Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Few approaches in political science have generated so much controversy as rational choice theory. Some claim that the approach has made political science scientific. Its critics argue that it involves unrealistic assumptions about individual behaviour. While its tenets and benefits remain the subject of heated debate, rational choice theory is now established as a core approach in political science and one that is vital for contemporary students of the discipline to understand.

With an impressive degree of clarity, the book introduces the philosophical foundations, the methodology and the key issues of rational choice theory. It shows how the approach has been constructively used to explain political phenomena and also reflects more broadly on how theories are developed and used in political science. Balanced and insightful, this important new text gives a nuanced and elegant evaluation of the potential and limits of rational choice theory.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

Abstract
Few approaches in social science have generated as much controversy as rational choice (RC) theory. The ‘economic approach to politics’ has been hailed as finally making political science scientific, and some have expressed the conviction that there is not any other theory worth taking seriously (Riker 1990). RC theory has spread across the social sciences in general and political science in particular, earning itself a reputation for being imperialistic. But this newcomer became the target of passionate attacks. According to the critics, it was non-scientific nonsense advocated by people who wanted to show off their maths skills but who could not test a theory empirically. The debate really took off after Donald Green and Ian Shapiro published their book The Pathologies of Rational Choice (1994) which criticizes RC theory for being unfalsifiable or outright false. Empirical results do not seem to settle the matter: with the same conviction that RC theorists claim great empirical successes, critics argue that the theory does badly when tested. There will always be some disagreement over theories in social science, but the debate about RC theory — especially since the publication of Pathologies — has been characterized by particular vehemence. For example, only a few years ago the so-called Perestroika movement brought talk of conspiracies, secret meetings and people hiding behind anonymity in fear of retaliation: according to this movement, RC theory and quantitative methods had taken over political science and made life miserable for everyone else.
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 2. What is rational choice theory?

Abstract
RC theorists and critics alike disagree about what RC theory is, and their disagreement makes the debate between them unnecessarily complicated. To clarify the nature of the theory is therefore a necessary first step towards making some sense of the debate about the potential and limits of the theory. An approach, as noted in the previous chapter, is a way of dealing with research questions: it is a way of formulating them, an idea of the general structure of appropriate answers and an outline of how to go about finding such answers. An approach is based on a set of assumptions and general ideas — what I call a framework. A framework can include different sorts of elements; some are assumptions that are true or false, other elements have a different status. Everyone agrees that the basis for the RC approach — the framework — concerns (at least) the idea of rationality. But — and here is one main cause of the confusion about the RC approach — there are different versions of this framework, all of which are advocated by some as the one and only correct basis for the RC approach. To specify and characterize fully all the elements relevant for the RC approach is neither possible nor necessary here. For the purposes of this book I will just concentrate on what seems most relevant for evaluating the RC approach with respect to problems concerning explanations and predictions of human behaviour.
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 3. The self-interest assumption

Abstract
Few assumptions have been as controversial as the assumption that people are self-interested; and the critics usually take for granted that the RC approach itself relies on a self-interest assumption. Some RC theorists agree: the self-interest assumption, they claim, is obviously a core assumption for the RC approach (for example, see Downs 1957; Amadae and Bueno de Mesquita 1999). But other RC theorists take it equally for granted that the approach has no connection to an assumption of self-interest whatsoever, and so express significant frustration that their approach is often criticized for assuming self-interest (for example, see Dowding 2005).
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 4. Culture, identity and symbols

Abstract
Consider again homo economicus, the infamous creature populating many RC models. She supposedly has no need for group identities, culture or symbols. She ‘objectively’ perceives a world around her in which all kinds and categories are natural or unproblematic. It is evident what her interests are and the world is clear and unambiguous. Symbols and culture have no meaning to her and do not influence her behaviour. She does not identify with any groups, has no emotions and no cultural specificities.
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 5. Individuals and institutions

Abstract
The relation between individuals and agency on the one hand and social structures on the other has always been the focus of debate and controversy within the social sciences, and doubtless it always will. On the one hand, social structures are the outcome of individuals’ actions. On the other hand, social structures affect what people do. The RC approach’s methodological individualism has usually meant it is perceived as siding with the first camp in this debate, whereas other approaches, like historical and sociological institutionalism, are associated with the other side. But categorizing the approaches this way would be mistaken on two accounts: first, as we will see, the RC approach can be seen as a structural approach par excellence, and second, the gap between especially historical institutionalism and the RC approach has been closing steadily over recent years even though there still are some differences.
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 6. The use and misuse of models

