When I was, I guess, in my twenties, I had quite a lot of interest in psychoanalytic theoretical resources. Although there is much to criticise in the Freudian and post-Freudian apparatus, I felt then – and still feel – that the Freudian approach captures something important about human behaviour and emotion. Freud is best, in my view, not in the mechanistic and often embarrassingly arbitrary or ideological attempts to typologise specific behaviours and beliefs in terms of a set of narrowly family-oriented interpersonal relationships – as if these specific family structures are human universals, and as if the rest of our social environment does not impact our psychological formation – but rather in the basic insight that our pyschological behaviours, including those that we aspire to distinguish from our baser motives, are driven by gratifications and pleasures that we often are not open about, either with others or with ourselves.

For Freud ‘libido’ is the master category here, and the analytic strategy of decomposing psychological structures into complex movements of libidinal cathection runs through much of his work. Moreover, the idea that such movements of libidinal cathection are mediated through others – that we are bound into our social sphere by the way in which our own identity is shaped by locating elements of that identity ‘within’ other social actors – is, I think, a way in which the Freudian apparatus valuably opens out onto broader social theory, despite Freud’s own relatively narrow interest in a small number of interpersonal relationships – particularly family relationships – as the locus of psychological formation and transformation.

Since then, in my thirties, I’ve spent a lot of time with a theoretical apparatus that many would see as very different from the psychoanalytic approach: the kinds of mathematised rational choice theory associated with economics and formal political science or sociology. It is easy to see this approach as fundamentally opposed to the Freudian one – emphasising, as it seemingly does, reason over affect, judgement over libido, and so forth. And there’s something to that.

At the same time, though, there are also important overlaps between the Freudian and rational choice approaches. For one thing, rational choice theory of course has its origins and a significant part of its theoretical warrant in a utilitarian approach to the analysis of social life: the idea that fundamentally we are pleasure-maximising creatures, and that our decisions are (‘rationally’) guided by the desire to maximise our gratifications (or some reliable proxy of those gratifications). Both approaches in this sense can easily be seen as ‘debunking’ approaches to social life, such that ‘higher’ matters can be explained by ‘lower’ ones.

At the same time, rational choice theory, like Freudianism, has the capacity to expand the scope of its analysis, to encompass a wide range of behaviours that would not typically be characterised as gratification-oriented. Just as Freudians can specify that libidinal gratifications can reside in (for example) masochistic submission to pain, or repression of desire, or subordination of individual interests to the attempt to fully realise an ego-ideal, or any of a range of other apparently non-pleasure oriented behaviours, so the rational choice theorist can specify that the individual social actor aims to maximise their utility by maximising any arbitrary function in which utility is simply fiated to reside.

This means that, like Freudianism, rational choice theory has the capacity to expand to encompass literally any human behaviour, and is in this manner vulnerable to the charge of pseudo-scientific irrefutability. If any behaviour can be explained as motivated by the instincts and their vicissitudes, or by the rational maximisation of some opaque and convoluted utility function, in what sense are we really engaged in the game of explanation here at all? Are we not simply rewriting our observations or ideas into an all-encompassing theoretical idiom that can never be refuted precisely because it can encompass any and all observations, with the appropriate theoretical tweaks?

I think there is clearly something to this worry or complaint. Both Freudianism and rational choice theory are perhaps best understood less as theories than as frameworks – analytic systems within which theories can be proposed and rejected, but where it is unclear what counter-evidence would justify the rejection of the framework as a whole. This attribute can reasonably been seen as placing these theoretical frameworks outside the space of science. And yet different frameworks make different theories easier to think: some things are much more easily said in one metatheoretical idiom than another. Such idioms can, therefore, I think, be justified on the basis of the theoretical – and thus, potentially, scientific – resources they make more or less readily available. In any case, and despite all the objections, I personally find it valuable to engage in theoretical speculation or discourse at this (quite high) level of abstraction.

At that level of abstraction, then, what can we say about the relationship between Freudian and rational choice resources? At one level, for the reasons gestured at in the last paragraph, we have no obligation to ‘choose’: some theoretical approaches are more fruitful in some contexts, and some in others – there is nothing at all wrong with a theoretical, or a meta-theoretical, pluralism.

At the same time, I increasingly, as I approach my forties, find myself thinking about the relationship between these approaches – and specifically, feeling that the rational choice approach can in many contexts usefully be seen as a special case of the Freudian (broadly understood). If we take it that our master category is something in the space of ‘gratification’, and we see both approaches as analysing individual motivation and behaviour as seeking to maximise ‘gratification’, then it seems to me that the psychoanalytic approach has a more capacious and sophisticated understanding of what gratification consists in. Specifically, where rational choice theory sometimes has difficulty breaking out of the constraints of a narrow methodological individualism, the psychoanalytic apparatus – while of course methodologically individualist in some sense (and in my view none the worse for it – though that is a topic for another post) – can in principle understand our individual gratifications as highly motivated by our investment in broader social structures – one’s ego-ideal, which it is gratifying to preserve and to aim to realise – can be constructed out of the resources available in one’s broader social environment, and one’s investment in or cathection of those resources can be very complex indeed.

Rational choice theory, it seems to me, is most valuable in those common special cases where matters of gratification are quite straightforward – where some relatively simple reward function is a passingly adequate model for individuals’ motives and behaviour. In many cases that concern us as social scientists and social theorists, this is the case. Seeing individuals as wishing to maximise their income, or their power, or their prestige, or some other modelable proxy for ‘gratification’, is a close enough approximation to individual motive in many circumstances that the resources of rational choice theory can frequently be useful.

And yet, of course, as we all know, social life is more complex than such simple models can convey. If we begin with a rational choice theoretical idiom, our attempt to reckon with such complexity can all too often result in either ad hoc re-specifications of individual utility functions, or in the fiating of an alternative realm of behaviour that goes beyond the rational into the ‘ideological’.

Of course, these approaches may bear fruit – and psychoanalytic theory is, as discussed above, no less vulnerable to the ad hoc respecification of gratifications to ensure that theory matches behaviour. But for me, right now at least, it feels more fruitful to see the psychoanalytic apparatus as the more capacious framework. In particular, I feel like the psychoanalytic framework of ‘gratifications’ is more amenable to dismantling the all-too-easily reified distinction between ‘ideology’ and ‘interests’ than is the rational choice approach.

But that is probably best discussed elsewhere, rather than in this post.