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Rational Choice Theory Rational Choice Theory John Scott From Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of The Present, edited by G. Browning, A. Halcli, and F. Webster. (Sage Publications, 2000). It has long appeared to many people that economics is the most successful of the social sciences. It has assumed that people are motivated by money and by the possibility of making a profit, and this has allowed it to construct formal, and often predictive, models of human behaviour. This appare
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  Rational Choice Theory Rational Choice Theory   John Scott   From Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of The Present , edited by G. Browning,A. Halcli, and F. Webster. (Sage Publications, 2000).  It has long appeared to many people that economics is the most successful of the social sciences.It has assumed that people are motivated by money and by the possibility of making a profit, andthis has allowed it to construct formal, and often predictive, models of human behaviour. Thisapparent success has led many other social scientists to cast envious eyes in its direction. Theyhave thought that if they could only follow the methods of economics they could achieve similarsuccesses in their own studies. These sociologists and political scientists have tried to buildtheories around the idea that all action is fundamentally 'rational' in character and that peoplecalculate the likely costs and benefits of any action before deciding what to do. This approach totheory is known as rational choice theory , and its application to social interaction takes the formof  exchange theory .   The fact that people act rationally has, of course, been recognised by many sociologists, but theyhave seen rational actions alongside other forms of action, seeing human action as involving bothrational and non-rational elements. Such views of action recognise traditional or habitual action,emotional or affectual action, and various forms of value-oriented action alongside the purelyrational types of action. Max Weber (1920), for example, built an influential typology of actionaround just such concepts. His ideas were taken up by Talcott Parsons (1937) and became a partof the sociological mainstream. In a similar way, the social anthropologists BronislawMalinowski (1922) and Marcel Mauss (1925) looked at how social exchange was embedded in http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~scottj/socscot7.htm (1 of 15)1/3/2007 1:56:30 PM  Rational Choice Theory structures of reciprocity and social obligation. What distinguishes rational choice theory fromthese other forms of theory is that it denies the existence of any kinds of action other than thepurely rational and calculative. All social action, it is argued, can be seen as rationally motivated,as instrumental action, however much it may appear to be irrational or non-rational.A pioneering figure in establishing rational choice theory in sociology was George Homans(1961), who set out a basic framework of exchange theory, which he grounded in assumptionsdrawn from behaviourist psychology. While these psychological assumptions have been rejectedby many later writers, Homans's formulation of exchange theory remains the basis of allsubsequent discussion. During the 1960s and 1970s, Blau (1964), Coleman (1973), and Cook (1977) extended and enlarged his framework, and they helped to develop more formal,mathematical models of rational action (see also Coleman 1990).Rational choice theorists have become increasingly mathematical in orientation, converging moreclosely with trends in micro-economics. Indeed, some economists have attempted to coloniseareas occupied by other social scientists. This trend towards formal, mathematical models of rational action was apparent in such diverse areas as theories of voting and coalition formation inpolitical science (Downs 1957; Buchanan and Tullock 1962; Riker 1962) and explanations of ethnic minority relations (Hechter 1987) and, in a less rigorously mathematical form, socialmobility and class reproduction (Goldthorpe 1996, Breen and Rottman 1995). Economists suchas Becker (1976, 1981) set out theories of crime and marriage. A particularly striking trend of recent years has been the work of those Marxists who have seen rational choice theory as thebasis of a Marxist theory of class and exploitation (Elster 1983, 1986; Roemer 1988. See alsoWright 1985; 1989). Rationality and Social Exchange Basic to all forms of rational choice theory is the assumption that complex social phenomena canbe explained in terms of the elementary individual actions of which they are composed. Thisstandpoint, called methodological individualism, holds that:'The elementary unit of social life is the individual human action. To explain social institutionsand social change is to show how they arise as the result of the action and interaction of individuals' (Elster 1989: 13)Where economic theories have been concerned with the ways in which the production,distribution and consumption of goods and services is organised through money and the marketmechanism, rational choice theorists have argued that the same general principles can be used tounderstand interactions in which such resources as time, information, approval, and prestige areinvolved. http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~scottj/socscot7.htm (2 of 15)1/3/2007 1:56:30 PM  Rational Choice Theory In rational choice theories, individuals are seen as motivated by the wants or goals that expresstheir 'preferences'. They act within specific, given constraints and on the basis of the informationthat they have about the conditions under which they are acting. At its simplest, the relationshipbetween preferences and constraints can be seen in the purely technical terms of the relationshipof