Social Science and Political Practice in International Relations - Bridging two systems

Essay, 2007

16 Pages



1 Political Practice in the 21st Century

2 Social Science and Political Practice: An Assessment

3 Political Process Advising

4 The Architecture: Between Theory and Political Reality

4.1 Analysing Situations
The Theoretical Model
The Practical Application: Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 2000-2002
The role of the political process advisor

4.2 Implementing Change Initiatives

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography


1 Political Practice in the 21st Century

International Relations in the 21st Century are more ambiguous than ever. The world can today be interpreted as a multi-polar one, where nation states, international organisations and transnational companies are in no way the only relevant entities. Small actors can have big impacts, some call it “an age of terror”. We live in a world of increasing complexity, where answers, if we have them at all, have a short lifespan. Buzzwords for these phenomena are globalisation, electronic revolution through the Internet, climate change, an age of terror, to name just some of them. We live in times characterized by rapid change. For political practitioners in international relations it seems to have become more difficult to act appropriately within this world situation. Increased uncertainty about the future becomes more immanent. Impacts and outcomes of policies and actions are more unpredictable, although their influence is greater then ever, because of the increased interconnection through globalisation. Cause and effect of incidents are distant in time and space (Bojer/Knuth/Magner 2006, p. 5). Time spans for making decisions decrease, thus time pressure becomes daily mastery. It seems that for political practitioners who face these problems support is greatly beneficial. The need is apparent and science jumps in to deliver this support. However, this cooperation has shown itself to be difficult. Scientists often complain that politicians do not follow their advice, while politicians complain that scientists are escapists who do not consider political reality (Cassel 2005, p. 176). But why are scientific solution strategies often not adopted by politics?

2 Social Science and Political Practice: An Assessment

The initial point for assessing the relationship between social science and political practise is today’s society. According to modern systems science, societies can be defined as the interconnection of mutually related and relevant communication (Luhmann 1984). Modern societies are functional differentiated and can be understood as polycentric networks of social systems (Wilke 1994, p. 215). These societal subsystems - be they politics, science, economy, art, education, etc. - have their own logic and, accordingly, special semantics. This makes them operationally closed or autonomous. Each system has its own guiding distinction (Kopp 2005, p. 53). Respectively, incidents are evaluated according to this guiding distinction. For example the political system evaluates incidents by means of power gaining or loosing. Although societal subsystems are autonomous they are structurally coupled, meaning that they do interact with each other. However a signal from outside will, by the system only, be perceived as a perturbation. A perturbation is an impulse or irritation that is processed according to the structure and inner logic of the addressed system itself. Perturbations are structurally determined. In other words, social systems do not react they just act (Görlitz/Burth 1998, p. 241). If we want to perturb a system in order to achieve a certain result in form of an action, we have to make sure that the addressed system understands the used language.

Coming back to the question why advice or proposals of the scientific system are not adopted by the political system, the assumption would be that reasons can be found in the diverging logic of the two systems. Moreover, they do not just follow diverging logics but they also use diverging semantics. As a result they have difficulties in communication.

The political system has the function to produce and implement collectively binding decisions (Willke 1994, p. 215). As mentioned before, the guiding distinction for the political system is to gain, preserve or lose power. ‘Power is the production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate’ (Barnett/Duvall 2005, p. 39). Power can be operationalised as influence. Political practitioners gain influence to make policies in their interest. The perspective of the political system concerning time frames is very much based on the election cycles, which makes them short and restricted.

Contrary to the political system the science system has the function to produce knowledge, knowledge of complex circumstances (Schöll 2005, p. 22). Knowledge can be operationalised as truth (Luhmann 1990a, p. 271). Assumptions are formulated in form of hypothesis and tested. If they turn out to be right they are validated unless someone shows that they are not true; in which case they are falsified and abandoned (Popper 1971). Scientists gain reputation by generating exceptional findings. The science system is the continuous infinite accumulation of knowledge. Therefore the time frame is long term. For a concluding comparison of the diverging logics of the two systems see table 1.

Table 1: Comparison of logics of the political and science system

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As a consequence there is a barrier in the communication between the two systems, the systems use different languages and logics (Kopp 2005, p. 54). What is needed to overcome this lack of communication? According to Habermas, good quality politics is dependent on communication and hand-in-hand working of actors within both systems. Therefore, questions of political reality have to be translated into science information and the output of the science system has to be transformed for applied politics (Habermas 1997, p. 126).

To overcome this lack of communication, the two systems need a mediator or translator who understands both languages. However (s)he needs not to be an expert in the two fields, meaning the mediator is neither an political expert nor scientist. The system in which (s)he operates is called an advisory system based on the duty to give advise.

3 Political Process Advising

Following Cassel it is useful to distinguish between scientific advising and advising politicians (Casell 2003, p.7). Furthermore, there is a necessity to draw a third distinction which is advising on the process. Scientific advising has the intention to inform the citizen about which policies are the most effective according to their interests, therefore supporting collective decision-making. Advising politicians, on the other hand, is intended to guarantee the preservation of power that is re-election. A politician would decide on a policy, if his re-election were enhanced as a result. However, the politician cannot fully disregard the interests of the electorate. Hence, (s)he will try to ascertain the potential impact of certain policy options by establishing how they correspondend with his/her personal goals and the preferences of the electorate (Cassel 2003; p.10). The last category is process advising. To be successful in mediating/translating between the political and science system a mediator has to be responsible for the communication. He needs to speak both languages and be sensitive to both system logics. However he is only responsible for the process and structure not the content. The content, in form of fact-based knowledge, is delivered by political practitioners or scientific experts. A political process advisor could be the person to bridge the communication gap between political practise and science. The next section will exemplify how such a process might look and how political process advising in practise is possible.

