What to do?


Decision makers at every level are perplexed by the turbulence created by the current financial crisis. Everyone is acting under great uncertainty — business owners, state governors, the Department of the Treasury, the presidential candidates, and university officials. And yet today’s actions may have enormous effects on the business, the non-profit organization, the family, or the state tomorrow. Liquidity drought, variations in cash flow, the availability of credit for major capital projects, the possibility of bankruptcy of major and essential business partners such as contractors, the possibility of further major job losses in various regions, abrupt decline in demand for houses and cars, and a plummeting stock market make for an environment of choice in which every action can have seriously bad consequences.

I’m thinking here particularly of decision makers who are responsible for large, complex organizations — organizations that deliver services or products, that depend on staff and facilities to fulfill their mission, that need to make medium-term plans about investments of resources for future use, and that depend on assumptions about revenues in the future to satisfy the cash-flow needs of the enterprise to stay financially viable. What is noteworthy about this situation of choice is that it necessarily involves plans and projections about the future. And it involves the temporally extended coordination of activities of people and expenditures of resources over a prolonged period of time. This means that it isn’t possible to achieve success through a purely opportunistic and moment-by-moment response to events. You can’t fly a complex organization by the seat of your pants.

So how do we plan for the best outcomes in the current circumstances of turbulence and uncertainty? The normal assumption of continuity — assume that most circumstances won’t change much between today and tomorrow — is distinctly inappropriate. Today’s economic and financial environment has many moving parts — and they interact in surprising ways. And unfortunately, it appears that there is no reliable science to guide us here. Experts disagree about the mechanisms and the potential remedies of the current crisis. Navigating this environment is akin to trying to catch a pingpong ball in a crowded wind tunnel.

So what is to be done? I mean to pose this question in the most pragmatic way possible. Given deep uncertainty about the changes that may occur tomorrow, and given a fairly deep ignorance of the fundamental mechanisms that are affecting this storm, how can prudent stewards of institutions and businesses do the best job possible to preserve the fundamental interests of their stakeholders and carry out the missions of their organizations?

There are a couple of rational-choice answers to this question, falling generally under the topic of “decision making under risk and uncertainty.” One prescription is the expected utility rule: identify the possible actions and their various outcomes; assign a probability and utility to each outcome; and choose the action with the greatest expected utility (sum of the products of probability and utility for the outcomes). Or we might consider the more risk-averse rule, the minimax principle: choose that action with the least bad worst possible outcome.

Unfortunately, neither of these decision procedures is of much help in current circumstances. We don’t know what the range of possible outcomes is for a given action or policy (because we don’t understand the mechanisms); we can’t assign likelihoods to outcomes; and it’s not feasible to measure the utility of a given outcome, all things considered. So expected utility decision-making doesn’t seem very helpful in current circumstances.

Another approach depends on what we might call “locally rational decision-making” or heuristic decision-making. We don’t know what the consequences of an extended liquidity crisis are, but we may reason that more reserves are always useful; so we may choose to curtail spending today to increase reserves. Or we may observe that an additional debt burden for the business is likely to be a handicap in the future, so we may postpone important capital projects. Or we may defer hiring additional staff in order to preserve more budget flexibility in the future. But notice that there are rules of thumb that point in the opposite direction: “A business should take bold moves in times of crisis, to leave it in a stronger position when recovery begins.” This advice would encourage investment rather than curtailing it. So the problem with rules of thumb is that they often come into conflict with each other — leaving the decision maker in a quandary.

In fact, if the range of uncertainty is great enough, it is impossible to be prudent. Prudence involves taking steps today that are most likely to leave you in a satisfactory position tomorrow. But if we are uncertain about even the most basic truisms — if we are in a position where the most basic assumptions of continuity are defeated — then we can’t begin to weigh possible outcomes or design prudent strategies. It’s hard to see how a pilot could fly “prudently” in the dark and without instruments.

It would seem that today’s financial crisis doesn’t create quite this degree of radical uncertainty, however. It is a fair bet that the world economy and financial system will survive and will recover within a few years. It is likely enough that cash reserves will be very useful for organizations and businesses in the next few years. It is likely that risky decisions have a greater potential for enterprise ruin than in normal times — “high risk, high reward” is probably a bad rule to follow in current circumstances. And these assumptions add up to a counsel of conservation of resources, flexibility of activities, cost discipline, and preservation of accessible reserves.

Methodological individualism

Methodological individualism (MI) is a doctrine in the philosophy of the social sciences about the relationship between “society” and individuals. The idea can be formulated in several related but somewhat different ways: social facts are constituted by facts about individuals; social entities are composed of individuals and their properties and relations; social structures and entities are “nothing but” ensembles of individuals and their behaviors; social explanations must be derivable from facts about individuals; scientific statements about “society” must be reducible to statements about individuals and their properties and relations; social laws or generalizations must be derivable from general facts about individuals. And there are probably other possible formulations as well.

