Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

March 10-15, 2006

Rational Choice Theory (RCT)


Readings:  Adams and Sydie, Chapter 9.

Handout from James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory, p. 292-299 and 220-228.


1. Introduction


RCT differs in two major ways from theories discussed earlier this semester.  First, many of the earlier approaches consider individual and group actions to be social in that they are concerned with meaning, interpretation, interaction, symbols, self-definition, feelings, emotions, and how people do things together.  The approach of Parsons differs from that of the interactionists in terms of how meaning is defined and the relative importance that each attributes to subjective consciousness as opposed to praxis.  But all of these perspectives emphasize that action is social in the sense that social values and norms, and social order, are integral to their explanations of human interaction.  Each of these approaches emphasizes shared meanings and ways in which interpretation and action are worked out jointly through a broad range of expressive aspects of human action.  Second, some of the sociological approaches examined focus on society as a whole and social structures as the unit of analysis.  Durkheim, world-system approaches, and some Marxist approaches examine 


Rational choice theories adopt a different approach to the study of social action, human agency, and social systems and structures by emphasizing individual action, choice, resources available to the actor, preferences, optimality, and rational decision-making.  One definition of RCT is that it concerns “understand[ing] individual actors … as acting, or more likely interacting, in a manner such that they can be deemed to be doing the best they can for themselves, given their objectives, resources, and circumstances, as they see them” (Abell, p. 223).  Adams and Sydie (p. 188) identify RCT as involving:

·      One’s current assets and capabilities.

·      Consequences of one’s choices.

·      Evaluation of uncertainty or probability of outcomes.                      


As with other sociological perspectives, there are variants of rational choice theory, but each tends to differ from other sociological perspectives in being minimalist and focusing on the individual – a short discussion of each follows. 


a. Individual.  RCT begins with the individual as social actor and examines action from the viewpoint of this actor, rather than beginning with individuals interacting, social situations, groups, or social structures.  In this sense, RCT stands at the opposite end of the interactionist spectrum from symbolic interaction approaches and ethnomethodology – for the latter to make sense, there is always interaction.  In contrast, RCT emphasizes the individual social actor; the actor’s interests, goals, and preferences; and how the actor achieves an optimum outcome as a result of the action.  Different theorists of rational choice may make somewhat different assumptions about the individual and proceed in different ways from the individual to larger social groupings and systems, but each begins with the individual as the basic unit of the theory.  After all, “it is only individuals who ultimately take actions and social actions … individual actions and social actions are optimally chosen” and “individuals’ actions and social actions are entirely concerned with their own welfare” (Abell, p. 231).  Each of these assumptions about action demonstrate how RCT is methodologically individualist – the individual as actor with an initial concern only about him or herself and his or her welfare.  From this beginning, some RCT builds an analysis that includes sharing, cooperation, and norms, but always beginning with analysis of an individual social actor.


b. Minimalist.  A second major aspect of RCT is its sociological minimalism.  RCT begins with a few simple assumptions about the individual and the relationship among individuals, and from these builds models of social action and interaction that describe and explain the complexities of larger groups, systems, and whole societies.  This approach is very different from the systems and structural approaches of Durkheim or Parsons, who make social norms and values at the societal level an essential feature of their perspective.  It also differs from most writers in the Marxian and Weberian traditions that emphasize structural, global, and historical social forces.  RCT also runs counter to symbolic interaction, interpretive, and feminist approaches that adopt a more dense and complex view of social actors and social interaction.  The latter are built on analysis of meaning, interpretation, emotions, and experiences, none of which can be reduced to the other, nor is capable of simple explanation.  Much recent sociological theorizing has emphasized the complexity of the individual, the variety of individual experiences, and the diverse ways that individuals develop selves and social action.  The terms “thick description” and “rich explanation” are sometimes used in this connection.  Goffman’s detailed analysis of how people present and maintain face is an example of how complex human actions appear to be.  In contrast, RCT adopts a sparse and simple model of the individual, one that can be applied across time and space, so that some RCT theorists consider it to be a universal model, applicable across time and space.  RCT also is an example of a formal theoretical perspective in the “scientific” tradition, with assumptions, concepts, logical deductions, and formal models. 


Variety and Uses of RCT


As with the other theoretical approaches, RCT has many varieties.  While they all are methodologically individualist and minimalist, each may adopt somewhat different assumptions.  Following this, each develops these in a somewhat different way.  The concerns of various theorists in this tradition are quite different, although all attempt to build a model that explains various social phenomena or society as a whole. 


a. Micro-macro.   RCT may be the “the most overt and systematic attempt to resolve the micro-macro relationship … to find an adequate analytical bridge between individual social actions and their structural, macro outcomes” (Turner, 1996, p. 222).  RCT theorists are not modest about their approach and some argue that RCT provides the only overall explanation of social systems and society, and the only solid basis for progress toward a unified social theory.  RCT sociologists tackle issues related to individual action and social interaction, and also construct models explaining social norms and collective behaviour.  While this perspective begins from minimalist assumptions, its scope is broad – to provide an unified, all-encompassing social theory.  James Coleman ambitiously titles his book Foundations of Social Theory.  


b. Individualist and neoliberal?  Because of the emphasis on the individual, RCT is sometimes considered as part of neoliberal ideology – an emphasis on the individual that has been associated with a decline of broad based social programs and social concerns in contemporary society.  Some have connected it directly to the neoliberal approachof the IMF and World Bank and consider it imperialist in approach and claims (Archer and Tritter, p. 1).  While RCT can be turned in this direction, it does not necessarily lead to an individualistic overall model of society.  For example, part of Coleman’s aim is to explain why and how social norms emerge.  In doing this, Coleman does not reject the existence of norms but tackles an issue that we might all agree needs explanation, and one which Durkheim and Parsons took for granted.  


