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Rigor orRigor Mortis? Rational Choice and Security Studies Stephen M. Walt T h e past decade has witnessed a growing controversy over the status of formal approaches in political science, and especially the growing prominence of formal rational choice theory. Rational choice models have been an accepted part of the academic study of politics since the 1950s, but their popularity has grown significantlyin recent years.' Elite academic departments are now expected to include game theorists and other formal modelers in order to be regarded as "up to date," graduate students increasingly view the use of formal rational choice models as a prerequisite for professional advancement, and research employing rational choice methods is becoming more widespread throughout the discipline? Is the increased prominence of formal rational choice theory necessary, inevitable, and desirable? Advocates of formal rational choice approaches assert that these techniques are inherently more scientific than other analytic Stephen M . Walt is Professor of Political Science and Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division at the Universityof Chicago.He will join thefaculty of the JohnF. Kennedy School of Government af Harvard University in July 1999. I thank the following individuals for their comments on earlier drafts of this article: Graham Allison, Robert Art, Michael Desch, George Downs, Erik Gartzke, Charles Glaser, Joseph Grieco, Robert Jervis, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Jack Snyder, Stephen Van Evera, and the participants at seminars at Princeton, Rutgers, Duke, and the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. Barry O'Neill provided an exceptionally detailed and useful set of criticisms,for which I am especially grateful, and Ann Ducharme, David Edelstein, and Seth Jones were able research assistants and made valuable suggestions as well. 1. Seminal early applications of rational choice theory include Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957); Gordon Tullock and James Buchanan, eds., The Calculus ofConsent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962);Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965).Surveys of the basic literature include Dennis Mueller, ed., Public Choice I1 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989); James Alt and Kenneth Shepsle, eds., Perspectives on Positive Political Economy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990);and Peter C. Ordeshook, ed., Models of Strategic Choice in Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989). An excellent introductory textbook is James D. Morrow, Game Theory for Political Scientists (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995). 2. According to one estimate, rational choice scholarship now comprises nearly 40 percent of the published articles in the American Political Science Review, and another scholar reports that 22 percent of the APSR articles published between 1980and 1993were rational choice in orientation. Similarly, the annual report of the APSR's editor suggests that 1520 percent of all ASPR submissions and published articles were rational choice in orientation. See Donald Green and Ian Shapiro, International Security, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Spring 1999),pp. 5-48 0 1999by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 5 International Security 23:4 I 6 approaches, and argue that the use of more sophisticated models has produced major theoretical advances3They are also prone to portray skeptics as methodological Luddites whose opposition rests largely on ignorance. Thus Robert Bates draws a distinction between ”social scientists” and ”area specialists” (a distinction that implies the latter are not scientific), and suggests that the discipline is finally ”becoming equipped to handle area knowledge in rigorous ways.“ According to Bates, these ”rigorous ways” are rational choice models, and he chastises area experts for raising ”principled objection to innovations . . . while lacking the training fully to understand them.”4 Not surprisingly, other scholars have greeted such claims with considerable skepticism,and argue that rational choice theory has yet to produce a substantial number of important new hypotheses or well-verified empirical predict i o n ~ . ~ Indeed, some critics of rational choicemethods question whether formal techniques are of any value whatsoever, and regard the modeling community as a group of narrow-minded imperialists seeking to impose its preferred method on...


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