Chapter Summary with Learning Objectives


As students and observers of international affairs, we often disagree about major issues in international affairs. This is the case even when we know – and agree upon – the facts of the issue. For example, although we all look at the same set of facts regarding the civil war in Syria, we disagree over whether it was caused by Syria’s colonial history, its religious and ethnic divisions, or a struggle for wealth and power in the form of oil – just to name a few possible explanations. How we see the causes of an issue influences how we think about addressing those issues. Disagreements over issues in international affairs center on different interpretations of facts – in particular, which facts are most important and which facts cause other facts to happen.

When we think about issues in international relations, we think about them in terms of perspectives and levels of analysis. Perspectives and levels of analysis are ways of thinking about the causes of an issue, and they tell us which facts we think are most important in explaining why something happens. We draw causal arrows among various facts – that is, we try to figure out which facts cause other facts. If we know, for example, what causes war, we can try to change or accommodate that thing to cause peace.

A perspective is a hypothesis or theory that explains why something happens. We deal with three mainstream perspectives – the realist perspective, which emphasizes power as a cause; the liberal perspective, which emphasizes interactions, interdependence, and institutions as causes; and the identity perspective, which emphasizes ideas as causes. While a perspective describes what a cause is, a level of analysis describes where a cause comes from. We deal with three primary levels of analysis – the individual or decision-making level of analysis, which focuses on the characteristics of state leaders and policy-makers; the domestic level of analysis, which focuses on the characteristics of a state or a type of state; and the systemic level of analysis, which focus on the characteristics of the international system as a whole, particularly how states are positioned and how they interact.

Using perspectives and levels of analysis, we construct a hypothesis or theory that explains why something happens. We then try to test that explanation. First, by looking at history, we can gather facts that support or refute our explanation. Often, we can find historical events that parallel current issues, and we can ask whether the same explanation applies to both. Second, by using methods, or the formal rules for testing hypotheses and theories, we can determine whether our explanation is consistent with the facts. While we can never know for certain whether our explanation is true, methods give us standards for determining whether it is false, or inconsistent with the facts. Third, by using our own judgment, we decide when we are satisfied with the testing an explanation has gone through. Finally, by using our sense of ethics and morality, we determine what the implications of our explanation are and how our explanation fits into contemporary scholarly and policy debates.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter students should be to understand:

  • Why we often disagree about issues in international affairs.
  • How perspectives and levels of analysis help us interpret facts.
  • What the main perspectives and levels of analysis are, and what causes they emphasize.
  • How we test explanations, using history, methods, judgment, and ethics and morality.
  • What the differences between rationalist and constructivist methods are.
  • What the differences among relativist, universal, and pragmatic views of ethics and morality are.