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NORKUS: INTERPRETIVE SOCIOLOGY AND RATIONAL CHOICE

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confine the sphere of application. One example is the legendary paradox of election participation, which also illustrates the heuristic value of the zero hypothesis of strict instrumental rationality already emphasized by Weber. The election paradox runs as follows: If we hold the voters to be strictly instrumentally rational agents, we must expect an election participation of 0%, because the larger the electorate, the slighter are the chances for an individual to determine the outcome of the election. Therefore, the costs of election participation are always greater than the expected value of election participation, irrespective of how strongly the voter feels about a particular candidate. Nevertheless, the reality deviates very strongly from the hypothesized participation rate of 0%, and this deviation must be causally explained. If we follow the methodological instructions of Weber outlined earlier, we must first try to explain the deviation by the hypothesis that, in this case, the purely subjectively instrumentally rational action diverges from the strictly instrumentally rational action, and then try to locate the systematic error that voters make in estimating the importance of their vote. However, this hypothesis is not sufficient: Very few people who cast ballots nurture the illusion that their vote can decide the outcome of the election.

According to Weber, one should abandon the assumption of instrumental rationality here and explain election participation as a valuerational, affective, or traditional action instead. Supporters of the strictly universalistic interpretation of the RCA prefer, however, to salvage instrumental rationality by searching for the ‘shadow incentives’ of election participation that more than balance the costs of election participation. However, some social scientists who consider the RCA a resource of the socio-scientific market of ideas nevertheless do not take the view that the anomalies of the RCA can always be surmounted by searching for shadow costs and shadow incentives. They prefer to apply the RCA only if specific boundary conditions have been fulfilled. Green and Shapiro describe this as segmented universalism. In cases that fulfill these conditions, the RCA can completely explain human behaviour.

This view is advanced by Erich Weede and Michael Taylor, for example, who exclude so-called low-cost decisions from the sphere of application of the RCA (Weede 1996: 7–8; Taylor 1989: 148–52). In these situations, an agent hardly risks losing anything if she misjudges them, or the effects of her actions depend less on her choice of action than on circumstances outside her control. Consequently, the RCA can explain the behaviour of politicians, military leaders and, of course, entrepreneurs better than that of voters.

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Another moderately imperialistic interpretation, as it were, of the RCA is partial universalism (Ferejohn 1991: 282–6; Bates et al. 1998). Advocates of this interpretation assume that although the RCA is applicable to every behaviour, in many cases it can only partially explain it. This applies for both low-cost and high-cost decisions. In matters of life and death, strictly instrumentally rational agents are often embroiled in strategic interactions, which have the structure of games with more than one equilibrium. In this case, the game-theoretical model can at best partially explain or predict how these interactions will develop (certain outcomes are excluded). Nevertheless, it cannot explain why, of a number of equilibria, this particular one was realized. Since gametheoretical models cannot unequivocally predict the results of strategic interactions, they merely present incomplete (partial) explanations. Therefore, some people advocate viewing the RCA and the culturalistic or interpretive social science as mutally complementary, because only the so-called Third World of the shared linguistic and cultural meanings places the participants of a strategic interaction, which, for example, is structured like a game of coordination, in a position to identify a specific equilibrium as a focal point.8

This internal differentiation of the RCA allows one to specify the extent to which Weber’s interpretive sociology can be seen as an anticipation of the RCA – i.e. as an anticipation of the segmented universalistic RCA. After all, Weber did not say that ideally typical constructions arising from social action, which for their part presuppose a strict instrumental rationality, had a purely heuristic meaning as generators of research problems. Even the zero hypotheses of the theory of marginal utility describing objectively rational economic behaviour can be causally adequate. Weber mentions a constantly increasing convergence (Annäherung ) of reality with the theoretical propositions of neoclassical economics, which he calls abstract economic theory, ‘affecting the fate of continually growing sections of mankind’ (Weber 1908/1968: 305). ‘It is, for example, no coincidence, that a particularly striking measure of convergence with the theoretical propositions of price fixing, developed by v. Böhm-Bawerk with reference to Menger, was demonstrated by the Berlin Stock Exchange fixation under the system of the so-called uniform price: it could be seen as a perfect example of this’ (Weber 1908/1968: 395–6).

