Sociology 319

January 20-24, 2003


C. Theories of Praxis


1. Introduction


While both Weber and Parsons emphasize the viewpoint of the actor, they focus on a particular aspect of the actor – consciousness and conscious social action and the mental interpretation of the actor.  This is particular evident in Weber’s discussion of social action and social relationship, in his definition of what is social about these.  Parsons broadens the scope of what is meant by social action; his analysis is not strictly utilitarian, in that it he argues for a variety of orientations (pattern variables), analyzes how ends are selected, and shows how values guide social relationships.  At the same time, he defines the unit act and the resulting chains of action in terms of an actor’s subjective understanding of meaning and orientation – again with a highly conscious subject.  Using the perspective of Parsons and Weber, the subjective processes of calculation, normative commitment, and interpretation determine the character of the act (Cohen, 1st edition, p. 121).


Cohen argues that some social theorists take a different approach to analysis of social action and consider Weber and Parsons to overemphasize the conscious aspects of social action and conduct, and “minds, after all, lack the capacity to perform social actions” (Cohen, 1s edition, p. 121).  Cohen notes that western intellectuals have been prone to consider “action in subjective ways” at least partly because of the analysis of Descartes (mind and body and “I think therefore I am”) and “Western moral values situate responsibility for thought and its consequences in the mental acts of the individual” (Cohen, p. 84). 


The praxis approach is instead to examine and emphasize the process of enactment of social conduct, how “we act (through our bodies) and the word reacts, our minds register and respond to the world, and then we act again” (Cohen, p. 84).  In this perspective on social action, sociologists examine what social action is, how it takes place, how it changes, what forms it takes, how people adjust to each other, and the social institutions that emerge from social action.  Since there are patterns and regularities to human social action and interaction, the sociology of praxis attempts to understand and explain the various ways that these emerge and change.  In addition, Cohen notes how these approaches remember that social actors also have bodies, with some such as Dewey and Mead incorporating both body and mind.


·        Praxis comes from both Greek and Latin, indicating doing, acting, action, practice.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines praxis as action or practice, “the practice or exercise of a technical subject or art, as distinct from the theory of it, or alternatively as habitual action, accepted practice, or custom.” 


Theorists in the praxis tradition emphasize human versatility in different situations, and how humans can change forms of action quickly and unpredictably.  Consciousness and rational decision making is a means of doing this, but not all meaningful social actions are consciously and rationally calculated, with orientation toward particular ends always uppermost in the minds or actions of people.  In fact, it may be those individuals who make calculation and orientation of their action only toward their own self-interest who seem to be the least social and who have difficulty maintaining social relationships.


In addition, for action to be social it must be interaction in situations.  Weber and Parsons recognize this, but do not develop the implications of this as fully as theorists who focus on action as part of interaction – such as Simmel, Mead, Goffman, or Garfinkel.  As Cohen notes (1st edition, p. 122), social actors interact with each other in a process of mutual interaction, accommodation, and adjustment to other social actors.  This is certainly partly conscious, but this exists at many different levels – tradition, habit, impulse, emotion, reflection, and rationality.  In their interactions, humans strive to adjust  behaviour to reach a stable and coordinated result, so that interactions are mutual or reciprocal, involve back-and-forth gestures, movements, words, that may not always be highly conscious.  As examples, consider how you walk or move in a crowd, or how a sales person deals with customers.  Various procedures and forms of interaction are developed, and these seem to involve both conscious and less conscious forms of interaction – e.g. habit and reflex.  It is these procedures and actual conduct that are the focus of the theorists of praxis.


