dude, when did sociologists stop giving a hoot about rational choice theory?

Here’s a simple exercise. Go to the website of the journal Rationality and Society and look at the authors of recent articles. What do you notice? Here’s what I noticed – tons of the authors are not sociologists. Current issue? We have Cass Sunstein (law), Bertrand Crettez and Regis Deloche (lists public choice as a specialty – economics),  Ennio Piano (GMU econ), and Daniel Arce (Texas economics). The previous issue is similar. Seven authors and I spotted 2 sociologists, 3 economists, and 2 business school profs. The issue before that? Very similar: 3 sociologists out of 10 authors. For the year so far, 22 authors and 5 sociologists.

This is bizarre because Rationality and Society is a journal created and run by sociologists. Yet, most authors are not sociologists. This speaks to a discipline wide decline in interest. There are a few rational choice sociologists here and there. For example, there is Ivan Ermakoff at Wisconsin, Washington’s Ed Kiser, and Kaz Yamaguchi at Chicago. Beyond these folks, it gets pretty thin pretty fast. Finding a sociological rational choicer under 45 is hard.

One could ask why sociologists essentially abandoned RCT. A few hypotheses:

  1. It was a fad. Few people, except a few high status disciplinary leaders like Jim Coleman, were ever really invested in it.
  2. Intellectual merit. Maybe sociologists are right. People don’t have preferences and incentives don’t matter. Economic models really are a bourgeois sham ideology. Sociologists should totally avoid RCT.
  3. Cost-benefit ratio. Most social scientists are “mom and pop positivists.” They just want to crank out papers with real pretty charts and tables. The effort needed to understand, much less apply, RCT isn’t really needed.
  4. The hard turn to stratification. Since sociologists has gone hard on social stratification, the demand for other types of research has dropped.
  5. Migration. The people who used to do RCT in sociology have all gone to b-schools and applied micro-economics. Pays better and you’ll get your PhD in 5 years instead of 8.

I really don’t know how to judge these hypotheses, but the de facto death of RCT is sad. We really could use more theoretical diversity in sociology.


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Written by fabiorojas

August 31, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting question. I think we might want to look beyond that specific journal. It may be that there are not a lot of sociologists committed to that subfield per se. I did a soc abstracts search with “rational choice” in the title for the last three years and got 23 hits in that journal, a few Crim journals, Soc Spectrum, a Dutch journal, and a computer simulation journal. Then I looked for the same period in ASR — 13 hits: (this is from my university library so the link might not work)

    Some sociologists have recently called for more sociological participation in the related field of judgment and decision-making.

    I wouldn’t say there’s a huge amount of interest among sociologists, but it’s not negligible, either.

    A more interesting question would be to ask what rational choice theory has to offer to sociologists, and this may very by subfield. In his afterward to Roger Gould’s (2000) The Rational Choice Controversy in Historical Sociology (Chicago), Chuck Tilly wrote (pardon the long quote),

    “Upstream, rational choice theory lacks a plausible account of how preferences, available resources, choice situations, and knowledge of consequences form or change. Midstream, the theory incorporates a dubious account of how people make decisions when they actually confront situations of choice among relatively well defined alternative actions with more or less known costs and consequences according to previously established schedules of preference. As Raymond Boudon, Craig Calhoun, and Jack Goldstone all remark, both observational and experimental evidence challenge the rational choice midstream account, confining its scope to very special conditions. Those special conditions, I would add, rest on historically developed knowledge, preferences, practices, and institutions.

    Downstream, the theory lacks an account of consequences, in two senses of the word. First, considering how rarely we human beings execute actions with the flair we would prefer, the theory leaves unclear what happens between a person’s choice to do something and the same person’s action in response to that choice. Second, considering how rarely we human beings anticipate precisely the effects of our less-than-perfect actions, it likewise remains unclear what links the theory’s rationally chosen actions to concrete consequences in social life. In fact, error, unintended consequences, cumulative but relatively invisible effects, indirect effects, and environmental reverberations occur widely in social life. Any theory that fails to show how such effects of human action occur loses its claim to generality.”

    I haven’t been paying attention recently, but have RTC scholars resolved these challenges in the last 18 years? Did Chuck get it wrong? Does RTC have more explanatory power in micro-level subfields like social psych or group processes than in others that are trying to demonstrate institutional-level processes or to link micro and macro scales?

    Whether or not a theory is popular is not an interesting question. What does it have to offer?

    P.S. Stratification isn’t a theory, it’s a subfield that includes numerous methodological and theoretical debates and distinct foci.


    Joel Stillerman

    August 31, 2018 at 5:32 pm

  2. It’s mostly an American development. RCT is alive and well in other parts of the world. I could post a list of sociologists with a RCT focus that became professors in Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands in the last 10 years (Rauhut, Przepiorka, Buskens, Kroneberg, Wolbring …) to make the point. And aren’t things like stochastic actor-oriented models in network analysis basically applied RCT?

    @Joel Stillerman
    “Did Chuck get it wrong?”
    Yes, very superficial …


    Talcott Parsons

    September 1, 2018 at 12:24 am

  3. Well, FWIW, here is my (positive) take on rational action in the study of social movements.
    TL;DR individual rational action models are useless, but the framework has been very productive for emphasizing importance of collective organization, guiding structural analysis & investigating networks.
    But I also have stopped really working in that tradition.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 3, 2018 at 6:34 pm

  4. Thanks for sharing the paper. It was very helpful. This sentence sums it up for me: “The only correct statements are complex, interactive, and conditional.” I wrote a piece a while ago that engaged with the historical sociology debate I referenced above. I was interested in understanding a strike in Chile that occurred during a severe recession under the Pinochet dictatorship. I argued that the concepts of combined conjunctural causation and collective identity better explained this instance of high risk collective action than what you call a “simplistic rational actor model.” I suspect most readers of this blog do not read Spanish, but here it is:

    Your overview provides a lot of interesting ideas if I turn back to unions/movements in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    Joel Stillerman

    September 4, 2018 at 2:28 am

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Joel. My Spanish is pretty seriously poor but I might give Google translate a chance later this week, when I’m done beating my head against learning software.



    September 4, 2018 at 3:06 am

  6. Sure. There are other papers from the same dataset, but none engages with the RCT discussion. Good luck with the software.


    Joel Stillerman

    September 4, 2018 at 12:37 pm

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