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1For several decades, the rational choice approach (hereafter RCA) has fuelled “the construction of a transdisciplinary paradigm [that has] transformed the conceptualization and methods of many disciplines” (Balme 2002, p. 109). The concepts of choice, preferences and rationality, of formal modelling, deductive reasoning and axiomatization have indeed acquired a significant place across the social sciences, offering them “a common space for reflection, endowed with the same way of setting out social issues, if not of resolving them, and structuring a large proportion of their debates” (ibid., p. 106).

2The Handbook of Rational Choice Social Research (hereafter Handbook) testifies to these interdisciplinary connections. Arranged into sixteen chapters and written by twenty-seven authors, this handbook provides recent studies conducted using the RCA. Reminding us from the outset of the fierce criticisms that have been — and continue to be — levelled at this approach, in particular in sociology, its objective is clear: to show that these criticisms have stimulated research into rational choice, leading to a refinement of its theoretical foundations and the extension of its empirical application to more varied fields (p. 1). The Handbook thus offers a collection of literature reviews on a number of both empirical and theoretical developments in the RCA. [1] Each of these reviews concentrates on the analysis of a social phenomenon, highlighting the contributions made by the RCA to the explanation of the mechanisms at work — and thus showing its pitfalls and limitations. Structuring the book by issue or specific problem — and not by discipline — fosters a decompartmentalization of analyses with the aim of highlighting the “strength of RCA [which] is to provide a unifying analytical framework into which insights from different fields and disciplines can be integrated” (p. 12).

3The first part of the book deals with individuals’ decision-making processes, and directly questions the actor’s rationality, goals and preferences, drawing in particular on many experimental results that have shown the inadequacy of a narrow conception of rationality in certain contexts. The four subsequent parts are organised on the basis of the traditional distinction between the primordial or “spontaneous” social orders, which are “community” and “friendship ties” (p. 13) and constructed social orders “characterized by principles of authority ranking and hierarchical control” (ibid.). The analysis of groups and networks — to which the second part of the Handbook (“Networks and Inequalities”) is devoted — comes under the heading of primary orders, as do the excellent literature reviews on criminal violence (Chap. 8), religion (Chap. 9) and migrant assimilation (Chap. 10), which comprise the third part (“Communities and Cohesion”). The two final parts (“States and Conflicts” and “Markets and Organizations”) are devoted to the study of constructed social orders, these being the state and economic institutions.

4This review offers a critical reading of the Handbook and is arranged in the following way. The integration of social structure within the RCA has taken two parallel paths, firstly by progressively complexifying the decision maker’s environment — notably through the concept of social capital — and secondly via the representation of the actor himself — contributing to the emergence of a wider conception of rationality. We begin by successively recalling the developments undergone by the RCA in these two directions, situating each contribution to the Handbook with this movement in the construction of the paradigm. The RCA is currently used to explain a growing number of social phenomena, such as immigration, religion, war, crime, market relations, work, the firm, etc. We then turn to the rational explanations of violence used in the Handbook to address crime, terrorism, war and the state. Recognizing that economic, sociological and political studies are all used to analyse this “nomadic concept,” we will reconsider the question of the relations between the social sciences and, in particular, between economics and sociology, for which — according to the Handbook’s editors — the neurosciences offer a common foundation for future development (p. 28). The wide range of uses of the RCA today leads us to conclude our review in terms of its weakness in offering a unified understanding of all economic and social phenomena.

The rationality hypothesis tested against social phenomena

5Rational choice is today still frequently associated with the postulate from “neoclassical economics” (p. 3) of an “atomised” individual (p. 10) and of a “selfish striving toward the maximization of material gain” (p. 7) in “perfect markets” (p. 3), in other words in conditions of “perfect information” (ibid.). However, with the aim of better understanding social phenomena, the RCA has gradually abandoned these hypotheses, as evidenced by the studies gathered in the book. Firstly, no chapter focuses on the “atomised” individual; all postulate, in contrast, an actor within a social organisation.

