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the “logic” of collective action. In its most extreme

form within neo-classical economics, actors are

seen as participating in a free, open, and competitive

market in which individual actors seek to

maximize their utilities in transactions with other

actors. In this extreme form, it is assumed that

actors have access to all relevant information, that

they can consider all available alternative courses

of action, that they can calculate the potential

utilities relevant to the costs associated with

each alternative action forgone, and that they

will seek to maximize their utilities (rewards less

costs in getting these rewards and alternatives

forgone). From classical economics comes the assumption

that if actors behave in this “rational”

manner, the “invisible hand of order” proposed by

Adam Smith (1723–90) will create the most just

and fair society, although it should be noted that

Smith, more than other neo-classical economists,

had a view of the importance of moral sentiments

regulating the rational actions of individuals.

Some forms of sociological exchange theory relax

these extreme assumptions, assuming only that

individuals use what information they have available

to generate a profit (utilities less costs) in

exchange relations with others, although those

within the rational choice tradition proper (rather

than the more general exchange-theoretic tradition

in sociology) tend to retain most of the extreme

assumptions of neo-classical economics.

Game theory has added to this conception of

individuals in markets mathematical models of

the payoffs to be gained or lost by various behavioral

strategies by one actor or set of actors in

relation to the potential behavioral strategies of

other actors. By modeling various “games”

through computer simulations, various behavioral

and social structure outcomes of different

behavioral strategies can be documented. Another

approach within economics that has had considerable

influence on sociological theories invoking

rational choice assumptions is Mancur Olson’s The

Logic of Collective Action (1965) in which the production

of “public” and “private” goods from the coordinated

actions of individuals, coupled with the

problem of free-riding (or not contributing to the

production of a joint good), determines the nature

of actors’ organization into group structures.

Within sociology proper, these ideas have been

incorporated into theories that try to explain the

emergence of social structures and associated

systems of cultural symbols as outcomes of efforts

by individuals to maximize utilities in exchange

relations with others. These approaches conceptualize

the individual as purposive and goaloriented,

as revealing a clear hierarchy of preferences,

as making calculations about likely payoffs

relative to their hierarchy of preferences for each

potential line of conduct, as assessing the costs for

each line of conduct, and as trying to maximize

utilities (rewards less costs in getting them and in

alternative utilities forgone). What makes these

rational choice assumptions sociological is the

view that emergent social phenomena – social

structures, collective decisions, collective behavior,

and systems of cultural ideas – are ultimately

the result of rational choices made by utilitymaximizing

actors. Once socio-cultural phenomena

emerge, however, they operate as parameters

that constrain subsequent rational choices because

they affect the distribution of resources among

actors, the distribution of opportunities for payoffs

among actors, and the distribution and nature of

normative obligations constraining actions.

In trying to explain the emergence of norms

and social structure, rational choice theories

borrow the notion of “negative externalities”

from neo-classical economics. When individuals

are engaged in collective action to produce some

joint good, the problem of free-riding inevitably

emerges because it is rational for actors not to

contribute to the production of a good while still

enjoying the utilities that come with its production.

Of course, if all actors free-ride, the joint

good does not get produced; and as a result, the

more actors free-ride, the greater are the negative

externalities for all actors engaged in collective

action. Under these conditions, it is rational for

actors to create normative agreements that limit

free-riding and, thereby, guarantee maximum

payoffs to all individuals. This is the basic argument

for why and how social structure and

normative agreements are created by rational

actors working in their self-interest – a sociological

version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of


Various theories within this tradition add important

propositions. Individuals become more

interested in creating normative agreements to

the degree that negative externalities are experienced

collectively, the rate of free-riding is high,

and the level of dependence of actors on the

rational choice theory rational choice theory


utilities that come from the production of a joint

good is high. The power of the norms created

under these conditions will be greater to the

extent that each actor’s dependence on the production

of a joint good is high, actors consume

the joint goods that they produce (making the

good a “private” as opposed to “public good”

that can be consumed by all), rates of communication

among actors are high, network density

among actors is high, and a high proportion of

actors receive utilities from jointly produced

goods. The ratio of prescriptive to proscriptive

content of norms regulating the production of a

joint good increases when the costs of monitoring

conformity to norms are low and when

the ratio of positive to negative sanctioning is

high. And these conditions together promote

high levels of social solidarity among collectively

organized actors producing a joint good.