According to Weber, the ability to act in an instrumentally rational way is an anthropological constant. Another matter, however, is the realization of this ability (as potentiality) at full capacity. Historical epochs and cultures differ from one another according to how widespread the

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sphere of instrumentally rational and especially strictly or objectively rational action. When Weber speaks of the rationalization of social action, he means the existence of institutional and cultural conditions that force people to mostly act in an instrumentally rational way, at least subjectively, and which simultaneously enable such action in the first place. Not only are the zero hypotheses of the RCA first heuristically valuable under these conditions, but also causally adequate. Weber attributes the quality of formal rationality to institutional conditions under which the RCA not only gains heuristic meaning, but can also explain social action in causally adequate way. It is a matter of institutions, which render social action calculable and thus decrease the transaction and information costs for the agents. The conditions for expanding areas in which the zero hypotheses of instrumentally rational action are causally adequate include the following:

1.The accumulation of objectively rational knowledge by modern science, which decreases the information costs of instrumentally rational action.

2.The invention of semiotic techniques that expand the natural boundaries of the cognitive capacity of the human psychophysical apparatus, just as the spade, the bulldozer and the hammer did for physical capacities. Weber considered one of these inventions – double-entry bookkeeping – so significant that he included it in his definition of modern capitalism (Weber 1923/1961: 208, 211– 12). These are inventions that sink information costs and consequently make maximizing action both increasingly possible and necessary for boundedly rational human beings.

4. Max Weber as Sociological Action Theorist

I have specified my thesis that Weber’s concept of interpretive sociology is the anticipation of the RCA. I also wish to take into account that this concept was transformed during Weber’s lifetime. Two texts exist in which this is clearly stated. The first is the article ‘Some Categories of Interpretive Sociology’, published in 1913 in the journal Logos (Weber 1913/1968) but possibly written two years previously (Schluchter 1998: 336–9); the second is the famous Chapter 1 in Economy and Society (Weber 1922/1986), which he wrote in 1919–20. The first text can be seen as the conceptual head of the original text in Economy and Society; whereas the second was intended to perform the same

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function for a revision of the book, which Weber did not finish before he died.

The most important difference is that Weber’s famous typology of social action – in which the pure types of the instrumentally rational, the value rational, the traditional and affectual action are distinguished – is found only in the later text. Although Weber had already worked with the differentiation of value rationality and instrumental rationality in the earlier text, he related this distinction here to the institutional, i.e. to the macro-level, where he distinguishes the material rationality of legal norms from their formal rationality, but not to the microor action-level. Weber’s response to the question of what should be done if the zero hypothesis of instrumentally rational action proves causally inadequate differs in the two texts. According to the earlier text, an action that is not even subjectively instrumentally rational must be explained psychologically. Weber faces the following problem: On the one hand, he has so strictly defined the conditions under which behaviour can be seen as instrumentally rational that instrumentally rational action scarcely occurs; on the other hand, he insists that interpretive sociology should be independent of psychology. Both have strongly restricted the sphere of interpretive sociology. ‘Since meaningful social action is the object of Weberian sociology, he must, as he says, presumably describe 80% of all social action, that occurs in the shape of semi-conscious or meaningful amorphous habits (‘traditionally determined action’), as not actually belonging to his theme’.9

With respect to this difficulty, Weber had to insist in the earlier text that rational action only differed gradually from irrational action:

For sociology 1. the more or less approximately realized type of the objective rationality (Richtigkeitstypus), 2. the (subjectively) instrumentally rationally oriented type, 3. the more or less consciously and clearly and more or less unambiguosly instrumentally rationally oriented, 4. no longer instrumentally rational but meaningfully understandable, 5. the more or less understandable behavior, which is comotivated by the ununderstandable elements in the more or less disconnected context, and, finally, 6. completely ununderstandable psychic and physical facts ‘in’ and ‘concerning’ a man are connected by the gradual transitions. (Weber 1913/ 1968: 435)

Weber can be understood here both in the sense that only case 6 can be attributed to psychology, and that it can already play a role in case 3. At any rate, these explanations cannot provide any unequivocal guidelines for empirical research.

