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A comment on the Rational-Choice discussion

It is surprising why often discussions between sociology students end up in a discussion about the appropriateness of Rational-Choice Theory (RCT). Although I confirm that a behavioral theory on the micro-level is necessary to develop a proper explanation, I sometimes get the impression that many sociology students are actually more interested in (social) psychological insights. In the article of Batenburg, Raub and Snijders (2003, p.142f.) I found a perfectly summarized comment on this:

Granovetter’s criticism of the shortcomings of the neoclassical model of perfect markets of “atomized” actors and transactions has often been enthusiastically endorsed and taken to imply that one had better abandon rational choice models in favor of more “realistic”, socially inspired models of man. It has been widely overlooked that he sharply opposes “psychological revisionism” which he characterizes as “an attempt to reform economic theory by abandoning an absolute assumption of rational decision making” (1985, p.505). Rather, he suggests to maintain the rationality assumption: “[W]hile the assumption of rational action must always be problematic, it is a good working hypothesis that should not easily be abandoned. What looks to the analyst like nonrational behavior may be quite sensible when situational constraints, especially those of embeddedness are fully appreciated” (1985, p.506). He argues that investments in tracing the effects of embeddedness are more promising for sociologists than investments in the modification of the rationality assumption: “My claim is that however naive that psychology [of rational choice] may be, this is not where the main difficulty lies – it is rather the neglect of social structure” (1985, p.506).

Hence, Granovetter advocates a rich set of assumptions on how the social structure influences actors. In addition to that I think, due to methodological difficulties, the mirco-to-macro link is often neglected, too. A relatively new stream within sociological rational choice theory and explanatory sociology, analytical sociology, is focused on doing precisely this more appropriately. Kalter and Kroneberg (2014) give a good overview over this development.

  • Batenburg, R. S., Raub, W., & Snijders, C. (2003). Contacts and Contracts: Dyadic Embeddedness and the Contractual Behavior of Firms. In V. Buskens, W. Raub, & C. Snijders (Eds.), Research in the Sociology of Organizations: Vol. 20. The Governance of Relations in Markets and Organizations (pp. 135–188). Bingley: Emerald.
  • Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: the problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 481–510.
  • Kalter, F., & Kroneberg, C. (2014). Between Mechanism Talk And Mechanism Cult: New Emphases in Explanatory Sociology And Empirical Research. KZfSS Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 66, 91–115.

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