I remember talking with my dad a couple years ago. Back then, I was certain I was going to be a theoretical astrophysicist (I later realized that my math skills weren’t quite good enough). I poked fun at his major – economics – for not being sufficiently predictive. After all, in “real” science, things can be predicted to an incredibly high degree of accuracy. It seemed to me that the social sciences relied on cop outs. They generated grand theories to explain the world, but they were never able to actually predict anything with much detail. I felt that instead of trying to explain the world, social science was purely abstract, arguing over arcane academic paradigms instead of real, substantive problems. I think to some extent this is still accurate. The field of academic IR is largely divided among realists, liberals, and constructivists – three camps engaged in a never ending theory war. Nevertheless, I do believe that theoretical paradigms contribute meaningfully to our understanding of the world. While they are not as precise or predictive as laws in the natural sciences, social science theories are still powerful tools.
Theories are primarily important because they simplify reality. Human interactions are obviously too complex and unpredictable to precisely model. Thus, theories provide a useful, simplified version of reality. In other words, theories are heuristics for thinking about the world. Think of theory as a map. Maps certainly don’t capture every aspect of a trip, but they provide the important information necessary to get from point A to point B. Theories are actually better than maps, however, because they also establish causation. In other words, they explain why certain conditions generate certain outcomes. Consider defensive realism, a theoretical paradigm in international relations that stresses the material distribution of power. Defensive realists tend to ignore the role of international institutions and cultural differences because most realists consider these variables to be subordinate to the balance of power. Of course, this means that defensive realism imperfectly captures the world: cultural differences, unit level pathologies, and international institutions all have major impacts on states’ actions. Nevertheless, by making important assumptions, defensive realism provides a lens through which to examine and evaluate the world – explaining interstate interaction through the variables it deems important.
Theories are also useful because they are able to generate predictions. For example, liberalism argues that democratic states are less prone to war on account of their institutions, their proclivity for free trading, and their liberal societies. This prediction can be tested, and it has. Indeed, Democratic Peace Theory is one of the most well-supported theories in international relations. By generating broad, often imperfect theories, social scientists are able to brush the complexity of the world aside and instead focus on the specific implications of a certain set of assumptions. Liberalism as a theory is not perfectly correct; it relies on a number of theoretical assumptions that are not universally true. Nevertheless, by utilizing certain assumptions, scholars were able to acquire important insights regarding democratic dyads and their propensity for conflict.
Generating different theories also helps us better understand history. By prioritizing different assumptions, different theories provide unique and novel ways of thinking about the past. For example, one can look at WWI through a dynamic realist lens, emphasizing how shifting power dynamics generated insecurity. One could instead look at it through offense-defense theory, a theory which revealed the so-called “cult of the offensive.” One could even choose to ignore both of these theories and instead examine WWI through economic realism, considering how shifting trade patterns generated mercantilist fears which ultimately culminated in war. In short, theories can reveal novel factors that might not have been previously considered.
Finally, theories are valuable because they are really the best tool we have. Social scientists can’t run tests in the same way that physical scientist can. It is both impractical and almost certainly immoral because testing would involve manipulating sentient human beings. Because there is often limited data, scholars must operate on assumptions – testing and modifying the theory as new data emerges. This is imperfect, but it is the only rigorous way of trying to explain why the social world works the way it does.
While the arcane “paradigm wars” of academic IR might appear useless and inane, they really aren’t. By debating what motivates states to act and which conditions lead to conflict or peace, social scientists create different ways to think about the world. Academic theories rarely provide specific policy prescriptions, however, they do provide a list of important considerations that voters and policymakers must weigh when making decisions. The social world is too complex to create one unified field theory. Nevertheless, by creating a number of competing theories, we are able to better explain and understand the social world in which we live.