So the doctrine of methodological individualism often represents a form of reductionism from one area of scientific theory to another: theories about social entities and properties must be reducible to theories and statements about individuals and their properties. This line of thought is parallel to materialism in the philosophy of mind or anti-vitalism in the philosophy of biology. Mental states must be reducible to a set of facts about neurophysiology; statements about living organisms must be reducible to a set of facts about the molecular chemistry and physiology of cells. (See Ingo Brigandt and Alan Love’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on reduction in biology.)

A somewhat less restrictive view than reductionism is the theory of “supervenience” between levels of scientific description. According to the theory of supervenience, facts at one level of description are fixed or determined by facts at a lower level of description. To say that X supervenes upon Y is to say that there is no difference between states of affairs concerning X for which there is not also a difference in states of affairs concerning Y. This is a less restrictive doctrine because it doesn’t require that we provide derivations of the facts of X from facts of Y. (Jaegwon Kim is the primary innovator here; see Physicalism, or Something Near Enough for a recent formulation of the theory.)

Methodological individualism is the limit version of a family of perspectives on social explanation that we might refer to as “agent-centered” approaches to social explanation. Here the general idea is that we explain social outcomes as an aggregate result of the actions, choices, and mentalities of individuals. Individuals’ behavior and choice constitute the causal dynamics of social outcomes. The idea of “microfoundations” has played an important role in recent thinking about the relationship between social facts and individual facts. (See Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation for more on the idea of microfoundations for social explanations.)

But agent-centered approaches can give more “social-ness” to the individual than the founding statements of MI would permit. For example, the position of “methodological localism” identifies socially constituted and socially situated individuals as the foundation of social explanation; but this position explicitly denies the idea that all social facts are reducible to bare psychological facts about individuals. Rather, individuals are themselves constituted and constrained by previously established social conditions. (See “Levels of the Social” for more about methodological localism.)

The idea of methodological individualism is one that has appealed to philosophers and social thinkers for almost as long as there has been systematic thinking about social science. Modern philosophy of social science began in the nineteenth century, and John Stuart Mill’s theories of social knowledge contained the assumption of methodological individualism (The Logic of the Moral Sciences). Max Weber also put forward the doctrine in The Methodology Of The Social Sciences. A classic statement was presented by J. W. N. Watkins (1968), “Methodological Individualism and Social Tendencies” in May Brodbeck, Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

The logical contrary of MI is the idea of social holism, most explicitly advocated by Emile Durkheim in Rules of Sociological Method. Holism is a form of anti-reductionism; it maintains that there are facts about the social world that do not reduce to facts about individuals. Society is autonomous with respect to the individuals who “make it up”. There are social forces (e.g. systems of norms) that exercise causal power over individuals, instead of norms being constituted by the psychological states of individuals. Other varieties of social holism are possible as well. Structuralism is the view that social structures exercise autonomous causal properties, as expressed in such authors as Levi Strauss, Althusser, and Foucault.

Arguments in favor of methodological individualism derive from several insights. First, there is the point that social facts are evidently constituted by the thoughts and behaviors of groups of individuals. Social movements are composed of individuals with specific psychologies and beliefs; organizations are composed of individuals; and, arguably, moralities and cultures are made up of individuals with specific beliefs and values. Second, there is the point that social “laws” are rare, exception-laden, and conditional; so there is a methodological reason to look for the more basic laws that may regulate social behavior — at the level of individuals and their psychology. Third, there is a preference for ontological sparsity: if we can explain social facts in terms of facts about individuals, then we don’t need to attribute ontological status to social facts and entities. Fourth, there is a “materialist” or anti-occultist preference that is appealing to many philosophers; the idea that social facts might be autonomous with respect to individuals gives an impression of occult causal powers or action at a distance. So there is a range of reasons to think that social outcomes are made up of or determined by the aggregate results of individuals and their interactions.

MI has been particularly appealing in certain disciplines of the social sciences — especially economics and political science. In each case the perspective of “rational actor theory” has appeared to be a very promising line of explanation: explain the behavior of groups (consumers, voters) as the aggregate outcome of individuals making choices with a specific set of beliefs and preferences, within a specific set of constraints.

Other areas of the social sciences are less amenable to the theory of methodological individualism. Anthropology and sociology are disciplines that set the focus on the higher-level social conditions or causes that influence behavior — a perspective that seems to be more comfortable with some form of holism. However, there is a range of opinion among practitioners of these disciplines as well, and there are anthropologists and sociologists who are more sympathetic to the impulses of methodological individualism.

