Study/Discussion Questions on Green and Shapiro

1. What is "the Grandmother Test"? What's its relevance to applications of rational choice theory in political science?

2. Green and Shapiro object to what they call "method-driven" research, which they believe to be characteristic of rational choice theory. What is wrong with method-driven research? What alternative is there to method driven research? Couldn't one argue that research in the natural sciences is almost always method-driven? Would Green and Shapiro concede this? If they did, would their objections to rational choice theory crumble, or could they still be defended?

3. What is Shepsle's "First Law of Wingwalking"? What connection does it has to Lakatos' philosophy of science? Do Green and Shapiro accept this law? Does it undercut their criticism of rational choice theory?

4. Green and Shapiro write, "Some rational choice theorists are universalists because they believe that utility maximization is the wellspring from which all human behavior emanates." (262) Why is this a problematic claim to make?

5. Green and Shapiro suggest (263) that their problem is not with rational choice theories but with the universalist ambitions of rational choice theories. What is their real beef with rational choice theories?

6. Green and Shapiro object that given their ceteris paribus clauses, rational choice theories may be dealing with only one percent of the causes. How can one apportion causal responsibility between rational choice causes and other causal factors? How do causal factors other than rationality itself enter into rational choice theories? Do other causal factors play any role?

7. Green and Shapiro maintain that rational choice explanations should be expected to perform well when:

  1. The stakes are high and the players are self-conscious optimizers
  2. Preferences are well-ordered and realtively fixed
  3. Actors are presented with a clear range of options and little opportunity for strategic innovation
  4. The situation is not too complex strategically
  5. Actors have the chance to learn from feedback

Why do they think this? Do you think that rational choice explanations can be expected to perform well only when these five conditions are satisfied?