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POLS 373 Foundations of Comparative Politics

Three Research Traditions: Rationality, Structure, and Culture

_______________________ A Primer on the Rational Choice Approach in Comparative Politics

Rational Choice Approach


What does it mean to act in a rational manner? Answer: Those who act rationally are assumed to be acting in their own self-interest This is the basic assumption from which rational choice analysis begins
The rational choice approach begins with the presumption that Saddam was a rational actor

Rational Choice Approach

Defining Self-Interest
To

act consistently in relation to ones preferences


Preference can be for wealth, political power, survival, status/prestige, and so on

Also

known as Utility Maximization

Different people have different preferences, different ways to maximize utility; this explains the rationality behind different choices, such as the choice to purchase a Hummer vs. the choice to purchase a Toyota Prius

Rational Choice Approach


Real-world examples of utility maximization: Self-interest is not always obvious
Those individuals who give higher utility to helping others or to defending the nation are also acting rationally; they are maximizing their personal utility
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Rational Choice Approach


Complicating Factors of Rationality

Rational action is complicated by a number of other factors, including:

1. Strategic Calculation 2. Strategic Interaction

Rational Choice Approach


Complicating Factors of Rationality

Strategic calculation is a fancy way of saying that any decision is based on a calculation of costs and benefits

A Simple Example: Deciding to attend or skip class; deciding to prepare for todays quiz Your decision is based on a weighing of the costs and benefits; most decisions, from the biggest to the smallest, involve this type of strategic calculation
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Rational Choice Approach


Complicating Factors of Rationality

Strategic interaction

Most decisions are not made in isolation; that is, many decisions involve two or more players

In these cases, we can say that individual decisions are generally part of an interactive process, in which one players decision is influenced by the existence of another player

In chess and football, strategic interaction is integral to the dynamics and outcome of the game; players/coaches on both sides are engaged in a process of strategic interaction

Rational Choice Approach


Complicating Factors of Rationality

What is the significance of strategic interaction?

When more than one player is involved, the payoffs (or the benefits) of any decision will depend on what the other player does or does not do. To determine what is rational, therefore, each player needs to guess how another player might act.

The right strategic moves in football will lead to a touchdown; the right moves in chess will lead to checkmate. The wrong move, however, may result in defeat

Rational Choice Approach

Summing Up Thus Far


Utility maximization, strategic calculation and strategic interaction can make rational decisionmaking much more complex than it appears on the surface

In this scenario, the final outcome (e.g, mutually assured destruction is the product of a process of rational decision-making shaped by strategic calculation and interaction. NOTE: The final result is not necessarily optimal

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Rational Choice Approach


Key Assumptions of Rational Choice

Rational choice scholars tell us that we should always assume that the large majority of decisions are rational One of the major tasks of rational choice, therefore, is to uncover the underlying dynamics of the decision making process, even when or especially when decisions seem irrational

In rational choice, insane decision-makers, such as the fictitious Hannibal Lecter, are the rare exception, rather than the rule. It is assumed that most decision-makers, especially those occupying positions of responsibility, are generally rational.

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Rational Choice Approach


Key Assumptions of Rational Choice

Consider the following questions:

Why did North Koreas Kim Jong Il decide to conduct a nuclear test? Why did Saddam launch an invasion of Kuwait? Why did George W. Bush launch a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in 2003? Are they all just crazy, evil, or obsessed? 12

Rational Choice Approach


Key Assumptions of Rational Choice

Close examination of foregoing questions will likely lead to the identification of an underlying rationality
Paying attention to utility maximization, strategic calculation and strategic interaction is critical

Almost assuredly, as each of these pictures suggest, Kim, Saddam, and Bush all have/had justifiable reasons and clear objectives for their decisions

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Rational Choice Approach


Key Assumptions of Rational Choice

Perfect Information

Rational actors dont have access to perfect information People, unlike God, are not omniscient, all-knowing beings

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Rational Choice Approach

A Simple, but Critical Lesson


The

complexity of strategic interaction, imperfect information and other factors means that not all rational decisions are good decisions
Consider the Iraq War: A classic example of a rational decision leading to a sub-optimal outcome

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Rational Choice Approach


The Strategic Environment

Rationality is also affected by the larger strategic environment in which decisions are made
We cannot make any choice we please because of environmental constraints: we are sometimes pushed to make certain choices

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Rational Choice Approach


The Strategic Environment

There are two major types of constraints


Scarcity

(or material constraints) constraints

Institutional

Having no money severely limits the choices you can make Arnold Schwarzenegger learned first hand about the power of institutional constraints in California state politics.