6Chapter 14 (“Market Design and Market Failure”), written by three economists (C. Cañón, G. Friebel, P. Seabright), is demonstrative in this respect. The closest to “neoclassical economics” (p. 474), it reviews the main lessons from the theory and practice of market design. This area of “economic engineering” for which Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley were awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1992, seeks to conceive of rules to govern exchanges in contexts where the price system does not function well (externalities, asymmetries of information, etc.). At the crossroads between traditional microeconomics, where actors are presumed to be rational in the narrowest sense, and experimental economics, the authors show that real markets require regulation, the development of which changes the agents’ incentives and thus behaviours — demonstrating a minima their “institutional embeddedness” (p. 23).

7This conception of social integration may seem minimalistic, in the sense that it refers to the simple interdependence of individual behaviours. Most contemporary RCA analyses adopt a broader conception in which interactions are strategic: the actions of some anticipating those of others. These studies mainly draw on game theory. Social integration thus affects the realization of certain actions and certain goals. [2] For example, when a rational actor takes into account his embeddedness in bilateral or multilateral relations, this leads him to cooperate in social dilemma situations (Chap. 3, “Rational Choice on Social Dilemmas: Embeddedness Effects on Trust,” V. Buskens, W. Raub). The perspective of future interactions, with the same partner or another member of his social network, in effect shapes behaviour through the diffusion of information sustaining reputation effects. Social embeddedness here presents the necessary conditions for the emergence of trust.

8Formal analysis of the rational actor’s social embeddedness has developed from two perspectives. The first relates to the characteristics of the social structure itself, presented as increasingly more complex, and highlights its influence on individual ends and actions. The second is more interested in the characteristics of the position of the actor within the structure, for which it proposes a cost–benefit analysis. These two perspectives have traditionally been the subject of distinct studies. Here they are connected and used together, notably in the analyses of networks and social capital contained in the book. Thus, for H. Flap and B. Völker (Chap. 6, “Social Capital”), social capital and network are indissociable. The actor’s social network is the result of his educational choices and the extension of his social capital — understood as “all the aspects of the social structure that facilitate the realisation of actors’ interests” (Coleman 1990, p. 227). The analysis of these choices is based on two hypotheses: 1) the “social resource hypothesis,” according to which individuals best endowed with social capital are best able to attain their objectives and 2) the investment hypothesis, according to which actors “invest” in a social tie on the basis of its expected return. This return is assessed in light of the social resource hypothesis, highlighting the ambivalence of social capital, which is both the source and objective of the creation of social relations.

9Chapter 7 (“Network Dynamics,” T. Snijders) presents the extensive literature which for the past two decades has tackled the interactions between the structure of the social relations network and individual actions. Combining the network and social capital perspectives, he devotes considerable attention to the “coevolution of network and behavior” (p. 267 sq.). A growing number of studies share this analysis: while the social structure influences actors’ rational choices, the latter simultaneously determine the form and properties of the structure to which they belong. This is also the case for the analysis of exchange structures summarized in Chapter 5 (“Social Exchange, Power, and Inequality in Networks,” K. Cook, C. Cheshire). Social exchange theories assume that rational actors exchange within structures of mutual dependence. However, these mutual dependencies are sources of inequality between actors; thus some have the power to negotiate favourable terms of exchange. In turn, making exchanges changes the structure and distribution of power between actors.

From homo economicus to the rational actor

10Concurrent with the strategy of complexifying the actor’s environment to account for his social embeddedness, the RCA has also followed the general trend within the social sciences of progressively complexifying the model of the actor himself. This has led to considering the multiplicity of actors’ goals, beliefs and identities, moving beyond the traditional representation of homo economicus as maximizing his material gain. The rational actor also seeks symbolic gains, such as spiritual reward (Chaps. 9, 11 and 13), or pursues much broader goals such as his “social wellbeing” (Chaps. 1, 2, 6, 10, 11, 12 and 16) defined as the search for “social approval, status and prestige, or affection” (p. 9). Moreover, individual preferences may not be purely selfish. As S. Yachter remarks (Chap. 1, “Rationality, Social Preferences, and Strategic Decision-making from a Behavioral Economics Perspective”), rationality does not imply selfishness, and the RCA’s axioms are in no way incompatible with the integration of the well-being of others. Chapter 1 thus presents an analysis of “social preferences” where the actor’s well-being increases with his monetary gain, but declines if that gain is very different from that obtained by others with whom he interacts, demonstrating his aversion to inequality.

