Scott posted some good cards in his Framework Throwdown that indict “policy relevance”; here’s a good (new) card for the other side. Have a favorite “framework” card? Post it in the comments.
Bruce Russett, Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations at Yale University, Editor of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and former President of the International Studies Association and the Peace Science Society, et al., with Harvey Starr, Dag Hammarskjld Professor in International Affairs in the Department of Political Science at the University of South Carolina, and David Kinsella, Professor of Political Science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, 2009
[“Thinking About World Politics: Theory and Reality,” World Politics: The Menu for Choice, Ninth Edition, Published by Cengage Learning, ISBN 0495410683, p. 44-46]
Social scientists often work at levels of analysis different from those that policy makers find most relevant when facing situations requiring immediate decisions. This difference can be illustrated by comparing the work of a medical researcher and a practicing physician both concerned with coronary illness. Research scientists have established that a number of personal characteristics and environmental conditions contribute to heart disease. They now know that an individual’s probability of suffering a heart attack is greater if that person is male and middle-aged or older and if one or both parents suffered heart attacks. Factors that increase the likelihood of heart disease include being overweight, smoking, a diet high in cholesterol-rich fats, and lack of exercise. High blood pressure also contributes to the likelihood, as do stress and anxiety at work or at home. Finally, some people with aggressive, hard-driving personalities appear especially prone to heart disease. For the scientist, all these influences may seem interesting and provide information that may, at some point, prove important.
For the physician who must treat patients, however, different influences are not of equal interest. Some are beyond the control of the individual patient or doctor: The patient cannot stop aging or change sex—at least in a way that would affect coronary health—and cannot change biological parents. A patient, to some degree, [end page 44] may be able to change lifestyle or even quit a stressful job, but most people cannot do much about their basic personality. A doctor may actually increase the danger of a heart attack by frightening an already worried or anxious patient.
Other influences, however, can be more readily controlled. High blood pressure or high cholesterol, for instance, can be reduced by medication. A patient can be told to lose weight, stop smoking, change diet, or get more exercise. Controlling just one of these conditions may be enough, especially if two contributing influences, such as smoking and obesity, interact. In a particular patient, heart disease may be “overdetermined”; that is, any one of the several contributing conditions is sufficient to produce a high risk of disease, and therefore all must be eliminated. Here, very careful theory, as well as detailed understanding of a particular case, is essential for responsible treatment. Patients who refuse to take any steps to reduce their risks can at least be advised to keep their life insurance premiums paid up—prediction is of some value, even without control over the medical events! Finally, some ethical considerations may also apply. Suppose a patient also suffers from a painful and terminal cancer. Should that patient be saved from a heart attack only to be faced with a difficult death from cancer shortly thereafter? Neither the doctor nor the patient can be indifferent to such a question, whatever their answers.
In our concern with world politics, we must take into account many considerations similar to those facing the physician.17 At times the student of world politics proceeds chiefly with the kind of concern typical of scientists—at other times, with that typical of policy makers, policy advisers, or citizen activists. A scientist wants to understand the causes of a particular outcome. Because both the causes and the outcome vary (they are “variables”), we hope to find those causes (or “independent variables”) that make the greatest difference in bringing about that outcome (the “dependent variable”). In other words, certain causes may account or most of the variation in the outcome. These causes, therefore, should figure most prominently in our theory. The social scientist may not be immediately concerned with whether those causes identified as most important are readily manipulable by policy makers. If pure knowledge is what interests us, then, in principle, there should be no reason for preferring an explanation that highlights one set of independent variables over another. Of course, because most scientific endeavors are driven partly by practical concerns, the social scientist will care about finding ways to make a difference (say, in promoting peace or justice). But the social scientist is not necessarily looking to put acquired knowledge to immediate use.
The policy maker, by contrast, *is* centrally concerned with putting information to use, especially with an eye toward changing outcomes from what they might otherwise be. To change outcomes, the policy maker must identify variables that are not just important but also manipulable. Explanations that identify causes that are controllable are more useful to policy makers than those that identify broad historical forces on which policy makers can have little impact. They are likely to [end page 45] be much more interested in explanations about how a crisis can be resolved short of war than in knowing about the sociological developments that brought about the crisis. Although “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” often drives social scientific research, the fruits of that research are not always immediately useful to foreign policy makers.
Suppose we can show that states with systemwide interests are more likely to be involved in world-endangering military crises. Would a policy maker for such a government want to fundamentally alter the state’s alliances and other international relationships, even if the necessary steps could be identified? An explanation of how decision makers perceive and act under crisis conditions may seem more pressing. Suppose we are fairly certain that the growth and liberalization of global financial markets increase the likelihood of future currency crises. Does that mean policy makers will want to find a way to return to the days when states could better manage currency exchange rates? It’s probably not possible, so it is more useful to know how to calm volatile markets when a crisis seems to be brewing. Or suppose we conclude that Islamic terrorism has its roots in political repression and the lack of economic opportunities available to young males in some Middle Eastern societies. Policy makers in countries targeted by terrorist organizations would like to see these social problems addressed, but their immediate concerns are more likely to be securing their homelands. In short, policy makers may have little control over the external environment but may believe that it is possible to exert substantial influence over the decision processes that operate in times of crisis, whether in governments or markets, in order to improve crisis management.