It is important to highlight some points that MI does not entail. MI does not entail that individuals are egoists or purely self-regarding. It does not entail that individuals are not social. It does not entail that social facts do not have causal consequences — for other social facts and for individual behavior. It is indeed possible to reframe almost all substantive sociological theory in terms that are consistent with the reasonable conditions implied by MI. Even Durkheim’s central theories can be formulated in a way that is innocent with respect to the charge of “action at a distance”. And, from the other direction, even a theorist with as clear a commitment to MI as Max Weber, is still able to make “macro” or “holistic” claims about the causal importance of factors such as religion or morality.

Tributaries of the philosophy of the social sciences


The philosophy of the social sciences is largely focused on questions about the nature of our knowledge, representation, and explanation of social phenomena. There is an ontological side to some of the questions in this field — for example, what is the nature of social phenomena? But many of the questions are epistemological, having to do with the conditions of knowledge and representation that obtain when it comes to social facts. I think it is useful to sketch out a map that indicates the topography of some of the fundamental questions and approaches that have contributed to a better understanding of social science. And this effort will demonstrate that there is no single, coherent field that is the “philosophy of social science”; instead, there are overlapping and intertwined efforts by several traditions to arrive at better and more justified representations of social knowledge.

The fruitful ideas in this field derive from several separate tributaries, it seems to me. One important source is the group of “founders” of the social sciences who themselves thought very hard about the question of the conditions of establishing a social “science”. Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, William Thomas, and George Herbert Mead all had original and insightful ideas about what a scientific study of social reality might consist in. And, in most instances, these ideas were driven by their acquaintance with the richness of social life rather than by philosophical presuppositions. So these founders forged a philosophy of social research along the way as they constructed their models of what theory and research ought to look like in the study of the social world.

Another important source for current philosophy of social science is the tradition of empiricism that led to twentieth-century analytic philosophy of science. Here we can highlight John Stuart Mill, Moritz Schlick, Carl Hempel, and Ernest Nagel as philosophers who brought the machinery of positivist epistemology to a conception of what the social sciences ought to look like. As suggested in an earlier posting, there are profound problems with some of these ideas; but there is no doubt that they have been influential. And this influence shows up very explicitly in social science writings concerned with the logic of quantitative social research.

There is another source for contemporary philosophy of social science that has something in common with both these but is nonetheless distinct. This is the impulse that comes from rational choice theory and the idea that social patterns are the expression of individual rational choices. Mill’s writings suggest this idea, and it is a very strong component of the classics defining microeconomic theory as well (Walras, Pareto, the Austrian school). The effort to bring decision theory and game theory into play in explaining concrete social developments is a manifestation of this approach — for example, Samuel Popkin’s work on peasant rebellions (The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam). What makes this framework philosophical is the implicit idea of reductionism that it offers as a strategy of explanation: high-level social facts need to be decomposed into logical compounds of lower-level facts at the level of individuals. (This is the doctrine of methodological individualism.)

The intellectual framework of “scientific realism” is also an important tributary to contemporary philosophy of social science. Against the instrumentalism associated with positivism, this approach maintains that the social or natural worlds possess an objective set of characteristics, and it is possible to know the approximate outlines of these characteristics. When brought into contact with the social sciences, realism leads us to expect that there are real social structures, conditions, and causes, and that it is one of the functions of social science to describe those real circumstances and their relationships with each other. The recent emphasis on “social-causal mechanisms” is a version of scientific realism in application to the social world — for example, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory.

There are two other tributaries that are important contributions but that have been less influential for analytic philosophers of social science, one deriving from Marx and the other from thinkers like Dilthey and Gadamer. The first is materialism and an emphasis on social structures, and the other is the hermeneutic tradition. The materialist tradition attempts to organize social reality around a set of structures with causal properties (modes of production, property relations, forms of technology). The hermeneutic tradition takes “social action” as the fundamental social fact, and looks at the challenge of interpreting social action as the fundamental problem in social research. Yvonne Sherratt’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science is a very useful study of the influence of these traditions, and I will return to her discussion in a later posting.

The Perestroika debate in political science


A debate has been raging in the discipline of political science for at least a decade, over the nature of the scientific status and methods of the discipline. Fundamentally, the “dissidents” argue that a narrow and “scientistic” conception of what good political science research ought to look like has reigned and has repressed other, more pluralistic approaches to political science research. The formal methods of rational choice theory, game theory, and statistical analysis prevail, and the more narrative approaches associated with comparative research, area studies, and qualitiative research have been marginalized. And, the critics maintain, the flagship journals of the discipline and the tenure committees of the leading departments converge in maintaining this orthodoxy within the discipline. (Kristen Renwick Monroe has edited a valuable collection that gives the reader a pretty good understanding of the origins and faultlines of the debate; Perestroika!: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science).

One of the central issues is this: what should a science of politics involve? What form of knowledge should political science produce? What is the role of universal laws or regularities in political science? How important are predictions?