Cohen comments on the regularity and the creativity that may result (pp. 84-85).  The social conduct of actors in social situations involves “generalized responses that are evoked by elements in new instances of the same situation” (Cohen, p. 84) as encountered earlier.  Earlier encounters embed or record memories of these experiences and these become a mental and bodily guide to reactions in later situations.  As actors enter new situations, they employ these and respond to what they perceive through their senses, feelings, and anticipation of the situation – from this particular actions occur.  If these anticipations and feelings are of an expected kind, the social actor’s responses and further actions may be of a regular and anticipated form.  But if expectations are not met, “these dashed expectations open opportunities for novel (and hence broadly creative) reactions” (Cohen, p. 85).  He refers to this as “situated creativity” (Cohen, p. 85) where the actor engages their repertoire of experiences, memories, abilities, reason, creativity, and improvisation to respond. 


Cohen notes that praxis theorists generally adopt a three part stance to developing a theory of human interaction.  The three steps involve (Cohen, 1st edition, p. 123):


·        External stimuli.  These could be conversation, gestures, body movements that come to the attention of an actor.

·        Mental reactions are integrated with a behavioral response.  An individual who perceives the stimuli develops a response.  This could be conscious or unconscious (of various forms), although the mind is likely to be involved in some manner.  The actor undertakes some sort of social action in response to the original stimuli.

·        Response from source of the initial stimulus.  The orginator of the original stimuli in terms receives stimuli, and develops a response.


Note that there may be several stages or rounds of such action, stimuli, and interaction, plus reflection and delay in responses, perhaps developed into particular patterns, resulting in coordination or accommodation.


2. John Dewey


John Dewey (1859-1952) was an important American writer and public intellectual who spent most of his academic life at Columbia University. Dewey attempted to work out principles for a democratic and industrial society, and was an opponent of authoritarian methods in education.   He participated in social and political reform movements and defended academic freedom.  As founding president of the American Civil Liberties Union (1920), Dewey was an important intellectual influence in American life.  (Knapp, p. 180 and Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 756).


Dewey’s perspective on the social world is generally regarded as pragmatist, with his ideas falling into the American pragmatist approach to philosophy.  In chapter 2 of the text, Outhwaite notes “in opposition to formal philosophy’s concentration on abstract issues of doubt and certainty in the theory of knowledge” a pragmatist approach emphasizes “the practical and and experiential aspects of our acquisition of knowledge  (Outhwaite in Turner, p. 56).  Since the social world is always changing and since each actor encounters new experiences, situations, and actors, we adjust our knowledge and “modify our existing habits of thought in order to deal with new experiences and practical difficulties in acting” (Outhwaite, p. 56). 


These ideas were taken by Dewey and applied to “social and political theory and the theory of education” (Outhwaite, p. 56).  Dewey argued that the various types of human activity are instruments that are developed to solve problems faced by humans in dealing with the natural and social world.  The human mind was not just a thing or a structure, but an active process whereby the individual imagines, interprets, decides, defines, and acts in the world.  For Dewey, there is no eternal or absolute truth, rather our knowledge is based on experience; others who investigate similar experiences and phenomena can test, verify, or alter this knowledge. 


The following notes are based on pp. 123-4 of Turner, 1st edition, and pp. 86-7 of 2nd edition.


Habit is an issue discussed by Dewey and one that Weber and Parsons had difficulty explaining in their theories of social action.  Habits are certainly not the considered, rational actions that form the focus of Weber’s definition of social action, although they can possibly be explained in terms of the chains of action of Parsons.   Further, humans are not able to consciously reflect on every possible form of social action.  Habitual and reflexive actions form a large part of social interaction, but not usually in a conscious manner.  It would take too much time and energy to reflect on each action, and if the high expectations for considering courses of action oriented toward some goal are to be maintained, it might not be possible for humans to carry out actions on a regular basis. 


Dewey argued there are cycles of habit, reflection, rational consciousness, behavioural change, and new habits.  Much of human action and interaction may be habitual and reflexive, with only occasional reflection and consideration (e.g. the epiphanies of Denzin).  These periods of reflection and consideration may lead to continuation of similar habits or they may lead to change in habits. 


