Rational Choice/Area Studies/Democratic Transition in Korea

My research in this area concerns the ongoing debate on the usefulness of rational choice theory in analyzing political phenomena in non-Western world.  The opponents of rational choice theory have argued that an actor's goals depend on a culturally unique set of values, and there is no culture-independent way of charactering a person's goals and preferences.  The model of behavior driven by self-interest is itself a culturally specific mode of behavior, present in some cultures and absent in others.  Critics maintain that the concept of (economic) rationality applies to the forms of market society that emerged in the West in the early modern period.  The rational choice approach is further criticized for ignoring traditions and norms of communities and collectivities by paying attention solely to the self-interest of individuals, even though collective norms are fundamental social factors in these still traditional societies (e.g., Polanyi 1957, Geertz 1971, Cheng and Tallian 1995, and Johnson 1997).  On the other hand, some rational choice theorists have successfully applied rational choice theory to their analyses of non-Western countries (e.g., Popkin 1979, 1991, Bates 1981, 1988, 1989, Geddes 1991, Przeworski 1992, and Bates, et al 1998).

Another on-going debate is about the usefulness of rational choice theory in analyzing particular real world situations. The rational choice school has been known for its ability to develop general theories. With its methodological sophistication, it has developed prominent theories with many testable hypotheses, but according to its critics, little attention was paid to the individual and real-world political events by this school. Critics point to the abstract and logical character of game theory, but do so in order to condemn it. The failures of rational choice theory, Green and Shapiro declare, are “rooted in the aspiration of rational choice theorists to come up with universal theories of politics.” The result, they argue, is a preoccupation with theory development, accompanied by a striking “paucity of empirical application.” Research “becomes theory driven rather than problem driven”; its purpose is “to save or vindicate some variant of rational choice theory, rather than to account for… political phenomena” (Green and Shapiro 1994).  These criticisms of rational choice theory led to “rational choice vs. area studies” debate in political science (e.g., Bates 1997a, 1997b, Johnson 1997, Lustick 1997).

To test the usefulness of rational choice theory in the analyses of real-world events in non-Western societies, I utilize political events in Korea.  Thematically I am especially interested in the institutional changes during the democratic transition in Korea.  As the country undergoes the democratization process, rules and institutions of political games need to change as those of the authoritarian era become increasingly unacceptable.  My argument here is that these changes in institutions do not necessarily occur out of normative concerns.  Most likely, these changes are end outcomes of political bargaining among political elites who calculate the potential political benefit/cost of available options.  Utilizing this argument and game theory, I have analyzed political events in Korea ranging from the 1990 three-party merger, and an attempt to change the nation’s electoral law in the late 90’s to the recent changing relationships between North Korea and South Korea and between the U.S.A. and North Korea.  All these events had some puzzling aspects at first glance.  But by carefully defining relevant players, their preferences, and the strategies available to them, it became clear why these seemingly strange events occurred when all relevant players behaved in a rational fashion.

 My work in this area produced a succession of journal articles: Kim. (1992, 1994a, 1994b, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2006) and Kim and Choi. (2002, 2005, 2007).  This project produced an award-winning book, Rationality and Politics in the Korean Peninsula (Woosang Kim, co-editor), published by Michigan State University in 1995.  A Compilation of my recent work, Korean Democracy in Transition: A Rational Blueprint for Developing Societies was published in 2011 by the University of Kentucky Press.  The Fulbright Foundation and the Korea Foundation funded this research, and the Florida State University granted a sabbatical leave for writing the final draft of this book.  In 2013, a collection of game-theoretic analyses was published as a book, 게임이론으로 푸는 한국의 민주주의, by Seoul National University Press.