Action theories and structural theories are both endeavors to understand different aspects of society. They try to explain the behaviors of individuals as separate entities and also as a part of group. They further attempt to explain the effects or implications of people's actions on society and on making on rules, norms and customs that prevail in a society.
According to action theories, sociology is a science "is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences" (Weber, p. 4) where actions can be objectively studied with the course and consequence can be explained.
It is different from other subjects such as history, where the emphasis on the individual events, rather than individuals who lead to a certain event. However, though the social action is to be studied with objectivity on the part of sociologist, it is not being thought that the objective of actors of the action would be valid one. They, surely hold strong meaning to the actor but may not be shared or approved by society at large. This aspect sets it apart it from other studies such as ethics or logic where they try to find ratifies actions with established standards.
According to Weber, as action of social as long as it hold some meaning for the actor, involves people and has some direction i.e. It leads to some end.
Furthermore, he believed that the actions should be studied while taking into the account the actual, existing conditions.
There can be different types of "meanings" to actions. These includes actions that themselves are valuable to the actors (religious acts), actions whose end-products has some purpose, actions that actors are emotionally attached to and actions that are traditional of societies or habitual of people,, whose roots lie in experience gained by individual or merely by-down to him by his forefathers and/or shared by his fellow beings. However all these aren't social in nature.
There is huge range of actions, Weber mention, which aren't social .These are to be distinguished in order to know which ones are social. For example, traditional and habitual actions mentioned in the above paragraph can not be considered social for they are "almost automatic reaction to habitual stimuli" (p. 25).Similarly spiritual or mystical actions, physical actions (such as hunger fatigue etc.) and actions towards other non-human beings such as pets cannot be considered social as they are don't not involve any member of society. All actions that are coincidental or natural (though they might lead to social actions) or those actions where people respond habitually or as mere imitate others don't come in the range of social actions.
Later, Weber expanded his range of study involving more than one individuals and where the actions hold either a separate or a common meaning to everyone involved and it leads to meaningful end, forming a social relationship. However, it is to emphasize here that Weber, didn't take into the content of relationship but was more interested in the aspects of relationships that make it social.
Some of examples of social relationships are friendships, marriages, conflict, wars etc. these relationships may differ in their nature. Relationships may not be probably balanced in loyalty, agreement and duty may differ from individual to individuals. Similarly, the time a relationship last is also any important factor. Some relationships might be fleeting ones but these weren't studied in detail by Weber. He only studied relationships that occurred for a longer period of time which led to social institutions such as workplaces, families, friendships, religious places etc. Also it only when an action is repeated number of times, that is meaning has some value and effect on people as individuals and as a group. It is among these repeated actions that some become the customs, laws, norms and maxims that people are supposed to adhere to, in a society. As Taylor et al. (1995) suggests, people in a society or particular group are influenced by its norms because members have a 'shared culture and regular social interaction'. Weber did not include in study the unexpected actions and their effect on society. These are better analyzed by Durkheim. This is to mean that Weber concentrated more on conscious attempts and completely ignored the others. Weber though provided a good explanation of the actions and their meanings but has not considered the reasons that led to these actions or the reasons of why something holds importance for a person.
While, Weber, main emphasis was on the individuals and actions, Durkheim always considered or focused more on people as a group or society at large and how each individuals or groups of individuals contributed to solidarity of the society.
He stated that sociology was a science consisting of social factors such as Externality, Constraint and Generality " which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him."(2). Here, a clear difference between Weber and Durkheim. While Weber focused on conscious will of people, Durkheim considered external factors.
He argued that these factors were so strong and coercive in their nature that they could force people into acting the way they did This led to the formation of norms, legal sanctions,, religions customs etc. Here the difference with the action theories is obvious where it was proposed that customs and norms were formed when people repeated actions that were meaningful to them. But according to Durkhiem, these were formed by factors outside human being and forced them to act in a certain way.
These social factors in proposed in two of this books: the Division of labor and Suicide.
According to Durkheim, the needs and wants of human being were infinite which should be kept in control by societal rules in forms of laws, punishments and religions. This is done for the collective benefit of people, to define an end or fulfillment of passions, which if not contained are pathological and leads to crime and suicides. Extreme importance has been laid on balancing regulations and individualism so to avoid mechanic organizations and suicides.
He believed that when the social structures and systems are disturbed it leads to anomie a condition when there aren't sufficient regulations imposed on individualist's goals and they are left on their own. This led to abrupt changes in suicidal rates. Suicides are normal because they occurred in all societies and at all times. He only explained the reasons for changes in the rates which were a result of changes in environment. However, he believed economic boom was more dangerous than poverty for it deceived people into believing that, provided they have enough resources, they can do about anything. Poverty, on the other end, was deterrent in itself. The less one has the less he is tempted to extend the range of his needs indefinitely."
He, however, didn't mention the implications such suicides have on society, a very important point. Action theories did however; take into account on consequences of actions of individuals.
He distinguished three types of suicides: egoistic, anomic and altruistic Egoistic suicides occurred when the bonds were loosen and people where left on their own propensities i.e. when the perfect integration as manifested in organic organizations weaken (organic organizations are institutions where each organ had a specific role, coordinated with other organs and their roles in such a way that a common goal was achieved) and therefore equilibrium is disturbed.
Anomic suicides occurred, when regulations were relaxed, that is the collective benefit of people was compromised.
Altruistic suicides took place when there was over regulations on individuals rather de-regulations as in anomic suicides, over regulations force to an individuals…