One way in which habits may change is that “habits fall out of adjustment with their environments” (Cohen, 1st edition, p.124), thus causing stress or anomie.  The world around may change, or habitual actions may become too routine and unconscious.  In either case, the individual is prompted to devote some conscious thought to habitual behaviour, using practical reason and imagination to improve individual forms of response and social action.  “Consciousness thus functions as a means to mentally rehearse potentially better forms of conduct” (Cohen, 1st edition, p. 125). 


Cohen argues there are weaknesses in Dewey’s approach to the issue of impulse, which may be natural and biological, but where the habits resulting from the impulses vary with the culture and social practices of the society.  Given the diverse ways in which impulses are dealt with by humans, Cohen argues that impulses cannot drive human action and conduct.  It might be noted that other theorists had similar difficulties – Mead’s “I” and Parsons behavioural organism are attempts to deal with this same issue.


In the second edition of the text, Cohen focusses on the problems of habit for Dewey, arguing that it is a normative problem, not an analytic one (p. 86).  Dewey is concerned that the repetition, monotony, and routine of modern society may dull human consciousness and creativity.  “These routines stultify problem-solving thought and creative innovations which might produce more satisfying adjustments to frustrating circumstances in social life” (Cohen, p. 86).  But Dewey considers it possible for humans to be flexible, adjusting habits and actions – Cohen notes how his theory is one of a “theory of cycles of habit, reflective, rational consciousness, and behavioral change” (Cohen, p. 86).


Dewey adopts and uses a praxis perspective – that is, he moves from enacted conduct to a theory of social action.  Habit is observed to exist in many social actions, and has relevance for a study of human interaction.  In the praxis approach, action may be logically prior to subjective consciousness in that people develop certain habits, and only periodically examine and alter these.  The line of explanation runs the opposite direction from that of Weber and Parsons, with habit stimulating consciousness, rather than the other direction.  Perhaps humans are creatures of habit.


Dewey presents a reasonable explanation for habits, and changes or continuation of habits, as being a legitimate subject for sociological study.  The Weberian or Parsonian definition of the social appears unable to include these, but Dewey’s approach provides a reasonable theoretical view of how habits can be considered to be important and essential aspects of human social action.


2. George Herbert Mead


The reading for this section is from Mead, Mind, Self, and Society – “Social Attitudes and the Physical World” and “Mind as the Individual Importation of the Social Process.” (4 pp.)


a. Introduction.  In North America, Mead particpated in the development of a pragmatic approach to the study of society – this was during approximately the same time period as when Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel were developing their theoretical perspectives in Europe.  Holton notes that “Mead was able to avoid both the one-sided individualism of economic liberalism, which assumed that self-interest created its own spontaneous order, and the one-sided collectivism of Durkheim, in which the individual became submerged” (Turner, 1st edition, p. 48).  As a result, he “integrated together individualist and collective or supra-individual accounts of social order” (Turner, 1st edition, p. 48).  


Mead is often considered the founder of the symbolic interaction approach; he argues that social interaction creates mind and self, and it is through symbolic forms of communication that the self and community are constructed.  Cohen argues that symbolic interactionists, such as Blumer, selectively reconstructed Mead’s model of social behaviour to make it more individualistic and less concerned with social reform and a democratic vision, as well as de-emphasizing the importance of the “supra-individual symbolic order” (Turner, 1st edition, p. 48).  In addition, Blumer appears to have neglected “the biologic dimension of Mead’s thought” (Cohen, p. 87), taking the possibility of delay and consciousness for granted and not considering Mead’s analysis of Darwinian aspects of human biological and social development.  For example, Mead argues “It is absurd to look at the mind simply from the standpoint of the individual human organism; for, although it has its focus there, it is essentially a social phenomenon; even its biological functions are social” (Strauss, p. 195). 


George Herbert Mead  (1863-1931) was trained in social psychology and philosophy and spent most of his academic career in the philosophy department at the University of Chicago.  Dewey helped Mead obtain the Chicago posting and the two remained good friends and exchanged ideas throughout their lives.  University of Chicago students of sociology in the early part of the century studies with Mead and integrated his approach into sociology.  Mead was born into a Congregationalist religious family (a form of Calvinism) and supported progressive causes and social reform, for example he was a supporter of women’s rights. 


