Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science

Ian Shapiro with Donald Green

September 1996 | $24.95 | ISBN-13: 978-0300066364 | 254 pages

This is the first comprehensive critical evaluation of the use of rational choice theory in political science. Writing in an accessible and nontechnical style, Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro assess rational choice theory where it is reputed to be most successful: the study of collective action, the behavior of political parties and politicians, and such phenomena as voting cycles and Prisoner’s Dilemmas. In their hard-hitting critique, Green and Shapiro demonstrate that the much heralded achievements of rational choice theory are in fact deeply suspect and that fundamental rethinking is needed if rational choice theorists are to contribute to the understanding of politics. In their final chapters, they anticipate and respond to a variety of possible rational choice responses to their arguments, thereby initiating a dialogue that is bound to continue for some time.

“This is a most thought-provoking book, and I am looking forward to seeing responses from leading rational choice scholars. Green and Shapiro shift the debate in political science toward the issue of empirical explanation. That is exactly where the discussion ought to be centered!”—Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
“Books on the methodology of the social sciences tend to be hard going and in the end to yield results whose utility is incommensurate with the effort required to arrive at them. This book is a welcome exception. Green and Shapiro write with lucidity, grace, and even on occasion wit. Unlike many critics of rational choice theorizing, they are sympathetic to its explanatory aspirations. Their critique focuses on the adequacy of the explanations offered in the rational choice literature. Drawing on a wealth of examples, they show that all too often writers are content to have offered an explanation in rational choice terms of some phenomenon without going on to ask if this explanation is sounder than the alternatives that might be offered. I think that Green and Shapiro underestimate the importance of the rational choice approach in generating good questions (for example, prompting curiosity as to how collective action comes about), but their work should help to ensure that such questions are more sharply posed in future.”—Brian Barry, London School of Economics and Political Science
“A book that both advocates and opponents of rational choice theory should read. These are intelligent scholars offering a thoughtful critique of a paradigm that has become increasingly dominant in American political science.”—Margaret Levi, Political Science Quarterly
“With this book Green and Shapiro have touched upon a very important topic not only for political science, but for the social sciences in general. They have to be applauded for their well-written and systematic study of rational choice theories and the range and impact of the book’s empirical application.”—Peter van Roozendaal, European Sociological Review
“[This book] contains a critique of rational-choice theories of politics that deserves to be taken seriously, and it highlights a range of problems that must be addressed if the future of rational theory is to be as prosperous as its recent past.”—Peter Hedström, Theory and Methods