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The rational actor

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Much of the theory on voter turnout is based on rational choice theories.

Rational Choice Theory[edit | edit source]

Rational choice theory is based on three basic postulates:

  • calculation of costs and benefits: the actors are rational, referring to Weber's concept of rationality. This means that the actors make cost-benefit calculations. Following this calculation, one decides to act and in the case of political behaviour this is the process leading to vote or not to vote. The idea is that a party could maximize our individual utility.
  • utility maximization: we are rational actors who act according to cost-benefit calculations. This has to be related to theories that emphasize, for example, the role of emotions. Some people contrast a rational orientation of action with an affective or emotional orientation. The option that maximizes utility will be chosen, otherwise we would not be rational.
  • importance of information: information has an importance in epistemology in relation to human behaviour and in politics. If the actor is to be rational, and to be rational he must calculate the costs and benefits of different stock options and then choose the one that maximizes the cost-benefit ratio, the actor must have transparent, clear and accessible information. One of the criticisms of rational choice theories is that the information is generally not accessible and not very transparent.

Methodological individualism[edit | edit source]

Empirically, rational choice theory is based on methodological individualism, which can be defined as a research programme or agenda that proposes to broaden or extend the principles of rational choice theory beyond the neoclassical economic science where it has its origin.

Thus, methodological individualism seeks to explain social phenomena through the actions of individuals. On the other hand, the individual constitutes the unit of analysis in the social sciences and social phenomena are explained in terms of emerging effects resulting from the aggregation of individual behaviours.

Ontologies in the Social Sciences: Tilly[edit | edit source]

Tilly situated methodological individualism in relation to other ontologies which are other ways of studying social reality. According to him, methodological individualism differs from phenomenological individualism, which is a way of thinking that situates the explanation of behaviour in people's lived experience. He contrasts methodological individualism with holism (systemic realism) and relational realism (relational analysis). For Tilly, the best explanations of human behaviour are not to be sought in an individualistic perspective, nor in a holistic logic, but are to be explained according to relational realism.

Critique of methodological individualism: Tilly[edit | edit source]

According to Tilly, empirically, there are few individual behaviours that presuppose utility maximization between clearly defined alternatives. In other words, few individual behaviours appear to fit the presupposition of maximizing choice among clearly defined alternatives.

It should be noted that Tilly's critique is addressed to the critics of rational choice in their original version. Elements presupposed to be fixed, such as preferences and the calculation of outcomes, actually vary and interact in the course of social action. It cannot be assumed that the actor makes choices that are external to the process of political socialization. There is a kind of phenomenon that is not linear.

A third criticism according to Tilly is the lack of a plausible explanation of the causal chain through which decisions produce their effects on individual action, on social interactions and on complex social processes.

Critique of systemic realism: Tilly[edit | edit source]

Tilly offers criticisms in order to put forward her thinking which is the idea that it is in social relations that one must look for explanations. Thus, he points out the lack of robust and well-documented causal mechanisms that can be observed in operation.

On the other hand, Tilly criticizes the prevalence of poorly described functional explanations in which social events, relationships, institutions or processes exist because they meet certain requirements of the system as a whole.

Group theory[edit | edit source]

First, we must return to group theory and pluralist group theories. This consists in the fact that the actors are rational, that conflicts of interest are the driving force behind political action, whether individual or collective. Furthermore, groups mobilize to achieve common interests, i.e. a group of people have common interests and being rational, individuals will come together to try to achieve a common goal. These are the theories on which the lobby theories dating back to the 1940s and 1950s are based. Finally, the political system is permeable and responds to collective action.

For the pluralist theory of groups, individuals who have common goals and interests logically agree to create and produce collective action. According to Olson, collective action is logical but also effective.

The paradox of collective action: Olson[edit | edit source]

For Oslon, it is not true that groups of individual actors with common interests and goals will come together and engage in collective action to achieve their common goals and interests. On the contrary, it is precisely because actors are rational that they will not act collectively because collective action is seen as a public good characterized by non-divisibility and non-excludability, i.e., individuals cannot be excluded from the production or use of this public good. For Oslon, the rational individual should ask himself why he should bear the costs of mobilization when the benefits can be obtained without even mobilizing. Thus, rational actors do not engage in collective action. This idea is called the free-rider problem.

If this logic were true, there should be no collective mobilization at all. In this theory, it is rational from an individual point of view not to mobilize, but this individual rationality will lead to collective irrationality. Nevertheless, there is still collective action. Olson, from a theoretical point of view, proposes two solutions to the free-rider problem, namely sanctions to compel and selective incentives which is an individual gain given to each individual.

What is interesting about this theory is that collective action can be seen as a by-product of the search for individual gains by rational actors. Olson's theory is most applicable to certain types of groups and particularly to large groups. Critics have said that this theory applies only to certain types of collective action that are more interest-based.

Governance of common resources: Ostrom[edit | edit source]

Ostrom has published a book that sees the problem of collective action, the dilemma and paradox of collective action as a variant among other more general themes that speak of three different models: the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner's dilemma and the logic of collective action. There are several solutions, including those proposed by Olson, namely sanctions and selective incentives. Ostrom proposes a third solution, which are the institutional arrangements that could and should make it possible to create norms of reciprocity and solidarity between actors, social capital created between actors that may explain in part why people get involved despite the fact that there is this temptation to free ride.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]