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Rational Choice as a Theoretical Approach in Studying Politics and International Relations

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Advancing the understanding of politics and international relations without consideration of the underlying factors that give credence to political, economic, and social choices will at best remain an attempt in near futility. This is because; the study of politics and international relations is engulfed in rational and social choices that guide international relationships and politics that govern relations among the comity of states. Adopting the rational choice approach in the study of politics and international relations, therefore, becomes apt and not any less a decisive venture. Although the rational choice approach denotes most closely theories that apply economics to new fields of research in the assertion of Kirman (1989), the rational choice approach applies also to any form of decision that is agreed upon in individual and group relations in pursuance of some common interest. Given that this approach is traditional to the study of economics, it increasingly becomes more difficult to attempt its application to other spheres of the human individual, group, organizational, and coordinated social life. As will be made subsequently more explicit in the preceding analysis of the application of this approach to the study of politics and international relations, certain variables come strongly and readily handy to play thereby influencing the thought and rationality of individuals, groups, organizational and states in their political decisions and relationships.

The intensity of rationality decreases or switches grounds as the number of participants in the decision making process increases, ‘the degree of rationality drops and it becomes more difficult to attain group goals as individual responsibly drifts further apart giving credence to the group mind’ in the submission of Lebon (1895). Similarly, to buttress the levels of rationality, Kenneth (1953) considers three methods by which social choices are made to include; voting, market mechanism as well as dictatorship and convention. Voting according to him Kenneth is the method by which political decisions are made with the market mechanism determining economic choices while dictatorship and convention present and inherently definite structure far from those obtainable in the voting and marketing mechanisms. It is the interwoven nature of these variables that inform the political and economic choices of men in differing circumstances, the outcome of which makes the establishment of these choices as rational increasingly difficult.

Rational choice as an approach in the study of politics and international relations is a theory for understanding and often modelling social and economic as well as individual behaviour. It is the main paradigm in the currently-dominant microeconomics school of thought as argued by Michael (2013). It’s centrality in the study of modern politics, international relations, as well as philosophy and sociology, cannot be overemphasized, it is against this backdrop that Becker (1976) position that ‘the rational choice theory was early popularized by a 1992 Nobel Memorial Prize Laureate in Economics Science, Gary Becker, who was one of the first to apply rational actor models more widely’.

Establishing a choice that is rational presents quite frankly some level of difficulty, this is because a choice that may be considered rational for an individual might be highly irrational to another; also, what might be considered rational for individual might be considered irrational for a group and vice versa. Regardless, rationality is predicated on the channels of maximization and utility, the reason Elster (1989) posits that ‘when men are faced with several courses of action, people usually do what they believe is likely to have the best overall outcome, it is against this behaviour that rationality of choice comes to play’. The ‘rationality’ defined by the rational choice theory adopts a more specific and narrower definition, which simply means that ‘an individual acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes personal advantage.’ 

The acceptance of a choice as rational outside the individual must meet certain guidelines as propounded by Green (2002) to include in the first place identification of relevant agents and making basic assumptions about the end they seek to meet after which the constraints faced by each agent is identified, next is the determination of decision rules and how these rules may be made consistent with each other, thereafter, predictions are made consistent with the actual experience and the drawing of conclusion.

In Shapiro (2006), Barry Weingast posited that ‘Rational choice has come quite a long way, according to him, three decades ago, it was not within the range of mainstream political science in almost every respect, yet today, rational choice had taken the discipline of political science completely by surprise.’ As part of the revolution of human behaviour in political science, Americans sought to investigate the factors which influenced the political behaviour of individuals in 1950s and 1960s, the deductive nature of the study enabled researchers to adopt empirical methods in the study of political behaviour. It was during this period that in 1957 that Anthony Downs applied the rational choice theory to electoral behaviour and party competition, he became the first man to attempt this empirical endeavour.

The rational choice theory is individualistic, it derives its starting point from the behaviour of individual who are more often than not motivated by self-interest, and it is this interest that informs the choices and political behaviour of individuals and groups. The individual as an actor within the framework of a political system positions himself at a point where his interest is best protected. The basic assumptions of this approach portray methodological individualism, since individual actors are most concerned about themselves, as well as their welfare. Upon this foundation of individualism, the rational choice approach goes further to portray the circumstances that give arousal to cooperation, sharing, and the emergence of norms as well as the subsequent roles they play in the process of decision making.

