Simple Models for Complex Politics

Politics is complex. For scholars of comparative politics who study domestic politics in an increasingly globalized world, understanding the interactions among local, national, transnational, regional, and global forces is essential. So how should we proceed? One view is that grasping complexity means discarding simple theories and spare models of politics that do not reflect the complexity that we know exists. The position is intuitively appealing: complex problems require complex tools.

There is, however, another view. My colleague Andrew Little and I have recently finished a new paper on formal theory in comparative politics entitled “Simple Formal Models in Comparative Politics” (PDF). It is written as part of a dialogue on the future of comparative politics, and responds (in part) to work by Philippe Schmitter (see e.g. here) in which complexity[*], multi-level politics, and the dangers of simplifying assumptions figure prominently. Part of the paper is a clarification of the state of formal theory in comparative politics. We show that formal theory still occupies a relatively small part of the work being done in comparative politics, and that there is scant evidence that this is going to change any time soon. We also comment on some common beliefs about what models and assumptions are for which, sadly, remain all too common in the discipline.

But more interesting and broadly relevant is what comes next. We argue that in a world of complex interactions, simplification—in formal theory as in other kinds of theorizing—is a virtue, not a vice. We explain why in detail in the paper, but at root is the fact that theories are always simplifications, and descriptive accuracy is but one criterion by which a theory ought to be judged. We also suggest that professional incentives lead modelers to create formal models that are more complicated than they need to be. Our suggestions for how simple models of politics (formal or otherwise) might join together with the “complexity-embracing” modes of research is a nice parallel to recent contributions by Gehlbach (PDF) and Lorentzen et al (PDF). Our perspective on theory-as-simplification also parallels Healy’s colorful reflections on “nuance” (PDF).

So yes, the politics is complex, but this does not mean our theories must be also. Instead, we need multiple just-simple-enough theories, and continuous collaboration with case experts and other empiricists to know what “just-simple-enough” means.


[*] Without speaking for my coauthor, I doubt that this is a particularly revolutionary idea when the term “complex interdependence” is nearly a century old, and prominent scholars have been asking questions like “is the traditional distinction between international relations and domestic politics dead?” longer than I have been alive (see Gourevitch 1978).