Another key issue, related to the first, is the issue of the methodology of research that ought to be favored. Should quantitative methods be preferred? Should stylized assumptions be offered as the basis for formal rational-choice models of various forms of political behavior? What role should ethnographic research or case-study research play in the discovery of social-science knowledge?

Sanford Schram identifies some of the strands of the Perestroika critique in these terms: “Some focus on the overly abstract nature of much of the research done today, some on the lack of nuance in decontextualized, large-sample empirical studies, others on the inhumaneness of thinking about social relations in causal terms, and still others on the ways in which contemporary social science all too often fails to produce the kind of knowledge that can meaningfully inform social life” (Monroe : 103).

One of the most useful contributions to the Monroe book mentioned above is an essay by David Laitin. He takes issue with Bent Flyvbjerg’s book, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it Can Succeed Again, and his advocacy of “phronesis”. Laitin characterizes the method of phronesis as one that is sensitive to context and that pays close attention to the singular and specific features of a particular social process — for example, the positioning that occurs as a city decides on its economic development strategy. So the method of phronesis is intentionally not aiming to discover regularities across a set of instances, but rather to uncover some specific features of a particular ongoing process.

Laitin argues that this approach is too narrow a foundation for social-science knowledge. He assimilates the phronesis method to what he calls a “narrative” approach; and he argues that good social science needs to use a three-fold methodology. Investigators should make use of the tools of narrative analysis; but they also need to use statistical methods (quantitative analysis across cases) and formal modeling (models of complex social situations based on assumptions along the lines of rational choice theory). Laitin refers to this approach as a “tripartite” method of comparative research.

Where does the philosophy of social science fit into this debate? I suppose that the philosophy of social science I have advocated has quite a bit in common with the criticisms raised by the Perestroikans. My views emphasize the contingency of social processes, lack of social regularities, multiple conjunctural causes at work, plasticity of social institutions, the value of ethnographic work, and the need for a plurality of methods of inquiry and explanation in the social sciences. And these views are at odds with the natural-science assumptions about how social phenomena ought to be investigated that the Perestroika group is criticizing. And some of the researchers whom I admire most deeply — James Scott, Charles Tilly, Benedict Anderson, Theda Skocpol, or Susanne Rudolph — are cited in the original Perestroika manifesto! At the same time, I am committed to the idea of empirical rigor, causal explanation, and making a connection between social science knowledge and practical social problems — a set of views that are post-positivist but still in the tradition of enlightened empiricism, and opposed to the currents of post-modern jargon that are sometimes mixed into the debate.

So the task is clear: to formulate a conception of social-science research and knowledge that preserves the values of empirical rigor and theoretial clarity, while embracing a pluralism that will permit the formulation of social-science knowledge adequate to the social world and social problems we find around ourselves. The Perestroika debate is an important one, and can help us better in the task of understanding society.

Reasoning about agents

Rational choice theory usually advances a highly abstract theory of decision-making — utility-maximizing choice among discrete options — and then draws deductive conclusions. But actual human reasoners don’t look much like this abstract ideal. It is interesting to consider how much one can explain while weakening the heroic assumptions about agent rationality. It turns out that it is possible to explain quite a bit of social behavior on the basis of a theory of agency that incorporates only a few qualitative assumptions about practical agency: purposiveness, deliberation, comparison, and choice — without the specific mathematics of utility theory. And this gives a basis for a “practical agency” type of social explanation that doesn’t fall directly under the many criticisms that are offered of formal rational choice theory. And it represents a framework of analysis that corresponds fairly directly to Aristotle’s conception of deliberation.

First, purposiveness. We assume that agents have purposes — states of affairs that they want to bring about. Their actions are intended to bring about their goals. (This is the basic assumption of means-end rationality.)

Second, deliberation. We assume that agents collect information about the courses of action that are feasible in the moment. And they collect information about the likely consequences of the various actions that they are considering. Within a deliberative process they choose an action to pursue.

Third, comparison. We assume that the agent deliberates by considering the advantages and disadvantages of each action (costs and benefits) and the degree to which the possible or probable effects of the choice serve the set of purposes the agent pursues. Further, the agent may compare choices on the basis of the nature of the action itself rather than solely on the basis of consequences — that is, the agent may combine deontological considerations with utilitarian considerations (this represents an element of Kant’s theory of moral decision-making). That is, the agent chooses on the basis of full comparison of the choices.

So far we have described purposive deliberation without invoking utilities. We have invoked the idea of preference in this account, because we have assumed that the agent prefers outcomes that better fulfill his/her purposes. And we have likewise invoked comparison and the idea of “more and less” of something in ranking outcomes. The apparatus of utility theory is one way of articulating or modeling these features — but we are not forced to attribute a full apparatus of utility measurement and aggregation in order to attribute purposiveness and comparison. It will suffice if the agent can judge “X is better than Y in fulfilling my purposes.”

