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rational choice theory

barry hindess

Subject Sociology

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631221647.2002.x


Until recently, most historically informed social scientists would have taken for granted some version of Max Weber's claim that the spread of instrumental reason throughout all areas of social life was a distinctive feature of the modern West. To the extent that it suggests the superiority of the West over other civilizations, this view has been disputed by post-colonial critics. But it has also been challenged, from a very different direction, by the central claim of rational choice theory: namely, that the greater part of social life can be explained by means of models of individual rational action. Rationality has been understood in many different ways, but in this case it is understood in utilitarian terms as a matter of maximizing the satisfaction of the individual's preferences. Models of maximizing behaviour are widely used in contemporary economics, and rational choice theory proposes to extend that ‘economic’ approach to all areas of social life, hoping thereby to generate powerful explanations on the basis of a few, relatively simple assumptions. Outside of economics proper, influential examples can be found in public choice theory and other areas of political science, in sociology and even within academic Marxism. Rational choice theorists have been particularly concerned to explore the discrepancy between the rationality, as they see it, of individual actors and the ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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