Currently in the field of comparative politics, there are three main models that researchers tend to adhere to. These three are termed “rationalist”, “structuralist”, and “culturalist.” Each model has a quite distinct approach toward analysis of political phenomena. Simplified, they are as follows: the structuralist model examines the behavior of people based on the groups they belong to; the culturalist model takes careful note of the details surrounding particular events with respect to the distinguishing characteristics of the environment (or culture) that contained them; the rationalist model is based on logical explanations and predictions of behavior from the fundamental assumption of rational, self-interested individuals. Each model has benefits and drawbacks, however the rationalist model comes closest to what many would term “science” in the field that is somewhat controversially labeled “Political Science”.
The rationalist model is a serious attempt by political scientists to apply a much more logical and mathematical approach to comparative politics than other models can offer. The ultimate goal with a rationalist model is to find laws that can be universally applied to identifiable situations, with a predictable outcome. In order to achieve this lofty goal, concise mathematical formulas are made to represent issues. A fundamental assumption in these formulas is the rational individual who acts to maximize their interests. It is hoped that analyzing the aggregate behavior of these individuals will yield the laws and predictions expected by those utilizing this model.
The rationalist school of modeling has a common ancestry with economics. Adam Smith, the prominent economic theorist and advocate of the free market is credited with helping to lay out the path for this model. Many of the predominate thinkers in this school of modeling were also established economists, for example Anthony Downs and Mancur Olson. This background in economics was a clear influence on these important contributors, as many of the approaches they take are borrowed from economics.
Mancur Olson, in his influential book The Logic of Collective Action, uses the rationalist model to argue that many of the prevailing attitudes regarding group behavior are flawed. Olson starts with the description of a large group of rational, self-interested individuals who all share a common goal. His assertion is that the traditional view of these groups would have them acting as a simple extension of a self-interested individual – meaning that the group would act in accordance to further the shared goal. There are several problems with this assumption. One is...