The rational choice approach

Topics: Rational choice theory, Politics, Economics Pages: 6 (1999 words) Published: January 14, 2014
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the rational choice approach to understanding the political?

Whilst people all around the world debate over which political system is the most effective, social scientists are still in debate over which is the best way to analyse politics. Without the correct analysis of political objects how is one supposed to decide which political system or party is the most effective? It is for this reason that the way in which we analyse political objects is so important. There are many different ways to go about analysing politics. One main distinction to be noted is how in America the subject is called political science, whereas many European universities just call it politics. European scholars would suggest that the name political science is flawed in the sense that you cannot conduct certain political experiments. Rational choice theorists would suggest otherwise as I will explain later on in the essay. In a lecture delivered by Professor Mark Franklin at the European University Institute, he stated; “We cannot take a random sample of people and give them a new political system to see what happens” (Franklin, 2006). Debates such as these go far further than just cross-national. In this essay I intend to give a brief background to the various approaches to studying politics. I will then go on to outline the strengths and weaknesses of the rational choice approach to understanding the political, paying close attention to the definition of self-interest, using various scholars work to form a critique of the rational choice theory.

The studying of politics can be dated back to the ‘Platonic era’ of ancient Greece, as early as 420 B.C. However, the departments of politics came much later. Within these departments one of the earliest forms of analysing politics was through the method of institutionalism. This involved the studying of institutions. Institutionalists looked at how institutions were formed, what they did and how they were structured. Rather than looking at philosophical questions, institutionalists concentrated on normative questions. Institutionalism was criticised for its lack of rigour as it was mainly a descriptive process. Others called it elitist and described it as “clever people telling others about their own system” (Parvin, 2013). The 1930s saw the American way of thinking revised as a result of the increasing numbers of European scholars entering America. As a result of this, and with the growing criticisms of the conventional approach, analysis took a behavioural standpoint. At the same time of behaviouralism, rational choice theorists were in writing. However, it only flourished in the 1980s. Rational choice theory involves more questioning of peoples decisions and political objectives and was a lot less descriptive. Rational choice theory, first used in the field of economics, suggests individuals are rational and therefore act in their own self-interest. They do this by weighing up the costs and benefits of a situation. It also assumes individuals are rational meaning they do not act outside the norm. Another assumption is that individuals make their decisions whilst taking into account what other individuals do, or what they believe the other individuals will do.

The first weakness of the rational choice theory I wish to analyse is the assumption that all individuals are self-interested. To tackle this it is important to define being self-interested. It is often defined as one gaining pleasure from an act. However, is an act still self-interested if the person gains pleasure from helping others? If your answer is no, then what if an act pleasures one’s self whilst helping others, but also putting others at a disadvantage. Is this now self-interested again? For example, when a pressure group member of ‘fathers 4 justice’ climbs a building to encourage politicians to allow him to see his child he would be seen as self-interested. On the other hand, he is...

Bibliography: Franklin, M.N Putting the Science into Political Science, 23 November 2006 [date accessed: 24 December 2013]
Hay, C 2008 Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press
Oslon, M 1971 The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Parvin, P 2013 Political Analysis Lecture 3: Institutionalism, Loughborough: Loughborough University
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