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Rational choice theory in sociology: A survey

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  1. Introduction.
  2. Rational choice theory: Antecedents and origins.
  3. The basic model: Restrictions and preferences.
  4. The model of man: Limitations, alternatives and extensions.
  5. What are norms?
  6. A general hypothesis.
  7. The effective realization of social norms.
  8. Conclusion.

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. [...]


[...] RC theory in sociology is part of a program that is sometimes labeled ?explanatory sociology'. Explanatory sociology aims to explain sociological explananda, collective phenomena, nomologically by using law-like assumptions about human nature. The theoretical primacy should be distinguished from the analytical primacy of the social context and of the social outcomes of individual actions. This distinction is important because it is a much more difficult and important task to analyze micro-macro relations than just to analyze individual behavior. RC theory is one part of explanatory sociology that is endowed with a controlling heuristic to supply micro-macro linkages. [...]

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