Changing My Mind III: Quantitative Research Doesn’t Have Much to Add to IR

For the first few years I studied international relations I was of the view that quantitative approaches didn’t have a great deal to add to the subject. This view was not, I should note, based on a general antipathy towards the natural sciences or a fear of numbers – both of which are common in the social sciences and the humanities. Instead, I thought that the most important issues in international relations were theoretical and related to issues in philosophy of social science. It also seemed to me that the quantitative research that I was aware often missed the point of the issue it was intending to address, operationalising concepts in a manner that was unconvincing and thus reducing fairly subtle processes to crude measures. It also seemed to be atheoretical and involved throwing a load of different variables into the hopper to see what would come out the other side.

I realised, however, that many of the issues that I was interested in could not be resolved through theory alone. It might seem strange that I ever believed (implicitly) that they could, but a lot of debate in IR and the humanities more broadly seems to involve the evaluation of a set of claims based on a set of theoretical desiderata alone. This is a rut, and its a rut that a lot of areas of scholarship fall into. Engagement with philosophy of science and social theory is important, but it can’t adjudicate between competing empirical claims about topics such as inequality, conflict, democratisation and state formation.

Reading more statistical research, I realised that there was much more in the way of theoretically sophisticated, historically informed quant research in IR than I had credited. I started to take quantitative contributions much more seriously, but interrogate them in more detail. Every statistical model makes theoretical assumptions and those assumptions can be questioned and problematised just like those of any other theoretical claim. Getting into the nuts and bolts of quantitative research on topics ranging from economic growth and inequality, to democratisation and economic development, to strategic rivalries between states gave me a more informed understanding of the contributions and limits of quantitative research in world politics. The most significant problems are that first, the entities social science works with are not stable over historical time, the social world is never really in equilibrium, and so the relationships between variables cannot be expected to be constant across time and space. The second problem is the issue of causal complexity, the way in which causal factors may interact and combine in specific configurtions to produce certain outcomes. The third problem is the lack of reliable data and measures based on well-operationalised concepts.

Many quantitative scholars and methodologists acknowledge these problems, however, and have attempted to devise ways to address these tricky issues. Braumoeller and Wimmer come to mind scholars who have made major contributions to world politics recently through the intelligent, theoretically informed use of quantitative methods. Paul Schrodt has made some searing criticisms of status quo quantitative practice in the study of politics and attempted to push analytical techniques forward in the discipline. His contributions to efforts to make event data useful for research in politics and international relations are very interesting, and I’ll be watching out for what he and others do with the huge new ICEWS database. It’s possible that with data at this level of granuality, quantitative scholarship can move beyond a focus on broad structural correlates of outcomes and towards a greater focus on political processes. Of course, there are pitfalls and obstacles, but I’m more optimistic about the prospects than I was before I really started to engage with this area of research.

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Posted on April 9, 2015, in event data, international relations, methods, quantitative methods, theorists and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. My sense is also that some quant approaches and methods have become increasingly sophisticated, e.g. in trying to get at actual causation. (Unfortunately my own relative lack of background in the area means I can’t really evaluate the sophisticated quant articles or books.) Occasionally I look at a quant piece and think of writing a post about one, but so far I haven’t. For ex. there was a lead article in APSR a couple of years ago called “The Autocratic Legacy of Early Statehood,” and what I could understand of it did not impress me that much. (The author seemed to think the r-squared results for whatever he was regressing were impressive, but they didn’t bowl me over. However, I never finished the post.)

    I haven’t read the Braumoeller book but looked at an article version, which I don’t really remember very well. More recently he had a piece criticizing the war-is-in-decline thesis (I forget where it was published or if it’s been published). I have a pdf of a version of it, and I was going to go through it and try to understand the quant stuff and write a (critical, presumably) post about it. But again, I haven’t. It takes a level of discipline I guess I find hard to muster.

  2. p.s. As a 1st-year grad student I had to take an intro quant methods course but it was a big course in terms of students (for MA students not just PhD ones) and I didn’t get much out of it, esp as I was busy w seminars w pretty heavy reading loads at the same time. A smaller course geared specifically to PhD students (which that program may now have) might have been better. Plus it was not a program that insisted its students have much quant proficiency. That might now have changed a bit, I’m not sure.

    My dissertation adviser was very quant-proficient and known for his contributions to, inter alia, event-data analysis. But he knew I wasn’t doing quantitative work and I guess he decided, with some justification, that I was quantitatively illiterate (and, by inference, hopeless), so he didn’t try to tutor me at all in the quant area. And I never asked him to.

  3. I want to make some detailed comments on the Braumoeller book, but I want to read through it again as I want to make sure that I understand the case studies, stats, modelling and theory before I write anything. But having made that effort maybe I will see if I can get a journal to publish the review, even though I already have my copy of the book. One of the issues is that the book uses a quant method I was unfamiliar with, as it isn’t used much in politics and IR. Nonetheless, based on a first reading I think there are some issues with the way he characterises other IR theories and the way in which structure and agency are connected to each other in the book. But its a rich work that seems to have been the labor of (over?) a decade, so worth engaging with.
    The ‘decline of war’ article seemed interesting, based on a skim-read yesterday. The regression is close to the fairly standard list of realist-liberal variables that are normally employed in research into conflict dyads. But Braumoeller has been working on ways to get leverage on causal complexity, using logical conditions to separate motive and opportunity. I think people like Braumoeller have made some good points about the decline of war thesis – maybe it would make for a good short post.

  4. Sounds like a good idea to try to publish the review of Braumoeller in a journal. I think some journals are becoming more interested in formats for critical discussion of books other than the standard assigned book review (exchanges, ‘critical dialogues’ [as Perspectives on Politics somewhat pompously labels them], more emphasis on review-essays, or whatever). So there may be some possibilities there; I’m not sure.

    If you do decide to go that route with the piece, I’d be happy to read and comment on it in draft — feel free to e-mail it to me. (My comments might not be especially substantive, as I haven’t read the book, but another pair of eyes never hurts.)

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