Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science

Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science

Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science

This is the first comprehensive critical evaluation of the use of rational choice explanations in political science. Writing in an accessible and nontechnical style, Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro assess rational choice theory where it is reputed to be most successful: the study of collective action, the behavior of political parties and politicians, and such phenomena as voting cycles and Prisoner’s Dilemmas. In their hard-hitting critique, Green and Shapiro demonstrate that the much-heralded achievements of rational choice theory are in fact deeply suspect and that fundamental rethinking is needed if rational choice theorists are to contribute to the understanding of politics. Green and Shapiro show that empirical tests of rational choice theories are marred by a series of methodological defects. These defects flow from the characteristic rational choice impulse to defend universal theories of politics. As a result, many tests are so poorly conducted as to be irrelevant to evaluating rational choice models. Tests that are properly conducted either tend to undermine rational choice theories or to lend support for propositions that are banal. Green and Shapiro offer numerous suggestions as to how rational choice propositions might be reformulated as parts of testable hypotheses for the study of politics. In a final chapter they anticipate and respond to a variety of rational choice counterarguments, thereby initiating a dialogue that is bound to continue for some time.

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3 Comments so far »

  1. Herbert Gintis said,

    Wrote on July 10, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

    26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A Must Read for All Political Scientists, March 1, 1997
    By A Customer
    This review is from: Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science (Paperback)

    Whether you are a hard-core believer in RC theory or the most outspoken opponent of it, Green and Shapiro provide a provactive, well-researched examination of the ability of rational choice theory to explain political behavior. While decidedly anti-RC in their discussions, it is of immense value to those of us who favor rational choice theory as well. We need to face the facts (occasionally!) and give serious consideration to the shortfalls outlined in this book. In many ways, it presents RC theory in political science with a complete research agenda for the next decade, albeit unwittingly

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  2. Anonymous said,

    Wrote on July 10, 2012 @ 11:34 pm

    22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    fun to read, May 23, 2000
    By A Customer
    This review is from: Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science (Paperback)

    As a believer in rational choice theory I believe this to be a useful book. Formal theorists in political science can benefit from its suggestion of research avenues that others in the profession would find interesting. They can also benefit from a better understanding of the threat some corners of political science perceive from the formal techniques of rational choice.

    Reports of formal theory’s death are greatly exaggerated. Non-formal types must keep that in mind as they read this, half of the “debate.” Political science is a pluralistic discipline, and rational choice is here to stay. One need only examine article counts by subfield in any leading journal to conclude that.

    Reading G&S’s highly selective account of RC scholarship may suggest that that’s a shame. The selectiveness of their account responsible for that is one of the drawbacks of the book. Empirically-motivated rational choice work is largely ignored. The fascinating RC-led debates on legislative organization, and the sources of party power, are not treated.

    The approach of G&S is simply to look at some areas that have been problematic for RC, like voter turnout. The picture this paints of RC in general is nothing but an exercise in selection bias. As such the review is not exactly a balanced account.

    That is to say nothing of the review they actually present, which in many ways is simply inadequate. For example, G&S would seem to believe that collective action problems are all “dilemma”-like situations leading to mutual non-contribution. In reviewing turnout they seem completely unaware of game theoretic models leading to positive turnout.

    One common insult levied by anti-formal types is the “pseudoscience” card. If the derivation of testable hypotheses from logical analysis of carefully stated assumptions, and the confrontation of those hypotheses with data, is pseudoscientific, then formal theorists are guilty. But it seems to me that this approach may be the best way to make political science deserving of both halves of its name. At some point non-formal types ought to realize there’s more to rational choice than the infamous Riker-Ordeshook “D term.”

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  3. Anonymous said,

    Wrote on July 11, 2012 @ 12:01 am

    9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
    2.0 out of 5 stars
    An Uninsightful and Unbalanced Assessment, June 12, 2007
    By 
    Herbert Gintis (Northampton, MA USA) –

    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science (Paperback)

    The authors identify three major rational choice theorists, Arrow, Downs, and Olson, and argue that there has been little empirical support for the application of their approach to political theory. The authors correctly identify two types of rational agent theory, “thin” and “thick.” The former represents the agent of decision theory, as modeled by Savage and others. The latter represents the rational actor of economic theory: self-regarding, pursuing materialistic goals, an omniscient decision-maker, and the like. The critique in this book covers both.

    The authors did not compare the relative power of rational choice theory with its alternatives in dealing with various political phenomena. Rather, they evaluate the inadequacies of the rational choice approach in absolute terms. This is a common error, and could easily have been avoided. Moreover, their general critique is that there has been little empirical work generated by rational choice theory. This is an interesting fact, if true. But, it would have been useful to suggest where the rational choice approach is correct or incorrect when it has been tested as well.

    The authors try to maintain a balanced demeanor, but the title of the book undermines any attempted show of objectivity. “Pathologies” does not set the tone for measured judgment. Nor are the judgments measured. They are extravagant, but delivered dispassionately.

    The standard “thick” rational choice model of voter behavior seriously conflicts with the evidence. This model assumes rational agents are self-regarding. However, the selfish rational actor would not vote, and if he did, he would conform to Downs’ median voter model. Many people vote, and the median voter model is a poor predictor. The authors do not present this evidence (e.g., concerning voting on the welfare state and other redistributional measures). Indeed, they show little evidence of being knowledgeable in the literature, which is strange given their task in this volume.

    A major application of the rational choice model is to defining and analyzing power, using game theory (the “thin” conception of rationality). The authors do not even touch upon this critically important literature. It is difficult to take these authors seriously, given the gaps in their knowledge.

    The authors are critical of Olson’s model of social dilemmas, but they slight the phenomenally important work of Elinor Ostrom and coworkers in showing that communities often develop effective strategies for managing the commons by successfully solving the free rider problem. Ostrom’s work is squarely in the rational choice tradition (including the use of game theory, a careful attention to incentives and informational issues, and the use of laboratory and field experiments). Ostrom’s work is a triumph of rational choice theory (thin variety).

    As an attempt at balanced assessment, this book does not succeed, but if it encourages researchers to engage in more empirical testing and to devise alternatives to existing theories, it will have served a good purpose.

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