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Neglect of ‘Theory’ In Quantitative Research Method in International Relations

The quantitative research method in the sub-field of International Relations allows academics and researchers to incorporate their arguments through numerical evidence. While the quantitative research method in IR makes up the majority of research regarding international politics, there are some key research elements that are being neglected and de-emphasized. Pieces of evidence in the International Relations and the larger fields of Social or Political Science are already difficult to quantify in a scientifically consistent manner. Besides, the relegation of important research elements such as ‘theory’ further leads to mis-specified empirical incentives and reflects IR scholarship less significant. This essay argues the notion of the relative absence of theory in IR discipline and how the shallow hypothesis testing leads to poor quality of cumulative researched data in International Relations.

The declining popularity of creating and refining theory in quantitative research method in IR is unfortunately due to the relative absence of understanding of what theory really is. This important element is neglected by IR scholars because they do not agree on what the researchers mean by theory. They elevate hypothesis testing instead of theory by conflating theory as just a method of research. However, without theory, it is inevitable that research would not be scientifically significant and ‘objective.’ Mearsheimer in “Leaving Theory Behind” discusses the downgrading of theory in research of International Relations. He considers putting behind of theory as a mistake as it is one of the core activities of research in International Relations.

Theory, in its practical term, is the explanation of the conceptual effort of reading and interpreting the basic drives of a subject. It also interprets the motivations of subjects to determine how their abstract narratives are positioned in social time and space. In International Relations, the theory argues the nature, location, and distinct conception of the human condition in World Politics. As Cox states that “All theories have a derived perspective in time and space.” This statement puts forward that the political position of a subject influences how the nature of space and time describes the attitude and possibility of the condition described in potentially favorable human conditions. These conditions are deeply problematic in the world of politics and therefore needed to be theorized. (Cox, 1981)

Mearsheimer in his article “Leaving Theory Behind” quotes Christopher Achen who is a prominent research methodologist about what he recalls theory as the legitimate statistical and empirical micro-foundation. The major stance Achen adds in his article is that the research should be theoretical as well because without theory the real quantitative research task is invaluable. He calls the casual mechanism of hypothesis testing “dreary” which unfortunately does not increasingly focus on well-crafted theory and hence results in flawed outcomes. (Achen, 2002) I agree with the notion Mearsheimer and Achen crystallize that de-privileging theory in research work in IR has no relative merits in the future global research system. The tendency of theory is primary in International Relations and Political Science because of the complex and diverse data of international political systems all around the globe.

Moreover, emphasizing what Mearsheimer calls “simplistic hypothesis testing” is by no means can optimize the transparency in gathering new knowledge about human conditions as well as international politics. The article reflects that one of the victims of research in International Relations is ‘theory’ as the IR scholars have encouraged the hypothesis testing while rejecting the theory creating and refining methods on the other hand in quantitative research method.

In the nutshell, no doubt, there are many significant roads to draw useful results to understand world politics in its easiest and simplest way. However, grasping the notion Mearsheimer urges the IR researchers to consider, I opine that the element of ‘theory’ should be incorporated in the quantitative research method to make the numerical findings more empirical. Without theory, the research would be like a journey with no destination, and the problem of shallow “simplistic hypothesis testing” would be more prevalent than ever in the research of world politics.


Mearsheimer, J. J., & Walt, S. M. (2013). Leaving theory behind: Why simplistic hypothesis testing is bad for International Relations. European Journal of International Relations, 19(3), 427–457.

Cox, R. W. (1981). Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. Millennium, 10(2), 126–155.

Achen, C. H. (2002). Toward A New Political Methodology: Microfoundations and ART. Annual Review of Political Science, 5(1), 423–450.

Dunne, T., Hansen, L., & Wight, C. (2013). The end of International Relations theory? European Journal of International Relations, 19(3), 405–425.



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