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Unit information: Rational Choice in 2014/15

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Unit name Rational Choice
Unit code POLI21203
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Wickham-Jones
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law

Description including Unit Aims

The central aims of this unit are to provide an introduction to different theories of rational choice, including game theory, and to examine their application to political problems. Rational choice theories involve the application of rationality to explain the decisions people make. They encompass analysing matters such as: How and why do individuals choose to cooperate with each other rather than engage in conflict? Do individuals act in a deliberate and calculating way at all times, and do they always seek to promote their own self-interest? The ability of rational choice theories to explain political phenomena will be considered in both theoretical and empirical terms.

The unit will consider how rational choice explains such matters as voting decisions, the strategies and policies that parties choose, the nature of the state, and the problem of collective action.


  • To acquaint students with contemporary ideas about political science, in the form of rational choice theories and their relationship to political problems;
  • to encourage students to develop a more critical approach to politics;
  • to analyse some political puzzles using the tools of rational choice and consider potential explanations that those tools offer;
  • to encourage students to develop a critical awareness of the limitations of rational choice theory.

Intended Learning Outcomes

  1. A foundation in some of the key aspects of rational choice theory;
  2. an understanding of some potential applications of rational choice theory to political issues;
  3. an ability to write clearly and analytically making use of the relevant material to assess aspects of rational choice theory in a critical fashion;

Teaching Information

2 x 1hr lecture and 1hr seminar.

Assessment Information

  • one 2,000 word formative essay.
  • one 3,000 word classificatory essay. This essay assesses learning outcomes 1, 2 and 3.

Reading and References

  • M. Laver Private Desires, Political Action (Sage)
  • Andrew Hindmoor, Rational Choice (Palgrave)
  • Stephen Parsons, Rational Choice and Politics (Continuum)
  • I. McLean Public Choice (Blackwell)
  • D. Chong Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement (Chicago)
  • W. Poundstone Prisoner's Dilemma (Double)