Reconciled With The Concept Of Political Culture

At first glance, it appears that reconciling the rational choice approach of political sociology to the structural concept of political culture is a futile one. Rational choice draws heavily upon economic theory in building models based upon procedural rules that emphasise the maximisation of utility, a consistent and logical decision making process that focuses on identifying the course of action of greatest value. This process takes place entirely on an individual level, and assumes that everyone will consistently act in such a self-interested way.

By contrast, the concept of a political culture fundamentally relies on group behaviour, finding correlations between the positive psychological orientation and the actions of a country's citizens with a country's economic performance and viability of its democratic institutions. Thus, if a country's citizens are civically engaged, and playing (or believe that they canplay) an active role in their country's political processes (a state of affairs which Almond and Verba (1963) terms a 'participant' political culture) then a country is far more likely to be prosperous and democratic.

It follows that civically engaged citizens should largely act with their country's interests in mind. While this does not necessarily conflict with a person's own interests,- and in fact, the two may go hand in hand- it is inevitable that there are times one must place other values above one's own self interest. As Putnam (1993) and Inglewood (1988) have found, the more a country's citizens believed in values like social trust, respect for and faith in governmental institutions, honesty, law-abidingness, and responsibility, the more effective and durable were its democratic institutions and the better was its economic performance and prosperity.

As Putnam writes, "Citizens in a civic community, though not selfless saints, regard the public domain as more than a battleground for pursuing personal interest" (88). Herein lies the conflict between the rational choice approach and the political culture concept. However, on a deeper analysis, they are not incompatible, and to a large extent the two concepts can supplement and support each other. 

Rational choice theory, while introducing greater rigour into the exploration of political phenomena and allowing the creation of explanatory sociological models akin to economic theory, works on a number of assumptions that undermine any attempt to create a more complex analysis. One such assumption is that individuals make decisions in the light of full and accurate knowledge.

However, it is unlikely that people are omniscient. This lack of information does not merely cover the range of options at a person's disposal, but can also encompass a greater structural awareness and understanding of how their choices affect themselves, their fellow citizens and their country. Given an understanding that cooperation would benefit himself or herself as much as the next person, it then becomes rational to cooperate.

Thus a full understanding of how civic engagement benefits one's nation and oneself would result in citizens acting in a thoroughly rational manner by participating more in government. Furthermore, this also suggests that countries with the greatest amount of freedom of communication and circulation of information will have the most stable democracies- a correlation that is borne out by a brief survey of countries that have a free and active media against countries which have repression and censorship.

Another critical assumption of the rational choice approach is that, in proceeding from a generalised and homogenised caricature of an individual, the approach ignores the enormous variance in individuals that can exist due to social and historical factors. As Green and Shapiro note, "rational choice theorists generally assume that their models apply equally to all persons under study . . . to allow interpersonal variation may generate insuperable problems of tractability" (17). Yet justifying this on grounds of theoretical parsimony, it is plainly illogical to assume that decisions, rules and tastes remain constant.

In fact, given the vast capacity of human beings for change, the opposite is more accurate. The implications in such a case are enormous. The creation of a political culture is predicated on the diffusion of values that emphasise civic responsibility and participation. While a slow process, it nevertheless relies on the conversion of people to potentially altruistic ideals, thus making their behaviour logically consistent with rational choice theory.