International Sociological Association's Research Committee on Economy & Society

Social action as symbolic action within cultural sociology

Miguel Ángel Vite Pérez
Doctor by University of Alicante Spain
miguelviteperez[ [at] yahoo.com.mx

Social action not only mobilizes people; it materializes or manifests itself in collective acts that are simultaneously interpreted by those who observe or experience them as well as those who carry them out. These interpretations shape narratives based on values (beliefs) and classifications (dichotomous) that generate meaning in the civil sphere, including communicative and regulatory institutions. Therefore, social action is symbolic (Alexander 2013). Social action is symbolic because it is understood through the meanings it generates that allow intelligibility and interpretation. Embedded in a diversity of worldviews, social action's expression occurs through communication; that is, it is a communicative act. This allows its staging through social representations that are shared by those who use them to impose their skills and knowledge, consciously or unconsciously, on others, some of whom, I argue, are spectators or potential participants (Kuper 2001). Therefore, the armed collective action of self-defense groups in Tierra Caliente (Michoacán), which is considered to be a communicative act, was linked to a staging of violence (a performance) whereby the collective belief-in-public-insecurity script was shared. This allowed the use of force to harm individuals classified as the creators of a social situation of plundering and theft (Maldonado 2014). In this way, the violence exercised as force by the Tierra Caliente self-defense groups against the supposed originators of social insecurity was expressed as a narrative in the civil sphere where values and ideals projected collective dreams and fears. For example, the collective's dream of ''freeing yourself'' from actions of plunder and theft carried out by the regional drug trafficking organization (Los Caballeros Templarios) went against the ideal of preserving social cohesion in the communities of the region. However, it also revealed the disputes that arose from the use of violence in the civil sphere through the wielding of democratic values (more inclusive or universal) or of contrary values (not inclusive or particular) that produced exclusive processes of stigmatization and segregation, and even greater violence that was based on beliefs of order and disorder. In other words, the violence of the self-defense groups and Los Caballeros Templarios, as well as that of the Mexican government, was a symbolic action that is a communicative act experienced by one part of society and which, at the same time, allowed the emergence of institutions for its regulation and its avoidance by participants (Alexander 2006). It was useful to observe the meaning of armed collective action by self-defense groups as a social drama, one that unfolds in the civil sphere, made up of communication and regulation institutions where interpretations expressed the Mexican State's weakness through its inability to ensure public security and impede the emergence of armed civil groups or combat the criminal actions of traffickers of drugs. Armed collective action by these groups could also be seen as a result of the lack of state regulations in the Mexican neo-liberal economic system. There is an interpretation that aids in the understanding of a communicative collective act in the civil sphere that is defined by the armed social action in Tierra Caliente (Michoacán) and whose binary discourse, from a general point of view, expressed that the universal value of inclusion derived from the liberal democracy model was incompatible with the social situation in Tierra Caliente.[1] 

At the same time, it was shown that the civil sphere had autonomy because the Tierra Caliente armed self-defense groups expressed their actions as communicative acts. However, the Mexican government also did so. Both discourses converged in the transformation of the local police's function: the combatting of organized crime defined as a struggle against illegal businesses linked to drug trafficking (Astorga 2015). In this sense, Mexican public insecurity as a collective discourse has served to classify illegal social activities as the actions of good or bad people. This legitimizes the use of force as violence against people and things (Das 2016). In the case of Mexico, the meaning of collective or individual illegality lies in the narrative of social justice. This is made evident by the supposed weakness of social welfare state institutions, which are considered to be more than anything a negation of the universal validity of social rights (Duhau and Giglia 2008). However, furthermore, this social justice narrative has found support in the presence of a social representation that has identified the reproduction of situations of instability and vulnerability–poverty and misery–through state social welfare programs (Bayón 2015). In this sense, from Wacquant's (2000: 21-24) point of view, the narrative of poverty and misery expressed a “flaw” of the neoliberal capitalist system. This flaw consists specifically of the system's creation of violent people who became so because they lacked a social function in the new social regime. New arguments were later formulated based on the supposed generalization of the so-called precarious employment without social rights (Sotelo 2010). For this reason, the academic discourses generated in Mexico have been constructed based on past beliefs. Nonetheless, one belief in particular stands out: violence has been provoked at the regional level by the “absence” of the State or by the “voids” of political power or due to the existence of “marginal” zones of the State (Buscaglia 2015; Maldonado 2010).


  1. Tierra Caliente is located in the southern part of the state of Michoacan and has thus been defined by its climatic characteristics and the characteristics of its soil. It is characterized by a tropical climate, and the territory was formed by thousands of folds of the sierra where the municipalities of Apatzingán, Parácuaro, Francisco Múgica (more commonly referred to as Nueva Italia), Buena Vista Tomatlán, Tecaltepec Aguililla, Churumuco and Lázaro Cárdenas (that is a port of exit to the Pacific) are found. However, the armed rebellion of the self-defense groups began in Tepalcatepec, Buena Vista Tomatlán (known as La Ruana), and Coalcomán and extended to Chinicuila, Aguililla, Aquila and Tancitaro, which are the largest and most sparsely populated municipalities, above all, because there are dozens of towns with populations of less than 200 inhabitants (Martínez 2014)


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