The individual rational actor paradigm (is dumb)

Boring warning: Just like yesterday’s post, this one is also boring. You have been warned.

In the individual rational actor paradigm, the unit of analysis tends to be the generic, atomized, essentially selfish individual. When applied to social movements, the paradigm clumsily attempts to illuminate the “mystery” of collective action by examining the peculiar types of individuals who join collective efforts—and their individual reasons for joining—rather than by examining particular contexts or situations that tend to activate people (more often in blocs and clusters than as lone individuals). Frankly, when a scholar assumes that collective action participants are atomized individuals whose involvement can be explained by individually rational choices, I am inclined to assume that their research is probably not worth much.

The use of the term entrepreneur to describe social movement innovators betrays this same view of the benefit-maximizing, cost-minimizing individual; a view that is taken for granted as the modus operandi of Homo sapiens. I think it is problematic and grotesque to transpose an individual profit-maximizing logic and terminology onto a thoroughly collective project. Those who are central in facilitating the latter are commonly referred to as leaders—not entrepreneurs—on account of their skills in building consensus and solidarity and in articulating values, goals, targets, and strategies that can move whole groups. Their mission is not to maximize private profit. Sometimes their mission is precisely to challenge or dismantle private profit!

Unfortunately, this usage of the term entrepreneur also appears in the sociological social movement literature, along with versions of the individual rational actor paradigm. Some scholars initially used the framework sympathetically toward social movements, attempting to assert the latter’s rationality—i.e., the presence of self-interested, rational political goals—and thereby counter the classical model, which tended to pyschologize collective action participants.

I’ve always been annoyed with the individual rational actor paradigm, mostly for missing the dynamic life of the group. Most recently I was set off by reading an article by political scientist Debra Javeline, The Role of Blame in Collective Action: Evidence from Russia (paywall). Javeline argues that blame attribution—the process of attributing blame for a negative situation to specific individuals, office holders, or institutions—can shift the cost/benefit calculations of individuals who are deliberating about whether or not to participate. If a movement blames the president, for example, a potential movement participant may ask herself, “How gratifying will it feel to vent frustration against the executive? What rewards or solutions can the executive offer as appeasement? (Javeline 2003)”

“How gratifying will it feel to vent frustration against the executive?” What strange words to put on paper. Does anyone really believe that actual human beings deliberate like this?

The author may be slightly onto something: that leaders typically must articulate grievances, targets, and believable paths to meaningful victories, in order to persuade others to take costly collective action. That point is coherent, however, only after we take great liberties in paraphrasing. And in overstating the importance of articulating blame attribution, Javeline misses an essential piece of what else must be articulated: the collectivity itself, i.e., the group, its parameters, shared interests, morality, and the norms of its members. The collectivity becomes the expressive and instrumental and moral motivation that drives individuals to lose themselves in the group and make individual sacrifices that, indeed, make no sense when the profit-maximizing atomized individual is the unit of analysis. For such behavior to exist, there must exist some process that orients individuals to the interests of the group above their own individual interests. We will not even entertain the possibility of the existence of such collective alignment processes if we are blinded by a paradigm that believes only in atomized individuals.

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