Is rational choice the best choice for understanding the peasant? A constructivist reading of the rational choice controversy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table Of Content's


General reservations against rational choice

The response of rational choice scholars

A constructivist reading of the debate
a) the meaning of rationality and the problem of individual choice
b) the meaning of culture and the problem of collective choice
c) the meaning of science

The use of combined effort: a case study of the peasantry




Imagine two blind wanderers colliding in the forest. What do you expect them to do? Do they sit down and evaluate what they are, by experiencing their own self through the other? Or do they start to weigh their choices what to do with this new “constraint” to their existence? A difficult question, as you never will be able to figure out what they did first, by interpreting their actions. Worse, even if you go ask them, they possibly will not be able to explain. Now imagine yourself in the extraordinary position to play god and to decide them what to do. Wouldn’t you tell them to take each other’s hand and to rely on their partner’s skills to get out of the forest?

Today, constructivism and rational choice theory are in a similar situation like those two blind wanderers. Although both universalist in character, they share one common base of analysis, which is the individual and its rational perception of the world.

In this essay I will try on the one hand to critically examine the reservations held against rational choice by many anthropologists, by offering a constructivist analysis of the debate, on the other hand to help bridging the gap between constructivism and rational choice theory, which is, in my eyes, unnecessarily kept wide by scholars of both disciplines, what led to the emergence of flawed models of rationality like ‘bounded rationality’ in the struggle of rational choice scholars to defend their assumptions. By arguing that models of rational choice are a legitimate variety in the broader context of construed attempts to explain social phenomena, I will show that it should be possible to hypothesize political action by rational choice models without curtailing the meaning of rationality.

As empirical variable I chose the political behavior of the peasantry in Indian villages, as the peasant seems to be the anthropologists’ stereotype for culture’s dominance over actors’ preferences. For that reason I will mainly use Mitra’s article “Ballot-Box and Local Power: Elections in an Indian Village” (Mitra 1999, fn. 12), to highlight the possible synergies of constructivism and rational choice theory on the critical edges of their approaches. Nonetheless it will be necessary to make a quick excursion into Kant’s moral philosophy to expose the obscurity in our modern concept of rationality, which I consider responsible for the current dispute about the legitimacy of rational choice theory.

The essay will be divided into three parts. First I will give a brief overview of the various critiques held against rational choice theory and the response of rational choice scholars to these critiques. Second I will try to provide a constructivist analysis of this debate, demonstrating their wrong assumptions and conclusions by tracing the reason for these misinterpretations to the history of the meaning of rationality in the western context. Third, I will give an empirical example of where a collaboration of rational choice and constructivism could be useful.

General reservations against rational choice

In her article “Is Rational Choice the Best Choice for Robert Bates? An Anthropologist’s Reading of Bates Work”, whose title not without reason gave name to my essay, Pauline Peters (Peters 1993) offers the full scale of general resentments against rational choice. By imputing rational choice to be a neoclassical approach, she concludes that the problem of rational choice lies in its concept of the ‘rational individual’, “insisting that one logic underlies all human action” (Peters 1993, p. 1064). Thus she states that rational choice is not able to “illuminate social process” (p. 1064) and is only successful, where “actions of a set of social persons have been interpreted as challenge and counter-challenge, manipulation and strategy in the context of a known or explicated set of social structures, cultural meanings, and resources” (p. 1065). In other words, Peters conceives rational choice as only able to provide an ex post analysis of a situational logic used at one specific point in time. For her this means to extort the human being from its cultural context, treating it as a pre-cultural individual without a history (p. 1065), while culture itself is reduced to a “set of traditional constraints” (p. 1072).

Moreover Peters argues that, by reducing action to individual self-interest, rational choice represents a typically ‘western’, neoclassical and imperial way of reasoning, which is inappropriate for communitarian and altruistic non-western societies. Therefore she concludes that rational choice is not able to explain moral and religious behavior or the importance of kinship (p. 1066). This ‘thin sense’ of rationality lacks of morality and neglects people’s wish to act righteous (p. 1068). So institutions, she criticizes, are more than rules and mechanisms to reduce ‘free-riding’ and to achieve economic gain. Far more they should be seen as “a medium for all social action and discourse, including the economic” (p. 1073), embedded in cultural context.

Peters concludes her article with the remark that “the transactionalist model in political anthropology has been seen to produce a nightmare picture of perpetual conflict full of the constant struggle, competition, dirty tactics of strategizing individuals”, reflecting a one-dimensional, “all or nothing world”, inappropriately “retooled to deal with social process” (p. 1074). It seems that Peters perceives rational choice not only as inappropriate, but also as dangerous to deal with, in the analysis of social process.

