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Homo Sociologicus: Do We Need Him/Her?


London School of Economics

Until quite recently rational action or choice theory (spawned by Homo Economicus) had gained few adherents amongst those who struggle to find adequate foundational ideas for a sociological theory. Things now look more promising, however; Coleman has given us a truly remarkable work, and a number of journals are beginning to carry articles informed by a rational choice perspective (1990). For many, of course, the entire edifice of sociological theory rests upon assumptions, either that human actions are neither self-regarding nor rational (i.e., not optimally chosen) or that such actions are of peripheral interest because human actors are propelled by Durkheimian structural forces beyond their control-thus at least one version of Homo Sociologicus. Yet for others, the vocabulary of action and motive provides only post hoc rationalizations, and all we are entitled to examine are the entrails of a rationalizing discourse. I suspect, however, that one reason why rational action theory is experiencing a new lease on life is precisely because these various approaches, when stripped of their verbal pretensions and quasi-philosophical veneer, appear to be rapidly leading us nowhere. Although it would not be prudent to claim that rational choice theory is likely to solve all the theoretical puzzles a sociologist might pose, in my view it must be given pride of place. In the space available I cannot make a sustained case for this assertion. Rather I have chosen to concentrate upon one issue, namely the relationship between explanations of human action from (on the one hand) the precepts of rational action theory (RAT) and (on the other) from the constraint or facilitation of normative expectations. I take this route for a number of reasons: first, because for many, the most compelling mode of sociological explanation is in terms of social norms (i.e., normative expectations); second, because Coleman has argued that action compliant with social norms can be subsumed under RAT; and third, because Elster has argued to the contrary (1989). If Coleman is right and Elster wrong, then the case for at least one conception of Homo Sociologicus is undermined. Elster makes several claims, as follows: (1) Social norms are to be distinguished from moral, legal, and private norms, and also from conventions (in the sense of conventional equilibria), habits, and traditional actions. Thus they stand apart as an independent category with their own defining characteristics. (2) Normatively compliant actions, as opposed to rationally optimal actions, are not evaluated in terms of their consequences. They are not instrumental or conditioned upon future states of affairs. (3) Normatively compliant actions characteristically are emotionally charged in the sense that their violation will lead to states of negative affect, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and so on (generally internal sanctions). (4) Normatively compliant action cannot be derived (is not determined by) selfinterest. More generally social norms have "an independent motivating power." This is called the "reality" of social norms.
Sociological Theory 9:2 Fall 1991



(5) Normatively compliant action is not a variety of optimal (rational) action, from either an individualistic or a collective standpoint. This is called the "autonomy" of social norms. I shall argue that there are good reasons to doubt the exclusivity which these claims cumulatively build for the role of social norms. It is useful, first of all, to distinguish between those individuals who "hold" or promote a social norm (i.e., those who have a preference or expectation that the norm should be obeyed-usually in some specified circumstances and by designated actors) and those individuals whose actions comply (at least in part) with the norm in question. The two sets of individuals may or may not be coincidental or overlap. From an RAT perspective, there is a question as to the rationality of both the holders and those who are compliant. It is the ambition of the theory to make the actions of both fall under its precepts. If this effort is to be entirely successful, the theory would have to establish that (1) the existence (genesis) of normative expectations can be accounted for by assuming a) self-regarding, b) optimally chosen, and c) individual actions; and (2) the actions of both those who hold or promote and those who comply with normative expectations can be accounted for by the same three assumptions. It is useful to keep (1) and (2) separate from each other because it may be possible to achieve a full RAT account of one but not the other. It appears that RAT answers to (2) are achieved comparatively easily; the genetic question proves more problematic. It will be entirely in accord with the self-regarding interests of individuals to comply with the normative expectations of others if either d) they are subject to credible threats and/or trustworthy promises, or e) violation induces intraindividual ("psychic") costs that tip the expected utility appropriately. Within this framework, the calculation of internal cost-benefit ratios, derivative of the strength of the individual's normative conviction, counts towards the conception of self-regarding interest. Both mechanisms (d) and (e) are widely recognized and understood, and there is no a priori reason to suppose that assumptions (1) (a), (b), and (c) cannot achieve the necessary explanatory closure. The existence of internalized norms and the capacity to issue credible threats or trustworthy promises are each exogenous in this scheme of things; no doubt for many, it is these which require explanation. Endogenizing the existence of internalized norms, however, takes us to question (1). Notwithstanding, much can be accomplished without taking this route. Elster says that "if some people successfully exploit norms for self interested purposes it can only be because others are willing to let norms take precedence over self interest" (1989). But surely it is possible to make this claim only if we ignore the impact of internalized norms upon intraindividual cost-benefit ratios. Once again, the proper province for such enquiries is found under the auspices of question (1). If we turn now to those who "promote" normative expectations, is there any sense in which we must surrender the assumptions of either self-regard or optimality on their behalf? Clearly if the promoter has internalized the norm (with respect to the actions of others), no a priori problem seems to arise. The net calculation of utility can lead her to rationally expect others to comply with a norm. If only external sanctions are involved, however, then (as Elster recognizes) things are not likely to be as straightforward. In the unlikely world bereft of normative internalization, A will comply with a norm either because it reflects her interests or because of the credible threats and/or trustworthy promises issued by B. But why does B so back a normative expectation?



