What can social scientists tell us about the world? What is the relationship between emotional and rational choice? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Jon Elster sits down with Mark Pennington to discuss the essential tasks and limitations of social science.

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The Guest

Jon Elster is the Robert K. Merton Professor of the Social Sciences at Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he taught in Paris, Oslo and Chicago. His publications include Ulysses and the Sirens (1979), Sour Grapes (1983), Making Sense of Marx (1985), The Cement of Society (1989), Solomonic Judgements (1989), Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (1989), Local Justice (1992) and Political Psychology (1993). His research interests include the theory of rational choice, the theory of distributive justice and the history of social thought (Marx and Tocqueville). He is currently working on a comparative study of constitution-making processes from the Federal Convention to the present and on a study of retroactive justice in countries that have recently emerged from authoritarian or totalitarian rule. Research interests include Theory of Rational Choice and the Theory of Distributive Justice.

Skip Ahead

0:57: You’re giving a talk at our Centre called ‘Emotions in History.’ Can you explain the argument?

3:54: A lot of your work in the past has been engaged with rational choice models or economic models applied to various social phenomena in one form or another. You’re now mentioning the role of psychology. What role should psychology play in relation to the kind of rationality-oriented work you’ve done in the past?

6:04: So you’re saying that common sense rationality can play a role in understanding political institutions or economic institutions, or individual behaviour within them?

7:38: You say that about some of the Chicago-school understandings of institutions which imply that the institutions that are chosen are efficient in some sense—because if they weren’t, rational agents would change them. Then it’s hard to account for any sort of institutional change because equilibrium is built into the model.

8:50: If we don’t explain the origin of institutions through a rational choice model, or at least if that model has quite serious limitations, is there any way in which a model that focuses on the psychological dimension or the emotional dimension provides a better explanation?

10:38: Would your view of institutions be more along the kind of model that recognizes that institutions are often the products of accidents that arise from conjunctions of all kinds of eventualities that really don’t necessarily have more universal implications?

11:32: What can we say—or can we say anything—about whether certain kinds of institutions have beneficial properties relative to other kinds of institutions?

13:54: If we go back to this role of emotion: if emotion is an important factor in shaping institutions, the way they’re formed and perhaps even the way they persist, that strikes me to imply that… people, because of emotion, create certain institutional structures that could be inefficient or malfunction in various ways…

16:49: What I was wondering was whether you were working with a model where emotional choice influences the way in which institutions are originally created, but then within that set of rules, is that the level at which a more rational choice type model kicks in? Or is it emotions all the way down?

18:26: I want to come to some of what you’ve written on the role of prediction within social science… but what I take from what you’ve just said there about the importance of specific cases and not generalizing too much is that you would be against the idea that even if we recognize the role of emotions in forming institutions, we can have a notion of institutional design to deal with the effects of emotional decision making …

21:52: Would it be fair to say that we might not know necessarily what are good decisions – certainly not in some optimizing sense, but can we say about what might be bad decisions?

23:23: So the next question I wanted to ask you is, given the role of indeterminacy, can you say a bit more about what you think are the excessive ambitions of contemporary social science? This is a theme that you’ve developed in your recent work: a lot of social science is about prediction… much of what you’re saying is pushing back against that.

26:50: If prediction is limited, can we nevertheless have a model of social science which is based on understanding in very context-specific circumstances?

28:38: I think that one of the interesting things to think about regarding uncertainty is that there are different views within political economy about this. As I understand, Keynes’ view was that uncertainty was very much with us and that the role of statecraft is to manage that uncertainty in a creative way…

30:25: Can we speak a little more about the importance of history? One of the pieces that some of our students read in one of our courses on political economy has some criticisms that you made of the analytic narrative model in political economy—and that’s often an attempt to use rational choice type models to understand particular historical episodes. And the argument you made there, as I understand it, is that they are sort of retrofit models. People are picking the history to fit the rational choice type explanation.

34:46: So that sounds very much to be part of what I take of what you’re saying here, which is that there needs to be a lot more humility from various analysts about what they claim for their particular models, given the nature of the subject matter.

36:28: One of the authors we’re studying at our research centre is Elinor Ostrom and her account of common pool resource management. She is famous for challenging some of the implications that came from one simple model of rational choice: the idea that there is a commons problem—that whenever you don’t have ownership rights of some kind, you have a tragedy of the commons.

40:23: Earlier, you were reflecting on areas where you think you’ve been wrong over what’s been a very distinguished career…

42:41: One of the areas where you’ve applied this notion is giving micro-foundations to Marxist-style explanations. You’re one of the influencers behind the analytical Marxist movement. Did that turn out to be a fruitful research paradigm or not?

43:48: In what sense does the early part of Marx remain with us? What’s the residual power of the insight?

46:28: Are there any other areas you’d like to talk about where you think what you were writing about in the past wasn’t right?

47:40: What are you working on at the moment?