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Rational Choice Theory.

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Abstract

“Rational Choice Theory” is an umbrella term for a variety of models explaining social phenomena as outcomes of individual action that can—in some way—be construed as rational. “Rational behavior” is behavior that is suitable for the realization of specific goals, given the limitations imposed by the situation. The key elements of all rational choice explanations are individual preferences, beliefs, and constraints. Preferences denote the positive or negative evaluations individuals attach to possible outcomes of their actions. Preferences can have many roots, ranging from culturally transmitted tastes for food or other items, to personal habits and commitments. Beliefs refer to perceived cause-effect relations, including the perceived likelihood with which an individual’s actions will result in different possible outcomes. For example, a village head may believe that raiding a neighboring village A has a higher probability of success than raiding neighboring village B. Constraints define the limits to the set of feasible actions (for example, the amount of credit one can get imposes a budget constraint for those who consider to buy a house).
688 Rational Choice Theory
Ecology and the Sacred: Engaging the Anthropology
of Roy A. Rappaport , as well as a special issue of
the journal American Anthropologist , guest edited
by Aletta Biersack, suggest the breadth and depth
of Rappaports ongoing influence. Rappaport’s ideal
of creating a holistic, engaged anthropology, both
scientific and humanistic, and committed to under-
standing and solving the problems that continue to
challenge humanity, may be more important than
ever in an increasingly frictional world.
Brian A. Hoey
See also Bateson, Gregory; Fried, Morton; Material
Production, Theories of; Religion; Sahlins, Marshall;
Systems Theory; University of Michigan; Vayda,
Andrew P.
Further Readings
Biersack, A. (Ed.). (1999). Ecologies for tomorrow: Reading
Rappaport today [Special issue]. American
Anthropologist, 101 (1), 5–122.
Darnell, R. (2002). Roy A. Rappaport, 1988–1989. In
R. Darnell & F. W. Gleach (Eds.), Celebrating a century
of the American anthropological association:
Presidential portraits (pp. 277–280). Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press.
Hoey, B., & Fricke, T. (2007). From sweet potatoes to God
almighty: Roy Rappaport on being a hedgehog.
American Ethnologist, 34 (3), 581–599.
Messer, E., & Lambek, M. (2001). Ecology and the sacred:
Engaging the anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY
Rational choice theory is an umbrella term for a
variety of models explaining social phenomena as
outcomes of individual action that can in some way
be construed as rational. “Rational behavior” is
behavior that is suitable for the realization of specific
goals, given the limitations imposed by the situation.
The key elements of all rational choice explanations
are individual preferences, beliefs, and constraints.
Preferences denote the positive or negative evalu-
ations individuals attach to the possible outcomes
of their actions. Preferences can have many roots,
ranging from culturally transmitted tastes for food
or other items to personal habits and commitments.
Beliefs refer to perceived cause-effect relations,
including the perceived likelihood with which an
individual’s actions will result in different possible
outcomes. For example, a village head may believe
that raiding a neighboring village A has a higher
probability of success than raiding a neighboring
village B. Constraints define the limits to the set of
feasible actions (e.g., the amount of credit one can
get imposes a budget constraint on those considering
buying a house).
Key Assumptions
Key ideas of the theory can be traced back to the
writings of moral philosophers such as Adam Smith.
The theory’s core was subsequently developed by
what is now referred to as neoclassical econom-
ics. Three assumptions are important: (1) individu-
als have selfish preferences, (2) they maximize their
own utility, and (3) they act independently based on
full information. These assumptions have also met
increasing criticism from within economics, result-
ing in adjustments and the birth of “behavioral eco-
nomics.” This branch uses insights from psychology
and the cognitive neurosciences to refine the over-
simplified and highly stylized conceptualization of
Homo economicus . Rather than dismissing devia-
tions from the model as cognitive anomalies that
would cancel each other out when aggregated to the
collective level, behavioral economics and related
fields attempt to develop a more realistic behavioral
microfoundation.
There are many different variants of rational
choice theory. Depending on the degree to which
they adhere to the assumptions of the neoclassical
model, rational choice explanations come in “thin,”
strictly neoclassical, versus “thick,” sociological ver-
sions, in which these strict assumptions are relaxed.
They differ on three dimensions: (1) the type of
rationality, (2) preference, and (3) individualism
assumptions.
Rationality
“Thin” versions of rational choice theory (neoclas-
sical economics) assume full rationality : Individuals
are fully informed about all their decision alterna-
tives, the probabilities of their outcomes, and their
consequences, and there are no cognitive limitations
in the perception or processing of this informa-
tion. Individuals base their decisions on cost-benefit
Copyright © 2013. SAGE Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or
applicable copyright law.