c. Rational choice Marxism or analytic Marxism.  Some neo-Marxians use a form of rational choice theory and Karl Marx’s model of capitalism can be considered a rational choice model, although it is not as individualistic as most RCT.  Marx begins with assumptions about the commodity and how humans exercise choice, building an explanation for exploitation and class struggle emerges from attempts of owners (capitalists) to maximize their profits, while the interest of non-owners (workers) is to replace capitalists and capitalism through expropriating the expropriators.  Some recent Marxist theorists (Jon Elster, John Roemer, and Erik Olin Wright) have developed new models of exploitation based on models of rational decision-making.  These have been useful in showing how exploitation can emerge in ways other than the exploitation of labour directly in the labour process – for example, exploitation might occur in the exchange process and through control of resources other than capital and labour (skills and organizational assets of Wright).  Roemer argues that “exploitation has much more to do with property relations than with the labor market – and that Marxists’ focus on the labor market has been excessive and has given rise to their own fetishism of labor” (Roemer, 1988, p. 10).  Roemer and Wright demonstrate that exploitation can exist in socialist societies and explain how ownership of skills and credentials, not just ownership of capital, can create exploitation.


d. Usefulness.  As with any other sociological theory or method of analysis, RCT should be evaluated on the basis of its ability to help us explain and understand the social world.  There is no doubt that each of us is an individual, and if a theory developed from this point of view can help explain aspects of social interaction and social systems, then it has worthwhile aspects to it.  In addition, in our society much social action is explicitly rational and is undertaken by individuals – purchase of consumer durables, choice of a career, and perhaps even choice of a lover or spouse.  Where the choices are not always entirely conscious and rational, it is possible that RCT models may help explain much social action. 


e. Critique.  Critics of RCT note several problems, considering it too individualistic, too minimalist, and too focussed on rational choices in social action.  One tendency that RCT sociologists have is to justify any human action as rational.  For example, we are all involved in sharing and cooperative activities and each of us devotes some time or money assisting others (charity, altruism, good neighbours).  RCT tends to argue that in the end, these are all inspired by individual pursuit of self-interest.  As a result, RCT sometimes attempts to explain too much – any theory that tries to explain everything may in the end explain little, especially where there are few standards about the factors are to be introduced into the model and how these are to be analyzed.


2. Background


There are many different influences on RCT – utilitarian economics, Weber, Pareto, and recent North American and European theorists. 


a. Weber.  As soon as rationality is mentioned in sociology, Weber’s approach comes to mind.  For Weber, rationality was a driving social force in society, especially in modern society.  Weber used the concept of rationality in several different senses but in all of these “its principal meaning … centers on the calculability, intellectualization, and impersonal logic of goal-directed action.  The instrumental approach to action takes values as given and focusses instead on the efficient choice of means to reach such goals” (Holton, 1996, p. 43).  In such action, a primary focus is on conscious action by the individual social actor, considering others and attempting to achieve his or her own goals in a considered and systematic manner.  Weber regarded this as characteristic of modern society, and tended to regard rationality as an overpowering social force that increasingly affects all aspects of society. 


RCT can be regarded as one way of working out an explanation of the social world in a Weberian manner.  Weber argued that sociologists should develop an interpretive understanding of social action in order to explain “its course and effects” (Abel, p. 223).  For Weber, action is social in that it takes account of the “behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course” (Abell, p. 223).  While most sociologists working in the Weberian tradition adopt a more complex view of meaning and interpretation and how social actors interact, RCT provides one possible way of explaining the orientation and conscious consideration of the actor in taking any social action.  RCT provides an interpretation for individual action, it shows what the effects of this are, and it certainly is focussed on goals and orientation – so it satisfies Weber’s conditions for social explanation.  It can lead to an interpretive understanding of social action, a causal explanation of its course and effects, can be expanded to include social interaction and interdependence among social actors (Abell, p. 230). 


b. Utilitarian Economics.  Much economic theory developed in the nineteenth and twentieth century foreshadows RCT.  In fact, it may be that sociologists, impressed with the overall power and rigour of such economic models, developed RCT as a sociological counterpart to utilitarian economic models.  In general, such models are based on the assumption that economic actors are “rational and as seeking to maximize their utilities or benefits” (Turner, 1998, p. 303).  These economic models usually begin with an individual who has a set of preferences (for particular goods and services, for income, for leisure) but who does not have unlimited resources and faces constraints in the form of limited land (agriculture), time, income, and a set of prices that they cannot individually influence.  Presented with various options concerning how to meet or satisfy his or her needs or desires, the individual economic actor must make decisions about how to best achieve his or her preferences, given the set of constraints faced and choices available.  Models explaining how individuals decide to purchase certain commodities or supply labour using this approach have proven to be powerful economic models – they can help explain effects of taxes, changes in consumer purchasing patterns, labour force activity, and business operations.


An example of how a microeconomic approach to a theory of consumer choice begins is as follows:

The postulate of rationality is the customary point of departure in the theory of the consumer’s behavior.  The consumer is assumed to choose among the alternatives available to him in such a manner that the satisfaction derived from consuming commodities (in the broadest sense) is as large as possible.  This implies that he is aware of the alternatives facing him and is capable of evaluating them.  All information pertaining to the satisfaction that the consumer derives from various quantities of commodities is contained in his utility function.  (Henderson and Quandt, 1958, p. 6).

From this beginning, the authors develop a theory of consumer behavior.


As noted earlier, nineteenth and twentieth century sociologists were concerned that such economic models could not explain social order.  Durkheim argued that the rational economic actions, economic exchange, and contracts by themselves could not work without social norms, conventions, and laws.  Similarly, Parsons argued that action could not be aimed at purely utilitarian ends, but had to be guided by social norms and values.  One of the earliest economists, Adam Smith, set his economic models within a framework of balancing human sentiments which guided economic actors, so that his model was not purely utilitarian.  This aspect of Smith’s approach tended to be ignored by many later economic models which concentrated mainly on rationality, constraints, choices, and ends of economic action, ignoring the broader sociological context in which these occurred. 


