Looking for a ’genuine Science of Politics’. William H. Riker and the Game Theoretical turn in Political Science


Gianluca Damiani


Publication Number: 2202-07

Publication Date: May 17, 2022

The paper aims to show how the formal revolution in economics has influenced the developments of Rational Choice and Game Theory in Political Science. Our focus will be on American political scientist William H. Riker (1920-1993). We want to show how Riker used game theory and adapted it to fulfill his disciplinary agenda, contrasting the main trends in postwar American Political Science. Our thesis is that, in doing so, Riker stressed some aspects of the theory that differed quite sharply from postwar mathematical economics to which game theory belonged. Sections 1 and 2 describe Riker’s education and intellectual life until the late 1950s, showing how he became acquainted with game theory and how American political science as a discipline was changing in that crucial decade. Section 3 presents Riker’s main arguments in the The Theory of Political Coalitions, focusing on his working through game theory to produce a suitable model of political coalition-building. Section 4 discusses some methodological aspects of Riker’s commitment to game theory and economic analysis. In particular, we aim to outline and discuss an apparent "dilemma" in his theoretical production, namely his resting on an outdated idea of economics, despite his use of game theoretic analysis. Finally, Section 5 offers concluding remarks.