Social science model and international relation theories

29 mars, 2016 | Commentaires fermés sur Social science model and international relation theories

In order to clarify the scientific value of social sciences approach to international relations phenomena I provide a summary of the first chapter « Hypotheses, laws and theories : a user’s guide » of Stephen van EVARA’s Guide to methods for students of political science which highlights the rigorous basis of international relations theories.


Theories are general statements that describe and explain the causes and effects of classes of phenomena. They are composed of causal laws which are made of variables.

More precisely, we get the following set of definitions.

  • Law : an observed regular relationship between two phenomena, « if A then sometimes B with probability X ». There are four basic causal patterns :
    • direct causation : « A causes B »
    • reverse causation : « B causes A »
    • reciprocal causation : « A causes B and B causes A »
    • self undermined causation : « A causes B and B lessens A »
  • Explanation : the principle that connect the cause to the phenomenon being caused showing how causation occurs
  • Theory : a set of causal laws together with their explanations of the causal laws that explicates how A causes B
  • Variable : a concept that can have various values
  • Independent variable (IV) : a variable framing the causal phenomenon
  • Dependent variable (DV) : a variable framing the caused phenomenon
  • Intervening variable (IntV) : intervening phenomena are caused by the IV and cause the DV
  • Condition variable (CV) : the values of condition variables determine the intensity of the impact that IV or IntV have on DV.

The set of all the causal laws may be represented through an « arrow diagram » :


In this diagram of a theory, A is the IV, B is the DV, q and r are IntV, C is a CV and Y is a IV causing C. One can display a theory’s explanation at any level of detail and extend an explanation to define more remote causes. Such a diagram constitute a model of the phenomonon.

The utility of a theory is to provide explanations. There are several type of explanations. An explanation tells us what specific causes produced a specific phenomenon and identifies the general phenomenon :

  • Specific explanation : an explanation cast in specific terms that accounts for a distinctive event (for example, German expansionism caused WWII)
  • Non generalized specific explanation : a specific explanation that does not identify the operating cause (for example : Germany caused WWII)
  • Generalized specific explanation : a specific explanation that identifies the theories that govern its operation (for example, expansionism causes war) 

An explanation rest on a priori category, causality. It is composed of phenomenon which are related through this thinking principle :

  • Causal phenomenon : the phenomenon doing the causing
  • Caused phenomenon : the phenomenon being caused
  • Intervening phenomena : phenomena that form the explanation
  • Antecedent phenomena : phenomena whose presence activates the causal action 

Finally, these notions are associated together :