A related influence on RCT is that of game theory – how individual actors make decisions in game like situations.  Issues such as strategies, preferences, and decision-making processes come to the fore in these situations.  The prisoner’s dilemma and the free rider problem are two examples of how game theory is related to RCT.


c. Pareto.  Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was of Italian-French ancestry who became a professor of economics in Switzerland in 1893, later returning to Italy.  Pareto had many concerns but he is known for distinguishing the maximum utility of the community as a whole from the maximum utility of members of the community (as an aggregate of individuals).  Actions which might be regarded as positive for the nation, such as winning a war, pursuing nationalist or other public policies, might be associated with sacrifice or harm to some individuals.  Pareto was concerned to preserve individual utilities and argued that analysts should not compare the utility of such an action for different individuals, since individual utilities are noncomparable.  As a result, he argued that public policy should be directed toward an optimum that is now referred to as a Pareto optimum – an optimum whereby no one can gain greater benefits without others losing some benefits.  For example, in a social situation it may be possible to make both persons better off through free exchange – presumably the exchange improves the situation of each, otherwise why would they have entered into the exchange.  In other situations, it may be possible to improve the situation of one party without hurting the other.  A Pareto optimum is reached when there are no further possible improvements to the situation of one without harming the other party.  While this may seem a reasonable approach, one problem is that there may be several Pareto optima, where each is noncomparable with the other in terms of overall societal benefit.  However, Pareto’s method is sometimes worthwhile and shows that a methodologically individualist approach can address certain issues of social action.  (Waters, pp. 61-3).


d. Recent Contributors.  The names most associated with RCT are George Homans and Peter Blau, who examine social exchange and the benefits and costs of alternative courses of action (Adams and Sydie, pp. 197-200).  Their concerns parallel economic issues, but focus on social rather than economic exchange, with social behaviour as an exchange of activity (Ritzer, p. 405).  Some examples from the sociologist James Coleman, another proponent of RCT, are provided later.


3. Assumptions of RCT


Adams and Sydie (p. 190) explain Coleman’s RCT as aimed at explaining individual action that has a purpose, or purposive action, and the reasons for the action.  That is, individuals as social actors engage in social action for some purpose, actors are rational (they use reason in a conscious manner), and actors are responsible individuals (accountable for their actions).  In the quote, Coleman argues that the aim of social science is to “conceive of that action in a way that makes it rational from the point of view of the actor.”  (Adams and Sydie, p. 190).


The manner in which RCT proceeds is to examine social action using the following concepts and guidelines.

·        Resources available to the actor.  These can be either tangible (money, ability to work, capital, land) or intangible (personality, skills, abilities, attractiveness).  These include resources that affect others, personal attributes, and resources that can be exchanged with others (Adams and Sydie. 191).

·        Interests, preferences, needs.  Each social actor has a set of needs, interests, and preferences.   While these can change, they tend to be relatively stable over time.

·        Courses of social action.  Each social actor has some options concerning possible courses of action.  For some individuals, and in some situations, choices may be limited (in their daily lives, members of the proletariat have little choice but to work at a job) while for others there are multiple options (capitalist has many options).  Each option has an expected set of outcomes associated with it that involve: 

§         Benefits associated with different courses of social action.  These may be tangible (money, goods and services) or intangible (psychic satisfaction,

§         Costs of different course of action.  These may be costs associated with the outcome (eg. a woman in a family with the husband as primary income source who seeks divorce may expect that reduced income will result) or costs associated with the action itself (the process of divorce may be a stressful and miserable set of experiences). 

·        Optimality of decision.  The social actor’s decision is an optimal one in sense of maximizing difference between benefits and costs (not just monetary, but satisfaction, psychic, social benefits and costs). (Coleman and Farraro, p. xi).  At least the actor’s decision is based on maximizing the expected net gain from the decision (net gain of action = benefits of action minus costs associated with the action).  That is, in taking the course of action selected by the actor, he or she expects that his or her interests and preferences will be met to the best extent possible.  Of course, the result may not always turn out to be optimal, given uncertainty about the future, unexpected outcome, or unintended consequences of the social action.


Rational choice theorists generally adopt three assumptions (Abell, pp. 230-1).  These are:


·        Individualism.  It is individuals who ultimately take action, although some RCT includes both individual and corporate actors (eg. James Coleman, see Adams and Sydie, p. 190).  Individual social actions are the ultimate source of actions that lead are associated with broad social outcomes.  That is, social outcomes, patterns of regularity, and social institutions must be explained on the basis of combinations of individual actions.  This is contrary to Durkheim’s mode of sociological explanation, where social facts are structured at the societal level and influence or determine individual action through societal level forces such as norms and common consciousness.  RCT can develop societal level explanations, but RC theorists begin with individual action and interaction and from this build a model of relationships at the system level.  Part of Coleman’s concern was to develop explanations of different types of norms, the demand for norms, how norms emerge, and how they are realized.  RCT does not take norms for granted, or as pre-existing, but attempts to develop an explanation of these system or societal level forces.  The RCT approach can be termed methodological individualism – it does not necessarily value individual action, rights, and freedoms over collective action, but its methodological approach is to begin with the individual, since all actions are ultimately ndividual actions. 


·        Optimality.  Actions of individuals are optimally chosen given the preferences of the individual and given the opportunities or constraints the individual faces.  That is, the individual as social actor attempts to achieve the best for himself or herself, given the circumstances of the individual.   Abell defines optimality as taking place when no other course of social action would be preferred by the individual over the chosen course of action. 