11Thus the RCA now embraces a set of representations of individual behaviour that is as vast as it is heterogeneous. The Handbook includes studies on various rationality hypotheses where individuals’ behaviour is not necessarily of a maximizing nature (e.g. Chaps. 2 and 6), and where it is, it could be to maximize non-monetary gains (e.g. Chaps. 9 to 13), some of which are relative to others or to their ties with others (e.g. Chaps. 1, 4 and 8). From the maximization of the expected utility that was characteristic of homo economicus, the RCA has been opened up to looser conceptions of rationality, extending to analyses in terms of limited (Simon 1947), procedural (Simon 1976) and social (Lindenberg 2001) rationality. The introduction of the Handbook, written by the three editors, offers a taxonomy of these representations of rational behaviour, classifying them according to the cognitive and information capabilities they ascribe to actors, and the determinants of their preferences (p. 6). It is regrettable that none of the later chapters makes reference to this taxonomy — the creation of which becomes therefore a little pointless. Subscribing to it systematically would have had the merit of making explicit the hypotheses used in each contribution — a certain number of which are not always very clear in terms of the rationality ascribed to actors. Such heterogeneity once more underlines the difficulty in presenting the RCA as a coherent body of research — especially when one seeks, as does this book, to highlight its contemporaneity and fruitfulness. The common denominator of all these works is ultimately the recourse to methodological individualism, as defined by Raymond Boudon (2002). Although they advance very different hypotheses regarding the actor as well as his environment, recent RCA studies share the approach of explaining social processes as “the combination of actions, beliefs and individual attitudes” in order to “reconstruct the meanings they have for [the actor]” and “the reasons he has to adopt them” (Boudon 2002, p. 9). Methodological individualism is also understood in a broad sense, as the introduction to the book (p. 6) presents it as a continuum ranging from “natural” individualism, associated with the hypothesis of the atomicity of the actor, to a “structural” individualism, a weaker version wherein a set of social conditions may influence individual behaviour (Udehn 2001). [3]

Violence and rational choice

12The Handbook devotes a great deal of attention to the question of violence, which has been widely studied by the RCA since Gary S. Becker’s (1968) book on crime. The challenge is great: recognising that the use of violence is in part a rational choice constitutes a strong position in favour of free will in the debate that opposes it to social, psychological and/or religious determinisms. “Street criminals are commonly portrayed by the media and a few social scientists as impulsive, unthinking, and uneducated […]” (Matsueda, Chap. 8, p. 283). By contrast, understanding violence as the result of a rational choice allows us to consider it as not ineluctable or inherent to human nature. In this way, the RCA is in line with the instrumental conception of violence “bequeathed by classical authors: according to this conception, violence is the means to attain determined objectives” (Corradi 2010, p. 112). However, the method is different, because the RCA recommends systematic recourse to formal models based on the calculations of rational agents. It is this method, moreover, that makes the RCA valuable for all social sciences since it lends “an unprecedented degree of rigor and analytical sophistication” (Sánchez-Cuenca, Chap. 11, p. 404). The Handbook presents four chapters dealing with the rational analysis of violence in which it is possible to distinguish the study of violence committed by an individual (Chaps. 8, 11 and 13) from that perpetrated by an organization (Chaps. 8, 11, 12 and 13). We present the main lessons below.

Individual choice of violence

13The rational analysis of individual violence is anchored in the framework of Beckerian analysis in which an actor participates in a criminal activity as soon as the expectation of gain from this activity exceeds its probabilised costs. Subsequent work, especially by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Lawrence E. Cohen (1995), includes legitimate opportunities that are alternatives to crime. Thus, all other things being equal, the actor is all the more incited to commit a crime where 1) alternative legal opportunities are rare and 2) the perception of the justice system is bad. [4] Chapter 8 (“Rational Choice Research in Criminology: A Multi-level Framework,” R. Matsueda) shows that the development of the RCA on questions of violence has spawned a new field of empirical investigations that deals with the effectiveness of criminal sanctions (Nagin 1998) to combat criminal activities (e.g. petty crime or sexual assault).

