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Riker: Political science and rational choice

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Riker. 1989. Political science and rational choice. In Perspectives on Positive Political Economy, eds. James Alt and Kenneth Shepsle.

In John Adams's day, Adams correctly observed that political science was at least as developed as chemistry, biology, and other sciences. Since then, hard sciences have greatly surpassed political science in their development. Why has political science developed slowly?

  • Weber and Mannheim: Because social science explanations are subjective and driven by ideology. Response: So what? Even if "verstehen" (affinity for a subject) or bias leads an author to make a statement, it can still be evaluated for its truthfullness (165). These are irrelevant concerns. Besides, as Kuhn argues, even the physical sciences are driven by values. Kuhn's message was (perhaps implicitly) twofold: not only is science subjective, but it can be effective nonetheless.
  • In science, generalizations are key, because they allow prediction. History is only going to teach us something if we can generalize from it and make predictions.
  • The same for explanation. To explain something is to incorporate it into a general law. The difference: "Explanation requires much more convincing support" than generalization (167). For generalizations, you just need to make better predictions than other proposed generalizations. For explanations, you must make logical arguments.
  • Making generalizations and explanations requires putting phenomena into classes and subsets of classes. This is where the social sciences have greater difficulty than physical sciences: it is much less obvious how to group things. It is difficult to know which situations mark the beginning and end of events. (see page 169).
  • Marking the beginning and ending of an event is difficult--but failure to do so means failure to divide phenomena into classes. For one, events must begin and end with the same actors and movers--not an easy task. In social science, our intuition leads us to think of events as defined by our language--"capitalism," "civilization," "feudalism"--yet these divisions are ambiguous and serve little scientific purpose. When economics shifted from trying to explain "The wealth of nations" to explaining how prices are set, it shifted to a smaller, more easily defined event.
  • The rational choice model can be used to explain huge, ambiguous events (like Duverger's law to explain party systems and Riker's earlier work to explain federalism) by focusing on a smaller, more easily defined event (a decision).
  • The rational choice model has these elements: (1) Actors can order their preferences, strategies, and goals. (2) Actors choose one of the available alternatives to maximize happiness. Although this model could make even foolish choices fully rational, it is still not scientifically useless (even though it might be useless for studying individual psychology)--when it comes to interpreting social outcomes, as in economics, sociology, and political science, rational choice works quite well.
  • Procedural rationality (or "revealed preference") assumes nothing about goals or outcomes; substantive rationality (or "posited preference") assumes particular goals or hierarchies of them. Assuming procedural rationality allows us to infer backwards and make interesting conclusions about "tastes and institutions" (174).
  • Advantages of rational choice for social science: 1. it "permits scientists to generalize about events (choices, actually) that are as small and precise as the events of price taking" (174). 2. It permits generalizations. 3. It permits explanations (equilibria).
  • So why, then, have social sciences developed so slowly? Here's the main clue: Of the real scientific development in the last 200 years in social sciences, most of it has been in microeconomics. Why? It can focus on small, discernable events (decisions). If more people relied on rational choice, social science would develop more rapidly. Rational choice has always been there. Even when other approaches (like behavioralism) reined supreme, rational choice lurked in the background. Now it has come to the fore.