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
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
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