The American Sociologist

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 16–36 | Cite as

The Rise of Rational Choice Theory as a Scientific/Intellectual Movement in Sociology

  • Steven L. FoyEmail author
  • Cyrus Schleifer
  • Edward A. Tiryakian


How did Rational Choice Theory (RCT), traditionally rejected by sociologists for its economic individualism, rise rapidly in the 1980s and the 1990s to theoretical and institutional prominence within sociology? Drawing on Frickel and Gross’ (American Sociological Association, 70(2):204–232 2005) framework for the emergence of scientific/intellectual movements (SIMs), we argue that RCT rose to prominence in sociology in conjunction with: 1) high status actors’ criticism of the previously dominant paradigm, structural functionalism; 2) favorable structural conditions that provided entrepreneurial access to key resources; 3) proliferation through micromobilization contexts; and 4) the ability of those espousing RCT for sociology to draw on dominant cultural motifs outside of academia. The rise of RCT in American sociology provides a case study for how scientific/intellectual movements can find an audience in academic contexts that are predisposed to oppose them.


SIMs Rational choice theory Sociology of knowledge Resources Cultural context 



We thank Harry Dahms, Lisa Keister, Larry Nichols, Richard Swedberg, and Steve Vaisey for their helpful feedback on previous versions of the manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven L. Foy
    • 1
    Email author
  • Cyrus Schleifer
    • 2
  • Edward A. Tiryakian
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyThe University of Texas Rio Grande ValleyEdinburgUSA
  2. 2.The University of OklahomaNormanUSA
  3. 3.Duke UniversityDurhamUSA

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