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The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2011

J. David Singer
University of Michigan


In any area of scholarly inquiry, there are always several ways in which the phenomena under study may be sorted and arranged for purposes of systemic analysis. Whether in the physical or social sciences, the observer may choose to focus upon the parts or upon the whole, upon the components or upon the system. He may, for example, choose between the flowers or the garden, the rocks or the quarry, the trees or the forest, the houses or the neighborhood, the cars or the traffic jam, the delinquents or the gang, die legislators or the legislative, and so on. Whether he selects the micro- or macro-level of analysis is ostensibly a mere matter of methodological or conceptual convenience. Yet the choice often turns out to be quite difficult, and may well become a central issue within the discipline concerned. The complexity and significance of these level-of-analysis decisions are readily suggested by the long-standing controversies between social psychology and sociology, personality-oriented and culture-oriented anthropology, or micro- and macro-economics, to mention but a few. In the vernacular of general systems theory, the observer is always confronted with a system, its sub-systems, and their respective environments, and while he may choose as his system any cluster of phenomena from the most minute organism to the universe itself, such choice cannot be merely a function of whim or caprice, habit or familiarity. The responsible scholar must be prepared to evaluate the relative utility—conceptual and methodological—of the various alternatives open to him, and to appraise the manifold implications of the level of analysis finally selected. So it is with international relations.

Research Article
Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1961

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1 As Kurt Lewin observed in his classic contribution to the social sciences: “The first prerequisite of a successful observation in any science is a definite understanding about what size of unit one is going to observe at a given time.” Field Theory in Social Science, New York, 1951, p. 157.

2 For a useful introductory statement on the definitional and taxonomic problems in a general systems approach, see the papers by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, “General System Theory,” and Boulding, Kenneth, “General System Theory: The Skeleton of Science,” in Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory, General Systems, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1956, 1, part 1.Google Scholar

3 An important pioneering attempt to deal with some of the implications of one's level of analysis, however, is Waltz, Kenneth N., Man, the State, and War, New York, 1959.Google Scholar But Waltz restricts himself to a consideration of these implications as they impinge on the question of the causes of war. See also this writer's review of Waltz, , “International Conflict: Three Levels of Analysis,” World Politics, XII (April 1960), pp. 453–61.Google Scholar

4 Even during the debate between “realism” and “idealism” the analytical implications of the various levels of analysis received only the scantiest attention; rather the emphasis seems to have been at the two extremes of pragmatic policy and speculative metaphysics.

5 For example, one critic of the decision-making model formulated by Snyder, Richard C., Bruck, H. W., and Sapin, Burton, in Decision-Making as an Approach to the Study of International Politics (Princeton, N.J., 1954)Google Scholar, points out that no single researcher could deal with all the variables in that model and expect to complete more than a very few comparative studies in his lifetime. See McClosky, Herbert, “Concerning Strategies for a Science of International Politics,” World Politics, VIII (January 1956), pp. 281–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar In defense, however, one might call attention to the relative ease with which many of Snyder's categories could be collapsed into more inclusive ones, as was apparendy done in the subsequent case study (see note II below). Perhaps a more telling criticism of the monograph is McClosky's comment that “Until a greater measure of theory is introduced into the proposal and die relations among variables are specified more concretely, it is likely to remain litde more than a setting-out of categories and, like any taxonomy, fairly limited in its utility” (p. 291).

6 Morgenthau, Hans J., Politics Among Nations, 3rd ed., New York, 1960, pp. 57.Google Scholar Obviously, his model does not preclude die use of power as a dimension for the differentiation of nations.

7 The “black box” figure comes from some of the simpler versions of S-R psychology, in which me observer more or less ignores what goes on witliin the individual and concentrates upon the correlation between stimulus and response; these are viewed as empirically verifiable, whereas cognition, perception, and other mental processes have to be imputed to the individual with a heavy reliance on these assumed “intervening variables.” The “billiard ball” figure seems to carry the same sort of connotation, and is best employed by Wolfers, Arnold in “The Actors in International Politics” in Fox, William T. R., ed., Theoretical Aspects of International Relations, Notre Dame, Ind., 1959, pp. 83106.Google Scholar See also, in this context, Snyder, Richard C., “International Relations Theory—Continued,” World Politics, XIII (January 1961), pp. 300–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and David Singer, J., “Theorizing About Theory in International Politics,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, IV (December 1960), pp. 431–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Both are review articles dealing with the Fox anthology.

8 Morgenthau observes, for example, that it is “futile” to search for motives because they are “the most illusive of psychological data, distorted as they are, frequently beyond recognition, by the interests and emotions of actor and observer alike” (op.cit., p. 6).