Weber’s action theoretical innovations in ‘Basic Concepts in Sociology’ can be read as a second attempt to surmount these difficulties. In this text, Weber attempts to supplement the interpretive sociology as

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explanation method through sociological action theory. This involves an action theory that should satisfy the following conditions:

1.It should be independent of psychology.10

2.It should be linked to everyday experience or folk psychology.11

3.It should be more realistic (or descriptively accurate) and have a broader explanatory scope and analytical power (Heckathorn 1984) than the theory of instrumental rational action, which is regarded as a special borderline case.

Weber’s action typology basically already contains all the variables of this kind of comprehensive sociological action theory. These variables are the opportunities, or in Weber’s terminology, the chances of action (O), goals (G), the expectations (E ) of the agent, the value commitments (V ), the habits (T), and the affects (A). Therefore, the comprehensive sociological theory regards the action (H) as the function H = h(O, E, G, V, T, A). Provided that the meanings of the variables in the argument concerning the function independently vary from each other and can also have the meaning 012, the borderline cases are the pure types of instrumentally rational action [H = h(O, E, G)], value rational or conviction-ethical action [H = h(O, V )], traditional action [H = h(O, T)] and of affectual action [H = h(O, A)]. Besides these pure types, 10 mixed types are also possible from the purely combinatory point of view. In total, Weber’s action typology includes 15 action types:

1.H = h(O, E, G) instrumentally rational action

2.H = h(O, V ) value rational action

3.H = h(O, T ) traditional action

4.H = h(O, A) affectual action

5.H = h(O, E, G, V, T, A)

6.H = h(O, E, G, V, T)

7.H = h(O, E, G, V, A)

8.H = h(O, E, G, V ) responsibility-ethical, or verantwortungsethisch, action

9.H = h(O, E, G, T, A)

10.H = h(O, E, G, T)

11.H = h(O, E, G, A)

12.H = h(O, V, T, A)

13.H = h(O, V, T)

14.H = h(O, V, A)

15.H = h(O, T, A)

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Weber himself explicitly pointed out and discussed some of these mixed types: ‘choice between alternative and conflicting ends and results may well be determined in a value rational manner. In that case, action is instrumentally rational only in respect to the choice of means’ (Weber 1922/1968: 26). This obviously refers to type 8, which he treats under the name of responsibility-ethical action. In the later work, whenever Weber wrote about rational action, he subsumed at least three types of action under this concept: 1, 2, and 8. ‘It is a case of sublimation when affectually determined action occurs in the form of conscious release of emotional tension. When this happens it is usually well on the road to rationalization in one or the other or both of the above senses’ (Weber 1922/1968: 25). In this sentence, Weber refers to the mixed types 14, 11, and 8. A reconstruction of Weber’s entire action typology shows that he tended to also define as pure types behavioural episodes that in fact belonged to the mixed types. This is particularly true of his use of the expression ‘traditional action’. The expression refers not only to the action of type 3, which has ‘its place in a systematic classification’ merely as ‘a limiting case’ (Weber 1922/1968: 25), but also to the action of type 13. When Weber writes that ‘attachment to habitual forms can be upheld with varying degrees of self-consciousness and in a variety of senses’ (Weber 1922/1968: 25), he means cases 6 and 10, concerning which he says, ‘in the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning’ (Weber 1922/1968: 21).

The action theory outlined by Weber in his late work can perhaps be better understood by slightly modifying the filter model of instrumentally rational action proposed by Jon Elster.13 In this model, the choice is presented as a filtering out of several alternatives. Elster’s model contains two filters. The first consists of the restrictions, which separate the ‘real’ action options, or the opportunity set, of an agent from options that are possible only logically. The second filter consists of the wants and expectations of the agent, which in combination determine which one real action option is selected. The principle of utility maximization describes how this second filter functions. The whole is represented in Figure 2.

