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Rational choice theories explain social behavior via the aggregated actions of rational or purposive actors. The actors are rational in the sense that, given a set of values and beliefs, they calculate the relative costs and benefits of alternative actions and, from these calculations, make a choice that maximizes their expected utility. Rational choice models assume that the range of alternatives open to actors is constrained by the environment or institutions within which actors make their decisions. In their purest form, these theories also assume that actors possess complete information about their values and the various courses of action through which they can pursue them. Actors collect, organize, and analyze this information prior to making a decision. Thus, rational choice theories are means-end theories. That is, they describe the means or rational calculus through which actors go about obtaining their desired ends, or values.
The theory received its first formal treatment in economics, where it has long been the dominant paradigm. More recently, it has become one of the dominant approaches in political science and has made a number of inroads into psychology and sociology.
The introduction of rational choice into sociology has generated a fair amount of controversy. The position sociologists take in these debates is determined in part by whether they subscribe to methodological individualism or methodological holism. For holists and many individualists, the objective of sociology is to explain macro-level social systems. (Other individualists seek to explain the workings of micro-level social systems.) The two disagree on whether these social systems can be explained solely with other social systems (holism), or whether the theorist must ”come down” to the micro level to explain the effects of one social system on another via reference to individual actors that comprise these systems (individualism).
Almost all rational choice sociologists subscribe to some form of methodological individualism. The individualist position holds that a theory must begin by stating how a social system (e.g., law or religion) affects the options available to individuals and how this (limited) range of options, in turn, affects decisions. The theory must then build back up by describing how individuals’ choices ”aggregate” to impact a second system-level variable (e.g., economic development).
While virtually all rational choice theorists subscribe to some form of methodological individualism, not all methodological individualists are rational choice theorists. Some maintain that sociology needs a model of the actor, but oppose models based on rational choice principles. Others claim that rational choice theory’s explicitness makes it the best choice for a scientific sociology. Debates generally center on either means (the rationality component), or the ends typically assumed in applications of the theory, that individuals are motivated by self-interest.
One of the main criticisms of rational choice theory is the extensive cognitive and computational demand it places on actors. Rather than judiciously gathering and systematically processing data about all possible courses of action, as rational choice theory assumes, humans greatly simplify their social worlds. Bounded rationality models recognize that humans are only capable of gathering, organizing, and processing a finite amount of information, and that much of this activity is subject to cognitive biases. Thus, these models replace the complex calculations assumed in traditional (unbounded) rational choice models with heuristics or rules of thumb. But the increased realism is often accompanied by a decrease in precision. Thus, rational choice proponents often prefer to keep the theoretical precision by assuming that actors make decisions ”as if” they are rational.
While rational choice theory is officially silent on values, in practice, most applications assume actors are motivated by self-interest, narrowly defined. In fact, the assumption that actors seek to maximize their wealth and nothing else is so common in rational choice approaches that many mistakenly believe narrow self-interest to be axiomatic, rather than a ”default” auxiliary assumption. Some justify the ”typical value assumption” by noting that wealth can be exchanged for valued immanent goods. When it can, these scholars contend, rational choice theory can use wealth as a proxy for these other ends. Others justify the typical value assumption on the grounds that it works well when predicting macro-level outcomes. Although some lines of research in rational choice sociology have fared well employing the typical value assumption, many see a need to develop more realistic models of values.
- Coleman, J. S. (1990) Foundations of Social Theory. Harvard University Press, Harvard, CT.
- Heckathorn, D. D. (1997) The paradoxical relationship between sociology and rational choice. American Sociologist 28: 6—15.
- Udehn, L. (2001) Methodological Individualism: Background, History and Meaning. Routledge, London.