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POLI 243 - Introduction: Themes and Goals

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Political Science
POLI 243
Mark Brawley

Why Should We Study International Relations? We try to understand international events in terms of patterns of activity. Specifically, we want to understand causal patterns. Theories or models are used by social scientists to simplify events in the world. The textbook focuses on explaining why certain events happened in the past in order to establish causal patterns, which will hopefully provide guidelines as to how to act in the future. “The future may differ from the past in innumerable ways, so there is always the possibility—even the likelihood—that any predictions we make based on models of past behaviour will be somewhat inaccurate. But just because we cannot predict the future with total certainty does not mean we should forego any planning or any attempt to make educated or informed analyses of the possibilities (or probabilities) of something happening” (14). Political science differs from history precisely because it emphasizes the development of generalizable causal theories. That is, political scientists try to understand the linkage between cause and effect, and to compare the linkage to other events. What is a Theory? A law is an established relationship between variables, one which has been observed with such strength and number that we can expect the relation to continue into the future. There are very few (none?) laws in political science. A theory is “a speculative process for explaining observed relationships between variables” (16). A variable is the force or factor of cause and effect. The dependent variable is 'the effect,' because it is dependent on changes to 'causes,' or causal or independent variables. A complex theory would elaborate the relationship between a variety of independent and dependent variables. International relations is usually concerned with the behaviour of states or non-state actors (corporations, parties, etc.) as the dependent variables of its theories. Because laws are so rare in political science, and IR especially, the discipline is instead comprised of various theories. Because we are not sure about the certainty of the relationships between variables in our theories, there is always a chance that we will be wrong. Hence, there is much debate over which theories are more persuasive. Moreover, it is important to always approach political science with a sense of humility; we should always try to improve theories, but also keep in mind that perfect predictions are unattainable. The Qualities of Theories Ways to judge theories: 1) Accuracy – How accurate is this theory? What percentage of the time will it make accurate predictions? 2) Generalizability – How broadly can this theory be applied? For how many cases is this theory usef
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