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The heuristic application of explanatory theories in international relations

Humphreys, A. R. C. ORCID: (2011) The heuristic application of explanatory theories in international relations. European Journal of International Relations, 17 (2). pp. 257-277. ISSN 1460-3713

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1177/1354066109344008


Explanatory theorists increasingly insist that their theories are useful even though they cannot be deductively applied. But if so, then how do such theories contribute to our understanding of international relations? I argue that explanatory theories are typically heuristically applied: theorists’ accounts of specific empirical episodes are shaped by their theories’ thematic content, but are not inferred from putative causal generalizations or covering laws. These accounts therefore gain no weight from their purely rhetorical association with theories’ quasi-deductive arguments: they must be judged on the plausibility of their empirical claims. Moreover, the quasi-deductive form in which explanatory theories are typically presented obscures their actual explanatory role, which is to indicate what sort of explanation may be required, to provide conceptual categories, and to suggest an empirical focus. This account of how theoretical explanations are constructed subverts the nomothetic–idiographic distinction that is often used to distinguish International Relations from History.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:No Reading authors. Back catalogue items
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Politics, Economics and International Relations > Politics and International Relations
ID Code:33781

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