Rational choice theory is the closest thing to a paradigm in current social science. Found in disciplines as disparate as economics and anthropology, this doctrine assumes the theoretical primacy of individual actors rather than of pre-existent social groups. These actors are conceived to have particular goals that cannot all be equally realised, for people live in a world of scarcity and uncertainty and, as a result, must select between alternative courses of action. The hallmark of this approach is the view that their selection of a course of action is rational and will be the most effective means of realising their preferred goal (Heath 1976 offers a good introduction).
Although rational choice has a very long pedigree in social science – its parentage derives from Thomas Hobbes's writings in the seventeenth century – only recently has the approach been applied to the study of ethnic and race relations (some examples include Rabushka and Shepsle 1972; Sowell 1975; Landa 1981; Hechter, Friedman and Appelbaum 1982; and Banton 1983). Rather than generating new evidence or testing specific hypotheses, applications such as these tend to synthesise evidence about intergroup relations and interpret it in the light of a particular explanatory scheme. Even a sympathetic observer would have to concede that it is far too early to predict the success of this kind of enterprise.
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