European Journal of Sociology

The puzzling scope of rationality

Rationality and social norms

Jon Elster

One of the most persisting cleavages in the social sciences is the opposition between two lines of thought conveniently associated with Adam Smith and Émile Durkheim, between homo economicus and homo sociologicus. Of these, the former is supposed to be guided by instrumental rationality, while the behavior of the latter is dictated by social norms. The former is ‘pulled’ by the prospect of future rewards, whereas the latter is ‘pushed’ from behind by quasi-inertial forces (Gambetta 1987). The former adapts to changing circumstances, always on the lookout for improvements. The latter is insensitive to circumstances, adhering to the prescribed behavior even if new and apparently better options become available. The former is easily caricatured as a self-contained, asocial atom, and the latter as the mindless plaything of social forces. In this paper I characterize this contrast more fully, and discuss attempts to reduce norm-oriented action to some type of optimizing behavior.