The goal of all rational choice theory is to demonstrate

that macro-level outcomes can be explained

by micro-level conceptions of rational

actors. There is a persistent critique of sociological

theories that simply assume social structure and

norms without explaining how they are generated

and without documenting the forces by which

they are sustained. The critique of normative and

structural sociology emphasizes that structural

and normative theories do not posit a mechanism

or set of dynamic processes by which meso- and

macro-level structures and associated cultural

symbols are generated. In contrast, rational choice

theorists argue that they are able to specify the

mechanisms – rational decisions among actors

producing joint goods but experiencing negative

externalities and free-riding – that generate and

sustain social structures and norms. Yet, critics of

rational choice theory argue that this specificity is

more elusive than real because, in the end, what

rational choice theorists posit is that people create

social structures and culture because it is rational,

without specifying in detail the exact sequence of

processes by which negative externalities, freeriding,

and norm creation operate or by obscuring

the actual processes in the equations guiding

computer simulations. JONATHAN TURNER


In philosophy, reason refers to the human capacity

to acquire knowledge and/or make intelligent

decisions. Reason contrasts with habit,

emotion, blind faith, and tradition. Aristotle distinguishes

theoretical and practical reasoning,

where practical reasoning culminates in action

rather than in a proposition or a new belief.

Though Max Weber refers to theoretical rationality,

sociological uses of rationality broadly favor

Aristotle’s sense of practical reasoning.

Utilitarianism supplied the first sociological

accounts of rational action during the Enlightenment,

and rational choice theory continues the

utilitarian tradition today. In its most elementary

form, utilitarian, or instrumental, rationality

refers to actions undertaken by individual actors

in pursuit of their interests by the most effective

available means.

Weber introduced a more nuanced view of rational

action by distinguishing a second, valuerational

form of action. Here, actors act upon a

belief in the ultimate value (for example, religious,

ethical, aesthetic) of the behavior in question.

Weber clarifies the rationality of these forms of

action by introducing two contrasting forms

of action, traditional action (for example, habit

or custom) and affectual behavior based purely

upon emotion.

Weber conceived the preceding concepts as abstract

and limited ideal types. They are abstract

because they apply universally, and they are

limited because they refer to the actor’s subjective

understanding of individual acts. However, as a

historical sociologist, Weber was most concerned

with studying patterns of action on levels ranging

from actions of members of religious sects to

actions in institutional orders such as capitalism

or feudal principalities. Weber ultimately (often

only obliquely) referred to four ideal types of patterns

of rationality. Two points about these

patterns must be borne in mind. First, in reality

each pattern comprises individual actions.

Second, in any given historical case, two or more

patterns of rationality may merge and diverge in

kaleidoscopic configurations.

The four ideal types of patterns of rational

action include: (1) formal rationality – comprising

actions oriented to instrumental goals by efficient

means. Formal rational patterns are extremely

disciplined, involving calculations according to

generally applicable norms or rules. Ideal-typical

bureaucracies and capitalist enterprises incorporate

formal rational patterns of action; (2) substantive

rationality – patterns comprising actions

oriented to constellations of values. Ideal-typical

religious communities adhere to substantive rational

patterns of action; (3) practical rationality –

comprising actions by which individuals solve

problems relevant to self-interest or survival

without regard to formal discipline; and (4) theoretical

rationality – confined mainly to dedicated

thinkers, these patterns of action are dedicated to

rationality rationality


producing systems of thought as means to master

reality. Theologians and philosophers adhere to

theoretical-rational patterns of action. Though

they are rarely dominant, Weber believed that

in specific historical settings theoretical-rational

patterns of action can influence the course of

development for entire cultures and civilizations.