The Weberian model was intended to include five filters altogether, which according to the circumstances can be reactivated and can independently or, in conjunction with other filters, determine which action is chosen. By contrast, the theory of instrumentally rational action attempt to do without additional filters by attributing value commitments, affects, and habits to the first or second filter. Value commitments can

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Logically

 

Re-

Opportunity

Beliefs

 

Chosen

possible

 

stric-

set

and

 

 

 

 

 

actions

 

tions

 

 

wants

 

action

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Elster’s Filter Model

be interpreted as special ethical wants or metawants, which have as a subject other wants of their subject; the traditional action can be redescribed as risk-averse instrumentally rational action or as instrumentally rational action restricted by the information costs, etc.

Weber’s later outline of the action theory anticipated later attempts at a sociological action theory. Perhaps the best known among them is the voluntaristic theory of action formulated by Talcott Parsons and presented in his early work, The Structure of the Social Action, which was directly inspired by the action theory attempt in Weber’s later work. If the Weberian concept of interpretive sociology does anticipate the RCA, this applies more for the earlier version of the ‘Some Categories of Interpretive Sociology’ than for the later version of ‘Basic Concepts in Sociology’, which distanced itself from the positions of the RCA.

However, the action typology in Weber’s later work contains only the outline, not the formulation of an action theory that would fulfill the above three conditions for such a theory. To fulfill these conditions, Weber’s action theory should contain at least one nomological relational statement, which would specify the functional relationship between all of its variables. Let us make a comparison: If we know that the attraction force F stands in functional dependency F = f(r, m1, m2) from the distance r and the masses m1 and m2, we still do not have the attraction law. The shape of this functional dependency must be specified, too (in this case, F = q(m1m2)/r2). As long as Weber’s action theory does not include nomological statements, it can be seen only as a scheme of classification, not as an explanatory theory. The same applies for all later efforts to construct a sociological action theory, from Parsons to Jürgen Habermas. They merely contain classification schemata and are not explanatory theories. Precisely because these efforts failed to produce an explanatory sociological action theory, social scientists, who do not want to renounce the autonomy of their discipline from psychology,

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hold the theory of rational choice – despite all its anomalies – to be the best action theoretical offer available.

5. Conclusion

I have restricted myself to an analysis of Weber’s programmatic scientific texts and not investigated the relationship of Weber’s metatheoretical concept of interpretive sociology to the logic-in-use of his substantive work.14 This topic has been reserved for separate treatment.

Comparing Weber’s concept of the verstehende Soziologie and the methodology of RCA, I applied the distinction made by Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro between the strictly universalist, segmented universalist, and partially universalist versions of the RCA. I also distinguished two versions of Weber’s concept of interpretive sociology, the earlier one anticipating both the method of situational analysis propounded by Karl Popper and the segmented universalist version of the RCA, and the later pointing in the direction of the voluntaristic theory of social action promulgated by Talcott Parsons. The main reason for the divergence between Weber’s early interpretive sociology and mainstream RCA is Weber’s very restrictive concept of instrumental rational action. In the later version of Verstehende Soziologie, Weber was about to embed instrumentally rational action in the comprehensive theory of action. As I argue, the only tangible result of this project was Weber’s famous typology of action, which in its complete form includes 14 types of action.

It is obvious that RCA, with heavy infusions of ideas direct from economics, long ago surpassed Weber when it comes to analysing systematic properties of instrumental rationality. Has Weber’s quest for the fuller action theory any remaining present relevance for RCA? The virtues of empirical theory (both discursive and mathematically formulated) are descriptive adequacy, universality of explanatory scope (in our case, the ability to explain all episodes of human behaviour), and analytic power, which means ‘the efficiency of a theory in converting an informational input (e.g. quantitative specifications of initial conditions) into an informational output (i.e. predictions or explanations). Thus analytic power can be defined as the ratio of informational output (IO) to information input (II), i.e. AP = IO/II’ (Heckathorn 1984: 297). The attraction of the theory of rational action consists in its considerable analytical power. Given beliefs and preferences, it yields the determi-

