What can social science learn from natural science?
Like all social sciences, the field of international relations attempts to provide both theoretical and practical insights into human behavior through the application of scientific principles. The inherent difficulty in social sciences, however, is just that – the attempt to provide insight into human behavior, which is notoriously resistant to attempts at predicting it through the means of logic. The personal relationship between the social scientist and the subject matter s/he studies, vs. and the natural scientist and the matter being studied tends to differ by virtue of both ideology and subjectivity; the natural scientist is bound, ethically, to conform his or her beliefs to the evidence gleaned from scientific method. Often, however, the ethical boundaries in the social sciences are less clear and more subject to the personal biases of the person doing the studying; the beliefs or theories are often used to tailor the evidence. The studied objectivity expected of the natural scientist is well-suited to the abstract or the impersonal elements of study; objectivity becomes more difficult to sustain when the inherently subjective matters of human behavior come into play in such social sciences as international relations. Given the often national or global human consequences of the application of theories of international relations, is it possible to remain neutral?
Natural scientists believe that their work is ethically neutral. To be sure, their work can be put to good and bad uses, but this presumably reflects on the users rather than on the content of the science itself. The relationship between social science and the values of the social scientist seems far more immediate and direct than this, and this alleged contrast has been the subject for continuing discussion and debate… Our observations of the social world seem even more coloured by the theory we employ than is the case in the natural sciences. (Ruben, 1998)
Within the field of international relations, the aforementioned debate manifests itself in the competition between positivist and post-positivist theories. Positivist theories operate under the conviction that the principles of study as applied in the natural sciences, i.e. scientific method, and the analysis of quantifiable, measurable, and repeatable evidence, are applicable, valid, and valuable in the field of international relations. Positivist theories hold that the behavior of nation-states and the individuals who influence the policies of nation-states can be observed, studied, predicted, and reliably understood through the application of those theories. Examples of positivist international relations theories include liberalism, realism, neo-liberalism, and neo-realism (which we shall discuss in a moment). Post-positivist theories, such as social constructivism or international society theories, reject the notion that social systems, such as those in international relations, can be studied in an objective manner that is free of value judgments. Scientific method, to adherents of post-positivist theories, is of little use in the field of international relations and those of this school of thought believe that ethics and other normative value concepts must be always be an inherent component of international relations studies.
What exactly are the tenets of the scientific method, and how can they be usefully applied to social sciences such as international relations? In brief, the scientific method relies on the developing and testing of hypotheses designed to explain phenomena, in this case human phenomena, the behavior of nation-states. The studies are designed to test the hypotheses in a variety of different situations, tested by controlled experiments, the variables of which are carefully controlled and monitored by experts trained and qualified in the field of study. The evidence gathered by the studies is freely shared with other scientists for use in their own work, and theories that fail to hold up under rigorous examination must be discarded, modified, and/or updated without regard to personal attachment or subjective opinions.
What is most difficult about the application of scientific method to the social sciences is the difficulty in maintaining consistency and reliability within controlled experiment situations. The ideal location for controlled experiments is, of course, a laboratory where scientists can carefully control any and all variables which might affect the outcome of the study and hence undermine or support the theory or hypothesis being tested. Human behavior is rarely confined to laboratory settings, however, and what is true about human behavior in this regard is even more true when it comes to collective human behavior, i.e., the behavior of nation-states. Further compounding the difficulty in maintaining controlled experiment environments with respect to international relations is that on the macrocosmic level of the world stage, the variables affecting the behavior of nation-states are not only numerous but their causal relationships are not always clear, linear, or even logical to an observer, even if trained. There is little room for sentimental attachment to theories that fail to predict or solve international relations problems such as war or genocide, and to the extent that difficulty in adherence to scientific method leaves room for the dangerous influence of personal subjectivity, creative ways to maximize rigid application of scientific theory to international relations is key to the usefulness of positivist theories.
One of the fundamental scientific theories underpinning most positivist international relations theories is a concept known as rational choice theory. (Rational choice theory is not unique or native to international relations; indeed, it is widely used in other social sciences such as economics and sociology.) Rational choice theory holds, on a basic level, that human beings generally use reason and rational processes to achieve a desired end or ends that they may seek at any given point in time – instrumental reason, in other words. Individuals, whether they be literal single human beings, or nation-states, who operate within the paradigm of rational choice theory are known as rational actors. Noted political theorists Shapiro and Green (1994) offered their analysis of how rational choice theory manifests itself in the context of international relations by identifying four elemental characteristics: 1) Rational actors employ the concept of utility maximization, which means that where there are a variety of options for a rational actor to achieve its goals, it will choose the option calculated to have the maximum potential to improve its welfare; 2) The rational actor possesses the ability to evaluate the possible consequences of selecting any one of its various options to improve its welfare and prioritize the appeal of said options; 3) rational choice theory is at its core a theory of individual behavior, and though international relations is largely the study of groups of individuals who comprise the rational actors which populate the world stage, rational choice theory assumes and depends on the pre-eminence of the individual; and 4) rational choice theory is universally applicable. Rational choice theory in international relations is also closely related to rational choice theory in economics, insofar as economics describes the competition for allocation of finite resources,and in international relations, the competition between rational actors for those resources as they seek to improve their welfare and achieve their various goals.
The two chief positivist manifestations of rational choice theory in international relations, then, are liberalism and realism, the former holding that nation-states are inherently predisposed to cooperate because of the self-evident futility of war, and the latter holding the opposite, that cooperation between nation-states is merely an incidental function of states seeking maximize their respective welfares and that the behavior of nation-states must always be seen through a prism which presupposes a primacy of self-interest among rational actors. The realist school of thought has largely predominated in the field of international relations for several decades, though it has been heavily criticized by those who believe realism is devoid of necessary ethical and moral compasses required to identify times when rational actors may not behave quite so rationally, thereby incurring human suffering. Realist international relations are heavily dependent upon multinational, multilateral governing bodies such as NATO, the United Nations, etc., and individual nation-states’ adherence to the norms proscribed by membership in these types of institutions.
Clearly, however, common sense provides us with numerous examples where both rational choice theory and realism have failed to accurately predict irrational behavior by nation-states and/or their leaders, and thus failed to predict and alleviate human suffering. Critiques of rational choice theory and realism point to the Holocaust, genocide in Sudan, Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait, etc., as recent and painful examples of the failure of an over-dependency on theoretical models to predict complex human behavior. Realist international relations paradigms successfully guided the world through the Cold War without an additional conflict along the scale of World Wars I and II, however, so they cannot be held to be meritless.
The application of scientific method to international relations is in part a function of necessity rather than any proof that the interactions of nation-states are easily describable by unassailably accurate theories; in short, attempts to analyze human behavior on a global scale, however imperfect, is a far preferable modus operandi than simply guessing as to why nation-states behave as they do. The stakes are simply too high – human lives, human welfare, for example — for ad hoc guesswork to be the de facto methodology of international relations. An acknowledgement of the limitations of scientific method as applied in the social sciences is as important as its very application.
Ruben, David-Hillel. (1998). “Social science, philosophy of,” In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Available from: http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/R047
Coleman, J. S. and Ferrero, M. (1992) Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique. London: Sage
Green, D.P. and Shapiro, I. (1994) Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Shepsle, K. A. and Bonchek, M. S. (1997) Analyzing Politics. London: Norton.