Weber’s notions of patterns of rational action,

and his inclusion of value-rational action in

patterns of substantive rationality was one inspiration

(among others) for Talcott Parsons’s The

Structure of Social Action (1937). I RA COHEN


In social theory today, rationalization refers to the

historical development of institutional orders

such as the law, the market, capitalist enterprise,

and the bureaucratic state, all of which are organized

by impersonal and amoral principles that

facilitate the instrumental pursuit of means and

ends. Max Weber is the classical source for the

idea of rationalization. His well-known metaphor

of the iron cage suggests the existential experience

of being encased in formal rules that allow

no moral or humane relationships. Franz Kafka’s

(1883–1924) image of a defendant trapped in a

judicial system beyond his control captures the

experience of living in a rationalized world from

a more literary point of view. The most recent

sociological conceptualization of rationalization

appears in Ju¨rgen Habermas’s notion of the colonization

of the lifeworld by impersonal social

systems. Other ideas associated with rationalization

include Georg Luka´cs’s notion of reification,

and interpretations of the Holocaust by Richard

Rubenstein and Zygmunt Bauman.

Weber’s account of rationalization processes

remains unsurpassed in its historical sensitivity.

Not only did he distinguish different rationalization

processes in the history of every modern institutional

order and cultural sphere, but he also

recognized moral (substantive) limits to rationalization

in every order except capitalism, where

formal rationality goes unchecked. For example,

though the bulk of any body of modern law is

formal and hence rationalized, the precepts of

any legal system are grounded in moral axioms

(see law and society). In bureaucracy, the overarching

policy decisions are always subject to moral

evaluation. They cannot be made on the basis of

strictly rule-guided formal procedures. I RA COHEN


This is a philosophy of science that seeks to establish

that scientific theories refer to real objects

that are independent of representations of them,

even where the postulated entities and processes

are unobservable. Scientific realism emerged as a

critique of positivism. Realists argue that positivism

is concerned only with regularities, or the

empirical association of events. However, merely

knowing that events are associated tells us little.

We want to know how the events are associated;

that is, we wish to identify causal mechanisms

that operate as real forces, even if those mechanisms

cannot be observed. Where the theory that

invokes such mechanisms is empirically well confirmed,

we have good reason to believe that the

mechanisms are real.

An important distinction is made between

closed and open systems. Closed systems are

mostly the product of the activity of scientists

who perform experiments in order to isolate a

particular structure and its effects. Open systems

are systems of the real world where many structures

operate and may cancel the effects of other

structures. The non-occurrence in open systems

of the necessary effects of a real structure could

not in itself falsify that structure. Mechanisms

and their causal laws are only claims about

tendencies; the real effects of structures need

not become actual and there is an ontological

gap between causal laws and their empirical


These arguments are used to criticize the positivist

concern with prediction, with important implications

for social science. Prediction is only

possible in closed systems – for example, the structures

that are responsible for the weather may be

known, but we may not be able to predict it because

of the inherent complexity of the open

system that is the weather. Realists argue that

the social sciences deal with similarly complex

open systems and, therefore, prediction is an inappropriate

and misleading objective. The social

sciences can, however, achieve retrodictive explanation,

where knowledge of effective structures is

used to make sense of events in the past and the


Realism became influential in the social sciences

following Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific

Revolutions (1962). Kuhn challenged the view

that science proceeded in a linear and accumulative

manner, arguing that there are fundamental

changes in world-views and that different scientific

paradigms are incommensurable. He was

seen as presenting a social constructivist and relativist

view of science, albeit one which challenged

the positivistic prescriptions that many thought

had severely constrained social science.

rationalization realism


The implications of realism for social inquiry

have been developed by Roy Bhaskar (1944– ) and

Margaret Archer. They use the term critical realism,

arguing that naturalistic social inquiry can

follow an ontology implicit in Karl Marx. Social

structures are less enduring than natural structures.

Whereas natural structures are independent

of human action, social structures are

reproduced and changed through human action.

This does not mean that they are the intended

outcome of human actions; social structures

should be understood as the unintended outcome,

and unacknowledged condition, of human action.

