Three arguments that impacted me

Phil Arena started this exercise of answering a few questions about what ideas or concepts have had an impact on us as scholars (and as people), and I think it’s a good idea—as evidenced by the fact that I’ve been thinking way too hard about my answers. Without further ado, let’s jump into it.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on how you think about the world in your daily life? 

I’d say it’s sequential rationality, which gets us to ideas of subgame perfection and the credibility of promises or threats. The idea here is that I shouldn’t expect someone else to react to my actions down the road in a way that wouldn’t be in her interest. Sounds almost trivial when you put it that way, but the idea is that we’d like our theories of political action to rule out incredible threats. In other words, we would find an equilibrium implausible if someone threatened to blow us both up with a hand grenade if I don’t cough up a dollar and, as a result, I give her the dollar. If I say no, and she has to weigh the option of not having a dollar versus being dead, well, she’s unlikely to choose the latter.

Why is this useful? For me, it was instructive in my thinking about how politics works—say, why certain bargaining situations end up the way they do—and also how I thought about causality. What happens off the equilibrium path—every dog that doesn’t bark, every war that doesn’t happen (like World War III in the 1960s, the Second Korean War of 1994, the war between Russia and Wilhemine Germany in 1935), every election in the 1990s not involving Ross Perot—has a lot to tell us about what actually does happen, and breaking out of the linear A-follows-B narrative mode of thinking about political history was a big one for me.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one has had the greatest impact on your own research

This one’s tough. Thanks, Phil.

But I think it’s going to be my realization, some years ago, that “assumption” isn’t a four-letter word (it’s a nine-letter word, if you’re keeping score at home). Rather, assumptions are either useful for a particular question or not—no more, no less. They’re the means by which we keep track of what’s a moving part and what isn’t, by which we can isolate the effect of one thing we’re interested in from others. In fact, since the rules of logic are pretty much set, assumptions are about all we have in terms of contributions to theory. They’re nothing more than the premises of the arguments that make up our theories, but they’re also the the entry point for creativity and insight. They simplify, they restrict, and in so doing they give us power, leverage, and answers—as long as we’re explicit, everywhere and always, about what they are.

And once I realized that, I think I got better at writing down models, at tailoring them to my questions, and at understanding what they taught me. No small thing, that.

Q: Of all the arguments/findings/concepts you’ve learned in political science, which one did you most underestimate at first

I’m agreeing with Phil on this one. The unitary actor assumption. It’s easy to over-complicate a model with realism, but some theories—like most of my newer stuff on coalitions and multilateral bargaining—can be pretty powerful even as states are treated like billiard balls. (They’re also much easier to solve and explicate, but that’s another issue entirely.) But for the rest, I’ll direct you to Phil’s prior discussion.


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