Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique by James S. Coleman, Thomas J. Fararo (Key issues in sociological theory ; 7) pdf
A relatively straightforward way of gaining a sense of rational choice theory in sociology is to specify three kinds of criteria that many would agree should be met if sociological theory is to be wholly satisfactory:
1. The set of phenomena to be explained by the theory is the behavior of social systems (large or small), and not the behavior of individuals.
2. Explanation of the behavior of social systems requires explanation in terms of the behavior of actors in the system, thus implying
a. a theory of transitions between the level of social system behavior and tl>e level of behavior of individual actors, often expressed as the micro-macro problem; and
b. a psychological theory or model of the springs of individual action.
No wholly satisfactory theory exists in sociology because no theory has been able to simultaneously meet these criteria. Different theoretical traditions can be characterized by the criterion or criteria they sacrifice or give short shrift to. These sacrifices constitute theoretical wagers that the element sacrificed is less important than those taken as problematic.
The class of theories that maintains the first criterion and sacrifices criteria 2a and 2b can be termed holistic. Functionalist theory is perhaps the prominent example but is by no means the sole member of this class. The version of structuralism in which agency plays no role is another specimen of this class of theory.
Rational choice theory in sociology belongs to still another class of theories: Little attention is paid to criterion 2b, that is, the psychological model of the springs of individual action. It may seem odd to describe a theoretical approach named after its chief psychological assumption as giving short shrift to psychology. We believe this is accurate, however.
What is problematized in rational choice theory is not individual psychology; it is the component of the theory labeled 2a above—the transitions between the micro level of individual action and the macro level of system behavior. In what is probably the most significant instantiation of this distinction, the macro level can be described as the institutional structure, and the micro level as the behavior of the actors within such a structure.
An example will illustrate the point about the minor role of psychological ideas in this approach: The free rider phenomenon is a mainstay of rational choice theory. But this phenomenon does not refer to some aspect of individual psychology. It refers to the structure of incentives, a structure that would lead a “normal” or “reasonable” or “rational” person to leave to others an action that benefits both self and others, if the action is costly.
The free rider phenomenon is not a description about empirically observed behavior; it is a description of the structure of incentives confronting an individual. No matter that experiments with such structures nearly always show that some persons do not free-ride. Rational choice theory would argue that the problem is with the experimental design: Other incentives have been allowed to creep in, such as the ties of friendship or merely the desire to be thought well of by others.
This is not to say that rational choice theory is always right in holding to the principle that persons act “rationally’ even if the incentives are fully specified. It is, rather, to say that it constitutes one strategy for developing theory about the way institutional structures produce systemic behavior. It is a strategy that blinds itself to deviations from rationality, with the aim of getting on with a different task—the task of moving between micro and macro levels.
Rational choice theory contains one element that differentiates it from nearly all other theoretical approaches in sociology. This element can be summed up in a single word: optimization. The theory specifies that in acting rationally, an actor is engaging in some kind of optimization. This is sometimes expressed as maximizing utility, sometimes as minimizing cost, sometimes in other ways.
But however expressed, it is this that gives rational choice theory its power: It compares actions according to their expected outcomes for the actor and postulates that the actor will choose the action with the best outcome. At its most explicit, it requires that benefits and costS of all courses of action be specified, then postulating that the actor takes the “optimal” action, the action that maximizes the differences between benefits and costs.
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