Robert H. Bates, Avner Greif, Margaret Levi, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, and Barry R. Weingast, Analytic Narratives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
John Bowen and Roger Petersen, eds., Critical Comparisons in Politics and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
B. Guy Peters, Comparative Politics: Theory and Methods (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
Leading rational choice theorists have become increasingly interested in grounding their studies in detailed evidence from particular cases. In their already influential Analytic Narratives, Robert Bates and collaborators explicitly state that they "are motivated by a desire to account for particular events and outcomes" (Bates et al. 1998: 3). They view their chapters as making a contribution to "the ideographic tradition" in that they offer "in-depth investigations of events that transpired in particular periods and settings" (p. 10). Likewise, a recent volume on Critical Comparisons in Politics and Culture, edited by John R. Bowen and Roger Petersen, stakes out similar ground by exploring the connections between rational choice theory and anthropology. The volume's contributors are united by a "shared commitment to describing empirical richness and accounting for it" (Bowen and Petersen 1999: 2). A key goal is to explore how rational choice theory can borrow from anthropology and thereby "richly describe t he world, showing its complexity and variability" (p. 1).
In adopting such emphases, rational choice theorists address issues that have long been part of the scholarly tradition associated with the comparative method, the subject matter of Guy Peters' Comparative Politics: Theory and Methods. This can be seen, for example, in rational choice theorists' call for small-N research designs in which a limited number of cases are systematically analyzed. These theorists argue that a small number of cases should be selected on the basis of empirical puzzles and substantive problems (Bates et al. 1998: 13), even if this means engaging in "dependent variable driven" research (Laitin 1999). Likewise, rational choice theorists stress the importance of carefully controlled comparisons of highly similar or highly different cases, and they highlight the value of analyzing processes and mechanisms that link variables together (Bowen and Peterson 1999: 3-4; Bates et al. 1998: 12). In conjunction with these various concerns, the new rational choice literature encourages investigator s to immerse themselves in their cases, including through "reading documents, laboring through the archives, interviewing, and surveying the secondary literature" (Bates et al. 1998: 11).
Perhaps most notably, this literature systematically downplays the importance of deductive research, while significantly upgrading the importance of analytic induction. Thus, Bates and collaborators call for an interactive relationship between theory and evidence, in which analysts reformulate initial theories in light of the actual histories of their cases. In this way, "the theory [is] shaped by the case materials" (p. 16). Likewise, there is an emphasis on the real trade-offs between theoretical generality and empirical validity, and a call for much attention aimed at getting the empirical facts right (Levi 1999: 155).
The new directions of rational choice theory might be seen as representing a triumph for the comparative method and small-N analysis in the field of comparative politics. At a minimum, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that rational choice theorists have come to advocate certain research orientations that small-N analysts have long been employing in their work. These long-standing orientations include not only the focus on a small-N and the concern with explaining particular outcomes, but also the effort to employ both inductive and deductive research and to balance historical detail with theory development.
Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that the new rational choice literature whole heartily embraces the comparative method and the associated small-N research tradition. Rather, rational choice theorists remain concerned with explaining events through the use of models and formal reasoning. Although giving up on the standards of a perhaps unrealistic kind of universalistic theorizing, their mission is still to demonstrate how the social world can be modeled under the assumptions of rational choice theory. In this sense, they differentiate themselves from traditional advocates of the comparative method who do not necessarily embrace a commitment to rational choice modeling. Indeed, rational choice analysts see their approach as offering a new synthesis of formal theory and the comparative method--a kind of "best of both worlds" solution to timeless debates over issues such as nomothetic versus ideographic analysis, and deductive versus inductive reasoning.
In this essay, I argue that the recent engagement of rational choice theorists with the comparative method is a welcome development for the field of comparative politics. A well-known danger of rational choice theory--appreciated by both its advocates and its critics--is that scholars can become too narrowly concerned with developing models, such that they fail to tell us anything useful about actual political processes. Arguably, the field of American politics has experienced this problem in the form a sterile research agenda motivated by certain strands of rational choice theory. By contrast, rational choice scholars in comparative politics seek to guard against such tendencies by employing the comparative method and thereby remaining focused on the substance of politics.
At the same time, I express reservations about the possibility of any easy "best of both worlds" synthesis between rational choice theory and the comparative method. Real tensions exist between the logic of the comparative method and the logic of rational choice theory, and these …