Mind the Gap between Rational Choice Theory and Social Theory: Toward a Meta Rational Choice Theory

Thursday, 19 July 2018
Yoshimichi SATO, Sociology, Tohoku University, Japan
I propose a new theoretical framework to bridge the gap between rational choice theory and social theory. Rational choice theory is a strong tool with which to study social phenomena focusing on the macro-micro linkage. However, it does not dominate sociology; its influence in sociology is rather limited. One of the reasons for this, I would argue, is that rational choice theory has not adequately dealt with meaning and reflexivity, important concepts in social theory, which is influential in sociology. Rational choice theory assumes that actors choose alternatives that they believe will realize their goals. What is important in this assumption is that their goals are given. Actors are not assumed to change their goals. However, people sometimes reflect the meaning of their goals and find new goals. A textbook example is the creation of the concept of “sustainable development.” When people enjoyed economic development by exploiting natural resources, their goal was just to pursue the development. However, once they began to realize that such development will damage the natural environments, they reflected the goal, tried to make a balance between economic development and ecology, invented the concept of sustainable development as their new goal, and have been trying to realize it. Rational choice theory has not seriously considered this process of changing goals via reflexivity. I proposed a mechanism in which actors move from backward-looking to forward looking rationality (Sato 2016) and a theory that assumes that agents find a new goal in agent-based models, which represents a process from forward-looking rationality to reflexivity (Sato 2017). I will proposed a more general theory that deals with the triangular move from backward-looking rationality to forward-looking rationality to reflexivity. Finally, I will argue that the new theory will make rational choice theory more vibrant in sociology.