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HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs

Abstract

Theory creating and hypothesis testing are both critical components of social science, but the former is ultimately more important. Yet, in recent years, International Relations scholars have devoted less effort to creating and refining theories or using theory to guide empirical research. Instead, they increasingly focus on ‘simplistic hypothesis testing,’ which emphasizes discovering well-verified empirical regularities. Privileging simplistic hypothesis testing is a mistake, however, because insufficient attention to theory leads to misspecified empirical models or misleading measures of key concepts. In addition, the poor quality of much of the data in International Relations makes it less likely that these efforts will produce cumulative knowledge. This shift away from theory and toward simplistic hypothesis testing reflects a long-standing desire to professionalize and expand the International Relations field as well as the short-term career incentives of individual scholars. This tendency is also widening the gap between the ivory tower and the real world, making International Relations scholarship less useful to policymakers and concerned citizens. Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue unless there is a collective decision to alter prevailing academic incentives.

Citation

Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen Walt. "Leaving Theory Behind: Why Simplistic Hypothesis Testing is Bad for International Relations." European Journal of International Relations 19.3 (September 2013): 427-457.