The Role of Theory
Stephen Peter Rosen
Dealing with Complexity:
The problem with common sense
A. How do we make sense of the complex reality of international relations?
Millions of individuals, geography, economics, ideas about justice,
religion, ideology, technology, demography, military forces, battles,
charismatic leaders, climate, disease
B. What matters?
We do not know, so we make assumptions
C. How does the world work? We make assumptions about causal
mechanisms, about how people make decisions
D. Where do those assumptions come from?
From what is familiar, what we
What is familiar?
Local, domestic social interactions,
not interactions with foreigners, armies, governments.
So our assumptions
may not be appropriate.
Do we share the same familiar experiences?
John Mearsheimer and Sister Theresa.
assumptions should we use? We cannot know that assumptions may be
arbitrary or inappropriate until we make those assumptions visible.
Common sense does not do that.
So we need ways of making sense of reality and ways of evaluating those
This is the role of explicit theory construction
A. What are we trying to explain?
Why thing happen, or cause and effect
relationships. More specifically, variables and variations in behavior.
Why not relations that always hold true? A
relation that always holds true is an identity or a tautology.
Mutations are always associated with changes in the structure of
That tells you that mutations ARE changes in the structure
We want to know what the cause of variations in behavior, why
things happen more or less frequently, with higher or lower levels
of intensity, greater or longer duration.
Why does peace
sometimes last a long time?
Why do some wars have higher
We look for the causes of the variation in the thing we want to
We call what we want to understand the dependent
variable, because we are treating it, for the time being as the result
of something else, though we know we could look at it differently