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Choice and Values: Individualised Rational Action and Social Goals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2008

School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NF email:


For excellent reasons, in response to pressures from social, economic and political changes, welfare states are undergoing reform. A central theme in the new policies, particularly influential in the UK, is the use of incentives through activation programmes and reforms to public sector management to promote rational responsible choices by both service users and providers. The theoretical underpinning of this approach relies on a model of people as plural in their values, but holding values that are independent from social context and institutional framework. Policy seeks to harness those values to produce desired behaviour. This article focuses on two relevant literatures. Analyses of rational action at an individual level by economic psychologists, evolutionary biologists and game theorists indicate that the context in which choices are framed influences responses. Further work by economic sociologists and social psychologists suggests that the values that guide behaviour have an important social element as normative systems embodied in institutional frameworks. The norms appropriate to market interactions typically differ from welfare norms, so that different value frameworks and responses apply. The implication is that the transition to quasi-market and individualised incentive systems risks damaging the norms that sanction support for distant but vulnerable groups. The article falls into three sections: reviewing the background to reform and the emergence of an emphasis on individualised rational choice, considering each of the literatures mentioned above and discussing policy consequences.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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