9 Haas, Ernst B. and Whiting, Allen S., Dynamics of International Relations, New York, 1956.Google Scholar

10 A frequent by-product of this tendency to overdifferentiate is what Waltz calls the “second-image fallacy,” in which one explains the peaceful or bellicose nature of a nation's foreign policy exclusively in terms of its domestic economic, political, or social characteristics (op.cit., chs. 4 and 5).

11 Its most well-known and successful statement is found in Snyder et al., op.cit, Much of this model is utilized in the text which Snyder wrote with Furniss, Edgar S. Jr, American Foreign Policy: Formulation, Principles, and Programs, New York, 1954.Google Scholar A more specific application is found in Snyder, and Paige, Glenn D., “The United States Decision to Resist Aggression in Korea: The Application of an Analytical Scheme,” Administrative Science Quarterly, III (December 1958), pp. 341–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For those interested in this approach, very useful is Wasserman, Paul and Silander, Fred S.. Decision-Making: An Annotated Bibliography, Ithaca, N.Y., 1958.Google Scholar

12 And if the decision-making version of this model is employed, the issue is unavoidable. See the discussion of motivation in Snyder, , Bruck, , and Sapin, , op.cit., pp. 92117Google Scholar: note that 25 of the 49 pages on “The Major Determinants of Action” are devoted to motives.

13 A highly suggestive, but more abstract treatment of this teleological question is in Parsons, Talcott, The Structure of Social Action, 2nd ed., Glencoe, Ill., 1949Google Scholar, especially in his analysis of Durkheim and Weber. It is interesting to note that for Parsons an act implies, inter alia, “a future state of affairs toward which the process of action is ented,” and he therefore comments that “in this sense and this sense only, the chema of action is inherendy teleological” (p. 44).

14 Among the exceptions are Haas, and Whiting, , op.cit., chs. 2 and 3Google Scholar; and some of the chapters in Macridis, Roy C., ed., Foreign Policy in World Politics, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1958Google Scholar, especially that on West Germany by Karl Deutsch and Lewis Edinger.

15 As early as 1934, Edith E. Ware noted that “… the study of international relations is no longer entirely a subject for political science or law, but that economics, history, sociology, geography—all the social sciences—are called upon to contribute towards the understanding … of the international system.” See The Study of International Relations in the United States, New York, 1934, p. 172. For some contemporary suggestions, see Deutsch, Karl, “The Place of Behavioral Sciences in Graduate Training in International Relations,” Behavioral Science, III (July 1958), pp. 278–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and J. David Singer, “The Relevance of the Behavioral Sciences to the Study of International Relations,” ibid., vi (October 1961), pp. 324–35.

16 The father of phenomenological philosophy is generally acknowledged to be Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), author of Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, New York, 1931, trans, by W. R. Boyce Gibson; the original was published in 1913 under the title Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und Phänomenologischen Philosophic. Application of this approach to social psychology has come primarily through the work of Koffka and Lewin.

17 This issue has been raised from time to time in all of the social sciences, but for an excellent discussion of it in terms of the present problem, see Harold and Margaret Sprout, Man-Milieu Relationship Hypotheses in the Context of International Politics, Princeton University, Center of International Studies, 1956, pp. 63–71.

18 This is another of the criticisms leveled at the decision-making approach which, almost by definition, seems compelled to adopt some form of the phenomenological model. For a comprehensive treatment of the elements involved in human perception, see Zener, Karlet al., eds., “Inter-relationships Between Perception and Personality: A Symposium,” Journal of Personality, XVIII (1949), pp. 1266.Google Scholar

19 Many of these issues are raised in the ongoing debate over “methodological individualism,” and are discussed cogendy in Nagel, Ernest, The Structure of Science, New York, 1961, pp. 535–46.Google Scholar

20 Parendietically, holders of these specific views should also be less inclined to adopt the national or sub-systemic model in the first place.

21 In a review article dealing widi two of the more recent and provocative efforts toward theory (Kaplan, Morton A., System and Process in International Politics, New York, 1957Google Scholar, and Liska, George, International Equilibrium, Cambridge, Mass., 1957)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Charles P. Kindleberger adds a furdier—if not altogether persuasive—argument in favor of the lower, sub-systemic level of analysis: “The total system is infinitely complex with everything interacting. One can discuss it intelligently, therefore, only bit by bit.” “Scientific International Politics,” World Politics, XI (October 1958), p. 86.

22 It should also be kept in mind that one could conceivably develop a theoretical model which successfully embraces both of these levels of analysis without sacrificing conceptual clarity and internal consistency. In this writer's view, such has not been done to date, though Kaplan's System and Process in International Politics seems to come fairly close.

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