14The RCA also provides interesting insights into the issue of individual political violence, such as suicide bombings. Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca’s discussion (Chapter 11, “Terrorism and the State”) explains the dimension of rationality inherent in the decision to carry out such an act. [5] Two factors distinguish the terrorist projecting a suicide attack from the Beckerian criminal. First, while the criminal is driven only by selfish preferences, the terrorist can be altruistic in that he values the welfare of other members of the terrorist organization (Azam 2005). Understanding the phenomenon of sacrifice therefore involves going beyond the standard Beckerian framework to consider the social rationality of the actors. Second, the gains of a suicide bombing are more complex than those of a crime. For example, the terrorist who refuses to become a martyr can suffer extremely strong social stigma, changing his preferences such that it becomes rational to commit suicide bombing (Ferrero 2006).

15Chapter 13 (“Rational Choice Approaches to State-Making,” E. Kiser, E. Powers) specifies the interdependence between violence and state formation. A first set of RCA analyses considers the state as emerging from a decentralized desire to organize economic activity efficiently (which requires the provision of public goods, the management of externalities, etc.). A second one extends the Olsonian conception of the stationary bandit (Olson 1982). Here, the state is born out of the behaviour of an agent — the bandit — using his coercive power to steal from a certain number of individuals. Maximizing the bandit’s income involves the provision of public goods so that the agents, from whom he intends to steal, will increase their production.

Violence orchestrated by organisations

16Violence, however, is not limited to individuals, but also concerns organizations such as the mafia. These organizations emerge in environments marked by the weaknesses of social capital and of the state, when the latter is incapable of ensuring the security of the population. The mafia then uses violence as an instrument to replace the state: it provides a “protection racket” extorting resources in exchange for protection of its “clients” (Gambetta 1993). Violence does not therefore appear as a result of the intrinsically violent nature of the mafia, but rather results from a rational strategy used to achieve its objective of domination of the territory. Chapter 11 identifies two reasons why a terrorist organization uses violence: mobilisation and attrition. In the first, violence acts to signal the power of the organisation, the purpose of which is to increase the number of its members. [6] The strategy of attrition, however, is to deploy violence to obtain concessions from the state. However, Sánchez-Cuenca considers that in addressing terrorism the RCA has a major problem in relation to empiricism, both in its foundations (which are rarely related to empirical observations) and in its conclusions — it does not in fact advance any testable hypotheses.

17Chapter 12 (J. Morrow, “Choosing War: State Decisions to Initiate and End Wars and Observe Peace Afterward”) focuses on war — the extreme form of political violence. The central idea is that a war is costly for all belligerents. From a Coasian perspective, it is theoretically possible to find a mutually beneficial agreement and avoid war. However, “rational leaders may be unable to locate a mutually beneficial agreement because of the existence of private information and incentives to convey false information about the relationship of the forces involved” (Fearon 1995, p. 381). As a result, war is the result of a failure of the negotiating process, a failure resulting from the implementation of incompatible strategies in a context of imperfect information. Such an interpretational framework is a powerful tool for ex-post analysis of international diplomatic manoeuvring. In addition, it invites the study of the “audience costs” that are incurred by leaders. Whether they are of international origin (reactions of the leaders of other states) or national (electoral constraints on the leader), these audience costs concern the mechanisms of engagement and reputation that are at work, and may mean that leaders prefer war to accepting politically costly concessions.

18Finally, Chapter 13 reverses causal reasoning and opens up the question of the link between the emergence of the state and war. A climate of generalized violence effectively induces a stronger demand for protection from individuals in response, thus allowing the state to develop. In particular, war makes it possible to impose higher levels of taxes and thus to increase the sphere of influence of the state; as the famous expression puts it: “war made the state, and the state made war” (Tilly 1975).

19In the end, the RCA shows that violence must not be seen as an end in itself, but can be a strategy, based on purely selfish or social preferences, to achieve a given goal. Faced with this complexity, analyses of the rational choice of violence, whether economic, political or sociological, tend to become conflated, as the overview of theoretical analyses of conflicts proposed by Mehrdad Vahabi (2009) also demonstrates. While violent actions were first conceived as irrational because they were guided by psychological and emotional motives (Gurr 1970), these non-rational motivations were subsequently integrated into the utility function of agents, leading to a (rational) analysis of violence in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. The motivations of the actor using violence can thus be reduced to the search for a monetary or non-monetary gain (prize-grabbing). This approach provides an analytical framework for work in all disciplines. Vahabi (2009, p. 832) thus groups under the heading of rational choice both political science studies such as those of Dipak K. Gutpa (1990), and economic studies such as by John E. Roemer (1985). The interdisciplinary proximity that the RCA enables is effectively highlighted in the four chapters of the Handbook which draw on references from American political science, economics and sociology. However one concern is raised by reading these chapters: the abundant literature on the “theory of revolutionary choice” concerning civil conflicts is ignored (Tazdaït and Nessah 2008, Blattman and Miguel 2010). This silence is surprising in two respects: civil conflicts are today the most widespread and, most importantly, the question of their analysis in RCA terms constitutes a particularly dense interdisciplinary debate (e.g. McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2009; Cederman, Gleditsch and Buhaug 2013). This transdisciplinary treatment of violence raises the question of the relationship between the various disciplines of the social sciences. One may wonder whether this relationship is effectively a rapprochement necessitated by a “nomadic concept,” transdisciplinary in nature, or whether it is part of the movement denounced as the imperialism of the economics discipline (e.g. Fine and Milonakis 2008).