However, actors’ own understandings of the world

must be part of the explanation of structures,

their reproduction, and change. For critical realists,

a realist philosophy of science must be

supplemented by an interpretive understanding

of the social world. Realist social science, then, is

not fully naturalist and subsequent developments

in critical realism by Archer have concentrated

on setting out a formal approach to social inquiry

that captures this dualism of agency and

structure. JOHN HOLMWOOD

realist criminology

– see criminology.

reception theory

– see audience.


– see exchange theory.


A term usually used to denounce descriptions of

society that over-simplify it by treating a limited

number of its constituent components as if they

make up the whole; society, it is said, is thereby

illegitimately treated as nothing but (reduced to)

the parts that are singled out. This would be true

of a crude interpretation of Marxism that treated

the social whole as if it could all be explained in

terms of, reduced to, the economic realm. Reductionist

accounts are thus often contrasted with

pluralist accounts in which respect is given to

many explanatory factors.

The charge of reductionism is also used, in a

logically connected way, to criticize those writers

who make no distinction between the many parts

that go to make up a social phenomenon and the

intrinsic properties of the phenomenon itself.

Thus, if it was claimed that there is nothing

more to be said about water once one breaks it

down into its constituent elements, of two parts

hydrogen and one part oxygen, then this would be

a reductionist statement. It would deny all the

emergent properties and powers of water that

emerge out of the combination of the elements

of hydrogen and oxygen. The same is true of methodological

individualism, often associated with

Max Weber’s explicitly methodological writing,

which denies the emergent properties of society.

As the approach breaks everything down into the

actions of individuals, it cannot account for those

differential capabilities that depend upon their

situation with respect to emergent social properties,

which may include a range of conditions

from institutional infrastructures through monetary

or transportation networks to inherited cultural

traditions. Gregor McLellan (1996, New Left

Review) has argued for a form of “weak” or “loose”

reductionism in which prior social parts, such as

the class system and class interests, are seen as

causally connected to, say, a political party’s

agenda for social transformation, but not as completely

explaining it or somehow effacing its own

emergent significance. ROB STONES

reference group

This term refers to a “collectivity” that an individual

uses either to evaluate their own position – a

comparative reference group – or to set norms and

standards of behavior – a normative reference


In either instance, the group only needs to be an

imagined collectivity of the individual and does

not necessarily have to be an actual collection of

interacting individuals.

The classic study of a comparative reference

group comes from Samuel Stouffer et al., The American

Soldier (1949). Soldiers in units that had a high

promotion rate saw their chances of advancement

as poor, while soldiers in units with low promotion

rates, such as the military police, saw their

chances as good. The comparative reference group

of soldiers was the explanation for this apparent

paradox. Soldiers in units with high rates of

promotion evaluated themselves against other

members of the same unit who had been promoted

more often or sooner than they had been.

High promotion appeared typical, so anything

other than that was relatively worse. In contrast,

in units where promotion prospects were low, not

being promoted was typical, so soldiers did not

feel worse off than their compatriots. So, the feeling

of deprivation is relative. This idea of relative

deprivation can be applied generally. For instance,

realist criminology reference group


while poverty can be defined objectively by criteria

such as having an income below a certain level

or lacking access to basic amenities or necessities

of life, poverty can also be defined subjectively by

how individuals perceive themselves in relation to

what they see as a typical or adequate standard of


In its normative sense, a reference group was

defined by Tamotsu Shibutani, “Reference Groups

as Perspectives,” in the American Journal of Sociology

(1955), as “any collectivity, real or imagined,

envied or despised, whose perspective is assumed

by the actor.” Used in this manner, the reference

group is employed as a source of patterns of behavior

or ways of acting that are to be emulated or

shunned. The concept of a normative reference

group came from symbolic interactionism and relates

to George Herbert Mead’s “generalized

other.” It differs, however, in that, while the “generalized

other” refers to the standards and customs

of the whole society, a normative reference

group refers to a smaller, more specific collectivity

within the society. The normative reference

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