Doug McAdam


Rational choice theory has achieved widespread influence in a number of social science disciplines, most notably economics and political science. Given its prominent position within economics, it is not surprising that rational choice theory (and other rationalist perspectives) dominates theory and research on the corporation and decision-making by corporate actors. By contrast, however, the theory has failed to gain more than a toehold in sociology. Indeed, most sociologists are downright hostile to rational choice theory. When pressed to explain why, those in the discipline are very likely to complain that the perspective is “asociological”; that the theory posits an atomized conception of the individual that does not accord with the “sociological perspective.” But when it comes to human sociability, what exactly is the “sociological perspective?” Beyond the rather facile assertion that humans are profoundly “social creatures,” sociologists have done little to fashion a distinctive account of what that actually means. After all, lots of species are intensely social, perhaps none more so than ants. Surely we are not so-cial in the same sense that ants are. Our closest evolutionary relatives—gorillas and chimpanzees—are also very social species, and social in many ways that mirror human sociability. But there are also myriad ways in which human social life is qualitatively different from that of even our closest evolutionary cousins. Bottom line: to dismiss rational choice theory for its failure to honor the extent to which we are “social creatures” is to evade the real question: what is the distinctive essence of human sociability? I will not pretend to offer anything like a complete answer to that question here, but believing that social life—including economic behavior and corporation decision making—is shaped by far more than rational calculus and narrow material motives, I want to use my contribution to the volume to call your attention to an evolutionary puzzle that has fascinated and perplexed me for at least 30 years and which, I’m convinced, renders narrow economistic theories of human behavior untenable. So while I certainly will not deliver on anything remotely resembling an alternative to narrow “economic man,” I hope my sensitizing remarks will at least begin to suggest the kind of “micro-foundation” we would need to fashion to fully grasp the complexities of human behavior, including those that govern the economic realm and corporate life in particular.