Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 3 No. 4 (Fall 1989)


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Social Norms and Economic Theory

Article Citation

Elster, Jon. 1989. "Social Norms and Economic Theory." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3(4): 99-117.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.3.4.99


One of the most persistent cleavages in the social sciences is the opposition between two lines of thought conveniently associated with Adam Smith and Emile Durkheim, between homo economicus and homo sociologicus. Of these, the former is supposed to be guided by instrumental rationality, while the behavior of the latter is dictated by social norms. In this paper I characterize this contrast more fully, and discuss attempts by economists to reduce norm-oriented action to some type of optimizing behavior. Social norms, as I understand them here, are emotional and behavioral propensities of individuals. Are norms rationalizations of self-interest? Are norms followed out of self-interest? Do norms exist to promote self-interest? Do norms exist to promote common interests? Do norms exist to promote genetic fitness?

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Elster, Jon (U Chicago)

JEL Classifications

011: General Economics


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