So let’s refer to this less abstract description as a “broad theory of purposive agency”. The question here is a simple one: does this description give us enough to get a social explanation going? I believe that it does, and that this demonstrates that the conception of agents as purposive decision-makers is more durable than any particular formal theory of decision-making.

I support this observation with a single inconclusive illustration. We can reproduce the public goods problem, and the derivation of the rationality of free-riding, using only the comparative resources of the reduced theory of agency. And we can simultaneously prepare a theoretical location for future empirical research for those instances where free-riding does not materialize as expected.

First the derivation of the tendency toward free riding in the presence of public goods. The agent has preferences among the possible outcomes of possible collective action. He/she recognizes that the probability of realizing the collective good is not significantly altered by participation. Agent further recognizes that there is a cost to participation. Agent decides to not participate, based on costs and outcomes: the benefit of participation and non-participation is equal and the cost of participation is greater, so non-participation is preferred.

But now consider what happens when we turn on a deontological component of the comparison. Agent notes that non-participation involves taking unfair advantage of the actions of others. Agent prefers actions that are fair. Agent therefore chooses participation.

Finally, we might further complicate things by allowing that agent allows tradeoffs between the cost-benefit comparison and the deontological comparison. In some instances the weight of fairness prevails and agent chooses the less-good alternative. In other cases the situation reverses. Agent sacrifices minor unfairness and chooses the better outcome.

There are many, many examples of explanations in sociology, anthropology, and history that account for an outcome based on analysis of the situation of deliberation confronting a hypothetical set of purposive agents; and substantial explanations ensue. (As one example, consider Jean Ensminger’s explanation of Kenyan cattle-tending and bride price practices as a solution to a principal-agent problem between cattle owners and cattle tenders; Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society.)

What does rational choice theory explain?

Rational choice theory could be advanced as a pure set of axioms embodying a formal representation of individual choice under circumstances of uncertainty and strategic interaction. Decision theory incorporates the idea of maximizing utility under circumstances of uncertainty and risk. The basic rule is that the decision-maker could collect information about the utility and probability of each feasible choice, and choose the option that affords the maximum expected utility. (Here the decision-maker is playing against nature.) Game theory expands the range of decision-making situations by giving a representation of strategic interaction: situations in which the actor’s outcome depends upon the choices or strategies made by one or more rational opponents. Mathematical game theorists have demonstrated that this problem too admits of rational solution. The actor needs to discover the choices available to him/her and each other player and he/she needs to assign utilities for each possible outcome for each player. It is then demonstrable, for both zero-sum and non-zero-sum games, that there are one or more equilibrium sets of strategies for each player. This means that there is a single strategy or a mixed set of strategies with the property that, given rational choices by the opponent, there is no other strategy available to self that would produce a higher utility for self. (It may be observed that for games with many strategies for each player, discovery of the equilibrium set may not be practical.) Certain two-person games have received a great deal of analysis, including the prisoners’ dilemma, the game of chicken, and a range of cooperative games.

So much for the formal theory. In what sense does rational choice theory or game theory provide a basis for an explanation of real social outcomes?

We might begin a response to this question by saying that the axioms have empirical content as descriptions of real human decision-making. Real decision-makers do consider alternative choices in terms of the value and probability of the outcome. Moreover, actors who systematically break the expected utility rule will do less well than those who act according to the rule. So non-expected-utility actors will either learn or disappepear if the stakes are high. Likewise, in strategic situations (those depending on the independent actions of other deliberative agents), actors try to choose their strategy based on an analysis of the future choices of other players. So, once again, rational choice theory appears to capture an important dimension of real human decision making.

As noted in a prior posting, it goes without saying that human reasoners are not entirely conformant to the axioms — norms intervene, computational limits interfere, and the assesment of risky situations appears to be systematically divergent from the expected-utility model. In fact, these deviations create the subject matter for experimental or behavioral economics. (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.)

But given that there is some degree of correspondence between RC axioms and real human reasoning, we might say that RC theory provides an empirically grounded way of modeling certain real situations of decision making and strategic interaction. The pressing question is whether the empirical failures of the axioms as a description of real actors are sufficient to thoroughly invalidate the models. And it would appear that there are specific social settings that are likely to represent something like the pure case of rational decision-making as hypothesized by RC theory.

This implies in turn that there is a realistic basis for treating RC theory as a possible source of real empirically grounded explananations of observed social behavior. For example, suppose we are interested in the distributive features of WTO treaties or the incidence of peasant rebellions in late imperial China. We might model the WTO problem by treating nations as rational actors, attributing a set of utilities and probabilities to them, and using the findings of bargaining theory to predict the nature of the distribution of benefits and burdens in a series of agreements. Or we might regard the occurrence of a rebellion as a choice situation for each potential rebel that involves multiple outcomes, each with a utility and a probability. And we might hypothesize that rebellions will be most frequent in situations where the costs of participation are lowest and the rewards are greatest (James Tong, Disorder Under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty).