The Mead web site contains full texts of many of his papers and other writings.  Mead's major work is Mind, Self and Society (a series of his essays put together after Mead's death and originally published in 1934), a work in which he emphasizes the importance of the social world as leading to the development of various mental states and the self through social interaction.  Mead did not think of people as media that can be put into action by appropriate stimuli, or even as subject to the power of social facts (as Durkheim argued), but as “thoughtful and reflective creatures whose identities and actions arise as a result of our interactions with others” (Farganis, p. 158).  For Mead, it made no sense to discuss action apart from social interaction. 


b. Stimulus, Interpretation, Response.   For Mead, what distinguishes humans from non-human animals is that humans have the ability to delay their reactions to a stimulus.  Intelligence is the ability to mutually adjust actions.  Non-human animals also have intelligence because they often can act together or adjust what they do to the actions of other animals.  Humans differ from non-human animals in that they have a much greater ability to adjust to each other and achieve interaction meaningful to all parties invovled.   While humans can do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that only humans can do this through gestures and symbols that are significant or meaningful.  As a result of this greater intelligence, humans can communicate, plan, and work out responses, rather than merely reacting in an instinctive or stimulus-response manner.  The difference in humans and non-humans can be illustrated with the following diagram. 



Non-human animals primarily respond to stimuli, whereas humans attribute meaning and interpretation to possible responses.  Humans can and do rehearse their responses in their imagination, and have an internal conversation in which the attitude and possible response of the other can be considered or contemplated before taking action.  Humans can respond to the primary stimuli or can respond to lesser stimuli.  For example, anger or aggressive behaviour on the part of one individual may be met with anger and aggression from the other, but when responding the other may consider other possibilities such as ignoring the original anger and aggression, or looking for ways to reduce it. 


While Mead considers humans more intelligent than other animals, this intelligence is social, that is, it is not only inborn and inherent in humans as biological entities.  Rather, intelligence in the form of responding to meaningful gestures is a result of a “process which can only go on through interaction” (line 6 of p. 3 of handout).  That is “there is a possibility of human intelligence when this social process, in terms of the conversation of gestures, is taken into the conduct of the individual – and then there arises, of course, a different type of individual in terms of the responses now possible” (ll. 12-14, p. 3).  It is through the central nervous system, consciousness, and such interaction that symbols are developed – that is, Mead’s approach involves and interplay of interaction, praxis, and consciousness.


c. Communication and Praxis.  Cohen argues that Mead “inserts communication (and hence meaning) between stimulus and response in a unique way” (Cohen, p. 87).  Human communication with other humans uses significant symbols – these may be gestures, language, or other symbols that are understood by others and produce some form of meaningful response.  Mead notes that “the gesture is there only in its relationship to the response, to the attitude.  One would not have words unless there were such responses” (Mead, middle of p. 3).   Since humans can delay responses, and various responses are possible, humans can develop alternative responses to mere reaction.  It is communication using significant symbols that allow this to occur and develop.  These must be commonly understood symbols, or at least commonly enough understood, so that expected responses can be gauged.  If responses are not as expected, then the actor can consider other possibilities, rehearsing these in his or her mind, by the actor considering how the gestures will be interpreted and responded to by others.  As a result, “significant gestures now become tools of thought that the actor uses to evokes in himself or herself potential responses that he or she might evoke from others” (p. 88).  The actor’s response might be to give the customary response or the actor might improvise a new response.  In either case, the response emerged from a process of communication involving symbols and meaning, and the actor’s response comes from an internal conversation.