The idea that groups, organizations and states exist for the pursuance and projection of goals and values of its members hold significant verifiable truth today as it held from time immemorial before now. Mancur (1965) asserts that organizations or associations exist to further the interest of their members, according to him, the idea projected above is neither novel nor is it peculiar to economics but goes back to at least the time of Aristotle who wrote that ‘ men journey together with a view to particular advantage, and by way of providing some particular thing needed for the purpose of life, in a similar vein, political organizations spring from this thinking and understanding’. Categorically to buttress the idea that the coming together of state actors is to foster a common front and or end that on the long run serves the general interest of the component states, this could be economic prosperity, social development, security, peace or for varied recreational and other social yearnings of states.

In pursuance of a security course, the United Nations in 1942 was established by 26 nations who pledged their nations to the continuance of the fight against external aggression of the praxis powers during the second world war. After a rational choice evaluation of the benefits of forming such a powerful security front, the component governments and nations made a decision that was to serve each and every member state by way of security. It can be reliably argued that, this course of action was to yield the most desired outcome for the component states; this choice was therefore rationally made in furtherance of the rational choice approach. Also worthy of note in the preceding application is the submission of Leon, a social psychologist that ‘the attraction of group membership is not so much sheer belonging, but rather in attaining something by means of this membership’.

The rational choice theory is a growing paradigm in political science and can be applied to a range of areas in the discipline, especially, voting behaviour, policy formulation and implementation, rule formation, among others. Within a given political system, there arises completion between individuals in diverse political parties, each political party strives to actualise the interest of her party, and this, therefore, draws political parties to the formulation and implementation of political strategies that give each political party an edge over the other. In democratic setups, each individual strives to vote the party that is most ideologically closer to the people; this choice is made through rationality.

The rational choice approach is contrasted with the behavioural approach on varying ontological and epistemological fronts. Why the rational choice approach is borrowed from economic thought, behaviourism borrows from psychology. The rational choice approach proceeds from the general to the specific while behaviourism proceeds from specific to the general, this makes the rational choice approach deductive and behaviourism inductive. The rational choice approach is therefore a positivist approach to the study of human behaviour.

Freeriding may threaten the rationality of individual in the process of making political decisions, they may benefit from the choices of others without commiserate expenditure, it is along this line of thought that Samuelson (1954), quoted in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy submits that, the fact that once some goods are made available to some persons can be readily consumed with equal utility by everyone becomes a cause of worry, a condition he regarded as ‘jointness of supply’ or ‘nonrivalness of consumption’ because the consumption of the product or service by an individual does not in any way affect the consumption of others.

The rational choice approach does not present itself absent any weaknesses. Prominent among which is its abstraction and reductionism, it over emphasises on the rationality of individuals without an adequate consideration of the norms and values which influence the choices of individuals. It fails to recognise too, the reality that individual act within a given social milieu, it does not consider the power of roles and institutions as they determine the behaviour of individuals. The empirical application of its basic assumptions it problematic as individuals are not consistent, this inconsistency may be driven by human emotions. As individuals may be considered rational being, they are equally social beings, their social choices may therefore infringe on the potency of their rationality. In a voting circumstance in which a voter is placed with the option of voting for a family member that is less competent or a stranger that is more competent, he may choose to vote for the family member to satisfy his/her emotional need rather than the more rational competent candidate, this is a good example of social choices that might be devoid of any rationality and therefore a profound weakness.


The political behaviour and relationship of individuals is seen to be influenced by concomitant variations, although individual is observed to make rational choices, this is not always the case. The larger the number of group members, the farther their decision shifts from the scope of rationality. Individual might also chose to freeride if they consider their actions to infinitesimal to make and political difference. The rational choice approach is closely in contrast to behaviourism, it is potent in its explanation as well as application in the study of politics and internal relations but it does not come without its shortcoming, this shortcoming can be neutralised by adopting in addition to other approaches in the study of politics and international relations. 

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Rational Choice As A Theoretical Approach In Studying Politics And International Relations. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from
“Rational Choice As A Theoretical Approach In Studying Politics And International Relations.” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2022,
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