Winter 1998

SOC 290 Akos Rona-Tas

Office Hours: Tuesdays 2:30-4:30

or by appointment

SSB 491





The first part of the seminar will cover some of the fundamental ideas and concepts behind Rational Choice Theory. We will concentrate on the rationality assumption and the micro-macro problem. In the second part we will analyze three books from this tradition, Thomas Schellingís Micro-motives and Macro-behavior, a set of articles, and Olson's Logic of Collective Action. The third part presents some of the criticism of the theory.

To do justice to either RCT or its critics in ten weeks is impossible, so I have listed some recommended literature that you may want to read beyond the required texts.


During the course each of you will be responsible for reporting on one set of required readings. This means a short (2-3) page written review and the facilitation of the discussion at the seminar. The written reviews should be distributed to all participants a day before class. I suggest that your review has three parts. [Everything comes in threes!] A first part with a short summary of the main arguments, a second part offering criticism, and a third with a set of questions intended for discussion.

You will also have to write a 10-15-page long seminar paper critically reviewing the seminar readings, or applying RCT to some research problem or contrasting RCT with some other approach. You will have to see me by January 20th to discuss the topic of your paper.


I take this seminar as an opportunity to think and work together with you on issues of theoretical importance. Nevertheless, since this is a graduate seminar, and I have to assign grades. I will follow these guidelines: your final paper will carry the largest weight in your final grade but you will not get an A if you did not do the review and facilitate and participate in the discussions, even if your paper turns out to be brilliant. The reason is simple; this is meant to be a seminar of intellectual collaboration and not an independent study.




1st week


Rationality and Social Action


Max Weber, The Definition of Sociology and Social Action, Types of Social Action, pp. 4-31 in Economy and Society vol. 1.

James S. Coleman. 1986. Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action, AJS, 91:1309-35


Rogers Brubaker. 1984. The Limits of Rationality. An Essay on the Social and Moral Thought of Max Weber. London: George Allen and Unwin. [In this seminar we will use rationality in a much more restricted sense than Weber did. Brubakerís essay gives the entire scope of rationality, including its historical and moral dimensions, in Weberís thinking.]

Boudon, Raymond. 1986. Theories of Social Change. Chapter 2. [B. gives a concise overview of the Weberian paradigm of social action.]

Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge: Belknap [This is a formidable book and requires a seminar of its own. But it is useful seeing how such diverse topics as trust, social capital, norms or collective behavior can be addressed within the rational choice paradigm. It also includes C.ís 86 AJS article. ]




2nd week

The Fundamentals of Rational Choice Theory

Friedman, Milton. 1953. "Methodology of Positive Economics." In Essays in Positive Economics. University of Chicago Press

Elster, Jon. 1986. "Introduction." Pp. 1-33 in J. Elster ed. Rational Choice, Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Becker, Gary. 1986. "The Economic Approach to Human Behavior." Pp. 108-122 in J. Elster ed. Rational Choice, Oxford: Basil Blackwell


Arrow, Kenneth. 1968. Mathematical Models in the Social Sciences. Pp. 635-668 in May Brodbeck ed. Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. New York: MacMillan [A very simple and straightforward explanation of the most fundamental issues in neoclassical economic modeling. It is REALLY simple.]

Blaug, Mark. 1992. The Methodology of Economics. Positive Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [If you want to have a basic, non-technical overview of economics, this is a good book. It gives a history of the discipline and its debates, and provides an exposition of the most important issues in neoclassical economics, including rationality.]

Hausman, Daniel M. 1992. The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [H.ís book is another overview of the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of economic theory. In its first chapter he gives a non-technical and clear exposition of the rationality assumptions.]

Lave Charles A. and James G. March. 1993. Introduction to Models in the Social Sciences. New York: University Press of America. [This is an undergraduate textbook on how to build your own models of social behavior. It is great fun, lots of vivid examples and starts from ground zero. Its chapters on Choice and Exchange teaches anyone how to maximize expected utilities and draw indifference curves.]

Dixit, Avinash K. and Barry J. Nealbuff. 1991. Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics and Everyday Life. New York: Norton [An non-technical and glib introduction to game theory.]


3rd week

Psychological Issues of Rationality



Dawes, Robyn. 1988. Rational Choice in an Uncertain World. Orlando: Harcourt Brace


Simon, Herbert A. 1986. Rationality in Psychology and Economics. Journal of Business 59/4 [S. argues that one needs to look at the actual process by which people make decisions. He gives great examples how assuming a particular form of rationality can lead to bad conclusions in elegant analytic models.]

Tversky, Amos and Daniel Kahnemann. 1986. "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice." Pp. 123-141 in J. Elster ed. Rational Choice, Oxford: Basil Blackwell [T. and K. develops a theory of how people actually make decisions.]