Economic imperialism or fruitful transdisciplinarity?

20In reading many chapters of the Handbook, one cannot fail to notice the porosity of the disciplinary boundaries of the social sciences, and in particular between the sociology and economics of rational choice. This is the case when economic institutions are analysed — as in Chapter 15 (“Organizational Governance,” N. Foss, P. Klein), which offers an excellent critical review of recent theories of the firm, of the new institutional economics approach to incomplete contracts, and the new theory of property rights. This is also the case in the works already mentioned on trust, social capital and networks. Cross-references are numerous, and the methods and issues of interest overlap widely. Sociological and economic studies show that social capital and education reinforce each other: being educated increases social capital, which in turn increases the returns to education (e.g., Chapter 6 and Sacerdote 2011). They stress the role of social ties in situations of insecurity: solidarity between members of the same social network mitigates the absence of a formal insurance system (e.g. Chapter 6 and Fafchamps and Gubert 2007). They focus on the issue of homophilia (referring to the tendency of people who are similar to come together: in the words of the saying, like attracts like) assuming that the behaviour of an actor is influenced by his interactions with his neighbours (e.g. Chapter 7 and Bisin and Verdier 2001) — since such a hypothesis has stimulated research on the endogenisation of individual preferences in economic theory. [7]

21This broad overlap between the sociology and the economics of rational choice is no longer due to economic imperialism, the editors say in their introduction to the book. [8] On the contrary, they believe that a new dialogue is opening up between the disciplines, the fruit of their joint evolution in the analysis of behaviour (p. 28). There are three arguments that support their point of view. The first is that the empirical inadequacy of the homo œconomicus model has been amply demonstrated in the field of behavioural economics (p. 27). A proliferation of works followed, proposing more realistic analyses of rationality and breathing new life into the endogenisation of preferences mentioned above. The second reason invoked for the renewal of dialogue between economics and sociology lies in the evolution of the sociology of rational choice itself, which has gradually enriched the canonical representation of the rational actor and extended its empirical research — the Handbook providing evidence of the adaptability and wealth of the RCA. Beyond these converging evolutions, and more fundamentally, the third argument of the editors is that recent developments in the RCA are all strongly influenced by the findings of neurocognitive sciences on the functioning of the human brain. Bringing together the contributions of biology, medicine, psychology, but also chemistry and mathematics, these sciences have become the common provider of observations and results that are at the origin of inevitably close new studies in the two disciplines. Their contributions concerning perceptions, emotions, motivation or learning thus guide a process of increasing refinement of the representations of individual preferences and rational action — offering, according to the editors of the Handbook, the new foundations of a great unified social science.

22Within the book, the most successful example of such borrowing from neuroscience is undoubtedly Chapter 2 (“Social Rationality, Self-regulation, and Wellbeing: The Regulatory Significance of Needs, Goals, and the Self,” by Siegwart Lindenberg). In this chapter the author extends his already well-developed “framing” approach (Lindenberg 1993), and his work on social groups (Lindenberg 1997), combining them with biological and cognitive mechanisms that have been demonstrated by the social neurosciences (Cacioppo and Berntson 1992).