In each case we have taken an abstract mathematical system, used it to create a model of the actual social situation of interest, and have then solved the terms of the model. This solution can then be interpreted as a prediction or post-diction of the actual situation, and we can compare the model’s results with empirical and hisistorical facts.

(A very negative assessment of the empirical utility of rational choice theory is offered in Donald Green and Ian Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. Their skepticism is taken on by many authors in Jeffrey Friedman’s edited volume, The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered.)

Social "laws" and causal mechanisms

Are there social regularities? Is there anything like a “law of nature” that governs or describes social phenomena?

My view is that this is a question that needs to be approached very carefully. As a bottom line, I take the view that there are no “social laws” analogous to “laws of nature”, even though there are some mid-level regularities that can be discovered across a variety of kinds of social phenomena. But care is needed because of the constant temptation of naturalism — the idea that the social world should be understood in strong analogy with the natural world. If natural phenomena are governed by laws of nature, then social phenomena should be governed by “laws of society.” But the analogy is false.

Of course there are observable regularities among social phenomena. Urban geographers have noticed a similar mathematical relationship in the size distribution of cities in a wide range of countries. Durkheim noticed similar suicide rates among Catholic countries — rates that differ consistently from those found in Protestant countries. Political economists notice that there is a negative correlation between state spending on social goods and the infant mortality rate. And we could extend the list indefinitely.

But what does this fact demonstrate? Not, I want to argue, that social phenomena are “law-governed”. Instead, it results from two related facts. First, there are social-causal mechanisms; and second, there is some recurrence of common causes across social settings.
Take the mechanism of “collective action failures in the presence of public goods.” Here the heart of the mechanism is the analytical point that rationally self-interested decision-makers will take account of private goods but not public goods; so they will tend to avoid investments in activities that produce public goods. They will tend to become “free riders” or “easy riders.” The social regularity that corresponds to this mechanism is a “soft” generalization — that situations that involve a strong component of collective opportunities for creating public goods will tend to demonstrate low contribution levels from members of affected groups. So public radio fundraising will receive contributions only from a small minority of listeners; boycotts and strikes will be difficult to maintain over time; fishing resources will tend to be over-fished. And in fact, these regularities can be identified in a range of historical and social settings.

However, the “free rider” mechanism is only one of several that affect collective action. There are other social mechanisms that have the effect of enhancing collective action rather than undermining it. For example, the presence of competent organizations makes a big difference in eliciting voluntary contributions to public goods; the fact that many decision-makers appear to be “conditional altruists” rather than “rationally self-interested maximizers” makes a difference; and the fact that people can be mobilized to exercise sanctions against free riders affects the level of contribution to public goods. (If your neighbors complain bitterly about your smoky fireplace, you may be incentivized to purchase a cleaner-burning wood or coal.) The result is that the free-rider mechanism rarely operates by itself — so the expected regularities may be diminished or even extinguished.

What I draw from this is pretty simple. It is that social regularities are “phenomenal” rather than “governing”: they emerge as the result of the workings of common social-causal mechanisms, and social causation is generally conjunctural and contingent. So the regularities that become manifest are weak and exception-laden — and they are descriptive of outcomes rather than expressive of underlying “laws of motion” of social circumstances.

And there is a research heuristic that emerges from this discussion as well. This is the importance of searching out the concrete social-causal mechanisms through which social phenomena take shape. We do a poor job of understanding industrial strikes if we simply collect a thousand instances and perform statistical analysis on the features we’ve measured against the outcome variables. We do a much better job of understanding them if we put together a set of theories about the features of structure and agency through which a strike emerges and through which individuals make decisions about participation. Analysis of the common “agent/structure” factors that are relevant to mobilization will permit us to understand individual instances of mobilization, explain the soft regularities that we discover, and account for the negative instances as well.

Impersonal social causes?

There is a substantial place in social causation for mechanisms that link the intentions of powerful actors to the specific features of the outcome. “The outcome came about because the powerful actor wanted it to.” Why are there no petroleum refineries in mid-town Manhattan? Because zoning and planning boards have deliberately excluded such activities.

But what about causal mechanisms that are not the result of strategic choices by social actors? Are there impersonal social causes?

There are rare but real instances of social changes that occur without any intermediary of social action — for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the extinction of Pompeii. But these events fall outside the scope of the social sciences. And there are important social explanations that begin in impersonal features of the natural environment — for example, the configuration of rivers in China’s early history. But what makes these into social explanations is the analysis of the social behavior through which agents adapt these conditions to their needs. (See Mark Elvin’s truly excellent environmental history of China for more on this; The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.) But social explanations always involve actors — and that means that intentional social action always comes into the picture in some way. So we might begin by saying that there are no impersonal social explanations, if by that we mean “explanations of social outcomes that do not involve the actions of persons.”