Boudon, Raymond. 1989. "Subjective Rationality and the Explanation of Social Behavior." Rationality and Society, 1/2:173-196 [B. applies psychological insights into rationality to sociological examples.]

Schoemaker, Paul J.H. 1982. "The Expected Utility Model: Its Variants, Purposes, Evidence and Limitations." Journal of Economic Literature, 529-563 [This is an overview of expected utility theory.]

Machina, Mark J. 1987. "Choice under Uncertainty: Problems Solved and Unsolved." Economic Perspectives, 121-154 [This is another, more up-to-date, but more technical overview of expected utility theory.]




4th week

The Micro-macro problem


Schelling, Thomas. 1978. Micro-motives and Macro-behavior. New York: Norton


William H.Sewell, Jr. 1987. Theory of Action, Dialectic, and History: Comment on Coleman, AJS 93:166-71

Elster, Jon. 1990. " When Rationality Fails." Pp.19-47 Cook, Karen Schweers and Margaret Levi eds. 1990. The Limits of Rationality. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Hechter, Michael ed. 1983. The Microfoundations of Macrosociology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press [This is a collection of essays. Mary Brinton gives a RC explanation of the Japanese family and Douglass C. North gives a short version of his theory of institutional change.]

Elster, Jon. 1982. "Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory." Theory and Society, 11:453-482 [E. makes a strong case for methodological individualism.]

Cohen, G. A. 1982. Reply to Elster. Theory and Society, 11:483-495 [Cohen defends holism.]


5th week

Applications I.

Hechter, Michael and Satoshi Kanzawa. 1997. Sociological Rational Choice Theory. Annual review of Sociology. 23:191-214

Iannoccone, Laurence. 1997. "Framework for the Scientific Study of Religion." Pp.25-45 in Rational Choice Theory and Religion, edited by Lawrence A. Young. New York: Routledge.

Laitin, David D. 1995. "Marginality. A Microperspective." Rationality and Society 7/1:31-57



Hechter, Michael. 1987. Principles of Solidarity. Berkeley: California University Press [Hechter builds a theory of solidarity based on rational self-interest, an attempt to explain the rise of institutions as the result of rational action.]

Kiser, Edgar and Michael Hechter. 1991. "The Role of General Theory in Comparative-historical Sociology." American Journal of Sociology, 1-30 [K. and H. argues that comparative-historical sociology needs theory, and they offer RCT.]


6th week

Applications II

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press


Taylor, Michael. 1990. "Cooperation and Rationality: Notes on the Collective Action Problem and Its Solutions." Pp. 222-240 in Cook, Karen Schweers and Margaret Levi eds. 1990. The Limits of Rationality. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Calhoun, Craig. 1991. " The Problem of Identity in Collective Action." Pp. 51-75 in Joan Huber ed. Macro-Micro Linkages in Sociology. Newbury Park: Sage [C. discusses the importance of identity over interest in the context of the Chinese student protest.]




7th week

Cultural Criticism: Self-Interest?


Hirschman, Albert O. 1977. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Frank, Robert H., Thomas Gilovich, and Dennis T. Regan. 1993. "Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 6/2:159-171


Mansbridge, Jane J. ed. 1990. Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [This volume includes Amartya Sen's Rational Fools, Elster's Selfishness and Altruism, and Stephen Holmes' The Secret History of Self-Interest.]


8th week

Networks and Institutions


Granovetter, Mark. 1985. Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology

Uzzi, Brian . 1996. ""The Sources and Consequences of Embeddedness the Economic Performance of Organizations: The Network Effect." American Sociological Review 61:674-698

DiMaggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell. 1991. "Introduction." Pp. 1-38 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis edited by Powell and DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Abell, Peter. 1995. "New Institutionalism and Rational Choice Theory." Pp.3-14 in The Institutional Construction of Organizations, edited by Richard W. Scott and Soren Christensen. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage


DiMaggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell eds. 1991. The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


9th week

Rational Choice as Science


Green, Donald P and Ian Shapiro. 1994. Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press


England, Paula and Barbara Stanek Kilbourne. 1990. "Feminist Critiques of the Separative Model of Self: Implications for Rational Choice Theory." Rationality and Society, 156-171

Denzin, Norman K. 1990. "Reading Rational Choice Theory." Rationality and Society, 172-189


10th week



McCloskey, Donald. 1988. The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press

Swedberg, Richard. 1990. Economics and Sociology. Princeton: Princeton University Press [This is a collection of interviews on the topic of rationality, sociology and economics with people like Arrow, Becker, Hirschman, Granovetter, Elster, Olson, Coleman, Smelser and Sen. Should be read for entertainment.]


Smelser, Neil J. 1992. "The Rational Choice Perspective. A Theoretical Assessment." Rationality and Society, 381-410

Hirsch, Paul, Stuart Michaels, and Ray Friedman. 1987. "'Dirty Hands versus Clean Models.'" Theory and Society 16:317-336