Abstract
In 2001, there was a self-proclaimed rebellion at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting. As rebellions usually go, it started with anonymous statements and whispers in the corridors, and at the meeting the participants got together to meet in the open. It was dubbed ‘the perestroika movement’, and it was a turn against the ‘hegemonic threat out there’ from RC theorists, who draw conclusions about political behaviour from game theory and empirical data, and from ‘large-N people’ (Miller 2001, p. 1).1 The one thing about the RC approach that seemed to draw most criticism was the emphasis on formal modelling. The use of formal models and the use of quantitative methods as such are of course not the same thing, and one can assess the merits of one independently of the other, even though statistics often come into play when testing hypotheses based on models. Here we will look at the criticism against the use of formal models as such. In its harshest form, this critique states that the models are disconnected from the real world, indeed, that modellers are grown men and women playing with toy models and showing off their mathematics skills. In its less antagonistic form, it states that the assumptions are too simplistic, thereby limiting the usefulness of the models.
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 7. Equilibrium

Abstract
The basic methodology of the RC approach is equilibrium analysis, and the concept of equilibrium plays a fundamental role in models of everything from legislatures to diplomatic relations, voting and revolutions. Curiously, equilibrium analysis has not received the attention it deserves, despite the fact that almost every other aspect of the RC approach has been under attack. When the RC approach is criticized for its reliance on equilibrium analysis, it is usually in connection with institutional analysis, as we saw in Chapter 5. However, within economics, equilibrium analysis has drawn a lot more attention, and for more reasons, some of which are as relevant for an evaluation of the RC approach as of economics. In this chapter I will discuss the methodology of equilibrium analysis and relate it to what the RC approach can and cannot do. If there are factors that limit the approach, equilibrium analysis — because of its absolutely fundamental role in modelling — will probably be one of them.
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 8. The micro-level mechanism

Abstract
RC theorists often pride themselves with having a micro-level mechanism that specifies how some changes at the macro-level can cause other changes at the macro-level (see for example Chong 2000). Since a micro-level mechanism specifies what happens, step by step, and thereby relates causes to effects, it has been seen as important particularly by those who emphasize the role of causality for explanation. It is therefore commonly thought that a theory should specify a micro-level mechanism that accounts for how the posited causes are related to the effects they allegedly have. James Coleman’s (1990) famous bathtub model showed how a micro-level mechanism works: the first step is to assess how macro-phenomena affect the conditions under which individuals act, their values, perceptions and interests; the second step is to show how individuals respond to these changing circumstances and change their behaviour; and the third step is to show how these behavioural changes are aggregated and in turn result in changing collective outcomes at the macro-level. In social science the level indicated by the use of the word ‘micro’ is the individual level: macro-level causes give rise to macro-level outcomes via individuals’ decisions and actions. The fact that RC explanations specify such a micro-level mechanism is a source of satisfaction to many RC theorists, especially since many of the RC approach’s rivals (such as for example theories based on the cultural approach) lack such a micro-level mechanism and talk only about structural variables affecting other structural variables (Chong 2000, ch. 1; Johnson 2002).
Lina Eriksson

Chapter 9. Conclusion

Abstract
Whenever there is more than one approach, there will be conflicts about when we should use which one. Some have claimed that the RC approach is the only scientific approach in the social sciences, and since you cannot beat something with nothing, it follows that this approach is the only game in town (Riker 1990). If they were right, this book would be unnecessary. But I do not think they are, nor do I think most RC theorists would agree with them. Others have claimed that (all) theories based on the RC approach are falsified or unfalsifiable; I do not think they are right, either, and obviously RC theorists share my view. Instead most — both RC theorists and others — think that the RC approach has its uses, and that other approaches have theirs. For example, the RC approach is said to be ‘a tool in a toolbox’, one that is useful for some purposes but not for all. This book has argued that the RC approach has great potential for asking and answering important questions in most areas of political science, but also that there are many kinds of questions that it cannot ask, much less answer. Some sort of middle position is obviously called for. If the tool in a toolbox view was the only possible such position then clearly this is where we would have to place ourselves. But some have proposed a different view, according to which other approaches have their uses but which gives the RC approach a special position. The RC approach, it is argued, is a privileged approach: it is the approach that should be used first, and only when it fails should we turn to other approaches. When making our final comments about the role of the RC approach in political science, we should therefore see if there are reasons to give this approach a special place.
Lina Eriksson
Additional information