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Rational Choice Approach


Some Key Questions to Ask in Rational Choice Analysis:

Who are the main actors? How are their interests defined? What information is available to them? What type of constraints do they face? How do the constraints influence their actions? What are other important elements of the strategic environment?
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Rational Choice Approach


Repeating, Restating, Reiterating a Key Point:

To use rational choice to explain social, political or economic phenomena, you need to go well beyond simply asserting that actors are rational

You must take account of utility maximization, strategic calculation, strategic interaction, actors knowledge, and the impact of the strategic environment

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_____________________ A Primer on the Structural Approach in Comparative Politics

The Structural Approach


Structures: The Shaper of Our Lives
Structural approaches are based on the idea that human actions are partly and even largely determined by underlying, sometimes invisible forces, over which individuals have little or no control
An analogy: Consider the structure of DNA and its affect on our individual lives

The Structural Approach

The Impact of Structure: An Example Feudalism was a powerful social structure; it shaped, in profound ways, the lives of millions of people and of whole societies for centuries
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The Structural Approach


Key Assumption in Structural Approach

The Centrality of Relationships

Structuralists assume that central to any structure are relationships, which themselves exist within a broader framework of action
Examples: Consider the relationship between women and men in a patriarchal structure, the relationship of workers to capitalists (or the rich and poor) in a capitalist structure, the relationship of slaves to masters in a structure of slavery, the relationship of peasant to lord in a feudal structure, and so on

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The Structural Approach


Key Assumptions in (Historical) Structural Approach

Structures are enduring, but not necessarily permanent

Structures contain their own logic and dynamic


Structures create particular relationships The fate of individuals, groups, and societies are largely determined by their position within a structure

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The Structural Approach


Structures as Deeply Embedded Games

Consider the game of chess

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The Structural Approach


Some Key Questions to Ask in a Structural Analysis

What is the overarching structure and what are the key relationships within that structure?

How does the structure work or operate? What is the internal logic and basic dynamic of the structure?
What are the (structural) rules of the games, who are the key players and what are their roles within the structure?

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_______________________ A Primer on the Structural Approach in Comparative Politics

Cultural Approach
A Caveat, A Warning!

Using culture to explain social, political or economic phenomena may seem easy and intuitive, but its not Cultural arguments are often very bad arguments

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Cultural Approach
Bad Cultural Arguments: An Example

Heres an example of bad cultural argument purporting to explain the lack of democracy in the Middle East:

There is a reason political pluralism, individual liberty and self-rule do not exist in any of the 16 Arab nations in the Middle East. Cultural traditions there tend toward antiintellectualism, religious zealotry and patriarchy, values which provide little fertile ground for progressive thinking.

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Cultural Approach
Erroneous Assumptions in Bad Cultural Arguments

Typically, bad cultural arguments assume that culture is essentially fixed, monolithic, and onedirectional

Fixed: Cultures dont ever change, ever Monolithic: Within a culture, there is but a single, unchallenged and unquestioned voice One-directional: Culture is either an obstacle to change, or its not; it is either progressive or regressive, but not both
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Cultural Approach
The First Lesson for Good Cultural Arguments

Begin with the assumption that culture is highly malleable, multivocal, and multidirectional

Malleable: Cultures can and do change, both quickly and slowly. Multivocal: People of a single culture can and do disagree, sometimes in a fundamental manner.

Multidirectional: Culture can have contradictory and complex effects; in different contexts, at different times, culture may block change or it may be a source of change.

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Cultural Approach
What is culture?

A very general definition:

Culture marks a distinctive way of life that members of the culture share and upon which they forge a common and unique identity

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Cultural Approach
What is culture?

What are the major elements of culture? That is, what things constitute the worldview or distinctive way of life that define culture? Consider some general categories:

Religious beliefs and values Political beliefs and values Philosophical belief and values Ideological beliefs and values
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Cultural Approach
What is culture?

