Collective and State Violence in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Limits of Classical Rational-Choice Theory

By Brym, Robert | Canadian Review of Sociology, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Collective and State Violence in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Limits of Classical Rational-Choice Theory


Brym, Robert, Canadian Review of Sociology


RATIONAL CHOICE AND COLLECTIVE AND STATE VIOLENCE

THIS PAPER DRAWS out an important theoretical implication of a recently completed research project on the Palestinian insurgency and Israeli state response over the period 1987 to 2007. It demonstrates empirically the limits of a narrow, market-based form of rational-choice theory--hereafter, "classical" rational-choice theory--and the advantages of incorporating cultural and historical contexts in explaining patterns of collective and state violence.

The first rational-choice theorists were economista. They asserted that the principle of utility maximization best explains all forms of human behavior. Assuming general preferences for wealth, power, and prestige in all human populations, they viewed the social scientist's job as the discovery of how people seek to maximize benefits and minimize costs in their marital, criminal, religious, political, and other affairs. From the point of view of classical rational-choice theory, it is unnecessary to pay attention to culturally and historically grounded preferences in explaining human behavior because tastes and values are similar among all people and remain stable over time (Stigler and Becker 1977:76). This means in effect that the market is the only important institution.

More recently, sociological rational-choice theorists have emphasized that values other than utility maximization can govern human behavior. They have called for more research on the cultural and historical origins of such values. For example, 15 years ago, in a widely cited literature review, rational-choice sociologists Michael Hechter and Satoshi Kanazawa (1997) complained that "rational choice [theory] has been mute on the origin and nature of individual values ... and the preferences derived from them" (p. 208). Accordingly, they identified the study of the historical and cultural origins of values and preferences as one of the three most pressing problems that rational-choice researchers had to confront. Some sociologists responded to their call. Seven years ago, reviewing relevant literature in political sociology, Edgar Kiser and Shawn Bauldry (2005) reported that sociological rational-choice theorists are increasingly "incorporating institutions, culture, and history into their models" (p. 174).

Despite Kiser and Bauldry's encouraging update, the classical model remains deeply entrenched in many fields of inquiry. As Brent Simpson (2007) notes in a recent and sympathetic review of the field:

   Rational choice theory is officially silent on what actors value.
   In practice, however, rational choice theorists almost always
   assume actors are motivated by self-interest, narrowly defined to
   include only material wealth (and, less commonly, power and
   prestige). In fact, the assumption that actors seek to maximize
   their wealth and nothing else is so common in rational choice
   approaches that many believe narrow self-interest to be axiomatic,
   rather than a "default" auxiliary assumption. (P. 3804)

One example of the dominance of the classical rational-choice model (and the liabilities of such dominance) comes from the sociology of religion in the United States (Stark and Bainbridge 1987). Conceiving of a religious economy consisting of "firms" (churches) and "consumers" (actual and potential adherents), American sociologists of religion routinely analyze competition among religious firms to offer appealing services to consumers, who choose among firms so as to maximize various social benefits and minimize a variety of social costs. The theory has generated numerous testable hypotheses, including the proposition that religious mobilization is greatest where interfirm competition is most intense. The hypothesis seems to hold up for Christian-majority countries. For instance, competition among religious firms is more intense and religious mobilization is more widespread in the United States than in Canada. …

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