Collins: "The Nonrational Foundations Of Rationality"


  1. Intro: the problem
  2. The Precontractual Basis of Contracts
  3. The Free-Rider Problem
  4. The Rise of Contractual Society
  5. Power and Solidarity

Opening Parable

Help me fix my flat tire.

Intro: the problem

OBVIOUS: Conventional wisdom: Rationality as definitive distinctive quality of humanity. Strong normative overtones.
NON-OBVIOUS: Rationality not definitive essence of being human. Not absolute, natural, primordial, given.
CLAIMS: (A) Rationality limited and situational. (B) Rationality (social contract) not basis of society.

  1. PROOF of A (rationality not absolute, etc.)
    1. If rationality is all it's cracked up to be, there should be convergence, but rational experts often disagree.
    2. Rational processes produce irrational results. Unintended consequences abound.
      • bureaucracy1, for example, hyper-rational structures can produce irrational outcomes (cf. (4) Weber)
      • In fact, two subtypes: functional v. substantive rationality (Karl Mannheim)
      • Marx** (6) makes similar point: individually rational actions of capitalists reduce everything to profit and diminish humans and doom the system (that is, lead to substantively irrational results)

The Precontractual Basis of Contracts

  1. PROOF of B (Rationality not even the basis of society anyway (7) (Durkheim))
    1. "social contract" is conventional "explanation" for society (9)
      1. Cooperators have advantages so it is rational to cooperate
      2. But strict rationality often says "be selfish" — cheating, free-riding, trumps not-cheating.
    2. Contract is always two contracts (10)
      1. Content
      2. Agreement that contracts work
    3. Not that social organization is impossible, just that it's not based on rationality alone (11)
    4. contracts depend on pre-contractual solidarity — trust
      1. What about long-term? Maybe it is rational to cooperate over long term? (13)
        1. In fact, this IS a condition that can affect whether/how rationality works to support society

The Free-Rider Problem

  1. DEF. In situations where you can get the benefits without contributing, it is rational to let others do the work.
      1. Point: we can't rely on individual rationality to "solve" the free-rider problem.
      2. Bystander effect.
    1. "FINDING" (17) "a good deal of social life must be carried out in an explicitly organized, collective form or it can't be carried out at all.

The Rise of Contractual Society

  1. Question of social history: what makes it possible for strangers to have dealings with one another?
    1. Social technology precedes material technology
    2. Industrial revolution accompanied by religious revolution (21)

Power and Solidarity

  1. Another counterargument: even if contracts cannot be upheld by rationality alone, why rely on a mystification: all you need is an enforcement mechanism.
    1. Good point. Legal system evolution is big part of story. State is important. Not just trust, also force.
      1. But it just pushes the argument back one step. What upholds the state? Why do cops and prosecutors do their job? Why aren't they easily corrupted?
      2. They obey because the state will punish them otherwise.
        1. But how did the state get there? Legitimacy. Again, we end up at a social construct.
        2. No faction can dominate without solidarity in its own ranks (24.3)
    2. BOTTOM LINE: NOT one big solidary group. NOT aggregate of rational individuals. (24.6)
  2. Nonrational sentiments critical to social organization but they are a variable. (24.8)
  3. DJR: Why do I trust the bank with my electronic transactions? Why do you trust Mills will give you an education?
  4. We study SOLIDARITY AND CONFLICT. (257) There is no group conflict without group solidarity.

Sample Tweets

TWEET (26.6) Marx's "class consciousness" is recognizing group interest over individual interest, but it does not automatically happen “rationally.”
TWEET (26.9) When groups do form, what determines how many there will be?
TWEET (27.3) Do real world conflicting groups really ever coalesce into two big factions as Marx described? Skocpol says no.
TWEET (27.6) Under what conditions to groups (families, parties, etc.) form at all, merge, split apart, etc.?
TWEET (27.9) Group organization does not depend on rational consciousness (Marx), but on feelings of similarity and belonging.
TWEET (28.2) Rational interests exist, but they can both unite and divide, free-riding is always a temptation.
TWEET (28.7) Moral feelings created by social rituals transform interests into rights.
TWEET (29.1) It all comes down to trust. Where does trust come from? Social rituals. Next chapter is about that.

Concepts, terms, people

bureaucracy (4)
bystander effect
class conflict (27.5)
class consciousness (26.7)
contractual economy (20.9)
Durkheim (7)
ethnomethodology (8)
free rider (13)
functional v substantive
functionalism (7)

Garfinkel (8)
Goffman (8)
Kitty Genovese (15)
legitimacy (23.8)
long term contracts (21)
Mannheim (5)
Marx (6)
Max Weber (21.6)
medieval Europe (20)

middle ages (21)
moral feelings
network (5.4)
pre-contractual solidarity
power (21)
Protestant Ethic (21.6)
rationality (3)
ritual (8)

secular world (8)
self interest
social contract (9)
social rituals (28.8)
solidarity (9)
symbolic (19.2)
Theda Skocpol (27.5)
unintended consequences
Weber (4

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License