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Rational Choice Theory Analytical Framework

Before I begin on my analytical review of the selected article, I firstly, feel that it is crucial to outline and define what an analytical framework is and what it consists of. Due to the nature of the subject we are assessing, that being ‘social science’, it is clear that researchers have to contend with many different variables from different theoretical standpoints to the vast differing ideological paradigms of this subject. If a study does not possess a proposed analytical framework within its main body of writing, it will often be criticised for being overly descriptive and lacking a precise investigation, thus meaning the academic work will lack clear focus and suffer from being vague.

Secondly, analytical frameworks are many and varied, some utilise observable reality within society from institutions such as family, education and the state. These are ideal if the researcher intends on gathering evidence from that particular institution, allowing the researcher test their hypothesis of Y affects X etc. However many analytical frameworks within the social sciences are usually intertwined to key intellectual theories; these include areas such as Marxism, Rational choice and Network theory. Researchers using these types of framework allow for a focused document, which adopts a particular intellectual theory and systematically evaluates it to the chosen topic area from that standpoint.

All analytical frameworks do share one particular trend whether it is assessing ideologies or the various institutions, their first initial task is to mobilise the intellectual approach through the body of literature. Furthermore this analytical framework must be chosen with careful consideration by academics, as within their chosen framework there will consist of theorists who share similar views on that particular issue. E.g. Rational choice theorists believe that we make choices based upon our personal preference, having theorists support your argument increases validity and strengthens structure of your argument, thus allowing you to raise particular questions such as ‘is there rationality of radical Islam?’ In short these frameworks consist of a set of intellectual tools that guide the researcher through his/her research for example, how to collect, sort, and interpret the results found, obviously guiding is not the only application within the theoretical framework but it also has close links with the particular sub-questions asked within that theory.

Firstly, an important detail to reference about the particular article, is the title of the article itself ‘The Rationality of Radical Islam’ this shows a clear indication of the authors analytical standpoint The use of ‘Rationality’ within the title suggests that Wiktoro & Kaltenhaler are taking a Rational Choice perspective approach within the article. Before I begin on exploring how Wiktoros has employed this rational choice theory to terrorism, it is important to address what rational choice theory really is and its assumptions.

Throughout much of the western hemisphere in the early part of the 21st century, we have witnessed a shift in the way we analyse human behaviour. This shift was at large partly due to the emergence of RCT which has been dominant within economics but has spread to other disciplines. This Rational choice theory consists of three independent theories at its core including ‘social choice theory, game theory and economics. Essentially RCT is actually three things at the same time, because not only does it possess a logical structure to which many use it as a fundamental ideology to theorising. But it is both a normative & empirical method of investigation into the actions and behaviours of the individual.

RCTs primary underlying focus begins with the clear acknowledgment of the individual, not the interaction between several individuals. RCT would therefore advocate a minimalist state which is only used for preserving individual liberties and non invasive on the individual. Furthermore RCT is also concerned with the explanation of all social phenomenons within society whether it be conforming, or deviant acts, it views humans as ‘rational creatures’ meaning there are calculated mental process that exist within our choices. Because rational choice is derived from economics it acknowledges all social exchanges are like that of economic exchanges to which ‘an actor will choose an action rationally, based on a hierarchy of preferences, that promises to maximize benefits and minimize costs’ (Zey 1998 p.2) these basic premises of humans, portray that our decisions are reared towards the sole aim of profit or pleasure.

This article explores the ‘The Rationality of Radical Islam’ it specifically asks the question ‘Why do Islamist radicals engage in high-cost/risk activism’ (Wiktorowicz 2006 p.296) and the incentives behind it. This particular analytical framework is perfect to use as, terrorism throughout the general population is widely considered highly irrational, especially in the case of Jihadist terrorism, as how can you sacrifice yourself and others for a greater good? The reasons many see terrorists and their sympathizers as irrational is due to that their beliefs are so improbable and dogmatic, (Wiktorowicz, cited 2004 in Caplan, 2006 p.97) and what factual evidence do Jihadist terrorists have for gaining a place straight into paradise where they can enjoy the company of 72 virgins? We foresee this ‘certain’ approach as being nothing more than plain foolish, due to the dependency on belief. However Wiktrorowicz believes that we cannot judge an action such as this, as irrational simply because we don’t agree with it, and if the individual is optimizing their top preference then they are acting rationally (Wiktorowicz 2006 p.300).