While the actor selects a course of action that he or she considers optimal, this does not mean this course of action is best in terms of an objective, outside judgment.  Sometimes we argue that another individual has made a poor choice, one that does not appear to be the best course of action for themselves.  But, it may be that the individual is acting in his or her own best interests as far as he or she perceives them.  One possibility is that the individual does not have complete information (Abell, p. 234), may lack many resources, may have preferences that others may consider unusual or misguided, or possibly be coerced into selected a poor course of action (although the latter violates the condition that actors are free individuals, who can freely select among different options). 


At the level of assumptions, RCT says nothing about optimal formation of individual preferences, but begins by treating these as given.  RCT does not have a good theory of how wants or affects develop, but a model of social learning could be used with it, in a way that would specify how different preferences are established in different individuals (Abell, p. 234).  While this is a weakness of RCT, it is a weakness that is common to other sociological approaches as well – few or no sociological theories have a model that explains differences in individual preferences and how these emerge.  In the end, RCT assumes that individuals “do the best they can, given their circumstances as they see them” (p. 234).  If individuals do not really do this, for example if individuals were to act randomly or in a way that was clearly contrary to their own interests, as they see them, then RCT would be severely damaged.


·        Self-regard or self-interest.  This assumption argues that the actions of the individual are concerned entirely with his or her own welfare.  This is sometimes stated as an assumption that the individual is selfish – however, selfishness carries a particular connotation of that an individual is incapable of cooperative or group action.  In this context, the term self-regard is preferable to selfishness, since self-regard may lead to cooperative action.  A social actor who is concerned with his or her own welfare could develop sentiments such as cooperation, altruism or self-sacrifice, charity, or self-denial, which may initially seem to be contrary to pursuing the best for the self.   RCT might argue that these sentiments can be incorporated into its models by noting that these may have as an ultimate end the pursuit of some type of self-interest.  Charity, for example, could be to make oneself feel good or be a means or raising one’s social esteem in the eyes of others.  Further, cooperation is a rational action in view of the fact that, in modern society, no individual is isolated and no one can accomplish their ends on a purely individual basis – cooperation with others in the division of labour is a necessity for individuals.  However, RC theorists argue that the simplest assumption is that of self-interest or self-regard – begin from this assumption and use it to examine the possible ways of explaining group sentiments.  For example, cooperative actions could emerge from individual self-interest, especially in conditions of limited resources or uncertainty.  Self-denial or asceticism may be more difficult to explain, but again could result from individual pursuit of spiritual salvation – that is, given the individual’s values, it may be that these can be optimally pursued by a life of self-denial.


Self-regard may not be so essential to the models as the fact that “human action is essentially instrumental, so that most social behavior can be explained as efforts to attain one or another, more or less distant, ends” (Rule, p. 80).  In addition, “these ends or values are organized in relatively stable hierarchies of preference or utility” (Rule, p. 80).  That is, preferences of individuals are organized so that an individual has more or less important preferences that can be ordered with respect to each other.  In general, these do not change rapidly, so that social processes tend to have a certain regularity or predictability.  People base decisions and actions on these preferences, even if they do not consciously calculate the decision before each action.  So long as these preferences are relatively stable, RCT can build models that help understand social action.


Do individuals actually conform to the RCT model?   Coleman does not consider this as important an issue as whether RCT develops adequate explanations of social systems, that suit the needs of the issue to be addressed.  A RC theorist may be pragmatic in this sense, using a model that is simple and minimal, but which is useful for the purpose intended.  This seems like a reasonable approach, so that RCT can be judged by whether it provides adequate explanations for social phenomena.


4. RCT models and explanations of social phenomena


A major theoretical work on RCT was published in 1990 by James Coleman (1926-1995, United States) just a few years before his death.  Coleman was a sociologist who received his doctorate at Columbia University, working with Robert Merton and Seymour Martin Lipset.  He studied public policy and in the 1960s wrote an influential report on educational opportunity, termed the Coleman Report.  This advocated a set of educational policies to improve equality of educational opportunity – a liberal, progressive program.  In later years he concentrated on mathematical sociology and RCT, publishing The Foundations of Social Theory in 1990. (See Ritzer, pp. 427-434).


Coleman argued that sociologists should be concerned with the social settings in which social action occurs.  He notes “Pairwise exchanges in social life do not take place in a vacuum.  They take place in a setting in which there is competition for the resources held by each actor” (Coleman, p. 131).   Examples of systems are dating systems of teenagers and exchanges between grades and performances in a school setting.  In each of these systems, the preferences, orientations, and actions of individuals are one aspect of the system and resources another.  The key concepts for Coleman are actors and resources – “interaction and ultimately social organization revolve around transactions between those who have and those who seek resources” (Turner, 1998, p. 312).  In addition, the initial distribution of control of resources among the actors is an essential starting point.  Coleman thus considers RCT as a way of explain social interaction and social systems beginning with the assumptions listed earlier. 


While focussing on the individual actor, it is the social system as a unit that is the starting point for Coleman’s sociological analysis.  Considering attention as a resource, he describes a dating system as follows:

In a high-school dating system the actors are the boys and girls attending the school.  The resource with which each begins is control of his or her own attention.  The interests of various boys in the attention of certain girls and vice versa is the dating patterns, that is, the redistribution of attention.  (Coleman, 1990, p. 132)

In a high school a date between a girl and a boy depends not only on their interest in one another, but also on their interest in others and others’ interests in each of them. (Coleman, 1990, p. 131)

That is, exchange, redistribution, and competition occur in the system, and these along with the orientation, purpose, and mode of action of the individuals form the system.  By examining the individual within systems, the sociologist can build a model of social systems and develop explanations of social activity. 


a. Internalization of Norms.  Based on reading from Coleman, 1990, pp. 292-299. 


