Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Adam Smith (1723-1790) is generally acknowledged as the forefather of the modern theory on utilitarian individualism or rational choice theory. In this connection, in particular, his essay On the Wealth of Nations (1776) is often cited.

The U.S. sociologists George C. Homans and Peter Blau are seen by many as the instigators of rational choice theory in the social sciences during the 1960s. However, Homans's insights are sometimes referred to by "orthodox" members of the rational choice community in sociology as being psychological. This, because he filled his model of man with learning theory. Peter Blau grew severely disappointed with rational choice theory and returned to structuralist theory of some sort. Nevertheless, since the 1970s, such a community can clearly be discerned, as rational choice theory has made great inroads into the social sciences both in North America and in western Europe. The community must be characterized as an oddly assorted group: It consists of economists (e.g., the Chicago economist and Nobel prize winner Gary Becker developed a "new household economic" reasoning, a name by which rational choice theory also has become known), psychologists, sociologists, game theorists, and students of collective action and of public choice.

When it appeared, Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965), nowadays hailed as one of the milestones of the approach, was not recognized by most sociologists as a major advance in theorizing. Psychologists, on the other hand, easily assessed it as a new and fruitful innovation—partly because of the great attention paid in their discipline to social dilemmas and partly because of the different image of man they used in their theories. Since 1989, the rational choice community boasts of a scientific journal of its own: Rationality and Society . And apart from being a medium to promote the application of rational choice theory, its editors state that they hope to restore the connections with the fields of sociology, moral philosophy, economics, political science, cognitive psychology, and game theory. The appearance of James S. Coleman's The Foundations of Social Theory (Harvard University Press 1990) must be seen as a major step in the further development of the rational choice paradigm for the social sciences: It gave the community its first handbook. Its contents form a demonstration of the application of rational choice theory to sociological problems and of how empirical macroproblems must theoretically be resolved at the micro level.

Rational choice theory is a (microeconomic) theory of human behavior, and rational choice adherents all subscribe to the Popperian dictum of methodological individualism: Scientific (macro)problems have to be solved at the level of individuals (acting purposively). The hard core consists of an empirical generalization—some would say axiom—stating that individuals choose the most efficient means as they perceive them for the attainment of their goals. Individuals, because of human nature, make a rational trade-off between costs and profits. Costs and rewards are both material and immaterial, and also are personal and situational.

These assumptions are elegantly represented by the RREEMM acronym:

These letters stand for: Resourceful: man can search for and find possibilities, he can learn and be inventive; Restricted: man is confronted with scarcity and must substitute (choose); Expecting: man attaches subjective probabilities to (future) events; Evaluating: man has ordered preferences and evaluates (future) events; Maximizing: man maximizes (expected) utility when choosing a course of action; Man. (Lindenberg 1985b:100)

The assumptions thus worded are not at all in contradiction to Becker's (1975) assumptions of "maximizing behavior, market equilibrium and stable preferences" but are more sociologically and less economistically worded. The explanandum is seen as the result of purposive actions of individuals with preferences, who are embedded within a sociocultural context that both structures and restricts their actions. To be precise, the purposive actions consist of a striving for physical well-being (e.g., good health, leisure) and social approval; the latter can be distinguished into status, positive affection (to be loved), and confirmation of behavior (to behave oneself in the eyes of relevant others).

The rational choice approach to the "scientific" study of religion has been stimulated by a great number of individual contributions of both a theoretical and an empirical nature but especially by the appearance of A Theory of Religion (Lang 1987) by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. In the book, they provide an elegant deductive and comprehensive theory on "religious" people acting purposively. Stark and Bainbridge's efforts must be assessed as a major break-through in the sociology of religion in the fields of both theorizing and theory-guided empirical research. (Religious) people want rewards against low costs, and if rewards are scarce or not there at all, they will take compensators or IOUs for rewards.

The "validity" and usefulness of the axiom of a purposive rational actor who tries to avoid costs to maximize gains is a contested issue not only for those studying the sociology of religion but for many other sociologists as well. Apart from these, debated issues in the study of religion with regard to rational choice theory are the "market" theory of religion and "secularization" theory (Stark 1994). For decades, for example, it has been assumed that religious pluralism leads to a low degree of religious commitment. Both theoretically and empirically, however, market theorists have shown that the more enterprises that are operating on the (religious) market, the more they will specialize and compete with each other; similarly, the higher the competition among the churches, the higher the religious participation of the "buyers" will be. An empirical study in the United States in which this argument is falsified (Breault 1989) has not been accepted by the protagonists of the market theory. The reason is that it cannot be replicated by others because the data sets are destroyed. Yet serious doubts may be raised that if the market theory is applied under sociocultural conditions other than the United States (e.g., in western Europe), similar outcomes as in the United States would be reached (see Hak and Sanders 1996).

Recently, a critical assessment of the use of rational choice theory in the sociology of religion was made in a special issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1995). The outcome of the debate was that critics of rational choice theory were less convincing in their arguments than its defenders. Nevertheless, one of the criticisms seems to be sustained: In rational choice theory, room must be made for changing personal preferences to account for individual choices. Traditional microeconomic theory is based on the assumption that individuals' preferences are stable; the new model would suggest that preferences vary from person to person and time to time, and that these variations are shaped by the embeddedness of individuals within social contexts. While some rational choice theorists will probably begin to include preferences, other sociologically based theorists of the rational choice community will still argue that they can do without personal preferences because the sociocultural restrictions can explain individual choice.

See also Compensators, George C. Homans, Investments, Rodney Stark

Durk H. Hak


G. S. Becker, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976)

K. D. Breault, "New Evidence on Religious Pluralism, Urbanism, and Religious Participation," American Sociological Review 54 (1989):1048-1053

D. H. Hak and K. Sanders, "Kerkvorming en ontkerkelijking in de negentiende eeuw in Friesland," Mens en Maatschappij 96(1996):220-237

S. Lindenberg, "Rational Choice and Sociological Theory," Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft 141(1985a):244-255

S. Lindenberg, "An Assessment of the New Political Economy," Sociological Theory 3(1985b):99-114

R. Stark, "Rational Choice Theories of Religion," Agora 2(1994):1.

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