A more serious attempt to discredit rational choice theory was made by Donald Green and Ian Shapiro in their book “Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory” (Green/Shapiro 1994), who focused on the empirical and methodological shortcomings of rational choice, rather than on its ‘immoral’ logic like Pauline Peters. By asking what rational choice literature has contributed to the general understanding of politics, they come to the assessment that, even if sophisticated models of explanation were produced, rational choice was not able to do more than to “restate existing knowledge in rational choice terminology” (p. 6). They trace these shortcomings to the systematic pathology of the rational choice approach, which is to be ‘theory driven’ rather than ‘problem driven’ and therefore constitutes “a debilitating syndrome in which theories are elaborated and modified in order to save their universal character” (p.7).

Green and Shapiro recommend rational choice theorists to engage in intensified empirical research, tracking the behavior of ‘real’ individuals by conducting surveys designed to uncover the role of costs and benefits on the decision making behavior, and to test these analysis against the best alternative explanation won from normative, cultural, psychological and institutional theories.

The response of rational choice scholars

It can be consistently held that rational choice analysts responded to criticism either by qualifying the reach of their assumptions or by defending the universalist approach of rational choice theory. While the first led to the decline of its explanatory and predictive skills, the latter response essentially contributed to the ‘randomization’ of political outcomes dissonant to their theoretical assumptions. On the other hand we saw an increased desire to include cultural and psychological variables in their analysis, as well as an attempt to morally legitimate ‘economic’ rational behavior. So the developments in rational choice theory pretty well reflect the critique. Habitual behavior has been tried to be integrated by the ‘D-term’ (Riker/Ordeshook, 1968), irrationality and the influence of culture have been tried to be expressed by the concepts of ‘nested games’ and ‘added value’ (Tsebelis, 1991/97), while the attacks on the concept of rationality have been countered by the concept of ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1997).

Robert Bates argues that the critics all too often “elide individualism with materialism and selfishness” and emphasizes that rational choice theory does not “require that people be selfish” and therefore includes altruistic behavior: “as a means of explaining behavior, it requires only that individuals choose consistently in accord with the values that they hold, be they selfish, saintly or whatever” (Bates, 1993, p. 1078). In his opinion rational choice is explicitly non-isolationist and expects people to act interdependent and to be constrained by their cultural background. But for him this does not imply that utility is necessarily maximized at the expense of others (p. 1078). Moreover he argues that, because the assumptions made by rational choice are obviously universalist, “this approach demands field work” (p. 1978) and thus the formalization of research leads to better explanative results.

Fiorina, Ordeshook and Shepsle take a similar stand in their rebuttal of Green and Shapiro’s critique. Even though they argue from different standpoints, they all come to similar conclusions, telling that Green and Shapiro seem to confuse political science with natural science, imputing rational choice a claim, which it cannot fulfill. Most interesting, by comparing political science with engineering, Ordeshook distinguishes between ‘first principles’ and the ‘solution of practical issues’, hinting at the difference between general assumptions and their methodological appliance for the practice of research (Ordeshook 1995).

A constructivist reading of the debate

Seen from a constructivist position, the debate centers around three fundamental questions:

a) what is the meaning of rationality?
b) what is the meaning of culture?
c) what is the meaning of science?

This is somehow surprising, as it should have been legitimate to expect a scientific debate to deal primarily with the values and shortcomings of a scientific approach. But with respect to rationality and culture, the critics seem to talk about ‘apples’, while rational choice scholars seem to talk about ‘eggs’. Although they are using the same categories and the same language, they don’t seem to have the same perception of rationality, respectively culture. This necessarily leads to a confusion of their paradigms. To say it in other words: they don’t really know, what they are talking about! Here lies the strength of the constructivist approach, as constructivism permanently argues that they cannot know. As the concept of rationality is a human construction, they can only have a vague image of what is rational. But they argue, as if they knew exactly what it is, dividing rationality in a ‘thick’, ‘broad’ or ‘thin’ sense to make it fit their theories. It is obvious that these kinds of rationality don’t exist outside these concepts. So rational choice scholars rebutting critics by arguing that every model is ‘theory driven’ are absolutely right, but this doesn’t necessarily legitimize their approach. Rather it should be useful to reveal, why the scientific conceptualization of rationality is flawed. Therefore it is necessary to take a look at the construction of the meaning of rationality in the western context.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Is rational choice the best choice for understanding the peasant? A constructivist reading of the rational choice controversy
University of Heidelberg  (Südasieninstitut Abteilung Politische Wissenschaft)
Rationalität und Politik in Südasien: Kultur, Kontext und vergleichende Politikwissenschaft
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Diskussion über die methodischen Schnittstellen zwischen Rational Choice und konstruktivistischen Ansätzen bei der Bewertung des Einflusses kultureller Variablen auf den Entscheidungsprozess von Individuen.
Rationalität, Politik, Südasien, Kultur, Kontext, Politikwissenschaft
Quote paper
Jochen Gottwald (Author), 2003, Is rational choice the best choice for understanding the peasant? A constructivist reading of the rational choice controversy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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