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.
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While the RCT of the 1980s and 1990s represented a distinct theoretical moment in the history of social theorizing, it was not the first appearance of some of the premises of RCT within sociology. A number of early sociologists were trained as economists (Young 2009). Additionally, the exchange theory of George Homans incorporated RCT-like elements. A major emphasis of exchange theory was the claim that individuals rationally evaluated their interactions with others (Homans 1958). While Coleman (1993) notes that his version of RCT owed a primary debt to Gary Becker for its expansion into the explanation of social phenomena, Swedberg (1996:315) argued that Coleman’s RCT also benefited from the social exchange theory contributions of Homans and suggested that a presentation by Homans was the moment when Coleman was first introduced to rational choice theory.
This steep rise may reflect game theory’s rational choice underpinning (e.g., as in the well-known “prisoner’s dilemma” game) and relevance to issues of major importance to political scientists, such as nuclear deterrence and electoral competition (von Neumann and Morgenstern 2004; Osbourne and Turner 2010; Powell 1990).
By some measures, the rise of RCT was incomplete. Baron and Hannan (1994) found (via data from the Social Science Citation Index on citations to the American Economic Review (AER) and the Journal of Political Economy (JPE) in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) and American Sociological Review (ASR)) that there was little increase in citation of economic work in sociology after the 1970s. However, the authors also note that, although sociologists were not necessarily citing economists more overall, they were citing the work of Gary Becker (whose important contributions to the rise of RCT in sociology in partnership with James Coleman we discuss later in the paper) more. Becker was the second-most cited economist in ASR and AJS in 1980 and the most cited from 1990 to 1991. He was also the most cited economist in the Annual Review of Sociology from 1989 to 1992.
Both Frickel and Gross’ first proposition and Mullins’ normal stage in turn address Kuhn’s (2012) assertion that new theories, questions, and data can lead to a paradigm shift within an academic discipline.
Indeed, C. Wright Mills, the father of modern conflict theory, critiqued the very notion of a “grand theory” as he criticized Parsons from a conflict theory via the sociological imagination.
Some saw this multi-theoretical moment as redemptive for sociology, reinvigorating the field in a time of lower enrollments in sociology departments (Turner 2014).
Although highly praised, Foundations of Social Theory was faced strong criticism for ignoring conceptual problems in macro-micro transitions (Gibbs 1990).
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This information was confirmed via phone conversation with staff from the University of Chicago Press on July 21, 2016.
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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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Foy, S.L., Schleifer, C. & Tiryakian, E.A. The Rise of Rational Choice Theory as a Scientific/Intellectual Movement in Sociology. Am Soc 49, 16–36 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-017-9335-3
- Rational choice theory
- Sociology of knowledge
- Cultural context