In This Article Rational Choice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Rational Choice Structuralism
  • Rational Choice Institutionalism
  • Selected Applications of Rational Choice Theory
  • Critique and Advocacy of Rational Choice Theory
  • Informative Popularizations of Rational Choice Theory

Sociology Rational Choice
Rafael Wittek
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0070


“Rational choice theory” is a general theory of action and is considered one of the three overarching meta-theoretical paradigms in the social sciences, with structural-institutional theories and cultural theories constituting its main competitors. Rational choice theory explains social phenomena as outcomes of individual choices that can—in some way—be construed as rational. Choices are “rational” if they meet some consistency criterion as defined by a decision theory and are suitable to achieve specific goals, given the constraints of the situation. Rational choice theory comes in many varieties, depending on the assumptions that are made concerning preferences, beliefs, and constraints—the key elements of all rational choice explanations. Preferences denote the positive or negative evaluations individuals attach to possible outcomes of their actions. Preferences can have many roots, ranging from culturally transmitted tastes for food or other items to personal habits and commitments. Beliefs refer to perceived cause-effect relations, including the perceived likelihood with which an individual’s actions will result in different possible outcomes. Constraints define the limits to the set of feasible actions. After presenting references containing General Overviews, Reference Works, Textbooks, and Journals, the main part of this article is organized around what can currently be considered as the three major pillars of the framework: the way it approaches the construction of theories (“rational choice model building”), including its assumptions about rationality and preferences of humans; the way it deals with network embeddedness; and the way it deals with institutions. Being a general theory of action, rational choice theory can be, and has been, applied to explain social phenomena in almost any subfield of the social and behavioral sciences, although the section on Selected Applications of Rational Choice Theory can present only an idiosyncratic fraction of these applications. Whereas rational choice theory constitutes the theoretical core of economics, it faces considerable criticism in other branches of the social and behavioral sciences. This reluctance stems from what critics consider the theory’s core assumptions about human nature, and its purportedly bad track record when it comes to empirical evidence. Much of this criticism rests on major misconceptions of the approach and fails to incorporate the considerable advancements that the approach has made during the past two decades. The section on Critique and Advocacy of Rational Choice Theory lists some main contributions to this debate. The article concludes with a selection of Informative Popularizations of Rational Choice Theory of the approach: easy and stimulating reads that apply the core ideas of the approach to a large variety of phenomena.

General Overviews

Two encyclopedia entries provide a very good start for acquiring an introductory general overview of the domain of rational choice theory in sociology (Lindenberg 2006, Hedström and Stern 2008). They are complemented by two article-length texts explicating the foundations of the approach in more detail (Voss and Abraham 2000, Goldthorpe 1998). Udehn 2001 offers an in-depth comparison of different varieties of individualistic explanations. Lichbach 2003 helps to position the rational choice approach in the broader context of other meta-theoretical paradigms. Lindenberg 1985 is useful because it contrasts the micro models of economics and sociology.

  • Goldthorpe, J. 1998. Rational action theory for sociology. British Journal of Sociology 49.2: 167–192.

    DOI: 10.2307/591308E-mail Citation »

    Argues that varieties of rational choice theory can be distinguished along three dimensions: the strength of their rationality requirements, their focus on situational versus procedural rationality, and their claim to be a general versus a specific theory of action. Helps to locate different varieties of the approach in the resulting multidimensional space.

  • Hedström, P., and C. Stern. 2008. Rational choice and sociology. In The new Palgrave dictionary of economics. Edited by S. N. Durlauf and L. E. Blume, 872–877. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    E-mail Citation »

    Refers to the work of the key scholars contributing to the emergence of the rational choice approach in sociology. Discusses empirical achievements of the rational choice approach and explicates the differences between sociological and economic versions of the approach as well as its standing within sociology.

  • Lichbach, M. I. 2003. Is rational choice theory all of social science? Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Particularly useful for a systematic comparison of the rational choice approach with the two other social science paradigms, culturalism and structuralism. Also pays attention to the possibilities and limitations of strategies trying to integrate the different approaches.

  • Lindenberg, S. 1985. An assessment of the new political economy: Its potential for the social sciences and for sociology in particular. Sociological Theory 3.1: 99–114.

    DOI: 10.2307/202177E-mail Citation »

    Still the most in-depth analysis of the different conceptualizations of human nature in economics and sociology. Discusses assumptions about human nature along the dimensions of resourcefulness, restrictions, expectations, evaluations, and maximizing (the RREEMM-model).

  • Lindenberg, S. 2006. Rational choice theory. In International encyclopedia of economic sociology. Edited by J. Beckert and M. Zafirovski, 548–552. New York: Routledge.

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    A concise and well-structured general overview of the rational choice approach and its application in economic sociology. Useful for its illustration of two variants of the theory’s “basic toolkit”: explanations assuming full information versus less than full information.

  • Udehn, L. 2001. Methodological individualism: Background, history, and meaning. London: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most comprehensive treatments of the philosophical roots of the individualism assumption, a key element of the rational choice approach. It distinguishes between strong assumptions of “natural” methodological individualism made by economists and weaker versions of structural individualism made by sociologists, which allows a broad set of societal-level conditions to influence individual-level choice.

  • Voss, T., and M. Abraham. 2000. Rational choice theory in sociology: A survey. In The international handbook of sociology. Edited by S. R. Quah and A. Sales, 50–83. London: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    This general overview has four parts: history of the approach, assumptions about human nature, explanations of social norms, and an overview of applications in diverse fields of sociology. The very transparent presentation of core assumptions addresses some common misconceptions and contains a very useful section on limitations, alternatives, and extensions.

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