The second major point tackled by these two authors, is the assessment on the various incentives terrorist organisations offer, as all groups ‘proffers its ideology as an efficient path to salvation, which serves as a heuristic device for in-doctrinal actors to weigh the costs & benefits of certain behaviour’ (Wiktorowicz 2006 p.301). In other words most organisations don’t offer ‘material or worldly goods’ which by western culture does not reflect economic or personal benefit for the individual, but it shows that spiritual good are more important to some. But there is evidence that those who joined Algeria’s armed Islamic groups chose to do so to benefit economically from insurgency, such as smuggling (wiktorowicz 2006 p.302).

Referring back to the previous point, a case study brought up in the article was on the ‘Al-Muhajiroun’ which proved to be a popular group throughout the UK, but after the attacks on 9/11 the British state condemned the group for expressing radical views. However during its time this case study provides a perfect example of payoffs, as the Al-Muhajiron only offered spiritual payoffs for such a high risk activity, many in this group ‘viewed activism and even risk itself as means to achieve salvation and entrance to paradise’ (Wiktorowicz 2006 p.302). These points articulate that RCT doesn’t provide an explanation of preference formation, but explains a strategy of choices under a set of ordered preferences (Wiktorowicz 2006 p.302) so RCT is not concerned with why individuals prioritise terrorism to the top of the list but it just wants to understand why we rationally choose to do something highly illegal and dangerous.

Lastly Bruce Hoffman in regards to rationality of terrorism defines ‘terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence.’ (Hoffman 1998) his use of literature such as ‘deliberate’ & ‘creation’ backs up the arguments of Wiktorowicz that terrorists pre-plan and prepare every step of terrorism, this could be in terms of signing up for Jihadist attacks or the preparation of bombs, the terrorists know what they are doing and gladly do it pursuing their own self interest at any cost.

Delving into the theoretical underpinnings of the article, I firstly, came across within the literature a reference to Mother Teresa in which she advocated that religion was self-sacrificial and wasn’t motivated by external rewards (Wiktorowicz 2006 p.302). This has one of two benefits; one the use of a similar theorist strengthens Wiktorowicz’s argument, as the author is acknowledging a rationale in the idea that material goods are not the only driving force of an individual. And secondly, within this article by Kwilecki & Wilson we can see a clear running theme for RCT as in the opening abstract they state that ‘this paper applies rational choice to the religion of Mother Teresa’ (Kwilecki 2000 p.205).

Lastly, upon viewing Wiktorowicz’s endnote system, we can see the material they used to reference and guide their analysis is heavily interlinked to the analytical framework of RCT, such as ‘the economic approach to human behaviour’ & ‘an introduction to rational choice’ by Jon Estler clearly shows that the theoretical underpinnings all point to a RCT perspective approach and has been applied to the topic of terrorism.

With RCT being a major ideological contender within the social science world over the past six decades, there is now a huge library of literature attacking and defending RCT and is currently still growing. To begin I want to discuss the advantages of this particular approach in general. Firstly, RCT has survived this long due to its genuine fundamental strengths e.g. ‘rationality accords with common sense in certain simple settings. For example, consider a choice between $5 and $10, no strings attached.’ (Herrnstein 1990 p.357) On this basis of behaviour, we would always choose the larger sum of money no matter what, so in a sense arguing against RCT is like arguing against the principal of indisputable truth and against common sense in general.

Second, the sheer power of this theory is an undisputable strength of its own, as it has manifested itself into all disciplines that examine behaviour from political philosophy to the behaviourism in psychology; it is hard to critique such a coherent framework. So it’s ‘generality’ in other words allows assumptions to be placed into a wide variety of topic areas, without them being splintered into a mix of complicated sub-theories. This common deductive base detaches them from other main theories as by reducing the area of disagreement it can work much more efficiently.