It is important to observe that there are actually two distinctions that are relevant here. There is the “personal-impersonal” distinction, and there is the “intended-unintended” distinction. In an obvious sense all social causation is “personal”, in the sense that social causal mechanisms are always embodied in the constrained actions of socially constituted actors or persons. So the actions of deliberate actors are part of all social causation. But the intentions of the actors are often unrelated to the social outcome we are trying to explain. So in these cases the outcome is not caused by actors’ intention that it should come about. In the refinery example — it may be that there is no regulation prohibiting this kind of activity, but the cost of real estate makes the proposition unattractive from a cost-benefit perspective. On this scenario we would have the result occurring as an unintended consequence of the choices of a large numbers of independent actors.

These are the most interesting social explanations: explanations of social patterns or outcomes that are not the result of design or intention, but that nonetheless emerge through the purposive actions of large numbers of agents. These are “unintended consequences” explanations or “aggregative” explanations. We can quickly identify dozens of such examples: the silting of river deltas as a result of flood-management strategies upstream; the expansion of black-market sales of cigarettes as a result of new taxes on tobacco; the expansion of traffic flows as a result of the opening of the third harbor tunnel in Boston; etc. These explanations are “aggregative” in the sense that they work by “aggregating” the lower-level choices and preferences of individual actors into a higher-level social pattern. (Thomas Schelling offers numerous intriguing examples along these lines in his book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior.)

So now we can answer our original question. There are no social causes that work entirely independently from social actors, and actors are purposive. So all social causation stems from “intentional” human behavior; persons are always involved in social outcomes. However, there are many social outcomes that are unintended and unrecognized by all the participants. The participants’ intentions are local and parochial; whereas the social outcome is large and unforeseen. These instances are the most interesting problems for social inquiry. We might refer to these as “agency-based explanations of unintended and unforeseen outcomes.”

This suggests a different way of classifying social causes: outcomes that are the intended result of specific powerful actors (conspiracy, leadership, dictatorship); outcomes that are the result of strategic interaction among a small group of purposive agents (bargaining, collusion, cooperation); outcomes that result from concerted collective action by large groups with some sense of collective goals (boycotts, strikes); and outcomes that are the aggregate result of uncoordinated but constrained choices by large numbers of independent agents (markets, habitation patterns).

This classification also makes it more apparent why the concept of power is central in social explanation. The first three categories imply a distribution of powers across specific agents and groups, in order to account for the postulated connection between the agent’s purposes and the eventual outcome. And the fourth category implies the exercise of power by some other agency, to account for the observed constraints on choice that constitute the heart of this type of explanation.

How does rational choice theory relate to social facts and individual psychology?

Rational choice theory is a mid-level theory of human agency, intended to capture core features of human decision-making in order to provide a basis for abstract and generalized theories of the dynamics of various areas of social behavior. The disciplines of political science and economics make particularly extensive use of versions of rational choice theory (decision theory, expected utility theory, game theory, theories of parametric and strategic rationality) in designing theories and models of stylized circumstances of social action (e.g. market decision-making, production decisions, voting decisions, collective action decisions). Homo economicus — the rationally self-interested preference- or utility-maximizing individual — stands at the foundation of typical models in economics and political science.

The theory of economic rationality can be specified in numerous ways. In all its versions it is an abstraction from real human behavior, in two senses. The theory abstracts from idiosyncratic differences in reasoning across individuals; and it abstracts from other, perhaps systematic, factors that might influence reasoning (emotions and morals, for example). The theory allows for differences across individuals, of course, but primarily in the individual’s preferences or utility function. (The nature of the decision rule is also a variable: more risk averse or less, optimizing or satisficing, maximin or maximize expected utility).

The question here is, what role does rational choice theory play in social explanations and in formal models in political science and economics, and how does it function in description of individual psychology and behavior?

Some formalistic economists and political scientists treat the assumptions of rational choice theory as purely formal axioms that can provide the basis for a mathematical treatment of a stylized problem — solution to an n-person non-zero sum game, for example. These theorists are not concerned about the descriptive adequacy of the axioms, but rather the feasibility of employing the axioms to derive a solution to the problem.

This approach is unsatisfying, however, if we think that the results of formal economic or political analysis are supposed to be explanatory in some sense of actual social phenomena. Suppose we explain the low level of public contribution to public radio, by saying that the “contribution/non-contribution” game is an n-person prisoners’ dilemma, and the mathematical solution to such a game demonstrates an equilibrium of low contribution. This mathematical finding is only potentially explanatory if we have some reason to think that the model bears a relevant relationship to the system of behavior it is modeling; the model assumes rationally self-interested maximizers; so the model is potentially explanatory of the public radio result only if the listeners are to some degree approximately well-described as “rationally self-interested maximizers.” In other words, the rational-choice explanation of this real social situation appears to require that there be some degree of realism in the assumption of individual rationality. The purely formalistic interpretation of the axioms would render the account devoid of explanatory value.

