Rational choice theory may seem like a separate theoretical approach with its own forbidding mathematics. However, the central assumptions of rational choice theory are very similar to those in mainstream political behavior and even interpretive sociology. Indeed, many of the statistical methods used in empirical political behavior assume axiomatic models of voter choice. When we consider individual voting behavior, the contribution of rational choice has been to formalize what empirical political scientists do anyway, and provide some new tools. However, it is when we consider collective voting choice—what elections mean and what kind of policy outcomes result—that rational choice leads to new, counterintuitive insights. Rational choice also has a normative dimension. Without voter rationality the traditional understanding of democracy as popular choice makes little sense.
Jan W. van Deth
Vibrant democracies are characterized by a continuous expansion of the available forms of participation. This expansion has confronted many researchers with the dilemma of using either a dated conceptualization of participation excluding many new modes of political action or stretching their concept to cover almost everything. Demarcation problems are especially evident for many newer, “creative,” “personalized,” and “individualized” modes of participation such as political consumption, street parties, or guerrilla gardening, which basically concern nonpolitical activities used for political purposes. Moreover, the use of Internet-based technologies for these activities (“connective action”) makes it almost impossible to recognize political participation at first sight. Because social, societal, and political developments in democratic societies have made the search for a single encompassing definition of political participation obsolete, an alternative approach is to integrate the core features of political participation in a conceptual map. Five modes cover the whole range of political participation systematically and efficiently, based on the locus (polity), targeting (government area or community problems), and circumstance (context or motivations) of these activities. While the rise of expressive modes of participation especially requires the inclusion of contextual information or the aims and goals of participants, attention is paid to the (dis)advantages of including these aspects as defining criteria for political participation. In this way, the map offers a comprehensive answer to the question “what is political participation” without excluding future participatory innovations that are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.