23For a rational choice specialist, one of the most disturbing findings of neuroscience is that the pursuit of an objective is organized not only by rational thinking but also, and sometimes even often, by automatic or semi-automatic processes that accompany or, on the contrary, disrupt rational reasoning (p. 28). In order to understand such a result, Lindenberg adopts an extended conception of rationality as a set of self-regulatory processes more or less deliberately controlled, implemented by the actor in pursuit of physical and social well-being. Rationality is conceived as social: human beings are indeed profoundly social (p. 73). Self-regulation processes are thus socially embedded and develop from childhood through socialization — hence the many examples throughout the chapter relating to the acquisition and development of cognitive skills by children and adolescents — for which the approach proposed here makes it possible to account.

24The neurosciences generally tend to show that behaviours depend on situational, social and personality factors. Lindenberg combines all of these factors into three sets of self-regulating processes implemented by the rational actor, related to his needs, objectives and identity. The chapter presents these three sets in detail, offering a very dense representation of rational behaviour linked to the complexity of the processes at work. It constantly emphasizes their close dependence on social structures — whether in the form of informal social relations or formal organizations and institutions. This is one of the great contributions of Lindenberg’s work: the greater or lesser complexity of the representation of the actor depends on the social phenomenon which it aims to explain; here the sophistication of the model of rationality is the price to be paid for a global understanding of social institutions.

The RCA: towards a universal explanation of society?

25All the works cited in the Handbook — as well as the recent economic studies mentioned above — adopt the “decreasing abstraction” method by means of which, starting with the canonical model of homo œconomicus, they gradually introduce more complexity that translates into greater realism. The process of constantly enriching the representation of the rational actor is effectively guided by the evidence of its empirical inadequacy. By also adopting the method of diminishing abstraction, Lindenberg stresses the point that the starting model should not be “too simple” such that the explanation of certain social phenomena could be overlooked. He supports the “sufficient complexity” principle, according to which “simplifying assumptions must always be sufficiently complex to allow us to describe the phenomenon to be explained” (Lindenberg 2003, p. 362). From Lindenberg’s perspective, using the canonical model of rationality as a starting-point, and then watering it down a lot will not help us in understanding how the socialized rational actor produces his own well-being. In particular, it is impossible to explain the unequal distribution of selfregulation capacities within the population. These differences explain certain social phenomena; they are at the root of inequalities in income, social status, health and therefore, more broadly, of certain social policies (p. 73). Hence, only a sufficiently complex apprehension of rationality can lead to a general explanation of the social.

26Such a methodological stance lends Lindenberg’s contribution a special place in the Handbook. Indeed, far from offering such a general explanation, the other chapters concentrate, as we have said, on the rational analysis of a social phenomenon or, if one prefers, of a circumscribed space of the social field. The chapters, although of unequal quality, highlight the contributions of the RCA, in particular in terms of its rigor and formalization, as well as taking account of broader motivations and new determinants of individual preferences in relation to the strict rationality of the homo œconomicus, renewing the understanding of each phenomenon. The broad spectrum of spaces covered and the hypotheses set forth in the book are interpreted by the editors as a manifestation of “a compatatively young research program” (p. 26), still “developing” in sociology (ibid.), and currently at the stage where “the core idea is elaborated into specific theories for a limited number of subdomains or contexts” (ibid.). Such an interpretation emphasizes the strength of the RCA, suggesting a later stage in its development when these specific theories could unite in a general explanation of social phenomena.

27This interpretation contrasts sharply with the idea advocated by Balme (2002, p. 11) for whom “rational choice has probably exceeded its heuristic optimum.” Indeed, because of the diversity of the uses of RCA resulting in an “accumulation of misunderstandings” and an overly broad indeterminacy of behaviour that no longer allows modeling, Balme (2002) argued that the RCA “will now produce results with decreasing returns” (ibid.). For the economics discipline alone, Malinvaud (2001) finds that the predominantly prescriptive preoccupations of economics require a precise and therefore narrow definition of concepts, hence preventing the development of a “science of institutions” offering a synthetic understanding of all economic and social phenomena (p. 26).

28More fundamentally, the use of the decreasing abstraction method characterizing the construction of the rational choice paradigm suggests the existence of a social whole that could be progressively explained by continuously relaxing the assumption of the rational actor. Yet the chapters of this book suggest that rational choice does not apply in an undifferentiated way to the whole social field. The rational explanations of terrorism, of the organization of work or the assimilation of migrants constitute as many different “specific theories” and ultimately only share an adherence to methodological individualism. One may then doubt that this collection of “specific theories” succeeds in uniting them within a theory of society, particularly to the extent that these phenomena form incommensurable and irreducible spaces in relation to one another. Reading the sixteen chapters of the Handbook of Rational Choice Social Research thus illustrates the halo of rational choice, revealing the limits of the applications of rational reasoning and its inability to account for the social whole.