Praxis or Consciousness?   While Cohen classifies Mead as one of the theorists of praxis, subjective consciousness also plays a major role in the approach of Mead.   Cohen notes that, compared to Dewey, “Mead’s problem centers less on the place of reflective reasoning in habit and more on the place of personal consciousness in social interaction” (1st edition, p. 125).  Both approaches are apparent in the handout.  Perhaps the clearest evidence for praxis is how the mind and the self are products of social interaction.  The self is a process through internalization of the conversation of gestures (lines 1 and 2, 1st page of handout).  In the last two paragraphs (p. 4), “the mind is only a development and product of social interaction … originally it is nothing but the taking over of the attitude of the other” (2nd last paragraph) and in the very last line Mead notes that “early stages of the development of language must have been prior to the development of mind or thought.”  That is, Mead argues that social interaction, development of gestures and symbols, and social processes of experience are prior to mind and self, both logically and in time.  In fact, the self is a social process (1st line of handout), and this process is communication and the enactment of responses as well as the internal conversation. 


At the end of the middle paragraph of p. 2 of the handout, Mead further notes

What I am pointing out is that what occurs takes place not simply in his own mind, but rather that his mind is the expression in his own conduct of this social situation, this great cooperative community process which is going on. … There is an actual process of living together on the part of all members of the community which takes place by means of gestures.

The actual social practices, interaction, and experiences that take place are those that define society, mind, and self.  Thus Mead adopts the praxis approach, that an understanding of enacted conduct and social interaction are central to developing a theory of action.


At the same time, subjective consciousness plays an important role in Mead’s approach, perhaps more so than in the case of Dewey.  The internal conversation of the I and me must be conscious to some extent.  Near the bottom of p. 1 of the handout, Mead notes “what we are constantly doing in our imagination, in our thought; we are utilizing our own attitude to bring about a different situation in the community of which we are a part.”   Further, in the second paragraph on p. 2, Mead refers to the “self-conscious individual.”  While he notes that the social process is prior to this individual, both logically and in time, he also notes that language and significant symbols develop, and that this produces an “enormous development which belongs to human society” in that individuals can preview what will happen in the responses of others, and this results in adjustments on the part of all.  Some of these may be relatively routine and unconscious, while other aspects of this involve humans consciously thinking and acting, and on this basis developing new forms of responses.


In summary, Mead uses both the praxis and subjective consciousness approach, noting how both are necessary to understand social action and interaction. 


d. Mind, Self, and Society.  These are three interlinked aspects of Mead’s theory, any one of which cannot exist without the other, either logically or in practice.  In the handout, Mead notes that the self is a process (1st line) that “does not exist for itself, but is simply a phase of the whole social organization of which the individual is a part.  The organization of the social act has been imported into the organism and becomes the mind of the individual” (lines 2-4, 1st page).  While Mead may not have a well-developed theory concerning how society emerges from minds and selves, he notes how social interaction changes attitudes of others and that there is continual modification of the social process (2nd paragraph of handout).  Social interaction changes actions and responses of others as well as having broader effects in altering meanings, symbols, and society.  This argument seems no less convincing or complete than are the arguments of Weber and Parsons concerning how institutions are created and how social change occurs. 


i.  Mind.   The mind is not so much the physiological processes of the brain, the structure of knowledge, or the contents of individual knowledge, but the processes involved in responding to stimuli and contemplating action.  For Mead, the mind must be seen in a social sense, rather than being purely a characteristic of the brain or the individual.  That is, the mind develops as a result of social interaction, the mind is part of social processes, and these processes precede the mind. 


Pages 2 and 3 of the handout provide an overview of Mead’s view of the mind.  The second full paragraph on p. 3 notes that “the mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form of significant symbols.”  Later in this paragraph he notes that “it is such significant symbols … initiating a co-operative response, that do in a certain sense constitute our mind.”   As a result, the mind is a product of society, learning the significant symbols, taking on the attitude of others, incorporating these into one’s thought process, and learning to understand and use these.  The individual “takes over the whole social process into his own conduct” and “the taking over of the attitude of the other” (near middle of p. 4).