A Key Point: As a worldview, as a set of cognitive beliefs and values, as a shared identity, culture is inherently and unavoidably subjective, or more accurately, intersubjective

The subjective nature of culture means, in part, that culture is intangible; it exists only inside our (collective) heads The intersubjective nature of culture means that it is subject to continual negotiation and (re)interpretation, since it must be reproduced over and over again*
* This tells us, in large part, why culture is never fixed or monolithic

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Cultural Approach
A Key Assumption in Cultural Approach

Culturalists believe culture has power

Culture has power at both the individual and collective levels Culture can compel individuals and whole peoples to act and behave in certain ways, to make profound sacrifices and even give up their very lives for the sake of a larger good

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Cultural Approach
The Power of Culture: Individual Examples

Values, beliefs, and ideals--that is, culture--compels some individuals to make profound personal sacrifices: a lone protestor trying to stop a column of tanks

a suicide bomber and a Buddhist monk Can rational choice truly explain the power of culture?

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Cultural Approach
Culture as a political resource or asset

The power of culture gives it huge potential as a political resource or asset

Significantly, the power of an ostensibly single culture can be harnessed or co-opted by opportunistic leaders and others to achieve self-serving goals: consider, Bosnia, Rwanda, and al Qaida

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Cultural Approach
Culture as a political resource or asset

In these three cases, political leaders co-opted culture to serve their own political ends. Culture and cultural differences were used to motivate collective action for horrendous political goals.

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Cultural Approach
Culture as a political resource or asset

On the other hand, culture can serve as a rallying cry, a force of broad based mobilization, for progressive change. This was the case in the Philippines (the People Power movement, in Poland, in the former Soviet 39 Union, and in the US with the Civil Rights Movement

Cultural Approach
Intersecting Forces

As variable, culture should never be treated as separate from other variables Instead, think of culture as intersecting with other social, political, economic and historical forces

Cultural forces Political forces


Transnational factors

Economic forces

Historical forces

Institutional factors

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Cultural Approach

In sum

culture is complex It is malleable Its effects are sometimes obvious, but frequently subtle and even hidden and contradictory Culture has power, but it is not always or necessarily a causal power; the power of culture, moreover, does not always flow in the same direction Culture does not act alone to produce outcomes

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Cultural Approach
Culture as an Independent Variable

Many social scientists dismiss culture because its causal power is difficult, even impossible, to evaluate

Some argue that culture is simply a reflection of more basic forces

Some argue that culture, at most, affects the framework of action and is, therefore, only indirectly important (e.g., a rational choice analyst may argue that culture affects the strategic environment, but is not a fundamental element of behavior)
Some argue that culture is simply irrelevant because it cannot be quantified or measured--in part because culture is inherently subjective

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Cultural Approach
Culture as an Independent Variable

The debate about cultures causal powers cannot be resolved easily; however, one way to think about culture is to see it as both cause and effect

In this view, culture is understood as a product of underlying social, economic or political forces, but once established, certain cultural practices and beliefs tend to perpetuate themselves from generation to generation
Culture, in short, becomes independent over time: it takes on a life of its own and begins to operate as an autonomous or semiautonomous force

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Cultural Approach
Culture as an Independent Variable

An example

In the Terminator, a computer network based on artificial intelligence is produced by scientists (i.e., it is the product of outside forces). Once created, however, it becomes sentient: it not only thinks, but acts to defend itself. It takes on a life of its own

Although the analogy is not perfect, this is a useful way of understanding how a culture, once created by outside forces, can also take on a life of its own
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Cultural Approach
Culture as an Independent Variable

Key Point

Once culture takes on a life of its own, it can be analyzed as an independent variable Remember, though, that culture is not static, nor is it tangible. Thus, as an independent variable, it must be treated with extreme care

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Cultural Approach
Concluding Points: Doing Good Cultural Analysis

Using culture in an analysis is not easy; indeed, it can be quite confusing The key is to avoid treating culture as an unambiguous set of unchanging values, norms and beliefs that define and unproblematically shape, and even determine, the social, political, and economic fates of individuals, societies and countries Instead recognize that culture is contested, profoundly political, and inherently fluid
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