Day: June 21, 2013

The Relational Sociology of Rational-Choice Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eric Grynaviski, who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. 

There has been a debate on the Duck lately about the meaning of rational choice theory and game theory, and how it’s different from varied alternative approaches (here, here, and here). I wanted to offer a different interpretation than Arena and Jackson. Both give pretty orthodox interpretations, where game theory treats human agents as economic agents interested in maximizing their utility. I wanted to offer a sociologically richer interpretation, concentrating on the idea of how agents react to strategic interdependence.

At the heart of the logic of n-person games is the idea that the best move I make can be affected by what others will do. This is the idea of strategic interdependence. Nexon writes about strategic interdependence that it’s no big deal:  “Strategically interdependent preferences of individual actors are not the same thing as a collection of relationally embedded actors.”

The way game theory deals with strategic interdependence gets us into relationally embedded actors. It is a really big deal sociologically speaking. Continue reading


Moving Beyond Tilly

Swiss Pike SquaresEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Michael Martoccio, who is a PhD candidate of Early Modern History with a minor specialization in IR Theory at Northwestern University. His research broadly examines the role of cooperation in shaping political change in Europe, c. 1300-1700. His projects include a study of cooperation-building institutions in Central Italy, the late medieval market for sovereign rights, and a comparative analysis of city-leagues on both sides of the Alps. tl;dr notice: ~1800 words.

Tilly’s war-making/state-making thesis has taken a number of knocks recently. The turn from a geographically/historically-specific thesis to a global/ahistorical axiom caused much damage. Cultural explanations of state emergence also short changed those normative elements (the “claims-making, resistance, bargaining, and legitimation” components Dan mentions) of Tilly’s thesis. Dan’s post corrects many of these misinterpretations and recovers critical elements of Tilly’s legacy.

However, a number of unresolved issues remain in both Tilly’s original work and Dan’s revision. Tilly made two errors: (1) he over-calculated the coercive power of early modern sovereigns and undervalued the critical role of coordination dilemmas; and (2) he mislabeled the objects of analysis “states” and ignored the powerful effects of interwoven early modern hierarchies in preference for an anarchic state system of international interaction. Relationalism partially corrects these faults, but adds a few ahistorical categories that need to be unknotted. Continue reading


The “Fear” Factor in “Killer Robot” Campaigning

robotlogoOne of the more specious criticisms of the “stopkillerrobots” campaign is that it is using sensationalist language and imagery to whip up a climate of fear around autonomous weapons. So the argument goes, by referring to autonomous weapons as “killer robots” and treating them as a threat to “human” security, campaigners manipulate an unwitting public with robo-apocalyptic metaphors ill-suited to a rational debate about the pace and ethical limitations of emerging technologies.

For example, in the run-up to the campaign launch last spring  Gregory McNeal at Forbes opined:

HRW’s approach to this issue is premised on using scare tactics to simplify and amplify messages when the “legal, moral, and technological issues at stake are highly complex.” The killer robots meme is central to their campaign and their expert analysis.

McNeal is right that the issues are complex, and of course it’s true that in press releases and sound-bytes campaigners articulate this complexity in ways designed to resonate outside of legal and military circles (like all good campaigns do), saving more detailed and nuanced arguments for in-depth reporting. But McNeal’s argument about this being a “scare tactic” only makes sense if people are likelier to feel afraid of autonomous weapons when they are referred to as “killer robots.”

Is that true? Continue reading


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