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POLS 373 Foundations of Comparative Politics. Rationality, Structure, and Culture Lecture Date: October 24 and 31, 2006. Rational Choice Approach. Lead Question: What does it mean to act in a rational manner?

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Pols 373 foundations of comparative politics

POLS 373 Foundations of Comparative Politics

Rationality, Structure, and Culture Lecture

Date: October 24 and 31, 2006

Rational choice approach
Rational Choice Approach

  • Lead Question: What does it mean to act in a rational manner?

  • Answer:Those who act rationally are assumedto be acting in their own self-interest. This is the basic assumption from which most rational choice analysis begins.

Rational choice approach1
Rational Choice Approach

  • Rational choice does not absolutely require the assumption that individuals are self-interested.

  • Instead, as some rational choice scholars argue, as long as people act consistently in relation to theirpreferences, it is possible to use a rational choice approach

Rational choice approach2
Rational Choice Approach

  • Additional point: it is possible for rational choice scholars to incorporate non-egoistic considerations into their analysis

  • Doing so adds “complexity”

Rational choice approach3
Rational Choice Approach

  • Whatever assumption of rationality we use, we must also understand that rational action is complicated by a number of other factors, two of the most important of which are:

    • Strategic calculation

    • Strategic interaction

Rational choice approach4
Rational Choice Approach

  • Strategic calculation is a fancy way of saying that any decision is based on a calculation of costs and benefits

    • Example: Deciding to attend or skip class; deciding to prepare for today’s quiz

Rational choice approach5
Rational Choice Approach

  • Strategic interaction

    • Most decisions are not made in isolation

    • That is, many decisions involve two or more “players”

    • In these cases, we can say that individual decisions are generally part of an interactive process, in which one player’s decision is influenced by the existence of another player

In chess and football, strategic interaction is integral to the dynamics and outcome of the game

Rational choice approach6
Rational Choice Approach

  • What is the significance of strategic interaction?

    • When more than one player is involved, the “payoffs” (or the benefits) of any decision will depend on what the other player does or does not do.

    • To determine what is rational, therefore, each player needs to “guess” how another player might act.

The right “strategic” moves in football will lead to a touchdown; the right moves in chess will lead to checkmate.

Rational choice approach7
Rational Choice Approach

  • Basic point: Strategic calculation and strategic interaction can make “rational decision-making” much more complex than it appears on the surface

In this scenario, the final outcome (e.g, “mutually assured destruction” is the product of a complex process of rational decision-making shaped by strategic interaction.

Rational choice approach8
Rational Choice Approach

  • Additional point: Rational choice scholars tell us that we should always assume that the large majority of decisions are rational, unless proven otherwise.

  • This further means that one of the major task of rational choice is to uncover the underlying dynamicsof the decision making process, even when or especially when decisions seem irrational.

In rational choice, insane “decision-makers” such as the fictitious Hannibal Lecter, are the rare exception, rather than the rule. It is assumed that most decision-makers, especially those occupying positions of responsibility, are generally rational.

Rational choice approach9
Rational Choice Approach

  • Consider the following questions, all of which appear to have been “irrational”:

    • Why did North Korea’s Kim Jong Il decide to conduct a nuclear test?

    • Why did Saddam Hussein launch an invasion of Kuwait?

    • Why did George W. Bush launch a “pre-emptive” invasion of Iraq in 2003?

Are they all just crazy, evil, or obsessed?

Rational choice approach10
Rational Choice Approach

  • The Key Point

    • For all questions we need to identify the underlying rationality of the decision.

    • To do this, we need to consider questions of strategic calculation and strategic interaction.

Perhaps Kim, Saddam, and Bush all have/had justifiable reasons and clear objectives for their decisions …

Rational choice approach11
Rational Choice Approach

  • We also need to consider a number of other factors:

    • The quality, reliability, and amount of “information” that was available to the decision maker

      • Let’s listen to Donald Rumsfeld explain this point …

    • “Contextual factors,” outside the direct control of the decision maker, that influenced or shaped their decisions

Rational choice approach12
Rational Choice Approach

  • To repeat:

    • Contextual factors are part of the strategic environment, which is an important part of rational choice analysis

    • To put more simply, decisions don’t happen in a social, political, economic or institutional vacuum

Rational choice approach13
Rational Choice Approach

  • Important Caveat: Not all rational decisions lead to optimal results.

