Social Norms and Economic Theory

Originally published in Journal of Economic Perspectives 3 (4), 1989
  • Jon Elster


Elster contrasts two distinct and frequently opposing social science traditions. One was fostered by Adam Smith and is carried forward today by neoclassical economists and rational-choice theorists in political science. It views humans as “economic men,” that is, as motivated by egoistic material concerns. The other tradition has its roots in the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, provides the basis for much contemporary sociology and has adherents among political scientists, particularly political culture theorists such as Eckstein (1988). It views humans as social creatures, having duty-based and other obligations to their fellows. “Sociological man’s” activity is thus constrained by shared social (cultural) norms. Elster is skeptical that these cultural norms generally realize individual self-interest as this is understood in the rational-choice tradition. Indeed, elsewhere he distinguishes “economic man” rationality and “nonrational” cultural norms even more sharply than he does in this chapter (Elster 1989b). Overall, Elster holds that, for the most part, cultural norms neither arise from rationality, as neoclassical economists understand it, nor do they serve it.


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Copyright information

© Lane Crothers and Charles Lockhart 2000

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  • Jon Elster

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