4 The Architecture: Between Theory and Political Reality

If we construct a continuum having on one pole science theory and on the other pole political reality the aim is to find ways to combine both sides. Using science based methodologies and models and make them applicable in political reality. That is what we call practical evaluation and implementation. We identify two levels of application. The two can be included in the continuum either raging more into the science or the political reality direction.

Figure 1: Continuum between Theory and Political Reality

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Specific models and tools are used to explain certain situations. The chosen ones are going to be just examples and one could think of many other tools and applications. The tools have been chosen because we have considerably experience with them. However the scientific community is continuously providing more models and approaches. The tools are presented separately nonetheless, the transitions are fluent and it makes absolutely sense to combine them. Starting with an evaluation by analysing a situation and choosing a tool according to the results in order to implement a change initiative. We will come back to the combination of designs later.

Now starting with the design that is closest to empirical science we call it analysing situations.

4.1 Analysing Situations

This section will start with the theoretical bases of the used model closing with an explanation why process advisors are the right persons to apply them. Analysing situations is strongly correlated to empirical research. That is research that bases its findings on direct or indirect observation as its test of reality. However in our practical case the primary aim is not to develop or further develop a science theory, but to explain real world situations and hence generate options for (strategic) action. The idea is to analyse political situations not just by senior experience or commonsense knowledge, but by using a scientific proven framework. Therefore a model is used to structure real life conditions and direct the attention to certain interconnections more than to others. According to the situation we want to analyse we have to choose a model that is adequate to explain this situation. As example we will here analyse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 2000 to 2002 by using the policy-window model (Kingdon 1995) and its further developments. We will use the model under the focus of timing. The question we pursue is: when is the right time for action. Although this analysis is retrospective, the idea is to use this model also prospectively and therefore have an instrument that indicates when timing for action is right. The first part will explain the model on a theoretical basis in detail. In the second part we will apply the model to the Israeli-Palestinian situation from 2000 to 2002.

The Theoretical Model

As mentioned before, for practitioners in international relations, time is one of the most crucial factors. On the one hand, time is restricted, continuous change occurs and decisions have to be fast, ambiguity is the general background condition. Therefore analytical frameworks and models can support practitioners in rapid and valid analysing. On the other hand, timing is important, time slots occur and prepared proposals should be available and ready for action. A window describes an opportunity in time, a special momentum for action. “Predictable or unpredictable, open windows are small and scarce. Opportunities come, but they also pass. Windows do not stay open long.” (Kingdon 1995: 204) The design of multiple streams goes back to Cohen, March and Olson (1972) who developed the garbage can model of organisational choice to analyse decision-making in organisations. The principle idea is that decisions “rather than being programmed or predictable (…) are the result of the serendipitous confluence of opportunities, individuals and ideas.” (Peters 2002: 7) Originally, the model was used to analyse the decision making in universities, what the authors termed “organized anarchies”. However, it turned out that the model is applicable to much broader decision situations. To fully understand and assess this analytical model, we must discharge the idea of standardised problem solving. Problem orientated solutions neglect the problem causing conditions.

The premises for applying the model are: problematic preferences, unclear technology, fluid participation. The world in international relations is commonly described as anarchic. However there is no doubt that it shows signs of organisation (Walz 1979, Art/Jervis 1986, Axelrod 1984, Keohane 1984). Unclear technology is one of the most crucial factors of uncertainty in international relations. Members of organised anarchies know their duties and goals of their organisation. What they don’t know is the logic or technology of the process as it develops. Also unclear is their role design within the process. Fluid participation signals that there are fluid boundaries between organisations and the ever changing environment. This characterisation accounts for nation states on domestic (Kingdon 1995: 83ff) as on international level.

Kingdon (1984, 1995) adopted the garbage can model to explain the process of agenda setting and alternative specification within the political system of the United States. Therefore, he reduced the originally four streams (problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities) to three: problems, policies, and politics by incorporating the participants and choice opportunities into the politics stream. Further he added the concepts of policy windows and policy entrepreneurs.

Zahariadis (1992, 1999) developed the model further and made it applicable to political systems other than that of the United States. His major extension was that he used multiple streams to explain the entire policy formation process adding decision making not only agenda setting.

Most recently Lipson (2004) adapted the model to explain decision making in international organisations - on United Nations peacekeeping. Therefore he transformed the politics stream by actors, interests and ideas on three levels: “(1) the multilateral setting; (2) politics within UN member states (i.e., support or hostility toward UN peacekeeping, and willingness to pay dues); and (3) politics and organizational culture within the UN.” (Lipson 2004: 17)

In the following section we will introduce the reader into this concept of multiple streams in policy making. The basic idea of the framework as we will use it, depends on Kingdon’s model of three relatively independent streams: problems, policy and politics which are coupling and therefore open a window of opportunity in time.


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Social Science and Political Practice in International Relations - Bridging two systems
6th Pan-European International Relations Conference, Turino, 12-13 September 2007
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Social, Science, Political, Practice, International, Relations, Bridging, Pan-European, International, Relations, Conference, Turino, September
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M.A. Jan Lachenmayer (Author), 2007, Social Science and Political Practice in International Relations - Bridging two systems, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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