For Coleman, the issue examined here is whether RCT can explain social norms.  He argues that “individual interests do change and individuals do internalize norms” (p. 293, top).  Norms are defined as “devices for controlling actions in the interests of persons other than the actor” (p. 294, top).   Examples of norms might be customs or etiquette (how to properly speak to and address others), as well as appropriate actions governing forms of behaviour which have broader implications (management of anger and physical confrontations).  Norms are generally accepted modes of behaviour, at least among the group of system of which one is part.  Sanctions may be social approval and disapproval, or may be more formal sanctions such as rules and laws which have penalties associated with them.


Purpose.  A difficulty for RCT, is that of identifying how purpose emerges, when the theory involves purposive action (p. 292, bottom).   The same problem was considered earlier in the semester, when examining Parsons – the problem was the inability of a utilitarian theory to explain how ends or goals are selected.  One way of examining this is to investigate whether the existence of norms can be explained with RCT.  While it might be easier to assume that norms are externally imposed, and RCT examine only how choices are made within this framework, this would make the theory less general and weaker, because it make prediction more difficult, especially when interests or norms change (p. 293, 1st ¶). 


Coleman then examines when and how internalization of norms occurs.  By internalization, he means situations where norms are established within the individual’s self so that the individual establishes and maintains an internal system of sanctions.   Once internalized, these provide an internal form of rewards and punishment to ensure that  the individual’s actions are consistent with the norm.  Such a system can be considered a self-regulating form of conduct.  Where it is possible for one individual, or a group to construct such a self-regulating system of internalization of norms in others, then this is an efficient means of exerting influence on others.  In particular, it may be a more efficient way of regulating the conduct of others than is to use external sanctions (punishment or rewards) or coercion of others.  For example, it can be more efficient for parents to establish norms of desired behaviour in children than continually punishment children.  The same can be true for any employer, who may be able to exercise control over workers by getting workers to agree with goals of the employer, rather than disciplining workers.   For parents or employers, the costs of monitoring, policing, judging, and punishing may be considerable, so the rational parent or employer attempts to establish norms in children or employees, respectively.    


In this perspective, socialization is a process by which norms are established in individuals and through which an internal sanctioning system is established and maintained (p. 294, top).  Both external and internal mechanisms may be used, so there may be no pure case of one or the other.  In the case of children, Coleman notes that parents may use external means of physically punish children or providing rewards.  These may be combined with words and gestures that express approval or disapproval, thus establishing or building upon a set of internal sanctions.  


Internal or external sanctions?  It is more efficient to establish internal sanctioning systems in others than relying entirely on external controls.  That is, the costs of ensuring that the norms are met can be reduced if individuals adopt the norms and police or sanction themselves.  Coleman’s focus is on costs or resources used and how these guide decision-making – the resources involved may be time, money, or personnel that might be required to impose external sanctions.  He argues that a rational actor will compare the cost of establishing an internal norm with the discounted future cost of external policing and the benefits obtained from the internalization (p. 294, middle).  The relative effectiveness of different methods would also have to be considered, although Coleman does not discuss that here.  This is a fairly straightforward benefit/cost analysis of the sort that economists carry out with respect to economic activities, for example, the benefits and costs of building a road.  One difficulty with RCT is that this may sound good in theory, but it is very difficult to estimate such costs, especially where there is great uncertainty as to the future of both children and parents.


Modified self and identification with socializer.  One strategy that socializing agents such as parents, religious organizations, or employers may use is to attempt to “get the individual to identify with the socializing agent” (p. 295, top).  If this can be accomplished, this is an efficient way of producing individuals who develop an internal system of regulation.  Coleman notes that this means modification of the self of others – producing a new self in the others, one able to decide what is right or wrong.  This is efficient since it means that the socializing agent need not dictate specific rules, but can rely on the modified self to produce proper actions in the socialized individual.  (p. 295, middle).  The aim of the socializer is to “align the agent’s interest so fully with those of the principal that the agent’s self-interest comes to coincide with the principal’s interest” (top of p. 296).  As Coleman notes, this may go quite deep and result in a major change in the interests of the individual, so that the self of the socialized really does take on the interests of the socializer.


In the corporate world, the employer’s aim may be to construct corporate selves who identify with the goals, interests, and norms of the corporation.  This might be accomplished by providing monetary rewards, tied to the success of the corporation; long-term employment contract; and collective activities that attempt to build a sense of community among employees (p. 295, last main ¶).


On p. 296, Coleman addresses the issue of the efficiency of internalization, especially a global strategy, or that associated with construction of a new self in the individual to be socialized.  In particular, the more diverse the set of actions to be governed by norms, the greater the interests in internalization.    This implies

·      That when the aim of the socializer is to govern a broad set of actions, greater attempts will be made to create a new self (p. 296, bottom) – e.g. religious orders or parents who wish to govern a broad set of actions of children.  Using an economic analogy, Coleman argues that this involves both capital (initial investment) and marginal costs (or variable costs associated with ongoing socialization).

·      The costs devoted to internalization are likely to be related to potential benefits.  This implies that greater efforts will be made to have children internalize norms in the home, but less effort may be devoted to internalizing norms that do not relate to the home.  (p. 297, top)

·      Investment in internalization will depend on the length of time that parents expect the children to stay in the home.  That is, intergenerational families of previous eras may have devoted greater efforts to internalization of norms.  (p. 297, bottom)

·      Parents can increase returns to themselves by identifying with the child later in life.  Note the increased satisfaction to parents by getting approval from others.  (p. 298)

·      Community status may affect investment in internalization.

·      Cost of supervision and observation may affect method of socialization. 


In this reading, note how Colemans emphasizes individuality, optimality, and self-interest.  The interests of the socializer are to ensure that others conform to the socializer’s norms.  That is, the socializer pursues self-interest and attempts to do so optimally, by selecting a socializing strategy associated with lowest costs.  In terms of the establishment of the norms internally into the socialized individual, the aim is to change the self-interest of the socialized individual in a particular direction. 


