Rational choice theory has been dramatically transformed in the past few decades. Many economists are abandoning the sparse mathematical models that dominated neoclassical economics in favor of the more complete and nuanced pictures of institutions, organizations, and action advocated by the “new institutionalism” (North, 1981, 1990; Williamson, 1975) and “behavioral economics” (Thaler, 1991). Rational choice theory in political science and sociology has taken further steps in that direction by developing much broader arguments at both the micro and macro levels. The intellectual diffusion of rational choice is best described as a complex form of assimilation, in which ideas from economics have both shaped and been shaped by their new disciplinary contexts. We believe the new theoretical model that is emerging from this process – which we call a sociological rational choice theory (in contrast to the traditional neoclassical approach) – has much to contribute to political sociology.
This chapter has three main goals. First, we outline the core features of sociological rational choice theory. Second, we summarize the contributions of rational choice theory to political sociology in three areas: the analysis of institutions, culture, and history. As rational choice has only recently made significant inroads in political sociology, we include seminal works from political science and economics in our discussions. Third, we discuss the scope of rational choice theory, arguing that it will be useful for many but not all problems of interest to political sociologists.