Microlevel Empirical-Analytical Approaches in the Social Sciences

This post covers the two micro-level approaches in the social sciences. These approaches are rational choice theory and symbolic interactionism.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory (ACT) is a powerful tool in making sense of why people act or behave in the way they do. Nonetheless, it is not a comprehensive theory that can fully account for one’s behavior or action. According to Elster 1989 (in Ward 2002, 65), “(t)he essence of rational choice theory is that ‘when faced with several courses of action, people usually do what they believe is likely to have the best overall outcome.” Individuals’ actions are based on their preferences, beliefs, and feasible strategies (Ward 2002). But as Ward (2002, 65) observed, rational choice theory “needs other perspectives to help explain why individuals have the interests they do, how they perceive those interests, and the distribution of rules, powers, and social roles that determine the constraints on their actions.”

The beginnings of rational choice theory (RCT) can be traced back to the behavioral revolution in American political science of the 1950s and the 1960s (Ward 2002) instigated by behavioralists or scholars following the behavioral tradition or persuasion, and hence, the name behavioral movement.

The behavioral movement was strongly influenced by the positivist tradition in the social sciences, in particular, by the writings of August Comte in the nineteenth century and the logical positivism of the ‘Vienna Circle’ in the 1920s. Behavioralists adopt the view of positivism about the nature of empirical theory and explanation. In contrast to other social scientists, behavioralists believe that: “(a) observable behavior, whether it is at the level of the individual or the social aggregate, should be the focus of analysis; and (b) any explanation of that behavior should be susceptible to empirical testing” (Sanders 2002, 45).

The RCT has become a dominant approach to political science at least in the US. But while it traces its beginnings to the behavioral movement, “rational choice theory draws on the methodology of economics in contrast to behavioralists who drew on sociology or psychology” (Ward 2002, 65).

Using similar methods as in standard microeconomics, it is the economists who carried out largely early work in rational choice theory. The most important tool used is the game theory. Central to the game theory is strategic interdependence, a situation where others’ choice of strategy affects an individual’s best choice and vice versa (Ward 1995).

Rational choice theorists’ explanations of individual actions and the outcomes they lead to are anchored on three pillars, namely, (1) strategies or courses of action open and available to them, (2) their preferences over the end-states to which combinations of actions chosen by the various players lead, and, (3) their beliefs about important parameters such as others’ preferences. In making predictions, rational choice theory proceeds by applying logic and mathematics to a set of assumptions. These assumptions may include axioms about rational behavior as well as auxiliary assumptions about the context that players find themselves in (Ward 2002).

A central feature of rational choice theories is the predominant focus on the individual as the actor making the decisions (Lalman et al. 1993, 81). An assumption of the mainstream variant of RCT is that “individuals have all the rational capacity, time, and emotional detachment necessary to choose the best course of action, no matter how complex the choice” (Ward 2002; 1995). Rational choice theorists try to explain political phenomena by using the behavioral conjecture that actors are rational, that is, they make purposive, goal-seeking choices based on their own preferences, are able to rank alternatives from best to worst, and choose according to what is best for them given their own preferences or tastes (Lalman et al. 1993, 79).

The quote below captures succinctly this feature of rational choice theory.

Individuals are assumed to be able to rank-order outcomes or, .. . actions. Thus, for any pair of alternatives a and b they can say whether a is better than b, b is better than a, or the two outcomes are indifferent. Also preferences satisfy the transitivity property. This implies that if a is better than b and b is better than c, a is better than c. To say that a is preferred to b means no more than that a would be chosen above b, all references to utility or other ‘unobservable’ mental phenomena being seen as inessential. To get nontrivial explanations preferences are typically assumed to be stable over time. Then rational individuals choose one of the highest-ranked feasible actions/outcomes available to them (Ward 2002, 68). 

Nonetheless, rationality in itself is silent about whether preferences of an individual are benevolent or evil. RCT does not explain where preferences come from and how these are mediated or negotiated. RCT only assumes that individuals pursue self-serving goals by doing a rational calculation of what is strategically best among alternatives to achieve their goals. This implies a cost-benefit analysis of alternatives and strategies.

As it exemplifies the deductive-nomological approach to explanation (Ward 2002), RCT enjoys the advantages associated with this method. Some of these advantages include:

It forces you to be explicit about assumptions that are often left implicit in verbal arguments.

It provides a ‘positive heuristic’ (Lakatos 1978)—a set of categories that help in constructing explanations, a set of exemplary examples of good explanation to emulate, and suggestions about fruitful lines of research.

It provides a unified framework of explanation across different fields of the social sciences and across subdisciplines, allowing cross-fertilization of ideas and a viewpoint from which common patterns can be seen across diverse phenomena.

Even in circumstances in which action is irrational, it provides a standard against which action can be judged and indicates variables that might lead to departures from rationality (Mansbridge 1990b, 20 in Ward 2002, 70).