a means to an end. As it is not possible for individuals to achieve all of the various things thatthey want, they must also make choices in relation to both their goals and the means for attainingthese goals. Rational choice theories hold that individuals must anticipate the outcomes of alternative courses of action and calculate that which will be best for them. Rational individualschoose the alternative that is likely to give them the greatest satisfaction (Heath 1976: 3; Carling1992: 27; Coleman 1973).The methodological individualism of rational choice theorists leads them to start out from theactions of individuals and to see all other social phenomena as reducible to these individualactions. For Homans, however, it was also necessary to see individual actions as reducible tothese conditioned psychological responses (see also Emerson 1972a and 1972b). This positionwas justified on the grounds that the principles of rational choice and social exchange weresimply expressions of the basic principles of behavioural psychology. While many other rationalchoice theorists have rejected this claim - and Homans himself came to see it as inessential - it isworth looking, briefly, at the argument.   A Psychological Basis? The idea of 'rational action' has generally been taken to imply a conscious social actor engagingin deliberate calculative strategies. Homans argued that human behaviour, like all animalbehaviour, is not free but determined. It is shaped by the rewards and punishments that areencountered. People do those things that lead to rewards and they avoid whatever they arepunished for. Reinforcement through rewards and punishments -- technically termed'conditioning' -- is the determining factor in human behaviour. This behaviour can, therefore, bestudied in purely external and objective terms; there is no need to invoke any internal mentalstates. People learn from their past experiences, and that is all we need to know in order toexplain their behaviour.The inspiration behind Homans's psychology was the behaviourism of Skinner, developed fromstudies of pigeons (See Skinner 1938, 1953, 1957). Food is the basic goal sought by animals, andSkinner held that animal behaviour could be shaped by the giving or withholding of food. Food isa reward that reinforces particular tendencies of behaviour. Humans, however, are motivated by amuch wider range of goals. While pigeons will do almost anything for grain, humans are morelikely to seek approval, recognition, love, or, of course, money. Human consciousness and http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~scottj/socscot7.htm (3 of 15)1/3/2007 1:56:30 PM  Rational Choice Theory intelligence enters the picture only in so far as it makes possible these symbolic rewards. Homansdid not see this as involving any fundamental difference in the way that their behaviour is to beexplained. The character of the rewards and punishments may differ, but the mechanismsinvolved are the same.In social interaction, individuals are involved in mutual reinforcement. Each participant'sbehaviour rewards or punishes the other, and their joint behaviour develops through this'exchange' of rewarding and punishing behaviours. While any behaviour can, in principle,reinforce the behaviour of another, Homans held that approval is the most fundamental humangoal. Approval is a 'generalised reinforcer' that can reinforce a wide variety of specialisedactivities. Because of its generalised character, Homans saw approval as directly parallel tomoney. Both money and approval are general means of exchange in social interaction, one ineconomic exchange and the other in social exchange.Not all rational choice theorists have relied on behavioural psychology in this way. Indeed, manyremain quite deliberately agnostic about the ultimate determinants of human action. Followingthe example of many economists, they have seen their task simply as the construction of logicallycoherent, predictive theories of human action. Individuals, they argue, act as if  they were fullyrational and, therefore, rationality can be taken as an unproblematic starting point. There is noneed to dig any deeper into individual psychology: whatever psychology may say aboutmotivation does not affect the fact that social relations and exchange processes can be understoodas if all individuals were purely rational actors. This argument is tenable only if a rather extremepositivist view of knowledge is adopted, and most realists would expect to find some attentiongiven to the psychological basis of motivation and, therefore, to attempts to test out the adequacyof particular psychological assumptions. While these epistemological issues point beyond mypresent concerns (see Delanty 1997), they should be borne in mind in the following discussion. Social Interaction as Social Exchange Following the economic model, then, rational choice theorists see social interaction as a processof social exchange. Economic action involves an exchange of goods and services; socialinteraction involves the exchange of approval and certain other valued behaviours. In order toemphasise the parallels with economic action, rewards and punishments in social exchange havegenerally been termed rewards and costs, with action being motivated by the pursuit of a'profitable' balance of rewards over costs. The various things that a person might do - his or heropportunities - vary in their costs, but they also vary in their rewards. In many cases, there will bea combination of monetary and non-monetary rewards and costs.The rewards received from goods purchased from a shop, for example, might include the intrinsicsatisfactions that can be gained from their consumption and the social approval that is gained http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~scottj/socscot7.htm (4 of 15)1/3/2007 1:56:30 PM
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