How can we understand social behavior? Why do people act the way they do? What drives the decisions they make? These are some of the questions sociologists are interested in. They want to find patterns in society that can explain behavior or might even be able to predict it! There are many theories who have taken a shot at this and one of them is rational choice theory. But what is this theory about and why would it work (or not)?
Rational Choice Theory
Rational choice theory states that the structure of society comes into being through choices that are made on the individual level. These choices are made by people who carefully consider their options and the consequences of certain behavior. They weigh the costs and benefits and understand what will ensue after a decision is made. Therefore, they will end up making the best choice or “the rational choice”. It states that people are inherently rational and that is actually possible to predict social behavior. If you know the pros and cons of a decision an individual needs to make you can foresee what he or she will choose.
Furthermore, in the case of rational choice theory, individuals are working towards a certain goal, they can reflect on their own behavior and their choices are consistent. The context or the time of the decision-making should not play a role, the individual strives towards the best outcome and they understand why they behave the way they do. Behavior is not random or influenced by outside factors.
Social theories Against Rational Choice Theory
There exist other sociological theories who provide us with a different view on the structure of society. For example, social learning theory shows how people are influenced by their environment. Individuals copy the social behavior of the people around them and start acting in similar ways. According to this theory, they are influenced by the context and their social circle when making decisions. So, in this sense they imitate others rather than carefully considering the costs and benefits themselves.
In addition, social constructionism sees society as a whole and not as the sum of individual behaviors. Social behavior comes into existence through a certain social context. Meaning exists because of social relations and does not develop in the individual. Therefore, in accordance with this theory, society cannot be built from individual, rational choices.
Thus, as you can see, there are different ways to look at society and individual behavior and there are various ways to connect the two. Some sociologists believe that the individual choices make up the structure of society and some would state it is the other way around. Some would say that individuals make rational choices which are uninfluenced by the context, while others would state all decisions are influenced by the social surroundings. Aside from these theories there are many different ways of looking at society and there are also variations.
So, what do you think when reading this? Can we explain society in terms of rational decisions? Are people rational as described by rational choice theory?
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Another interesting sociological article on conflict theory:
Scott, J. (2000). Rational choice theory. Understanding contemporary society: Theories of the present, 129, 671-85.