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nate predictions of choices (with some important exceptions, e.g. in games with several undominated equilibria15); given choices and beliefs, the preferences (or expected utility function) are derivable; for given choices and preferences, the beliefs can be triangulated. The broadening of the explanatory scope of this theory up to pure universalism doesn’t succeed, however, without sacrificing descriptive accuracy or analytical power. ‘The obvious interpretation of the statement that an action is rational is that the agent can give reasons for it – that he can explain why he does it, or did it. The clearest instances are those where he has had to make a case for doing this, not that’ (Hicks 1986: 102). This robust descriptive intuition goes lost in the reformulation of the theory of instrumentally rational action by Gary S. Becker in terms of microeconomic theory of production (Becker 1976: 87–149), which nevertheless achieves greater analytical power. As for Popper’s permissive view of the instrumental rationality as appropriateness with respect to situation as defined subjectively, it results in tautological explanations, which achieve universality of explanatory scope at the expense of descriptive adequacy and analytical power.

It was the preference for descriptive accuracy that motivated Weber and other sociological action theorists to seek the specifically sociological action theory. This preference was satisfied, however, at the expense of analytical power: Weber’s later action theory and its kin yield no testable predictions. Nevertheless, the efforts to produce such a theory were not completely fruitless. They enriched the vocabulary of qualitative sociological research, providing the valuable tools for ‘thick descriptions’. Weber’s concepts of value rational, traditional, and affectual action are of remaining value for such work. By now, Weber’s types of action achieved in the sociological discourse the status of Nelson Goodman’s well-entrenched predicates (Goodman 1955/1965: 98–106), governing sociologists’ ‘feeling of the real’. So they can be useful as the test conditions for the descriptive adequacy of the elaboration of the theory of instrumentally rational action striving after the greater descriptive adequacy without refusing pure universalism and sacrificing analytical power. Such elaboration can count as descriptively adequate if it doesn’t eliminate or explain away distinctions between instrumentally rational, value rational, and nonrational behaviour by redescribing or reclassifying the problematic behaviour episodes, but rather, if it provides the conceptual resources to explain them, preserving their descriptions in types-of-action terms. But is such a task not self-defeating? How can the same behaviour episodes be both described as nonrational and explained as effects of instrumentally rational choices?

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Valuable suggestions for answering these questions can be found in the work of German sociologist Hartmut Esser (Esser 1990, 1996, 1999; see also Lindenberg 1989). He elaborates a pure universalist version of the theory of instrumentally rational action, distinguishing the firstorder decisions from those of the second order16. The objects of the first-order decisions (or selections) are the alternative courses of the outer behaviour. The objects of the second-order selections are mental: the modes of information processing and the frames, named by Esser alternatively as models of situation and codes. The modes differ with respect to the heuristics used. There are costly heuristics, which demand plenty of time, attention, and other scarce mental resources to process information, and cheap heuristics. They differ in the probability of finding the course of outer behaviour that is optimal with respect to objective situation. Ceteris paribus, the more costly heuristics provide objectively rational decisions with higher probability. Frames or codes are dominant leitmotifs or dominant goals – criteria for evaluation of the prospective courses of outer behaviour. The framing or coding of the situation means that the actor considers only one value or supreme goal relevant for evaluating those courses and suppresses alternative points of view. In this way, the task of making a decision is simplified.

Esser proposes rational reconstruction of Weber’s typology of action,17 considering Weber’s types of action as frames or codes selected in the inner, mental behaviour. While the actor frames or codes a situation in the instrumentally rational way, she makes her first-order choices in the self-interested and calculative way, using costly and efficient heuristics to process information. Obviously, this picture corresponds closely to Weber’s restrictive view of the instrumentally rational action. While the actor uses frames other than Zweckrationalität or cheap heuristics (e.g. habits), she selects the course of her outer behaviour in the manifestly nonrational way. Nevertheless, the behaviour which is coded or framed value-rationally, traditionally, or affectually is latently instrumentally rational, because the selection of these frames or codes and heuristics is itself the effect of the instrumentally rational inner behaviour, maximizing the actor’s subjective expected utility under the restrictions imposed by her bounded rationality (the scarcity of mental and cognitive resources). So the pure universalism of the theory of instrumentally rational action is preserved at the level of the second-order decisions, which produce the subjective definition of situation. At the same time, phenomena are saved, too: the distinctions described by Weber’s types of action are accounted as real at the level of the first-order decisions.

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