Coleman accepts the idea that norms can be established and maintained, and his theoretical explanation provides some clues concerning how this will be done.  That is, they emerge out of specific forms of rational action, and may change depending on the circumstances.  Also note the extensive comparisons with economic situations and extensive use of economic concepts (e.g. middle of p. 297). 


Some of Coleman’s specific comments concerning egalitarian parents or children of the 1960s may be misleading.  Here Coleman appears to use particular interpretations of parent’s interests, abstracting from other aspects of their interests, and making comparisons with other situations that may not be exactly comparable.  At the same time, if other things are more or less the same, some of these predictions may turn out to be correct.  Note that Coleman does not say these are necessarily correct, but he constructs his analysis as a set of testable propositions that emerge from the model. 


In terms of norms, Coleman has constructed a model of self-interest, using this micro model to derive implications about macro level social aspects such as norms.  His systems, families as socializers or corporations as trainers, are models of actors using the resources at their disposal to work in their own self-interest to establish norms in others.  Broader aspects of this model include socialization, training, and the modification and development of the self, all regular features of a sociological approach.


b. Collective behaviour.   Based on reading from Coleman, 1990, pp. 220-229.    The issue addressed in this reading is how a crowd engages in “expressive acts which no member would have engaged in alone” (p. 220).  This is an example of model of strategic social action (Abell, pp. 267 and 269) where “the tactics of the actors in arriving at rates of exchange” is examined (Coleman, 1990, p. 269).  Coleman argues that a collective phenomenon is a situation where “A group engages in an action together that no member would have engaged in alone” (p. 221, top).


Explanation of situation and context.  In 1968, Columbia University proposed to build a gymnasium on public land rented from the city of New York.  The plans would have allowed little access to gymnasium facilities for community members.  The latter were primarily African-American and Hispanic, since the location of Columbia University is adjacent to the area of New York City known as Harlem.  Community leaders and students became involved in the discussion over these plans and, on campus, protests emerged against the actions and plans of the University.  SDS refers to “Students for a Democratic Society” (with leaders Ted Gold and Mark Rudd), an organization of predominantly white students who were opposed to the Vietnam war and various activities of the administration of Columbia University.  SAS was a black student organization, the Student Afro-American Society.  The initial demonstration was an  organized one, but the manner in which actions proceeded following the initial rally was somewhat spontaneous, with the crowd responding to calls and suggestions from various leaders and unidentified individuals.  The collective that emerged following the initial rally marched to the gymnasium site, attempted to tear down a fence and then returned to the main campus, eventually occupying Hamilton Hall – actions which would not have made much sense for individuals acting alone.  Coleman notes though that “many students had an interest in some action against the university” (p.  222). 


Coleman makes the argument that individuals acting alone were essentially barred from these radical actions because they would have been severely punished if they had carried out these actions as individuals.  Here Coleman examines the issue of authority as a resource and granting authority to others (Adams and Sydie, p. 191).  By becoming students at Columbia University, these individuals, as students, had implicitly accepting transfer of some rights of control over their actions to authorities of the university and the city (p. 223, top).  When the students began to act as a collective, they took back some of these rights for themselves, although not so much as individuals, but by turning their rights of control over to the collective and to those who advocated radical action.  Coleman argues that this shift began with what he refers to as a “milling” period, where individuals attempted to “determine the degree of common sentiment” (p. 223).  By gaining the information from each other that there was a sentiment to proceed to more radical action, the crowd became a collective, with the individual members turning their rights of control over to the collective.  The collective was then able to take on certain actions which the individuals could not, as individuals.  


Coleman argues that this was a means of solving the free rider problem – without collective action, the negative consequences of action, or the costs of such action, would be entirely borne by individuals who took individual action.  Those who do not take such action but might have benefited from such action, do not bear the costs, so long as it is up to each individual to act.  This can be referred to as externalities associated with actions and “the consequences for the individual are highly dependent on what others do” (p. 223).  He further argues that the number of people involved in such actions alters the situation – with increasing numbers of those with common sentiments leading to individuals being more likely to turn authority over to the collective.  In such situations, the potential gains of collective action are likely to be greater and the potential costs less than in the case of individual action.  In addition, Coleman notes that increased numbers may be associated with increased courage – exactly how this relates to the assumption of RCT though is not clear. 


Table 9.8 is an example that shows how rewards are increased (or costs decreased) as the number of actors involved increases.  In this table, collective action would be unlikely to occur before five actors are involved.  Any increase in the number of actors beyond this would increase the likelihood of collective action.  Figure 9.3 demonstrates that it is in the interest of the actor to encourage others to act.  By increasing the number of actors in the collective, individual benefits rise with the number of actors. 


In Table 9.9, a reward structure is such that A1 will not act unless A2 does.  That is, for A1 there is no positive payoff unless A2 acts (and a large negative result if A1 acts while A2 does not).  But if A2 acts, then A1 is better off by joining in the collective action.  The optimum result is when both A1 and A2 act.


When a diverse or heterogeneous set of individuals is involved in a collective action of this type, where different individuals have different reward structures, collective action is more likely to emerge than in situations where everyone has common reward structures (p. 225).  That is, it may be worthwhile for one person to participate in collective action when as few as 2 people are involved, and for another it may be worthwhile at 3 people.  As a result, the critical minimum for the transfer of authority to the collective may be reduced if these heterogeneous reward structures exist.  Note that this is contrary to common sense, in that we often attribute collective action to common sentiments and solidarity, rather than diversity. 


