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Kahler: Rationality in international relations

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Kahler. 1999. Rationality in international relations. In Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics, eds. Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner. Pp. 279-301.

There are three main approaches out in IR: rationalist approaches (which pervade both neorealism and neoliberalism), psychological approaches (e.g. cognitive science, prospect theory), and cultural/identity approaches.

The great paradigmatic debates don't get us far in understanding the world. Rather than have our big theoretical arguments, we should focus on problem-driven research, which will expose each approach's shortcomings and cause approaches to evolve in a good way. Kahler doesn't predict an end to the paradigm wars, but he suspects that such a problem-driven approach would lead rational choice (the dominant approach) to continue evolving in ways that begin to satisfy the complaints raised by other approaches.

For example, rationalism improved through problem driven research about deterrence: psychological studies exposed flaws in rational choice that led to improvement. Simlarly, the study of ethnic/national conflict allowed culturalist scholars to expose flaws in rationalism, leading to a gradual improvement of rationalism.

Kahler doesn't explicitly endorse rationalism so much as acknowledge that it's dominant, and that such theoretical challenges in problem-driven research will improve the dominant paradigm.

Kahler also points out that some of the approaches share common problems. Rational choice and psychological approaches, for example, both have trouble specifying how individual-level theories can explain collective outcomes.

Some of the criticisms leveled at rational choice by psychological approaches: expected utility doesn't work in practice (e.g. prospect theory does). Where do preferences come from? What about misperception?

Some of the criticisms leveled at rational choice by cultural approaches: What about identity? What about norms and social practices? How does culture change the rules of the strategic interaction [e.g. Greif 1994, I think]? Where do preferences come from?

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Kahler, Miles (author)International RelationsRational ChoiceCultureStructuralismPreferences

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