Since beginning graduate school, I’ve been interested in a small number of questions that have motivated most of my research and teaching. The first concerns the role of theory in empirical research. If the 1950s were a golden age of contemporary sociological theory, in recent years the status of theory in sociology has suffered. After an early flirtation with Marxism, I have gradually been persuaded that good sociological explanations require microfoundations. As such, I became interested in applying rational choice theory to a variety of real-world outcomes.
Despite its utility in explaining social outcomes, rational choice theory has some well-known shortcomings, however. A related line of my research concerns the role of values. Rational choice theory is mute about the reasons that people make the choices they do. According to orthodox versions of the theory, individuals choose that option they confront which is expected to maximize their utility. But standard rational choice theory says nothing about what this utility consists of. Mindful of this problem, I’ve written a number of papers that attempt to measure values indirectly.
Another strand of my research concerns the determinants of cooperation – which sociologists refer to as group solidarity — among unrelated individuals. My principal interest in this respect has been about the causes of nationalism, a pervasive and powerful type of collective action arising from group solidarity writ large. Since nationalists believe that the only legitimate modern polities are national states, they argue that nations (that is, self-conscious cultural groups) must be coterminous with states. More recently, I have been exploring the conditions under which different types of alien rulers — rulers who are culturally different from those who are ruled — can attain legitimacy.
In related research, I am studying (along with Steve Pfaff of the University of Washington sociology department) the causes of mutiny, a form of very high-risk collective action, in the Age of Sail in the Royal Navy from 1740 to 1820.