Existential uncertainty and the will to conform: The expressive basis of Coleman's rational choice paradigm

Gad Yair*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


This article provides a new reading of Coleman's rational choice paradigm. Coleman's overt assumptions about action depicted the latter to be purposive and rational, suggesting that action is taken in order to maximize long-term instrumental utility. This article shows that, in his empirical studies, Coleman relied on expressive assumptions about the motives of action, in particular self-related existential anxieties. Coleman argued that in response to their uncertainty, actors choose to emulate others because conformity allows them to secure their social position in the short term. The decisive motive which appears to drive action is not the maximization of instrumental utility, but rather the short-term reduction of existential uncertainty. According to the standards Coleman set for a pure rational choice model, this type of conformist rationality is not rational in the long run. Future studies may improve on prior efforts to utilize the rational choice program by appreciating that the most known figure in this school himself held two alternative conceptions of action: expressive and rational.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)681-698
Number of pages18
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2007


  • American sociology
  • Coleman
  • Parsons
  • Rational Choice Theory


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