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689
Rational Choice Theory
calculations and choose the alternative that gener-
ates the highest expected utility. Models of bounded
rationality , for example, those proposed in 1957 by
Herbert Simon, relax these assumptions: Selective
attention limits the amount and kind of informa-
tion, and limited information-processing capa-
bilities lead to satisficing rather than maximizing:
Individuals tend to accept solutions that are “good
enough.” More recently, Siegwart Lindenberg has
proposed “thick” models of social rationality that
specify under which conditions gain-maximization
and other rationality traits contained in full- or
bounded-rationality approaches will guide human
decision making, and under which conditions other
processes, such as learning or automatic responses,
will guide behavior.
Preferences
In the “thin” version of the rational choice approach,
preferences are exogenously given and stable, and
individuals are selfish egoists striving toward the
maximization of material gain. Selfishness can take
the form of opportunism (self-seeking with guile),
in which individuals break the rules to realize their
objectives. “Thicker” variants of the theory assume
that individual behavior may be motivated by social
preferences ; that is, they have a concern for the well-
being of others. The benefits individuals strive for
are not restricted to material gains but can be psy-
chological or social (like prestige or behavioral con-
firmation).
Individualism
All rational choice explanations are reduction-
ist: They share the assumption that explanations
of societal-level outcomes (e.g., institutions, group
structures, collective action, warfare, etc.) need to
be grounded in a microlevel behavioral theory of
individual action. This analytical strategy is also
called “individualism.” In the “thin version” ( meth-
odological individualism ), social structures are not
relevant as constraints on behavior (since all the nec-
essary information is contained either in the objec-
tive prices of goods or in the subjective meanings).
“Thick” versions ( structural individualism ) consider
social and institutional embeddedness as major con-
ditions affecting individual decisions and behavior.
As a result, structural individualism models social
phenomena through a three-step social mechanism
explanation: (1) a macro-micro step, or “situational
mechanism”; (2) a micro-micro step, or “action gen-
erating mechanism”; and (3) a micro-macro step or
“transformation mechanism.”
Rational Choice Theory in Anthropology
Along with structural-institutional theory, on the
one hand, and cultural theories, on the other, the
rational choice approach constitutes one of the three
major metatheoretical paradigms in the social sci-
ences. Though originally developed in economics,
rational choice reasoning is now applied in other
subdisciplines of the social sciences, though applica-
tions in the field of social and cultural anthropol-
ogy are still rare. Here, economic anthropologists
hotly contested rational choice arguments during the
“formalism vs. substantivism” debate in the 1960s
and 1970s. Currently, rational choice reasoning in
anthropology seems to be largely restricted to the
domains of economic, ecological, and evolution-
ary anthropology. For example, James Acheson
uses rational choice theory to explain the differ-
ences between the Maine lobster industry and the
New England ground fishery in their ability to solve
collective-action dilemmas resulting in overexploita-
tion. The volume Kinship, Networks, and Exchange ,
edited by Thomas Schweitzer and Douglas R. White,
contains several contributions drawing on rational
choice theory to explain, for example, the emergence
of social and economic structure in the Highlands of
Papua New Guinea or the pattern of cattle exchange
among the Pokot in Kenya.
Rafael Wittek
See also Economic Anthropology; Evolutionary
Anthropology; Evolutionary Psychology; Formalism/
Substantivism; Game Theory; Gift Exchange; Human
Universals
Further Readings
Acheson, J. (2002). Rational choice, culture change, and
fisheries management in the Gulf of Maine. Research in
Economic Anthropology, 21, 133–159.
Coleman, J. (1990). Foundations of social theory.
Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Ensminger, J. (1998). Anthropology and the new
institutionalism. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical
Economics, 154, 774–789.
Copyright © 2013. SAGE Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or
applicable copyright law.
EBSCO Publishing : eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost) - printed on 4/14/2015 9:14 AM via RIJKSUNIVERSITEIT GRONINGEN
AN: 719563 ; Warms, Richard L., McGee, R. Jon.; Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology : An Encyclopedia
Account: rug
690 Redfield, Robert
Lindenberg, S. (2001). Social rationality versus rational
egoism. In J. Turner (Ed.), Handbook of sociological
theory (pp. 635–668). New York, NY: Kluwer
Academic/Plenum Press.
