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1Boudon is one of the most impressive masters of modeling social processes. This is my personal view. For years and years, I used Raymond Boudon’s book The Logic of Social Action as THE introductory book for my sociology students. It is truly a classic. There he defines the aims of sociology as “to study the complex influence of the structure of systems of interaction upon the action and beliefs of the actors who compose them.” As a theory of action, he uses a common sense version of rationality, in the sense that when people do something they mostly have something in mind, some reasons. It is part of the analysis to find out what the possible reasons might have been. This simple theory allows him to reconstruct the social environment in such a way that it pertains to what people presumably had it mind and vice-versa. The reconstruction of the links between people and the environment is first and foremost based on what is necessary to make people’s behavior intelligible in terms of what they had in mind, given the circumstances. In this way, understanding and explanation, the two scientific goals for sociology established by Weber, converge. Thus, interest in what people have in mind is in the service of reconstructing social processes. However, Boudon also shows that there are systems of interdependence where people influence each other without directly interacting. For example, people may have particular reasons for standing in line for a movie ticket, but the influence of the length of the queue on the chance of getting a ticket is pure interdependence of demand and supply and reasons play no role. Here, the explanation lies in the reconstruction of the interdependence. In terms of explanatory power, there is clearly a balance between attention to structural and demographic effects and to effects due to expectations and purposeful action. Often the two kinds of effects interact, as in his famous analysis of Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality (1974). In this brilliant analysis, the inheritability of status is analyzed in terms of how meritocracy affects the aspirations and behavior of people, but, as an unintended effect changes the queue for mobility in such a way that the structure remains largely as it was.

2For the analyses of such processes, Boudon divided the environment into the interaction system (be that face-to-face or pure interdependence) and the relevant environment of that system. The results of the interaction system form a separate block, and all the blocks provide the elements of his analysis of processes: The system of interaction, its relevant environment, and its outcomes, with the various feedback processes between these three. Depending on the feedback loops, we get very different types of processes: reproductive, cumulative and transformative. The book is full with examples of such processes, including a brilliant reconstruction of the conditions that lead to the backwardness in agricultural production (in Western Bengal) and the analysis of the succession of crises in the interbellum concerning Germany versus France and Britain, and the ensuing path dependency. In short, the book is full of truly insightful analyses with relatively simple and yet powerful tools that combine a common sense notion of rationality with a very acute attention to structural and demographic influences. To my mind, this book is still worth being taught in sociology introductory courses word-wide.

3With time, Boudon shifted his interest to a more philosophical question, to one component of the overall approach, namely to reasons. The common sense approach to rationality he had used in combination with the analysis of interdependencies became increasingly the center of his attention. He wanted to refine it, to show that people really are more rational than often thought by psychologists, and even by economists. They are rational in the sense that whatever they do, it is very likely that they are driven to their action by good reasons both for wanting something and for doing something. On the one hand, this was a highly productive shift in his work. In a relentless fashion, he opened up the search for the rationality of beliefs and preferences. While psychologists often try to explain behavior by non-rational motivations, Boudon wanted to show that it is worth-while to try explain away non- or ir-rationality wherever one could. Progress in explanation in sociology then consists in the degree to which sociologists succeed in finding rationality where non- or ir-rationality was suspected to reign. This broadening of the scope of rationality had become Boudon’s passion. Of course, people may have wrong reasons, but underneath it all, even wrong reasons are mostly reasonable, once one understands that people had good reasons to believe. It often only takes a very small wrong link in the chain of reasoning (mostly a spurious correlation) to lead to wrong beliefs. The rest consists of good reasons; so do give people the benefit of the doubt. They are in essence truly rational in the sense of having and being driven by good reasons. This point is driven home in very sophisticated analyses in virtually all of his books since the mid nineteen eighties. It includes reasons of all kinds, including reasons for preferences and values. Thus, Boudon goes a large step further than Weber in this regard. The service Boudon has done to sociology by these endeavors is, in my mind, to establish like nobody before him the urgency and direction of dealing with the question of the rationality of beliefs of all kinds. In this regard, his “program” has only started.

4There is, however, a price Boudon has to pay for this passionate concern about the rationality of beliefs. He wanted to combine this effort with finding the microfoundations for sociology, with finding THE behavioral theory to be used in sociological explanations. It is my considered view that in this quest, he could not succeed. He has no way of delineating the boundaries of the rationality of beliefs because he has apriori good reasons to believe that such boundaries are minor at best. This places the analysis of such boundaries outside his theoretical approach. He often admits that “I do not in any way draw the conclusion that all beliefs have to be explained by reasons”. Yet, there is no way he could theorize about the importance of beliefs that are not rational. Microfoundations for sociology should be able to deal with both kinds of beliefs and with non-rational drivers of action. Importantly, the quest for meaning (not just consistency) is a powerful influence on the production of reasons. Also, as Boudon had shown himself in his process analyses, there can be influences behind the actor’s back, making both beliefs and reasons irrelevant. Beliefs also do not have to be consistent, and there are circumstances that can make one set of beliefs more salient than another (Lindenberg, 2000; 2009).

5In sum, while I am fully in support of his program to probe the rationality of beliefs, I think that it would actually distract from the importance of this program, if it were burdened with the additional task of providing the microfoundations for sociology. To me, he is and will remain the hero of process analysis (for which his common sense approach to rationality did a good job).


  • Boudon R., 1974, Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality: Changing Prospects in Western Society, New York, Wiley.
  • Boudon R., 1981, The Logic of Social Action: An introduction to sociological analysis, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Lindenberg S., 2000, “The extension of rationality: Framing versus cognitive rationality”, pp. 168-204 in Baechler, J., Chazel, F., Kamrane, R., eds., L’Acteur et ses Raisons. Mélanges en l’honneur de Raymond Boudon, Paris, Puf.
  • Lindenberg S., 2009, “Values: What do they do for behavior?”, pp. 59-89 in Cherkaoui M., Hamilton P., eds, Boudon: A Life in Sociology, vol. 3, Oxford, Bardwell Press.
Siegwart Lindenberg
Honorary professor of Sociology
Groningen University
Member of the European Academy of Sociology
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Uploaded on on 19/11/2018
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