Rational choice approach14
Rational Choice Approach

  • Question: Why can rational decisions end up being bad decisions?

  • Answer: For all the reasons we have already discussed

Picture: The New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Sending stranded citizens to the Superdome was a bad decision.

Rational choice approach15
Rational Choice Approach

  • More on the strategic environment

    • It important to understand that the decision-making process is almost always subject to constraints

  • There are two major types of constraints:

    • (1) scarcity (or material constraints) and

    • (2) institutional constraints

Rational choice approach16
Rational Choice Approach

Key questions to ask in any analysis:

  • Who are the main actors?

  • How are their interests defined?

  • What type of constraints do they face?

  • How do the constraints influence their actions?

  • What are the other important elements of the strategic environment?

  • And others ….

Rational choice approach17
Rational Choice Approach

Repeating, restating, reiterating a key point:

  • To use the rational choice framework in an analysis, you need to go well beyond simply asserting that actors are rational.

Structural approach
Structural Approach

  • Structural approaches are based on the idea that human actions are partly and even largely determined by underlying, sometimes invisible forces, over which individuals have little or no control.

  • An analogy: Consider the structure of DNA and its affect your life

Structural approach1
Structural Approach

  • An example: If you use the phrase, “He’s a victim of circumstances,” for example, you are implicitly making a structural argument. If you are argue that “Society causes violence,” (or poverty or some other outcome) you are making a structural argument.

This images suggests that we are all bound in some ways: “Social chains” may be broken, but they are often very strong.

Structural approach2
Structural Approach

Constraints vs. Structure: What’s the difference?

  • In principle, the idea of constraints in Rational Choice is the same as “structure,” but the structural approach sees constraints as much more deeply embedded, much more powerful, and, therefore, much less subject to change than the rational choice approach

  • Consider a continuum:


    (Rational choice) (Institutionalism) (Historical-structural approaches)

Structural approach3
Structural Approach

  • Another way to think about the structural approach is to recognize that it is concerned with relationships, which themselves exist within a broader framework or system of action.

  • Examples: Consider the relationship between women and men in a patriarchal structure, the relationship of workers to capitalists (or the rich and poor) in a capitalist structure, the relationship of slaves to masters in a structure of slavery, the relationship of peasant to lord in a feudal structure, and so on.

Structural approach4
Structural Approach

  • One more way to understand the structural approach is to think of structures as deeply embedded games, which are governed by a set of unyielding rules and conventions

  • Consider the game of chess …

Structural approach5
Structural Approach

  • Structures as games

Structural approach6
Structural Approach

  • To sum up: To understand the world, and how it works …

    • you need to identify the structure or framework within which the game is played

    • You need to identify the rules of the games, the players and their roles, and so on

    • Only once you do all this, are you ready to understand/explain why things happen the way they do

Structural approach7
Structural Approach

  • The Broad Church of Structuralism

    • Not all structural arguments are the same. There are both historical and ahistorical structural arguments, and “hard” and “soft” structural arguments

    • There are structural arguments that focus exclusively on economic forces and those that do not

    • There “radical” structural arguments and “liberal” or mainstream ones

    • In sum, structuralism is a very broad church--or, as others like to say, a very “big tent”

Structural approach8
Structural Approach

Historical-Structuralism and Marx

  • Most of the important work, at least for comparativists, has been done by historical structuralists, and especially Marxists

  • We’ll discuss the Marxist perspective later in the quarter, so for now just a few basic points …

Structural approach9
Structural Approach

Historical-Structuralism and Marx

  • While Marx is dead, Marxism is not

  • Marx focused on the dynamics and consequences of capitalist development: to Marxists, capitalism is the key structural force shaping society

  • Marxism focuses on social class as the key unit of analysis

  • Most contemporary historical-structuralist approaches today--including dependency and world-systems theory--draw deeply from Marxist analysis

Cultural approaches
Cultural Approaches

  • Cultural arguments are probably the most maligned (by social scientists) and the most misused approach, especially by pundits and other “arm-chair” analysts

  • But even comparativists sometimes misuse or misunderstand “culture”

  • On the surface, there’s an obvious reason for this, which is simply that the cultural perspective seems cut-and-dry, but really is much more complicated and nuanced than it appears.

