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A Comparison of Approaches to Politics: Rational Choice Theory and Behaviouralism

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A Comparison of Approaches to Politics: Rational Choice Theory and Behaviouralism

A Comparison of Approaches to Politics: Rational Choice Theory and Behaviouralism

When many people hear the world politics, they immediately get uncomfortable or look for a way to change the topic. Politics is considered an uneasy topic to discuss and a topic that can easily lead to anger and arguments. Just as ordinary citizens disagree on politics, so do political analysts and political scientists. As politics can be looked at using various approaches, political analysts and scientists often choose to adhere to a singular approach to politics, basing their arguments and conclusions on information gathered through the use of their chosen approach. In this essay, I will attempt to compare and contrast two of these political approaches: rational choice theory and behaviouralism. I will first give an overview of the two theories. Then, I will elaborate on the differences, as well as similarities between the two approaches.

Rational choice theory "arose as part of the behavioral revolution in American political science of the 1950s and 1960s [and] sought…to examine how individuals behaved, using empirical methods (Ward 1995, p.65). Rational choice theory analyzes politics based on a theory of costs versus benefits; it is heavily influenced by economics. Rational choice "assumes that individual behavior is motivated by self-interest, utility maximization, or, more simply put, goal fulfillment" (Petracca 1991, p.1). Rational choice theory assumes that when faced with a decision, individuals will choose the option that brings them the most benefits and the least amount of costs. It characterizes politics as a sort of market-place where individuals shop for options that allow them to maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs (Leftwich 2004, p. 7).

It assumes, though, 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 1995, p. 68), and that they will choose between "particular courses of action aimed at achieving desired ends under circumstances where their resources are scarce and their wants many" (Leftwich 2004, p.7). Following the rational choice theory, individuals are acting "within specific, given constraints and on the basis of the information they have about the conditions under which they are acting" (Scott 2000). According to Scott (2000), the relationship between the preferences and constraints is a technical one, best described as a "means to an end"; individuals cannot achieve everything they want (as their wants are many and resources scarce), so they must, therefore, prioritize their wants and the ways of satisfying those wants. They must also be able to foresee alternative choices, and, then, calculate the best option for them, taking into consideration all of the aforementioned aspects and factors. The ‘rational' choice, then, is for an individual to choose the option allowing for the highest level of satisfaction (Scott 2000).

There are several sub-fields within the rational choice model that are worth mentioning, as a specific model of rational choice theory must be specified when analyzing a situation. In order to specify a rational choice model, "you need to specify the rules of the game—roughly what players can and cannot do, and what they do and do not know. In practical application, this amounts to providing a stylized representation of players' roles and powers" (Ward 1995, p. 71). The first subfield worthy of mention is the game theory that deals with situations "where others' choice of strategy affects your best choice and vice versa"---it has been widely used to model nuclear deterrence and arms races (Ward 1995, p. 66). Another subfield is the social choice theory, created when "economists asked whether any satisfactory and broadly democratic way could be found of aggregating the preference of individual citizens so as to arrive at a social ranking of alternatives" (Ward 1995, p. 66). The third and last subfield of rational choice theory to be mentioned here is the public choice theory. The public choice theory centers on the "intervention of democratic governments to repair market failures" and how their intervention "often creates more problems than it solves" (Ward 1995, p.66).

Some advantages of using rational choice theory are mentioned by Hugh Ward including: forcing individuals to be explicit about assumptions that would have been left implicit else wise; forcing individuals to attend to what they want to explain and to leave out what is peripheral or unimportant; and setting up "exemplary examples of good explanation to emulate" (1995, p. 69).

Very different from the rational choice theory approach to politics is the behaviourist approach

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