Schweizer, T., & White, D. R. (Eds.). (1998). Kinship,
networks, and exchange. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
Wittek, R., Snijders, T. A. B., & Nee, V. (in press). Rational
choice social research. In R. Wittek, T. A. B. Snijders, &
V. N e e ( E d s . ) , Rational choice social research. Palo Alto,
CA: Stanford University Press.
REDFIELD, ROBERT
The American anthropologist and sociologist
Robert Redfield (1897–1958) was a leading theorist
of social development and change who exercised a
wide-ranging influence among American social sci-
entists from the 1930s through the early 1960s.
Biography and Major Works
Robert Redfield was born in 1897 in Chicago,
Illinois. His mother was the daughter of the Danish
consul in Chicago, and his father was a prominent
attorney. Redfield grew up in comparatively afflu-
ent surroundings. His early education was conducted
by private tutors, and from the age of 13 through
high school, he attended the University of Chicago
Laboratory School. On graduating from the Lab
School in 1915, he matriculated in the College at the
University of Chicago. He struggled to establish direc-
tion in his first years in college, but after some inter-
ruptions, including driving an ambulance in France
in 1917 for the American Field Service, he gradu-
ated from the College in 1920. At his father’s strong
encouragement, he earned a JD from the University
of Chicago law school in 1921. On graduating, he
took to practicing law in downtown Chicago, but
after 2 years, he found law highly unsatisfactory.
While at the University of Chicago, Redfield mar-
ried a fellow student, Margaret (Greta) Park, whose
father, Robert E. Park, was a prominent member in
the University of Chicago’s sociology department.
Redfields father had died while Redfield was in his
last year of law school, and Robert Park came to fill
the role of a father figure. Park perceived Redfields
dissatisfaction with his law career and exerted a valu-
able influence in helping Redfield see opportunities
beyond law. In one particularly important act, Park
provided Greta and Redfield the funds to take an
extended trip through postrevolutionary Mexico in
1923. Park believed that exposure to a society in
the grip of active social reconstruction could be a
mind-expanding experience and could possibly serve
as a springboard for Redfield to reorient his life. The
trip proved to be just that, and on returning home,
at Park’s encouragement, Redfield chose to leave
behind the practice of law and undertake graduate
study in social science.
In the fall of 1924, Redfield enrolled in the
doctoral program in sociology and anthropology
at the University of Chicago. His trip to Mexico
had kindled an interest in the processes of social
change, and this interest came to dominate his work
over his entire career. Redfield conducted his dis-
sertation research in Mexico, undertaking a study
of social change in the small village of Tepoztlán.
Two primary influences shaped Redfields thinking
regarding the dynamics of social change: (1) the
culture-civilization debate of the 1920s, a search-
ing dialogue among transatlantic writers and intel-
lectuals following World War I, probing the issue
of whether the transition from a supposedly less
developed “culture” to “civilization” represented
actual progress, and (2) Robert E. Park, who was his
closest intellectual mentor and served as a personal
conduit for the fundamental ideas of the “Chicago
school” of sociology, which focused in large part
on the empirical study of social dynamics within
the urban setting. On completion of his dissertation
study of Tepoztlán in 1928, Redfield graduated with
a PhD degree and accepted an offer from Chicago to
become an assistant professor in the department of
sociology and anthropology.
Shortly after being hired at Chicago, Redfield
published a slightly modified version of his disser-
tation, as Tepoztlán, A Mexican Village: A Study
of Folk Life (1930). Redfield followed his study of
Tepoztlán with a much broader set of interrelated
community studies on the Yucatán peninsula,
which focused on comparative studies of a village,
town, and city. Like his earlier work, his goal in the
Yucatán studies was to use empirical research to
further develop the theory describing the processes
of social change. Redfield conducted his studies in
Yucatán over the course of the 1930s and published
the culmination of his work in 1941, The Folk
Culture of Yucatán .
Copyright © 2013. SAGE Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or
applicable copyright law.
EBSCO Publishing : eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost) - printed on 4/14/2015 9:14 AM via RIJKSUNIVERSITEIT GRONINGEN
AN: 719563 ; Warms, Richard L., McGee, R. Jon.; Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology : An Encyclopedia
Account: rug
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The difference between the highly successful Maine lobster industry and the crisis-ridden New England ground fishery is that the lobster industry has been able to organize politically to get legislation to solve a number of communal action dilemmas. The groundfishery has not been able to do so. What has made the difference is the lobster industry's development of a conservation ethic over the past 70 years, as additional conservation laws, increasing catches, and ideational factors reinforced each other in an upward spiral. In the groundfishery, top down management policies, biology, and technology all worked against developing effective rules, which led to cheating, a “gold rush mentality” and overexploitation.
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