated above, Aristotle’s theory of the mind has been dominant in western philosophy; and yet it feels as though his approach is just one among many starting points that could have been chosen.  Here is an earlier treatment of this question (link).

I’m reminded by my friends that not all sociologists accept the actor-centered approach.  Some (like Andrew Abbott and Peggy Somers) prefer what they refer to as a “relational” understanding of the basis of social activity.  It is not so much the actor as the action; it is not the internal state of the individual agent so much as the swirl of interactions with others that determine the course of a social activity.  This is part of Abbott’s objection to the idea that sociology should aim to uncover social mechanisms (link).


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