Is sociology the science of the irrational? Conceptions of rationality in sociological theory

Research paper by Milan Zafirovski

Indexed on: 01 Mar '05Published on: 01 Mar '05Published in: The American sociologist


This paper explores the role of the concept of rationality in (especially classical) sociological theory. This exploration is prompted by widely held views, especially among economists and rational choice theorists, that classical sociology is the science of the irrational lacking a conception of rationality. By using pertinent examples (mostly) from classical and post-classical (or early contemporary) sociological theory, the paper casts serious doubt on such claims. Specifically, classical sociological theory is characterized by the following features in analyzing rationality: conceptual and methodological pluralism, theoretical and empirical richness, treating rationality as a complex social phenomenon, differentiating economic and noneconomic rationality, acknowledging the social character and foundation of (economic) rationality, and contrasting epistemological or scientific rationality and ontological or reallife irrationality, including the revelation of the irrationality of extreme (economic) rationality.