In this reading, Coleman demonstrates how collective action can emerge from individual rational decision making.  The students assembled each had grievances against the University, so their preferences or values were to carry out some action that could stop the construction of the gymnasium, change the University’s plans, or embarrass the University.  Individually they could not do this very effectively, if at all, but collectively they could.  The action of the collective could be considered rational in that sense, although Coleman might not want to refer to the collective as having a rationality.  But the actions taken were the result of rational choices for the individuals involved in the collective.  And as the payoff matrix shows, everyone is better off if collective action occurs.


Whether all the different aspects of crowd behaviour can be examined with this single model is questionable.  But Coleman’s model is useful in providing some unexpected predictions, and some explanation of how rational choice can have wider effects, even though it is rational choice at the individual level that produces this.


5.  Other concepts from Coleman – resources and social capital


Resources.  In Coleman’s analysis, there are three types of resources an individual can be considered to possess (Adams and Sydie, p. 191).

1.      Resources that affect other actors – attention, face, support, experience (in socialization)

2.      Personal attributes valued by others – skills, abilities, personality, appearance

3.      Resources that can be used in direct exchange – money, land, capital, labour power


All of these are used in social relationships and are one factor that needs to be considered in any rational choice explanation.  Those with more resources are likely to have greater flexibility in possible courses of action and, when considering any interaction, an actor will also need to take account of the resources of others.   From this, a model of social exchanges (exchange theory) could develop. 


Capital – physical, human, and social.  A set of concepts that has proven to be useful in rational choice theory and in sociology more generally is that of capital.  Capital is often considered as a sum of money.  In recent years, economists and sociologists have expanded the concept of capital to include both human and social capital.   Coleman was one of the sociologists who contributed to the development of these concepts.


Physical or material capital is composed of the buildings, land, raw materials, infrastructure, and other tangible or material resources used in the production of goods and services.  These may be publicly or privately owned and, in a society using money (eg. capitalism or a market economy), can usually be given a monetary value – that is, the cost or value of the capital.


Human capital.  This is the skills, knowledge, abilities, expertise, and talents that are embodied in individuals as their acquire schooling, training, and credentials.  These are less tangible than physical or material capital but can be measured in years of schooling or credentials (certificates and certification, diplomas, degrees).   While human capital was always an important aspect of production, there are two changes in human capital in contemporary society.  First, much human capital is now obtained through formal institutions such as schools, training programs, institutes, and universities.  In earlier years human capital was often obtained in a less formal way (on-the-job, parents, family).   Second, the forms of human capital are changing rapidly as the “knowledge society” expands.  Rapid changes in technology and global economic forces are associated with many of these changes.


Social capital.   These are the social relationships among people that are socially productive and provide a means of establishing, maintaining, and improving social life.  These are less tangible but are no less real.  Three definitions of social capital are as follows:

Social capital is “the relationships, networks and norms that facilitate collective life.”  (Isuma,, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 7). 

Robert Putnam refers to social capital as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” 

Coleman identified trust as a key aspect of social capital that must exist for any social structure to operate (Adams and Sydie, pp. 191-192).  Recall that Giddens also emphasized the importance of trust.  In addition, there are other forms of social capital such as networks of social relationships (friends, associates, acquaintances, contacts, community), “appropriable” social organizations (resources obtained through clubs, organizations, NGOs, governmental departments, businesses), norms, and information channels. 


Two forms of social capital are “bonding” (links within groups) and “bridging” (links among groups or across groups).   For the study of immigrant integration, different forms of social capital are necessary and useful for immigrants to build a new life in Canada.   Settlement organizations, churches, host families, NGOs, government services, city services, all proved important, as did networks of friends and acquaintances (within the community that immigrants identified with and with others who are more established in Canada).  Social capital is important in helping find jobs and housing, as well as helping immigrants deal with schools, government programs, and business.  


All forms of capital are necessary to sustain and improve life in modern society.  For the most part, economics is primarily concerned with the analysis of physical or material capital, both economics and sociology are concerned with human capital, and social capital is primarily a sociological concept.  Each requires investment (time, money, and work) in order to produce it, each has an expected payoff (profit, income, improved and expanded social relationships, respectively), and each can depreciate over time (physical depreciation, skills become outmoded or deteriorate, trust can be eroded, respectively).  


As a concept, social capital has received much attention by sociologists in recent years.  By focusing on the specific types of social capital, some of the ways that individuals and groups relate to each other in informal ways can be examined.  Social capital could be considered an example of a middle range concept (Merton).  


6.  Analytical Marxism or rational choice Marxism (RCM)


One branch of RCT theory is analytical Marxism or rational choice Marxism (RCM), although Abell only mentions this in passing (p. 235).  It has primarily been social scientists in the Marxian tradition who have attempted to develop Marxism in this manner, so that there is a considerable gap between the theoretical approaches of writers like Coleman and RCM.  Writers who consider themselves analytical Marxists ask many of the same questions and address the same issues as did Marx – transitions from one mode of production to another, class structure, class consciousness, exploitation, socialism.  Some of the answers of RCM are the same as Marx and some are different, but generally RCM is committed to many of the same ideals as those to which Marx was committed – democratic socialism and human freedom and creativity.  (See Wright in Carver and Thomas, pp. 23-24).


Wright notes that analytical Marxism has four characteristics (in Carver and Thomas, p. 14):


·        Commitment to conventional scientific norms concerning construction of theory and research.

·        Emphasis on systematic conceptualization of concepts that are at the core of Marxian theory, for example, mode of production, surplus value, exploitation.

·        Careful specification of the steps involved in constructing explanations and models of society.

·        Emphasizing the importance of the intentional action of individuals.  In RCM, individuals are self-seeking, face choices, and generally attempt to obtain the best they can, given the circumstances.