The obvious answer, of course, is because the norm enshrines B's self-regarding interests. Marxism's theory of norms, for instance, takes this simple form. Yet it might be that B promotes the norm because of potential sanctions' (threats and promises) on the part of a third actor, C (consider, for example, hierarchies of sanctioning authority). We may conceive of metanorms (i.e., norms that take the ungainly form-sanctions of those who fail to sanction others who violate basic normative expectations). In the absence of cyclical sanctioning structures (which are not impossible-e.g., some cooperatives), backward induction must produce a promoter of metanorms who does so irrespective of any threat of sanctions upon himself. Consequently, as Elster puts it, "some sanctions must be performed for motives other than the fear of being sanctioned" (1989, p. 133). This is a rather tortuous point, but RAT will fail if indeed such a "prime mover" cannot be intellectually positioned so as to embrace the ultimate norm (and thus the derivative metanorm(s)) from a self-regarding standpoint. I believe, however, that this is empirically improbable. Thus the basic assumptions of RAT, in my view, are likely to hold up fairly well in examining action that is fashioned by institutionalized normative expectations. Question (2) is altogether the more tricky. The first essential point of note about any RAT account of the genesis of normative expectations is that it cannot, from the start, invoke internalization and any associated psychic costs and benefits. These must necessarily come later. Thus it might very well be within the compass of my rational self-regarding interest both to promote and to comply with the fine-grained expectations of social etiquette, given the likely opprobrium, shame, embarrassment, and so on consequent upon any violation on my part. But is the genesis of these selfsame expectations explicable in RAT terms? Or, to take another example-of which I have implicitly made extensive use-can RAT precepts (net of any normative internalization) explain the norms of "keeping promises" and "delivering threats" that underlie the existing normative expectations in any social system? These latter issues, of course, have been debated widely by economists because Pareto-improving voluntary exchange of goods and services is usually dependent upon the prior existence of norms that promote both promise keeping the respect for property rights (Rowe 1989). Despite Elster's claim to the contrary, following Coleman (1990) and the intellectual traditions he draws upon, it is possible to see the broad shape of a general rational theory of the genesis of normative expectations. Such expectations will emerge where a) individuals' encounters are repeated and b) their actions (constitutive of the interaction) have external effects, so that individual and collective optimization do not generally coincide. It is well known, for instance, that norms of "promise keeping" can be conceived and modeled by a sequential game with the same ranking of payoffs as in the prisoner's dilemma. The second mover, by making trustworthy promises to play the cooperative strategy (e.g., to complete the exchange at a later date), is able to promote normative expectations about her own action in the mind of the first mover and thus to increase the likelihood of cooperation by the first mover (Schelling 1960), leading to a Pareto optimum. Notice that the causal direction in the theory runs from an individual voluntarily establishing a normative expectation of her own action in the minds of others-not, as in many "sociological" theories, in the opposite direction, where normative constraint supposedly is causally operative. Of course there would be no rational grounds for the second mover to keep a promise in any single encounter, and indeed no rational grounds for the first mover to expect the second mover to honor any such promise. Each will play the dominant



strategy rationally, procuring a Nash outcome. With indefinite encounters, however, there is some likelihood that normative expectations will arise. The strength of this sort of framework results from the fact that it predicts an absence of normative expectations where encounters are nonrecurrent. No doubt, with exchanges that manifestly start from very unequal points, any normative expectations would have to be buttressed rapidly by credible threats whose imposition would have an almost identical logical structure. Elster perhaps would accept all this but still would resist the conclusion that RAT precepts can account for the origin of all social norms. Consider, for instance, the norms of social etiquette. Elster thinks we are all worse off because of these (net of shame and such)-they are in no sense Pareto-functional. The argument that he uses against the standard RAT interpretation of their originnamely that they serve to support a social identity and to exclude outsiders-is dismissed upon two grounds: first, their complexity (redundancy)-they appear to be far too elaborate for their supposed (rational) purposes; second, their appearance in low-status groups, which have no need to protect their boundaries against interlopers. "It is not clear," Elster argues, "why the working class as a whole would benefit from the fact that it contains an infinite variety of local subcultures" (1989). Surely this is correct, but why should we require from our theory this sort of global constraint? Indeed, only if we are prepared to consider the "working class" as a theoretically relevant category would we be inclined to construct the problem in this way and ask for classwide optimality. The origin of the fine-grained structure of "working-class" social norms may be perfectly explicable in terms of rationally based local recurrent interactions, where local demarcations, rivalries, and such are of prime significance. I can see no good reason against adopting this perspective as a working assumption. Of course, as circumstances change and different patterns of recurrent interaction emerge, existing normative expectations will become redundant. Also, because by now they are invested with the emotions of internalized norms, they may persist and appear to be connectively suboptimal. Yet none of this counts against the RAT interpretation of what is going on. Should we not be more inventive in trying to chart evolutions of this nature through the RAT perspective, rather than turning prematurely to a Homo Sociologicus?

Coleman, James Samuel. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap. Elster, Jon. 1989. The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rowe, Nicholas. 1989. Rules and Institutions. Hemel Hempstead: Phillip Alan. Schelling, Thomas. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Selten, Reinhard. 1975. "Re-Examination of the Perfectness Concept for Equilibrium Points in Extensive Games." International Journal of Game Theory 4: 25-55.