Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education
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Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education

Edited by Rolf Becker

Presenting original contributions from the key experts in the field, the Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education explores the major theoretical, methodological, empirical and political challenges and pressing social questions facing education in current times.
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Chapter 4: The rational choice paradigm in the sociology of education

Volker Stocké

Abstract

In the sociology of education, the rational choice paradigm may be considered the dominant model used to explain educational choices and inequalities in education. The two main versions of this theoretical perspective come from the field of psychology (the theory of planned behaviour) and the field of sociology (rational choice theory). Both theories congruently hold that educational choices and inequalities in education are the result of instrumentally rational choices that take different levels of resource scarcity into account. Apart from this consensus, the two versions of the theory differ in their theoretical determination of the explanatory factors deemed relevant and in the level of rationality attributed to the actors. A growing number of empirical studies explore the empirical adequacy of the assumptions drawn by each of these two theoretical versions and check the validity of the resulting prognoses. This chapter compares the basic assumptions drawn by the theoretical versions of the rational choice paradigm and presents an overview of the current state of the empirical examination. The results show that both the theory of planned behaviour and rational choice theory cover important aspects of educational choices and can explain a relevant part of the effects of social origin. Empirical evidence, however, reveals certain limitations of these two versions of rational choice theory. Possible solutions to this problem are discussed in the conclusions at the end of this contribution.

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