RCM often begins with individuals, considering them as having the ability to work and having access to various amounts of resources, both natural resources and those created by humans.  Resources may be land, tools, capital equipment, buildings, skills and abilities, and organizational resources.  Labour, as that which is part of humans and an aspect of their creativity, plays a key role in RCM, and it is the loss of labour by some and appropriation of labour by others that is key to understanding production and exchange.  While the method and starting point of RCM is very similar to other RCT, the different set of questions asked lead it in a different direction.  The emphasis of RCM is more likely to be on the inequality of resources among different social actors, and the consequences of this for the social position of the individual, with emphasis on the use of human labour and exploitation.  Much of the detailed work of RCM is economic theory, with an examination of labour, capital, surplus value, and exploitation.


As an example of RCM, the following notes review Erik Olin Wright’s discussion of social classes in Classes, Chapter 3, pp. 64-104.  Wright’s approach comes from Roemer, but is developed in a more sociological manner.


Analytical Marxism – Erik Olin Wright’s Game Theory Approach

Actors bring different amounts and types of labour and other assets (means of production, skills) to a game (society) that is coordinated using a set of rules.  Would a group of actors be better off if they stayed in the game or withdrew from the game?   In order to examine this issue, Wright uses the following game theory approach.

In the game, a coalition of actors S (subordinate) is considered to be exploited by a different coalition of actors D (dominant) if:

·      An alternative exists where S would be better off if they did not participate in the game,

·      If S withdraws from the game, then D would be worse off than when S is in the game.

·      D prevents S from withdrawing from the game.

Feudal exploitation (S = serfs and D = lords).  If serfs were to withdraw from the system, each with only his or her personal assets, they would be better off and the lord would be worse off.  In this system, the serf has some assets of his or her own, but provides labour or products of labour to the lord.  As a result, the serf would be better off if freed and the lord would be worse off if serfs were freed.  Lords prevent serfs from being freed.

Capitalist exploitation (S = proletariat and D = bourgeoisie).  If each individual worker were able to take his or her per capita share of society’s productive assets, the proletariat would be better off to withdraw from capitalism.  This implies that workers are exploited by capitalists, and capitalists prevent workers from withdrawing under these conditions. 

Socialist exploitation (S = non-skilled workers and D = skilled workers) is a situation where unskilled workers would be better off if they could withdraw with their per capita share of inalienable assets – skills and talents.  That is, the highly skilled exploit the less skilled so that the highly skilled would be worse off if skills were equally shared.  In this case, skilled workers attempt to preserve their privilege by limiting the number of people who obtain such skills or credentials.  In order to maintain such an exploitative position, more highly skilled workers attempt to maintain skill differences and may make it difficult for those without valuable credentials to obtain these skills or credentials.

                                   Assets, Exploitation, and Classes

Type of Class Structure

Principal Asset that is Unequally Distributed

Mechanism of Exploitation



Labour power

Coercive extraction of surplus labour

Lords and serfs


Means of production

Market exchanges of labour power and commodities

Capitalists and workers



Planned appropriation and distribution of surplus based on hierarchy


bureaucrats and non-management



Negotiated redistribution of surplus from non-skilled workers to skilled workers

Skilled workers and non-skilled workers

        Reference:   Example adapted from  Erik Olin Wright. 1985. Classes.  Verson, London,  pp. 67-71 and Table 3.2, p. 83.


7.  Weakness of RCT


In addition to the difficulties associated with accepting the three basic assumptions, there are a number of other problems associated with RCT.  Some of these are:


·        Problems associated with inadequate information and uncertainty.  This may make it difficult for individuals to make rational decisions.  As a result, they may rely on other ways of making decisions.


·        Human social action and interaction are complex, and many of the theories examined earlier may provide better guides to how these take place.


·        Theorists of rational choice argue that macro level structures and institutions can be explained from the models of individual social action.  But there are problems of aggregation of individual to societal level phenomena.  These same difficulties exist in well developed economic models.


·        Norms and habits may guide much action, and once these take root people may not question them but use them to pursue meaningful social action.


·        One problem of RCT is that some theorists argue that almost everything humans do is rational, even altruism and self-sacrifice.  By expanding to include all forms of action as rational, action that is nonrational or irrational becomes part of the model.  By including every possible form of action in rational choice, it is not clear how the standards of what is rational and what is not are constructed.


·        RCT may be concerned only with instrumental rationality and not other forms of rationality such as substantive rationality, communicative rationality, etc.


8.  Conclusion


It is always worth considering whether action is rational or not.  That is, it is not sociologically wise to assume that actions taken by others are irrational when we disagree with them.  It may be that in the eyes of the individual taking the action, the action is rational, and RCT suggests we should look for such reasons.  Even where other theories may work well, RCT may be useful because there is a rational element to much human social action.  Whether it can explain all human action and provide a means of uniting and developing sociological theory is less clear.



Abell, Peter.  2000.  “Sociological Theory and Rational Choice Theory,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Archer, Margaret and Jonathon Q. Tritter.  2000.  Rational Choice Theory: Resisting Colonization, Routledge, London.

Coleman, James S. 1990.  Foundations of Social Theory.  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Coleman, James S. and Thomas J. Fararo.  1992.  “Introduction,” in Coleman and Farraro, Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, California.

Henderson, James M. and Richard E. Quandt.  1958.  Microeconomic Theory: A Mathematical Approach, McGraw-Hill, New York.

Holton, Robert J., “Classical Social Theory,” in Bryan S. Turner. 1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, first edition, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Ritzer, George.  1996. Sociological Theory.  McGraw-Hill, New York.

Roemer, John E.  1988. Free to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rule, James B.  1997. Theory and Progress in Social Science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Turner, Jonathan H.  1998.  The Structure of Sociological Theory, sixth edition, Wadworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California.

Turner, Bryan S.  1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, first edition, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Waters, Malcolm.  1994. Modern Sociological Theory. Sage Publications, London.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1985. Classes.  Verso, London.


Last edited March 15, 2006