Rational Choice (RC) is a proliferating research program in the social sciences. It is the dominant theoretical perspective in economics and an influential approach in political theory. In sociology, there are an increasing number of people working in this tradition, in particular among American and European sociologists. The sketch of an explanation of conjoint social norms demonstrated that in principle social order emerges among self-interested rational actors if appropriate social conditions are given. It is even the case that social structural conditions with a somewhat shorter "shadow of the future" allow for the endogenous enforcement of conjoint norms in dilemma situations. This is so because there may be multilateral reputation effects in social networks that serve to compensate the lack of a large "shadow of the future". However, this general approach to social norms is incomplete. RC theory is quite a recent development in sociology. Methodological individualism is the thesis or proposal that collective phenomena can or should be explained by using assumptions about individual behavior.
[...] At first, the set of action alternatives is always reduced to a smaller subset of actions that are possible in a particular situation. For example, in the system of consultations among colleagues in a bureaucracy, it is important to notice that individuals' time is finite. A working day has about 10 hours which have to be allocated on the different activities; consultations of colleagues and the performance of job tasks. Therefore employees who help their colleagues will have to bear opportunity costs since the quantity of time available for performing their own working tasks is reduced. [...]
[...] Such a network of exchange relations and the respective bilateral contracts among self-interested actors would not be stable, if ‘society' would not enforce those contracts. Contracts are enforced, basically by two mechanisms, the institution of contract law and internalized feelings of a moral obligation to deal fairly with one's business partners. These two mechanisms seem to be inconsistent with the individualist conception of order. If there is a complementarily of interests and control, rational actors will want to exchange control of events that are less important in terms of their interests for control of events more important to them. [...]
[...] Some further remarks concerning the interpretation of rationality are in order: First, rational choice does not necessarily mean conscious choice among alternatives. To reiterate, the theory does not represent psychological processes but only results of choice behavior. The rules of rational choice behavior may be technically quite complex. Virtually any behavior could be ex post “explained” by the assumption that the actor had a preference for that particular behavior. To avoid this problem, many RC theorists adopt a heuristic principle: Behavioral changes should be explained by changes in the restrictions of behavior and not by changing tastes. [...]
[...] Since in an ordinary prisoner's dilemma type situation there is no cooperation among rational actors, the emergence of norms must depend on threats of sanctions that are created by the target actors themselves. This leads to the second question: what are the conditions for the emergence of sanctions that not only are consistent with Nash equilibrium behavior but also are credible? Technically spoken, what are the conditions for perfect equilibria? The Effective Realization of Social Norms Answering the two main questions inevitably will lead to the idea that repeated interactions may change actors' incentives in a social dilemma situation. [...]
[...] To make this concept of a norm more precise, we assume that the actors are involved in a situation of strategic interdependence. Of particular interest are such situations that are called social dilemmas. The prisoner's dilemma is a very important case in point. Other dilemmas comprise coordination games and bargaining games. These situations are dilemmas because rational action will yield inefficient outcomes. Given an RC approach, norms will are effective if (some) actors in that situation deriving a benefit from that. [...]
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