Before 9/11 investigations into terrorist cells were minimal, so too were activities regarding anti-terrorism. However after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, we witnessed a major influx with both participants in high risk activities as well as counter terrorism agencies investigating these radical motives. One thing is clear in terms of terrorism is the fact that RCT has opened up radical movements who were ‘previously described as unflappable, ideological zealots trapped by rigid adherence to dogma, are now regarded as strategic thinkers.'(Wiktorowicz 2005 p.13) This approach breathes life into the study of terrorist’s actions and how to counteract such activities e.g. ‘Deterrence’, there is little doubt that old-fashioned deterrence reduces the amount of terrorism, and in theory increasing the risk and severity of being caught should also continue to drop the amount of people who adopt radical beliefs.

Secondly moving on to the general criticisms of this theory, which has seen a wide range of claims made against it, for instance RCT cannot explain the existence of various social phenomenon’s such as trust, reciprocity and especially charity, as in such organisations the masses are the ones benefitting from the individuals actions, and the individual isn’t rationally choosing to maximise their personal benefits. Furthermore in terms of the individual’s choices, it is safe to say that individuals do not possess all knowledge and information on everything & anything, so essentially humans rely on heuristics to guide our thought processes which essentially intelligent guesswork.

This limitation can also go further into the fact that in society today and even in the past, people’s choices are constrained by the many social institutions of society ‘the modal individual will find his or her actions checked from birth to death by familial and school rules; laws and ordinances'(Freidman 1991 p.208) . Continuing on from the last point it’s seems clear that it’s not just institutions & structures holding individuals back, but the pressures of so called ‘acceptable’ behaviour as these social norms are essentially a barrier to the pursuit of self-interest. Lastly on the general criticisms towards RCT I’d like to discuss a point raised in the book by Paul Anard who wrote ‘if rationality is about consistency, including logical consistency, then human agents cannot be considered rational in a full sense.’ (Anard 2002 p.22) This quote articulates a very interesting standpoint against the fundamental underpinnings of this theory as if RCT states we are so rational in mind & body then why do we have inconsistencies of thoughts, and why are these behaviours such a common occurrence within our society.

A weakness RCT has in relation to terrorism is that RCT generally operates in a post-hoc manner where researchers usually examine past precedents to rationalise and predict similar event of the future, (Lindauer 2012 p.8) but in the area of terrorism this is not a good idea, as one terrorism is irrational that mathematically people cannot always predict events and secondly, if a mistake was to be made the consequences could be devastating and traumatic as people’s lives are at risk.

As discussed previously within this essay, RCT has a high number of loyal followers and a wide literature on all subjects, so as RCT is focused upon behaviour, it has made important inroads to other topic areas not just the study of terrorism. One key area RCT is dominant in, is the low turnout rate within elections. RCT states that ‘turnout is, for many people most of the time, a low-cost, low-benefit action.’ (Aldrich 1993 p.261) so will always suffer. This theory has been the backbone of reform and incentives to revert voter apathy and re-engage people back into politics. For example it is important for a political campaign to outline what benefits it will have on the individual causing it to be a high benefit action.

Secondly RCT is prominent within criminology and the rationality of criminals, this topic is similar to terrorism in respect that, RCT argues ‘the decision to commit an offense is negatively related to the perceived costs of crime and positively related to the perceived rewards of crime’ (Nagin 1993 p.479) thus meaning there is a rational mental process taking place within the individual before a crime is committed. Like petty crime is often committed at night or during quiet hours as criminals mentally calculate the benefits, such as they will be less likely to be disturbed or be seen committing a crime. RCT creates a wonderful overview to the behaviours of crime and the individuals within it.

In conclusion the analytical framework utilised within the article of terrorism allows for a detailed and unique perspective on why individuals choose to commit terrorist actions. The author’s use of case studies back up the RCT theory, adding not only depth but lying out clear empirical evidence of Rational choice for the reader to ponder. Because RCT is a ‘more coherent group defined by a very clear methodology (Burnham 2008 p.26) allows the theory to be implemented into other areas. To give an example, the rationality within committing crime can be directly compared and contrasted towards terrorism interlinking the mental process that go with it, thus in turn creating a powerful theory of analysis which has much literature and backing. Lastly, concluding with my thoughts on using an analytical framework within academic research. I feel using a framework is crucial in order obtain an essay that consists of structural rigour. Studying a topic area can be a daunting task especially a very broad topic like many in the social sciences, but using an analytical framework can help break down the topic of your choice helping you research, gather & present your findings into a coherent argument. Furthermore without a set framework the article will attempt to answer more questions than it can answer making it a weak descriptive academic piece of work.

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