  • [*]
    Translated by Toby Matthews with the support of CNRS-INSHS.
  • [**]
    Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2013, 624pp., $75.
  • [1]
    Since the controversies surrounding RCA have been particularly great in the United States, the contributors mostly come from American universities, but also from Northern Europe and, in particular, from the Netherlands where the research centres most active in RCA are grouped around the ICS (Inter-University Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology) and the James Coleman Association.
  • [2]
    The concept of pairwise stability (Jackson and Wolinsky 1996) falls within this framework. Refining the Nash equilibrium, pairwise stability enables us to understand the formation and development of a social structure based on pairwise interactions between maximizing individuals. In comparison to an equilibrium resulting from multilateral exchanges, pairwise stability requires less information but neglects mutually beneficial multilateral relations (see chap. 7).
  • [3]
    As we have highlighted, no chapter in the Handbook treats individuals as atomised; recent RCA studies all share the idea that the actor is not rational in himself or for himself, but his rationality is affected by social processes (according to the “social” version of individualism), even codetermined with social processes (according to the “structural” version).
  • [4]
    B. Bueno De Mesquita and L. E. Cohen (1995) distinguish between “fair” and “unjust” governments. When a government is unfair or confiscatory, legal activities that are alternative to crime are less attractive because their returns are lower.
  • [5]
    The prospect of a great reward after death, which is specific to religious attacks, is not a sufficient explanation, according to the author, for two reasons. On the theoretical level, a postmortem payment is not «strictly a selective incitement because the terrorist does not benefit» (ibid., p. 387). In addition, suicide attacks have also been perpetrated by non-religious terrorist organizations.
  • [6]
    There are five reasons for this listed by the author (p. 390): (1) violence radicalizes preferences, (2) it creates class consciousness, (3) it is attractive, (4) it shows the fragility of the system in place, and 5) It forces the State to take repressive action.
  • [7]
    The question of the endogenisation of preferences is not new but is now attracting growing interest, reflecting a renewal of the economic approach. It seeks to explain the social dynamics of preferences by integrating the possibility of their transformation as a result of interactions and socialization. The abundance of current economic work is far from referring to a common framework, since some claim to be based on the later writings of Becker (e.g. Becker and Murphy 2000), while others are in the anti-Beckerian tradition (e.g Akerlof and Kranton 2000). Nevertheless, all share the hypothesis of a co-determination of rationality and social processes, with preferences being constructed within social interaction.
  • [8]
    As does Richard Balme (2002, p. 102), who argues that “the ‘successes’ of rational choice are not a sign of the dominance of economics over the other social sciences … and the [RCA] can be understood as an incursion of political analysis, or more generally institutional analysis, into economics as much as the reverse.”

The Handbook of Rational Choice Social Research provides an overview of the rational choice paradigm. This review article shows how the rational choice approach has gradually become a paradigm by seeking to overcome sociology’s traditional divisions. Firstly, the rational actor’s decision-making environment has been significantly enriched for a better understanding of the influence of social structure on choices. At the same time, the image of the rational actor has been greatly altered by integrating some of the many experimental results that have found homo economicus to be empirically inadequate. There is a third route by which it has become a paradigm. These more complex models have stimulated the study of social phenomena that were previously not much explored by the rational choice approach — we discuss the example of violence — establishing, according to some authors, new relationships between the various disciplines in the social field.


  • rationality
  • choice
  • methodological individualism
  • transdisciplinarity
  • violence


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Camille Chaserant
Centre d’économie de la Sorbonne
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne — Cnrs
Maison des Sciences économiques
106–112, Boulevard de l’Hôpital
75647 Paris cedex 13
Victoire Girard
Laboratoire d’économie d’Orléans — Labex Voltaire
Université Orléans-CNRS
Rue de Blois — BP 26739 — 45067 Orléans cedex
Antoine Pietri
Centre d’économie de la Sorbonne
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne — CNRS
Maison des Sciences Économiques
106–112, Boulevard de l’Hôpital
75647 Paris cedex 13
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