Cultural approach
Cultural Approach

Consider this question:

  • How would you use culture to explain East Asia’s rapid development or the lack of democracy in the Middle East?

Cultural approach1
Cultural Approach

  • Here’s an example of “bad” cultural argument purporting to explain the lack of democracy in the Middle East:

    • There is a reason political pluralism, individual liberty and self-rule do not exist in any of the 16 Arab nations in the Middle East. Cultural traditions there tend toward anti-intellectualism, religious zealotry and patriarchy, values which provide little fertile ground for progressive thinking. The U.N. Arab Human Development Report of 2002 noted that the Arab world translates only about 330 books annually.

  • What’s wrong with this argument?

Cultural approach2
Cultural Approach

  • The problem with the foregoing argument can be summed up very simply:It assumes that culture is essentially fixed, monolithic, and one-directional

    • Fixed: Cultures don’t ever change.

    • Monolithic: People of a “single” culture all share the same values, beliefs and practices. They’re all the same.

    • One-directional: Culture is either an obstacle to change, or it’s not; it’s either progressive or regressive.

Cultural approach3
Cultural Approach

The First Basic Lesson

  • We must begin with the assumption that culture is highly malleable, multivocal, and multidirectional (with regard to causation)

    • Malleable: Cultures can and do change, both quickly and slowly.

    • Multivocal: People of a “single” culture can and do disagree, sometimes in a fundamental manner.

    • Multidirectional: Culture can have contradictory and complex effects; in different contexts, at different times, culture may block change or it may be a source of change.

Cultural approach4
Cultural Approach

What is culture?

  • One definition, provided in the chapter is this, culture “is a worldview that explains why and how individuals and groups behave the way they do, and includes cognitive and affective [emotional] beliefs about social reality and assumptions about when, where, and how people’s in one’s culture and those in other cultures are likely to act in particular ways.”

  • More simply, we may say that culture “marks a distinctive way of life” that members of the culture share and upon which they forge a common and unique identity (note: cultures can be relatively limited; that is, they do not necessarily encompass entire societies).

Cultural approach5
Cultural Approach

Second Basic Lesson

  • Understanding the cultural approach means recognizing that the ideas, beliefs, values and identities societies embrace and by which they define themselves—among both the “leaders” and the “masses”—have power.

  • These ideas, beliefs, values and identities have power at both the individual and collective levels

Cultural approach6
Cultural Approach

  • Culture as a political resource or asset:Because “culture” is an unavoidably fluid system of meaning, which further means that it is subject to continuous “negotiation” and competing interpretations.

  • Significantly, then, the power of an ostensibly single culture can be harnessed or co-opted by opportunistic leaders and others to achieve self-serving goals.

Cultural approach7
Cultural Approach

  • Important Caveat: Culture is not tangible. It cannot be simply picked up or stored.

  • In addition, culture is, by definition, “public”: everyone has access to culture, unlike other types of material resources.

  • Lastly, despite its intersubjective and malleable nature, there is an enduring or historical substance to most any culture. Cultures cannot simply be created out of whole cloth.

  • For all these reasons, a comparativist must avoid reducing culture to a mere resource or asset.

Cultural approach8
Cultural Approach

Intersecting Forces

  • One Last Caveat: When attempting to incorporate culture into your analysis, it’s critical to understand that cultural forces rarely, if ever, can be understood without examining them within specific contexts.

  • Thus, it is more appropriate to see culture as intersecting with political, social, economic and other forces to produce specific outcomes in specific places and time periods.

Cultural approach9
Cultural Approach

  • In sum …

    • culture is complex

    • It is malleable

    • Its effects are sometimes obvious, but frequently subtle and even hidden and contradictory

    • Culture has power, but it is not always or necessarily a causal power