Sociology 319

January 27, 2000

C. Theories of Praxis

While both Weber and Parsons emphasize the viewpoint of the actor, they focus on a particular aspect of the actor – the consciousness and mental interpretation of the actor. This is particular evident in Weber’s discussion of social action and social relationship, and here he provides a definition of what he regards as social. While Parsons appears to broaden the scope of action, the unit act and the resulting chains of action, are defined in terms of a subjective understanding of meaning and orientation – again 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 (p. 121).

Cohen notes that some social theorists consider that the approaches of Weber and Parsons overemphasize the conscious aspects of social action and conduct, and "minds, after all, lack the capacity to perform social actions" (p. 121). The approach of the symbolic interaction theorists and ethnomethodological approaches is instead to examine and emphasize the process of enactment of social conduct – what it is, how it takes place, how it changes, what forms it takes, how people adjust to each other, and so on. There are obviously patterns and regularities to human action, so that theories of praxis attempt to understand and explain the various ways that these emerge and change.

Theorists in the praxis tradition have emphasized how humans are versatile in different situations, and how humans can change forms of action quickly and unpredictably. While there is no doubt that consciousness and rational decision making is one means by which people do this, it is difficult to imagine that 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 is sometimes those individuals who appear to always be calculating and orienting action towards their own self-interest who seem to be the least human.

In addition, for action to be social it must be interaction. 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 on p. 122, there is a process of interaction, accommodation, and adjustment on the part of all social actors. This is certainly partly conscious, but this exists at many different levels – tradition, habit, impulse, emotion, reflexive, and rational. In their interactions, humans may strive to adjust their behaviour to reach a stable and coordinated result, so that interactions are mutual or reciprocal, involving 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.

Each of the theorists in this tradition also have some view of human consciousness, but the emphasis on this is less than in Weber or Parsons, and the theorists of praxis emphasize aspects of action and conduct that seem to be missed by Weber and Parsons.

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

Note that there may be several stages or rounds of such action, stimuli, and interaction, perhaps developed into a particular pattern, resulting in coordination or accommodation.


A. Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) was an important American academic who spent most of his academic life at Columbia University. Dewey argued that the various types of human activity are instruments that are developed to solve the various problems faced by humans. These are always changing, and there is no eternal truth, but rather is based on experience, testable by all who investigate it. For Dewey, the human mind was not just a thing or a structure, but an active process by which the individual imagines, interprets, decides, defines and acts in the world. Dewey made the pragmatic philosophic approach more systematic and applied this approach to social and political theory and applied this to the theory of education (Turner, p. 92. Also see the notes on pragmatic philosophy there). Dewey attempted to work out principles for a democratic and industrial society, and was an opponent of authoritarian methods in education. As founding president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dewey was an important intellectual influence in American life. (Knapp, p. 180 and Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 756).

The following notes are based on pp. 123-4 of Turner.

Cohen discusses Dewey’s approach to the role of habit in social action. As Cohen notes, habit is something that Weber and Parsons had difficulty explaining in their theories of social action. These 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.

As noted earlier, it would be difficult to claim that humans are able to consciously reflect on every possible form of social action. Habitual and reflexive actions form a large part of what we do as we interact with others, but these are generally not so conscious. It would take too much time to reflect on each action, and if the high expectations for considering courses of action oriented toward some goal are to be kept, it might not be possible for humans to carry out actions on a regular basis.

Cohen notes how there are cycles of habit, reflection, rational consciousness, behavioural change, and new habits. Much of human action and interaction could thus 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" (p.124), thus causing stress, or possibly anomie. The world around may change, or the habitual actions may become too routinized and too 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" (p. 125).


Cohen notes how there are weaknesses in Dewey’s notion 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 these 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 do not seem to be explained well.

Note how Dewey’s approach is that of praxis – that is, Dewey moves from enacted conduct to a theory of social action. Habit is observed to exist in many social actions, and obviously 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, even if flawed, provides a reasonable theoretical view of how habits can be considered to be an important and essential aspects of human social action.

D. Mead

1. Introduction. In North America, Mead developed the pragmatic approach to the study of society around the same time as Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel were developing their theoretical perspectives. 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" (p. 48). As a result, he "integrated together individualist and collective or supra-individual accounts os social order" (p. 48). Mead is generally regarded as the founder of the symbolic interaction approach, although Cohen and Holton argue that the symbolic interactionists, especially 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" (pp. 48 and 122).

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. While not really a member of the Chicago school of sociology, the students of sociology in the early part of the century took the courses of Mead and integrated his approach into sociology. 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. 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).

2. 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 do this. While humans can do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that only humans can do this through 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.

3. Communication and Praxis. Cohen argues that Mead inserts communication or meaning between stimulus and response. This communication uses significant symbols which may be gestures, language, or other symbols that have some relationship to a 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, top of p. 3 of handout). Since humans can delay responses, alternative responses can be developed, and it is communication through significant symbols that allow this. These must be commonly understood symbols, or at least commonly enough understood, so that expected responses can be guaged. 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 "become tools of thought as the actor evokes in himself or herself responses he or she might evoke from others" (p. 126). The actors response might be to give the customary response or the actor might improvise a new response. In either case, there was 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" (p. 125). Both approaches can be seen 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 (pp. 3-4), "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, and it is communication and the enactment of responses as well as the internal conversation.

In the middle 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.

4. 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 action changes attitudes of others and that there is continual modification of the social process (2nd paragraph of handout) – so that social action changes meanings, responses, symbols, and society. Where Mead does have a better-developed approach is in his analysis of how mind and self are part of society.

a. 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 main 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, incorporating them 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.

b. 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 response to significant symbols that all members of the community comprehend … the ‘generalized other’" (p. 126). The other aspect of the self is the 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.

It would appear 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 the self for each of us. 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, a subject that some sociologists have more recently studied.

c. 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.

5. 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.


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


Last edited on January 27, 2000.

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