Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 21 Notes: Why Theory Matters

  • Why is theory important?
  • How can theories be evaluated?
  • Do paradigms help or hinder understanding?
  • Do theories, in effect, 'construct' the world?
  • Are theories always 'political'?
  • How can theory link what is to what ought to be?

Theory is unavoidable in the study of global politics. We have no choice about engaging with theory because, put most simply, facts do not speak for themselves. If we try to make sense of the world simply by looking at it, our understanding is overwhelmed by the complexity and sheer weight of the information confronting us. Theory thus invests apparently shapeless and confusing reality with meaning, and it does so, most obviously, by highlighting how and why events happen. However, theory is not just an explanatory tool, it can also be simplifying device, a means of uncovering prejudice or bias, a guide to action and so on. But none of these uses of theory is straightforward. For instance, how does theory allow us to analyze events, rather than merely describe them? In what ways does theory uncover supposedly 'hidden' processes and structures? How far can, or should, theory be used as a guide to political practice? Nevertheless, recognizing what theory can do for us does not, in itself, help us to choose which theory to use. What constitutes 'good' theory? On what grounds can one theory be preferred to another theory? Finally, the growing prominence in recent years of theoretical frameworks such as constructivism, critical theory, feminism and poststructuralism has intensified debate about the nature and role of theory. This has raised deeper and, at times, philosophically challenging questions about matters such as the value of theoretical frameworks or 'paradigms', the extent to which 'reality' exists separate from our perception of it, the relationship between theorizing and political activity, and the status and role of normative theory.

  • Theory has a range of uses and a number of dimensions. Its uses include analyzing and explaining events, simplifying the world, widening and/or sharpening our perceptual field, defining our ethical horizons, and providing a guide to action. Although distinct explanatory, interpretive and normative dimensions of theory can be identified, these sometimes overlap.
  • Attempts to establish 'good' theory are sometimes dismissed as pointless, on the grounds that rival theories are incommensurable. However, others argue that theories can be evaluated using the standard criteria employed in the social sciences. These include a theory's correspondence to reality, its explanatory power, its parsimony and elegance, and its logical coherence.
  • Paradigms aid understanding in that they define what is important to study, draw attention to significant trends, patterns and processes, and highlight relevant questions and lines of enquiry. However, paradigms may also limit our perceptual field, meaning that we 'see' only what our favoured paradigm shows us.
  • Positivists proclaim that the social sciences should adhere strictly to the methods of the natural sciences, based on the possibility of establishing objective knowledge. Post-positivists question whether there is a real world 'out there', separate from our beliefs, ideas and assumptions about it. We therefore only see the world as we think it exists.
  • Critical theorists reject the idea of value-free social science on the grounds that knowledge is inherently political, in which case theoretical debates are basically political debates. Such thinking has been criticized for, amongst other things, failing to show how we can make reliable judgements about the (alleged) political purposes of theory.
  • The notion of a 'realistic utopia' may allow us to reconcile normative theory with empirically-based explanatory theory. However, realistic utopias may fall between two stools, being either so utopian they are politically unfeasible or so realistic they are fatally morally compromised.