A response to the critique of rational choice theory: Lakatos' and Laudan's conceptions applied

Inquiry 47 (1):67 – 85 (2004)
This paper analyzes the main features of rational choice theory and evaluates it with respect to the conceptions of Lakatos' research program and Laudan's research tradition. The analysis reveals that the thin rationality assumption, the axiomatic method and the reduction to the micro level are the only features shared by all rational choice models. On these grounds, it is argued that rational choice theory cannot be characterized as a research program. This is due to the fact that the thin rationality assumption cannot be understood as a hard core in Lakatos' terms. It is argued that Laudan's conception of a research tradition better characterizes rational choice theory. On the basis of this conclusion, certain important criticisms of rational choice theory are answered. First, the criticisms concerning the core assumptions of rational choice theory are countered. It is argued that this critique is based on a misunderstanding of rational choice theory as a unified set of models, such as Lakatos' research program. Second, Green and Shapiro's rational choice 'pathologies' - inconsistent predictions, post hoc theory development and arbitrary domain restrictions - are evaluated. Contrary to Green and Shapiro, it is argued that post hoc theory development is a more preferable strategy for developing RCT than domain restrictions based on ex ante rules.
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DOI 10.1080/00201740310004413
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