Nonetheless, RCT has been the target of criticisms not only from political science but also from other disciplines in the social sciences. Ward (1995 & 2002) grouped these criticisms into four modes, namely, (1) the ‘heretics” critique who wish to emphasize bounded rationality; (2) the sociologists’ critique of RCT’s tendency to play down the social structure and holistic modes of explanations; (3) the psychologists’ critique of RCTs main assumption that individuals often act rationally; and (4) critique from mainstream political science on the basis of the implausibility of the assumptions made and the predictive failures of the model.

Drawing on the work of Herbert Simon on bounded rationality, some rational choice theorists question the highly implausible assumptions of RCT about the rational capacity of individuals. Given limited information, time, and cognitive capacity to process information, Simon believes that individuals use standard operating procedures as a heuristic device and as a shorthand guide to rational action. For Simon, an action is procedurally rational if it is based on beliefs that are reasonable given the context the actor is in (Ward 2002 & 1995).

Since individuals can not have all the rational capacity, time, and emotional detachment necessary to choose the best course of action, individuals resort to a range of heuristics in dealing with any problems. Individuals can copy the methods used by those who are more successful. They can rely on communication and others’ reputations for trustworthiness and adopt norms of appropriate behavior which there are intangible costs to violating (Ward 2002).

In contrast to rational choice theorists, sociologists believe “that individual behavior is largely a function of social structures” and not based on individual choice (Ward 2002 & 1995, 74). Sociologists find it implausible that individuals are fully autonomous. For instance, structural factors can shape decisions made by individuals. These may include social norms, ideologies, as well as rules and conventions.

Sociologists recognize that individual behavior can be driven by social norms understood as deriving from society’s need for system integration as well as by structures of belief, such as ideologies. They argue that action can only be seen as rational or irrational within the context of a particular system of meaning, hence, symbolic and ritual action become important in human actions (Ward 2002).

Even collective actors in processes of deliberation with the end goal of achieving given ends are influenced by structural factors. The processes that produce decisions and actions of collective actors can be strongly influenced by “rules and conventions used to categorize problems; paradigmatic filters biasing the use of incoming information; limited efforts to search for available solutions; pressures to appear consistent, even at the cost of failures of goal attainment; the upgrading of means into ends in themselves; and other organizational pathologies (March & Olsen 1984 and Hindess 1988 in Ward 2002, 78).”

The psychologists critique of RCT attacks the latter’s assumption that individuals often act rationally. They typically argue “that individuals often do not act rationally in the standard sense and are motivationally and psychologically complex” (Ward 2002, 72; Ward 1995, 79). Motives of individuals do not necessarily reflect self-serving interests since individuals frequently act altruistically in political life (Ibid. 79).

Moreover, psychologists also attack RCT’s claim that individuals have all the emotional detachment necessary to choose the best course of action. Emotions and unconscious drives make the level of detachment highly unlikely. Individuals often make decisions based on consistency with past actions, reduction of strains within the individual’s belief system (cognitive dissonance) or normative orientation than through a calculation of the most efficient means to given ends (Ibid. 80).

Finally, many political scientists point to the poor empirical record of RCT (Ward 2002) and its implausible assumptions and failure in predictive terms (Ward, 1995). They argue that many of the variables in rational choice models, notably preferences, are not directly measurable, and that rational choice theorists, in their desire to generate a universally applicable model of politics, evade and ignore contrary evidence (Ward 2002). 

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological framework that focuses on the different meanings individuals attach to objects, peoples, and interactions as well as the corresponding behaviors that reflect those meanings and/ or interpretations. It is a framework that actualizes the nature of humans to make sense of their actions and interactions through external cues from their everyday life and environment (Vejar 2015). George Herbert Mead was an influential figure in the field of symbolic interactionism. Gestures, according to him, are important in communication. When we interact with others, our posture, tone of voice, voice inflections, as well as hand and facial movements convey significance. They can either accentuate or contradict that which we are verbally stating (Vejar 2015).

Mead’s central concept is the self, “the part of an individual’s personality composed of self-awareness and self-image” (Macionis 2007, 124). The process of self-discovery or self-development is enacted by the usage of gestures threefold through the play stage, the game stage, and through a stage called generalized other. The term ‘generalized other’ refers to “widespread cultural norms and values we use as a reference in evaluating ourselves” (Macionis 2007, 126). Verja (2015, 3-4) describes each stage.

In the play stage, young children identify with key figures in their environments, such as the mother or father, as well as occupational or gender-specific roles to which they have been exposed (e.g., police officer, nurse) and replicate the behavioral norms that correspond with such roles. A young boy might sit on the edge of the bathroom counter, attentive to the way in which his father goes about shaving, and emulate this action by scraping the edge of a blunt object across his own face.

