The world is going through an ethnic and nationalistic resurgence. In political science, however, rational choice theories and methods have acquired great popularity over the last decade and a half. These theories have, on the whole, dealt with the politics of interests — who gets what, how and why — in the relatively institutionalized setting of a legislature or a bureaucracy. Can the politics of ethnic and national identities — who am I? where am I coming from? — be analyzed in a rational choice framework? This paper argues that standard rational choice models, based on instrumental rationality, are unable to explain a) why people feel ethnic or nationalistic, and b) why a free–rider problem does not cripple ethnic or national mobilization. To provide a better explanation, a Weberian distinction between value–rationality and instrumental rationality is reclaimed. Both of these rationalities are expressions of goal–directed behavior, but their conceptions of costs widely diverge. Instrumental rationality entails a strict cost–benefit calculus with respect to goals; value–rational behavior is produced by goals and beliefs that are indifferent to the costs of realizing them. The origins of ethnic mobilization are value–rational, but the mobilization cannot be sustained without strategic considerations. Drawing upon wideranging examples, a three–fold taxonomy of ethnic behavior is proposed; pure value–rational; pure instrumental-rational; and a combination of value– and instrumental rationality. Most ethnic conflicts belong to the third category.
Working Paper 95–11, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 1995.