This suggests a different approach to the question. It suggests that we should regard the assumption of rationality as an approximately true description of most human beings. Rational choice theory is an empirical theory of human behavior, at a high level of abstraction. “Abstract” in this context means “disregarding of interfering or contrary factors” — as the theory of ideal gases is abstract in its disregard of intermolecular forces. In other words, the theory of rationality might be construed as a particularly abstract part of an empirical theory of human psychology.

If we take this approach, then we are naturally invited to test and improve upon this theory of human decision-making. Are there other factors of deliberation and action that need to be introduced? Are there differences across human groups and cultures with respect to the system of reasoning that individuals employ in practical decisions? Is the theory of maximizing rationality true of at least a certain range of individuals and decision-making problems? (Perhaps, for example, we are maximizing decision-makers when it comes to choosing a loaf of bread, but are influenced by emotions and commitments when it comes to choosing a political party to support.)

The advantage of a simple, abstract theory of deliberation (the theory of economic rationality) is that it provides a mathematically tractable way of modeling certain common situations of social action. If we advance a theory of deliberation and agency that postulates more nuance at the individual level and more variation across individuals and cultures, we may lose the ability to put forward models that result in equilibrium. More empirical adequacy may reduce the theoretical or deductive adequacy of the disciplines. However, it seems unavoidable that social science is better served by a theory of human agency and deliberation that is somewhat more faithful to actual human practical cognition. And it would remain possible that the narrow assumptions of economic rationality emerge as being adequately descriptive in certain well defined problem circumstances (the circumstances of anonymous markets, for example). Finally, it may be that other methods of aggregating from individual-level assumptions to models of collective behavior are feasible — for example, the agent-based models that are advocated by the Santa Fe Institute.

There may be one additional reason why rational choice theory asserts a centrality that separates it from the rest of social psychology — that is the role that rationality plays in a normative sense. We might think that reason and rationality are especially important human creations, and that it is valuable to have a theory of pure rationality (and its implications) even if the typical human reasoner falls far short of its assumptions.

Why are tastes and aversions beyond rational control?

Rational choice theory is a powerful foundation for thinking about social behavior (at least in its moderate versions). People have beliefs and goals; they survey the environment of choice and they arrive at actions that are intelligently related to the achievement of their goals.

However, as an exclusive, abstract description of human behavior, rational choice theory confronts a few major problems. A minor problem is the fact that people do not always act deliberatively. They may act out of impulse, habit, or example — without devoting the thought processes to their current choices that would be necessary in order to formulate a rational plan in the circumstances. This is a minor problem, because this behavior itself may be rational in the “satisficing” sense: the stakes may be so low that it doesn’t make sense to commit time and energy to the task of calculating what the best overall solution to the problem is. (Shall I take the triple cappuccino or the iced mocha today?)

More challenging is a much more substantial fact about human action and choice: there is a powerful set of psychological imperatives and constraints that make certain choices psychologically impossible even when they are “goal-maximizing”. Take food and clothing choices as examples: the fact that fish heads are perfectly nutritious and cheap will never induce most Americans to order them on the menu. The fact that a pair of Bermuda shorts is a perfectly suitable attire in some settings will not induce someone to wear them to a black tie gala in place of the tuxedo. It is as if the decision-making system is loaded with constraints of taste, preference, aversion, and norm that make some decisions simply impossible.

This fact might be described as the workings of “culture”; it might be categorized under the heading of “norms and values”; or it might be assigned to the “workings of personality and affect.” But whatever description we offer, it is plainly a factor that needs to be incorporated into a full theory of human agency and choice.

It is not particularly difficult to model a “decision-making system” that incorporates the workings of tastes, aversions, and norms as well as goal-directed rationality. The more challenging task lies at the level of psychological theories of individual development (how does the individual acquire and incorporate these cultural and normative constraints?) and sociological theories of transmission of these sorts of constraints. What are the institutional and cultural mechanisms through which a system of tastes, aversions, and norms are transmitted throughout a group or population?

And, finally, there is the task for behavioral science of incorporating the empirical findings that this set of observations permits concerning the ways in which real agents process experience and arrive at decisions, into aggregate models of collective behavior. How should the abstract models of rational choice theory be extended to include these factors of affect, taste, and aversion? Are these non-rational factors so idiosyncratic that they cannot be incorporated into behavioral science? Or are there regularities at the level of individuals that permit aggregate consequences at the level of group behavior? (And is it possible that we have arrived here at the theoretical nexus of “marketing science” — the discipline aimed most directly at understanding and controlling the behavior of groups of consumers?)

(An interesting edited volume by Lupia, McCubbins and Popkin explores some of these issues: Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, and the Bounds of Rationality .)

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