In that sense, society is prior to the mind for Mead.  While Mead’s concept of the mind is less clear than that of the self, Ritzer notes that the mind “has the ability to respond to the overall community and put forth an organized response.”  This is not just a particular response, but one that can have meaning for the community as a whole, with symbols playing a major role.  In some ways, Mead’s approach complements Durkheim’s analysis of social facts – Durkheim was not too clear concerning how these are incorporated into an individual’s consciousness.  Mead provides an explanation of how this occurs.


ii.  Self.   The self is a social process involving the incorporation of broader social processes, significant symbols, and organized attitudes of others into the mind and self of the individual.  Mead identifies these as the “me” that is, “the habitual or expected responses to significant symbols that all members of the community comprehend … the ‘generalized other’” (p. 88).  The self is also characterized by an internal conversation or dialogue that goes on in the mind of the individual.  This is not a conversation between different aspects of the “me” since those represent the “group of organized attitudes” (p. 2 of handout).  Rather, there is a conversation between the “I” and the “me” – it is this conversation that produces new responses, adjustments, and attitudes.  The “I” represents creativity and improvisation in interaction, and this may result in improved forms of response and adjustment to those around.  This may correspond to what other writers have referred to as the will, drives, impulses, and ideas of the individual social actor.


It appears that the self represents what we might call the identity of the individual.  Each of us has a set of impulses, a history, and a means of organizing our responses.  As we are socialized and develop our identity, it is the manner in which this conversation with the self unfolds that forms the social identity of each of us.  Mead does not focus much on this aspect, but is more concerned with explaining the social basis of the self, and the way in which each of us incorporates the “me” into ourselves.   While the “me” may be much the same for different individuals, it is the manner in which the dialogue between the “I” and the “me” unfolds that forms each different self.  The self is thus a process that involves original impulses and spontaneity, and also the social processes of the interactions and society of which each of us are part.


Cohen notes that the theoretical basis for the “I” is not stated by Mead.  This appears to be a similar problem to the will of Weber, the biological organism and drives of Parsons, and the impulses of Dewey.  Perhaps part of the problem is a neglect of emotions and body, subjects that some sociologists have more recently studied.


iii.  Society.   The third major part of Mead's approach is society, the ongoing symbols and social processes around us.  For Mead, these are logically and historically prior to the development of the mind and self, or develop in concert with them.  Institutions that give the common responses of society, the regular habits of the community are the context within which the mind and self are created.  Socialization and education are the means by which individuals internalize these common habits.  Mead generally does not see these as coercive or oppressive, and feels that individual creativity can exist.  Mead did not develop a macro view of society and social institutions as a whole, but the forms of communication, interaction, and social processes that he describes, could be used to build an overall view of society.  That is, society could be the set of social interactions, responses, and processes.  These are fairly regular and change only gradually (last paragaph on p. 1 of handout).  There he also notes how society can change, as each individual “is continually affecting society … we are utilizing our own attitude to bring about a different situation in the community of which we are a part.”  However, Mead does not develop this line of thought, so that he does not lay out an overall solution to the structure-agency issue.


e. Conclusion


Mead’s approach combines praxis and subjective consciousness to build a theory of human action and interaction.  He emphasizes the distinctive ability of humans to use and develop gestures, significant symbols, and communication in a meaningful way.  Mead’s analysis has formed the basis for much of the symbolic interaction approach and for sociological analysis as a whole.  Among the weaknesses in Mead’s analysis are the inadequate explanation of the “I” aspect of the self and insufficient attention to the agency-structure problem.  In addition, Cohen notes that Mead did not consider scarce resources and their consequence for inequality and power.  That is, for the community, interaction, and cooperative project of Mead, there would need to be some degree of equality among actors.  If there is much inequality, or systematic and long-lasting inequalities, mutual meaning may not have the implications Mead argues exist.  But in general, the approach of Mead combines consciousness and praxis in a unique and insightful manner.  His perspective provides a useful complement to those of Weber, Parsons, and Durkheim, as well as a set of building blocks for the symbolic interaction and other approaches.




Farganis, James.  1996.  Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, second edition.  New York, McGraw-Hill.


Strauss, Anselm, George Herbert Mead on Social Psychology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1964.


Last edited January 27, 2003


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