The Logic of Appropriateness
| Nicolai Foss |
To paraphrase Fritz Machlup, the rational-choice model has been a sort of “universal bogey” for many scholars in sociology, psychology, and management. The nature of the alternative(s) has, however, seldom been clarified. Thus, most models of bounded rationality are really variations on the basis RC model.
However, a much-cited attempt to characterize an actual alternative is James March’s notion of the “logic of appropriateness,” which may be characterized thus:
The logic of appropriateness is a perspective that sees human action as driven by rules of appropriate or exemplary behavior, organized into institutions. Rules are followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected, and legitimate. Actors seek to fulfill the obligations encapsulated in a role, an identity, a membership in a political community or group, and the ethos, practices and expectations of its institutions. Embedded in a social collectivity, they do what they see as appropriate for themselves in a specific type of situation” (quoted from this paper).
In in a logic of appropriateness, the agent/actor does not begin by identifying alternatives, preferences, etc. as in the rational choice model, but rather asks, “What kind of situation is this? Who or what am I? What is the appropriate thing to do given who I am?”
Obviously, this idea is very closely related to sociological notions of roles and to ideas about concerning the impact of norms, rules, etc. on action. However, the logic of appropriateness seems to equip action with an element of volition which is sometimes missing from accounts of action that stress roles, etc. Perhaps for this reason the notion has become rather influential perhaps particularly in political science (mainly through the joint work of March and Johan P. Olsen), but also in management and heterodox parts of economics. Thus, a number of evolutionary economists, such as Giovanni Dosi, have embraced it, perhaps because it may be seen as part of the badly missing micro-foundations of the routine construct.
In a recent paper, “Appropriateness and Consequences,” Kjell Goldmann, a political scientist at Stockholm University, very ably dissects the concept. Among other things, Goldmann shows that the two logics of action are in actuality strongly overlapping. I strongly recommend the paper for those who — like me — have been attracted to the concept, but have had reservations because of its mushiness. Here is the abstract of Goldmann’s paper:
Skeptical questions may be raised about the neo-institutionalist approach of James G. March and Johan P. Olsen, in which a “logic of expected consequences” is set against a “logic of appropriateness”: (1) it is difficult to determine what kind of constructs the so-called logics are—whether they are to be seen as perspectives, theories, or ideal types; (2) the logics, far from being mutually excluding, overlap very considerably; (3) analytical utility is debatable not only in the case of the “logic of expected consequences” but also when it is a matter of the “logic of appropriateness”; (4) the normative virtue of substituting a “logic of appropriateness” for a “logic of expected consequences” is less obvious than March and Olsen’s readers may be led to think. It is tempting to conclude that March and Olsen’s approach has proven compelling because of its consequences for the scholarly community rather than by virtue of its analytical appropriateness.
(HT to Nils Stiglitz for the pointer.)