I am a complete outsider when it comes to international relations. But here I am, reading through IR papers, surveying this new found land of mine. I can’t help but notice this “mode of thinking" from the canons of IR. Theorists tends to put this “disclaimer" in their paper, emphasizing the limitation and oversimplification of their theory, cautioning direct application on the real world.
“Well game theory is useful to understand X, but don’t expect it to explain everything!" This type of statement is of course fair, but in some ways misguided. Theory is simplifying not for simplifying sake. Theory is an abstraction from the numerous empirical cases. Abstraction is not equal to mere omission and simplification. Abstraction is identifying common quality of each empirical observation. There are limits or standards for performing useful abstraction versus useless abstraction.
Take the case of Axelrod’s study on Tit for Tat strategy. Axelrod found that mutually beneficial strategy can emerge naturally from self-interested players in iterated prisoner’s dilemma. Lipson then uses this study’s game theoretic model to analyze international relations. When I questioned whether the partisanship in democracy qualifies democratic actors as consistent actors for repeated game to take place, the response I got is that theory simply cannot fit into every empirical case. This response misunderstands my initial question. I am not questioning application of this theory on any specific case, but questioning whether this abstraction applies to IR at all. If the players or structure of the game do not share common qualities that were abstracted from Axelrod’s case, then this is not a problem of simplification but erroneous abstraction.
So I will argue that it is not wise to say “all theories simplify". That will emphasizes the wrong virtue we want from a theory. Theory should be appropriate abstraction, and through abstraction it simplifies. Simplicity is a by-product of performing abstraction. Parsimonious is just a tool to judge two competing theories with equal explanatory power.
So all I want to say is, in order for us to have any meaningful improvement on our theories, please just stop saying “theory simplifies". Because that is just not what a theory is meant to do.