Nuts and bolts for the social sciences

Nuts and bolts for the social sciences

Book reviews Jon Elster, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge Press, Cambridge, UK, 1989), pp. viii+ 184, S9.95 (paper). 167 Universit...

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Book reviews

Jon Elster, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge Press, Cambridge, UK, 1989), pp. viii+ 184, S9.95 (paper).

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Economists and other social scientists interested in broader views of human behaviour have come to welcome the continuing flow of books from Jon Elster. Elster has often written on some social phenomenon which we recognize at once as important in the real world, but which is not readily incorporated in the descriptive or normative models of traditional neoclassical economics. I have found his work on these topics to be most enjoyable; they are well-written with many striking illustrative examples of the behaviour under study, and have managed to be, simultaneously, openminded and hard-nosed. The present volume is an extension of this part of Elster’s work, except that it studies human behaviour in its totality. Elster’s objective is ‘to introduce the reader to causal mechanisms that serve as the basic units of the social sciences’ (p. vii), the conceptual nuts and bolts which tend to remain hidden in the final edifice but hold it together. It would be surprising if Elster were unaware of another analogy suggested by his title. The term ‘nuts and bolts’ is often used to refer to a confection commonly served at social gatherings: tasty, salty tidbits in various small shapes, which tend to be compulsively addictive once they’ve been sampled. This analogy is not meant to be dismissive of Elster’s book; nuts and bolts provide an interest and stimulation which is valuable, when added to a wellbalanced diet, and lead one on as weightier fare does not. Nuts and Bolts is Elster’s guide to those constructs ‘that can be used to explain quite complex social phenomena’ (p. 3). His starting point is the methodological individualism which underpins the analysis of most economists, and which insists that the decisions and behaviour of individuals must determine aggregate outcomes including the behaviour of institutions and society at large. Beginning with a discussion of the ‘Desires and Opportunities’ of individuals (Chapter II) he proceeds through fourteen topics to a discussion of ‘Social Change’ (Chapter XVI). These fifteen chapters are divided into two parts, the first of eight chapters, dealing with ‘Human Action’, and the second dealing with ‘Interactions’, including interrelationships between individuals and social aggregates. Economists will feel very comfortable with Elster’s starting point for the discussion of individual choice. Action (behaviour) results from the joint pressure of desires and opportunities, though Elster stresses that these must be mediated through the beliefs of the individual (Chapter II). Chapter III then details, in simple verbal terms, a model of rational choice. Rational choice involves: (i) collecting an optimal amount of information, (ii) using the information optimally to generate beliefs and

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(iii) given these beliefs, selecting preference level possible.

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Economics, in both its narrower and more imperialistic guises, is the social science most inclined to explain behaviour by such a formal rational choice model. The remainder of this part of Elster’s book is a primer on other mechanisms utilised by social scientists to explain individual behaviour. Some of the mechanisms include instances in which choices derive largely from conscious deliberation, but not in the manner normally envisioned in the rational choice model; this set includes biased information processing, wishful thinking, myopia, genuine altruism and behaviour driven by emotions. The remaining two chapters of the section of the book dealing with human actions consider two mechanisms for explaining human behaviour which are often employed by social scientists, but which do not lay primary emphasis upon processes of individual cognition - evolutionary (sociobiological) explanations, and psychological reinforcement. As noted, Elster argues that understanding in the social sciences must be based, ultimately, on an understanding of the behaviour of individuals. However, life in a social setting means that interactions between individuals are often of primary interest to social scientists. This is true in two quite different ways: the aggregate of individual behaviour generates social outcomes, and the social settings influence individual behaviour. Elster sees such interactions, generally, as involving ‘unintended consequences’ (Chapter X), including externalities, incorrect expectations (illustrated by the cobweb model of an economic market) and unplanned feedbacks from actions upon desires and opportunities (e.g., addiction). Several of the chapters in this part of Elster’s book deal with concepts familiar to economists, including the idea of equilibria and an assessment of factors which influence the likelihood of equilibrium results (Chapter XI). Other chapters discuss problems in attaining benefits when collective action is required (Chapter XIII), and in bargaining (Chapter XIV). The remaining concepts discussed include social norms (Chapter XII), social institutions (Chapter XV) and social change (Chapter XVI). Social norms are viewed as another explanation for certain aspects of human behaviour, one which might be considered (like reinforcement) nonrational in that social norms do not tend to lead to careful comparisons amongst alternative outcomes. Most economists will probably feel considerable affinity with Elster’s individualist orientation, and the resultant reluctance to attach primary explanatory significance to concepts which describe social aggregates (other than social norms), and his skepticism about the efftcacy of social planning. Nuts and Bolts provides a very readable overview of basic concepts commonly used in the social sciences, with a variety of arresting illustrative examples of individual and social behaviour, and several simple graphical

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expositions. It is not a ‘how-to’ manual, and has no technical guidelines for application of the concepts discussed, though a Bibliographical Essay directs the reader to important references. Elster succeeds admirably in avoiding the obvious pitfalls of oversimplification and obscure jargon. He maintains a reasoned critical stance throughout; readers are not likely to agree with all his judgements, although I expect that most economists who are willing to go beyond the narrowest rationality model will be sympathetic to Elster’s views. My only real criticism would be the failure to include a summary chapter to provide an overview of the book and bring the disparate threads together. Elster’s Nuts and Bolts can be highly recommended to newcomers to consideration of questions about the economic and social behaviour of individuals and institutions. It would be ideal as an introduction to a course in behavioural economics, providing a sound grounding for any number of specific topics which might be covered later in the course. Whether it will appeal to those who have long been considering broader questions of economic behaviour is more problematic. I found it woithwhile, although I’m not sure it will much change my way of viewing the world; but it was most refreshing to see an intelligent expert’s assessment of the overall terrain in which we social scientists labour. Alan J. MacFadyen The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alta., Canada