Rational Choice Theory and Structural Functionalism: a Supplementation and Assimilation

Rational Choice Theory and Structural Functionalism: A Supplementation and Assimilation Great theories produce opposition in connection to their inconsistencies and while challengers may position the theory contra itself, followers tend to revise the theory in order to preserve it from dismissal. This usually occurs by broadening the original theory while maintaining that the revision is consistent with the theory’s original meaning. In exploring Talcott Parson’s Theory of Structural Functionalism I have been motivated by its ambiguities to revise it in such a way.

I am not a proponent of Structural Functionalism and have strong ties to Rational Choice Theory. I enjoy that it is concerned with relating micro and macro levels of study rather than affirming that one is better than the other (Ritzer). I am also an atheist with no real ties to a moral code other than that dictated by societal norms (throughout this paper I will use the word society to refer to contemporary Anglo-Canadian society) and expectations, but my belief system rests in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. I live according to motivated self-interest and believe that all choices great and small are rational.

Being raised in a household that avoided unnecessary communication at all costs compelled me to become a pragmatic and honest person in what little communication we did have. This pragmatism has consistently carried me through my interactions with others and has proven beneficial in seeking out and acting in my best interest. With this pragmatism comes an unrelenting want to avoid, deductive theory. This would explain why, in a position as a meta-theorist I feel compelled to assimilate Structural Functionalism to Rational Choice Theory. Due to its individualism, Rational Choice Theory could be considered neoliberal ideology.

However, my interpretation leads me to understand that it does not necessarily lead to an individualistic model of society as a whole. For this reason I believe that the micro theory can easily and harmoniously be coincided with the macro theory of structural functionalism. In fact, despite its purported nature as a macro-theory, Parsons (1977) says that his theory can be extended to the microbiological level. To take from Coleman’s (1990) aim I’d argue that structural functionalism takes for granted an explanation for why and how social norms emerge as well as an account for the existence of dissent to these norms.

Rational Choice Theory necessarily and seamlessly supplements Structural Functionalism and fills this theoretical void. Rational Choice Theory generally contests structural methods of explanation and assumes that society is equal to the totality of actions of individuals and that complex social phenomena can be explained in terms of the individual actions of which they are made up. This standpoint, called methodological individualism, holds that individuals are moved by their wants or preferences. Social order arises from these actions of individual self-interest.

It positions itself in individualism and holds that sufficient sociological accounts involve individuals, their understanding of the conditions in which they are situated, and the reasons for choosing to take certain actions. Choices are made in relation to both their goals and the means for attaining these goals. This involves the rational actor who is relatively independent, egoistic, goal-oriented, and rationally calculating. In this way, we act in accordance to our hierarchy of preferences. As rational thinkers we are constrained by logic and as rational actors we are constrained by our temporal reality.

Rational choice theories hold that individuals must foresee the outcomes of multiple courses of action and calculate the one that will be best for them. Rational individuals choose the alternative that is likely to give them the greatest fulfillment. Some reasons why attempts to reconcile Rational Choice Theory as a macro theory of social action may be contested include the problems of, collective action, social norms, and social structure. The question comes to be: if individuals consider the personal benefit to be made from each course of action, why would one ever choose to act in a way that would benefit others more than themselves?

Why do people seem to follow norms of behaviour that lead them to act in altruistic way that seem to take precedence over their self-interest. For Parsons, (1977) this could be explained only by acknowledging that there is a normative, component in decision making. I would be quick to intimate that this understanding may be remedied to coincide with rational choice theory by suggesting that people are willing to make decisions that benefit others at the expense of their own immediate self-interest because they have regarded the course of action as continuing on longer than the immediate.

Talcott Parsons makes some main assumptions about society including that all parts are interdependent, the whole may be impacted by the nature of one part, tendencies to change from within are controlled by systems and social action is voluntary in nature. Parsons argued that action had to be guided by social norms and values. Structural Functionalism proffers that society leans towards equilibrium and social order and society is seen as a biological body, in which systems keep the body healthy. Societal health is apparently guaranteed when individuals accept the general mores of their society (Parsons:1977).

This theory of voluntarism does not suggest that agency is governed only by free will but rather that it is constrained by boundaries. These boundaries form a patterned structure of relationships which come to be known as norms. Parsons believes that agency is a combination of individual action and restrictions of social systems. He then also proposes however that the successful functioning of society requires collectivism, as opposed to rational action. He fundamentally contradicts himself in that he gives space for individual action within his theory yet his theory is deemed a rival to individualism and a proponent of collectivism.

He asks the question, ‘How can society persist when its members are pursuing their own self-interested goals? ’ (Parsons:1951). He seemingly answers his own theoretical question in that within his methodology, individuals are both constrained by systems and driven by individual goals. He states that “the problem of order, and thus of the nature of stable systems of social interaction that is, of social structure, thus focuses on the integration of the motivation of the actors with the normative cultural standards which integrate the action system, in our context, interpersonally” (Parsons:1951).

Parsons focus was on the external forces that shape our individual motivations. His theory of Structural Functionalism however leaves a gaping void in explaining deviant behaviour. He makes a grand assumption about the existence and control of normative values. There is no consideration for resistance or dissent to these values. This lack of attention to social conflict ignores power and inequality. To look at decisions as long chains of actions we can begin to see how an individual’s hierarchy of preferences may influence them to incur immediate dissatisfaction for greater more fulfilling satisfaction in the long run.

There exists anticipation for future reciprocity that becomes accepted as a kind of norm. This understanding presupposes that individuals will develop trust in each other, a rational response in attempts to build partnerships. This can be harmoniously tied into Parson’s Structural Functionalist understanding in which norms guide the individual. Rational Choice Theory is simply a reduction of societal norms to the individual level in which in most cases acting in line with these norms is in the individual’s self-interest.

In this way we can incorporate Parsons’ viewpoint that societies are self-regulating and stable. In the cases where it is not calculated to be in their best interest to conform to mores we observe deviance. This is where Parson’s theory lacks explanation and where Rational Choice Theory can methodologically pick up the pieces.

References Coleman, J. S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge: Belknap. Parsons, T. 1937. The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill. Parsons, T. 1951. The Social System. The Free Press, New York. Parsons, T. 977 Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory New York: Free Press. Ritzer, G. 1991. Metatheorizing in Sociology . Lexington Books , Lexington, MA. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. In Capitalism and Commerce (1991) Edward W. Younkins defines Ay Rand’s moral theory of self-interest as derived from man’s nature as a rational being and end in himself. It recognizes man’s right to think and act according to his freely-chosen principles, and reflects a man’s potential to be the best person he can be in the context of his facticity.

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