During the game stage, children extrapolate from the vantage point of the roles they have simulated by assuming the roles that their counterparts concurrently undertake. While engaging in a team sport, for example, it behooves a child to conceptualize the roles of his teammates and opponents in order to successfully maneuver throughout the game within his own particular position. As people developmentally evolve, their anticipation of the generalized other helps them construct morally sound and appropriate behavior, such as the employee who arrives promptly to work in order to avoid scrutiny from his colleagues. Moreover, self-identity continuously fluctuates between the /, which is the impulsive, automatic, “knee-jerk” responses we have to stimuli (Lane, 1984), and the me, which is the socially refined reactions that were instilled through the process of adopting social standards (Baldwin, 1988).

There are three overarching premises that constitute symbolic interactionism. These three premises are outlined below with examples as concrete illustrations.

The first assumes that meaning is an important element of human existence, a concept that is both subjective and individualistic, and that people consequently act in accordance with the meanings they construe. Imagine the scholar who, upon drawing on the concept of a book (i.e., object ), generates stimulating and intellectual constructs. Meanwhile, someone who struggles academically may harbor feelings of fear and resentment toward that object. A dyadic conversation (i.e., interaction) may consist of one person disclosing emotionally-laden personal accounts to a person who is furrowing his brow. Interpretations derived from such a nonverbal gesture can be varied, and the speaker might either conclude that he has an attentive audience, or that he is being critiqued. Another example shows how the role of “parent” (i.e., people) might generate the image of a warm, nurturing, and supportive role model to one person, while eliciting visualizations of an autocratic and punitive figure to another.

A second premise asserts that people identify and mold their unique symbolic references through the process of socialization. This postulation suggests that people are not inherently equipped with interpretive devices that help navigate through the complex realms of human behavior. Through the act of establishing an intricate series of relationships they come to certain symbolic determinations, which create a sturdy platform on which subsequent behavior is structured. When a young child engages in pleasant behavior that causes his parent to smile, he equates the concept of “good behavior,” with that of “a specific facial expression resulting in an upturned mouth.” As the child encounters pleasurable deeds throughout the course of his life, he will be prompted to implement the symbolic demonstration (i.e., a smile) he initially corresponded with such acts.

Behaviors are adopted through an obscurely subtle learning process, and the third tenet of symbolic interactionism affirms that there is a cultural dimension that intertwines the symbolic “educational” development. For example, in conversation, the amount of physical space in which we distance our bodies has culturally symbolic significance (Rothbaum, Morelli, Pott, & Liu-Constant, 2000). Likewise, greetings in the form of demonstrative affection, such as hugs and kisses can be warmly regarded by one culture, and deemed as the obstruction of personal space and the crossing of inappropriate boundaries by another (Graham, 2007) (Vejar 2015, 1-2).

As a theoretical perspective. symbolic interactionism is not known for homogeneity, parsimony or consensus among its practitioners. Four of the most prominent contemporary varieties of symbolic interactionism include the Chicago School, the Iowa School, the dramaturgical approach, and ethnomethodology. All these four schools of thought or orientations share the view that human beings construct their realities in a process of social interaction, and agree on the methodological implication of such, that is, the necessity of “getting inside” the reality of the actor in order to understand what is going on (Gecas 1980, 1458).

Nonetheless, the four varieties of symbolic interactionism differ significantly in terms of purpose and methodology. The most glaring difference exists between the Chicago School with a positivist orientation and the Iowa School with a humanistic orientation. Such difference reflects a basic divergence in purpose and methodology in the discipline of Sociology (Gecas 1980).

Following a positivist orientation and with Thomas Kuhn as its chief progenitor, the Chicago School aims at prediction and unity of method for all the sciences. Adopting a humanistic orientation, the Iowa school under the influence of Herbert Blumer strives for understanding and a distinctive method for sociology, one that is based on “sympathetic introspection.”The two other contemporary varieties of symbolic interactionism, namely, Goffman’s dramaturgical approach and Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, are both more aligned with the positivist Chicago School (Gecas 1980, 1458).

Symbolic interaction has both “insider” “and outsider” critics. Insiders’ criticism focus on the method and the central concepts of symbolic interactionism, particularly the ambiguity of major concepts used particularly the concept of the “self.” These criticisms attack the utility of symbolic interactionism in the production of cumulative and generalizable knowledge. Outsiders’ critique, on the other hand, highlights the a structural bias in symbolic interactionism. This bias refers to the claim that symbolic interactionism’s perspective is ahistorical, noneconomic, and a limited view of social power and social organization (Gecas 1980, 1459).

The disagreement between the Chicago School and the Iowa School reflects not only the positivist-humanistic debate in symbolic interactionism, but by extension, the objectivist-subjectivist dichotomy and debate not only in Sociology but also in the Social Sciences.

The debate between subjectivist (humanist) and objectivist (positivist or neopositivist) orientations toward human behavior and social processes is long-standing. The debate has been between those who focus on the (humanistic) subject matter of the social sciences and those who call for the same (scientific) method for all the sciences, both natural and social. The debate has not only divided each of the social sciences, it has also divided many of the subfields within these sciences, subfields such as social psychology (Warshay & Warshay 1987).