The Need for Paradigms and Models

Excerpted from Samuel Huntington, "The New Era in World Politics," chapter one in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order at

...Yet if we are to think seriously about the world, and act effectively in it, some sort of simplified map of reality, some theory, concept, model, paradigm, is necessary. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, as William James said, only "a bloomin' buzzin' confusion." Intellectual and scientific advance, Thomas Kuhn showed in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, consists of the displacement of one paradigm, which has become increasingly incapable of explaining new or newly discovered facts, by a new paradigm, which does account for those facts in a more satisfactory fashion. "To be accepted as a paradigm," Kuhn wrote, "a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted."

"Finding one's way through unfamiliar terrain," John Lewis Gaddis also wisely observed, "generally requires a map of some sort. Cartography, like cognition itself, is a necessary simplification that allows us to see where we are, and where we may be going." The Cold War image of superpower competition was, as he points out, such a model, articulated first by Harry Truman, as "an exercise in geopolitical cartography that depicted the international landscape in terms everyone could understand, and so doing prepared the way for the sophisticated strategy of containment that was soon to follow." World views and causal theories are indispensable guides to international politics.

For forty years students and practitioners of international relations thought and acted in terms of the highly simplified but very useful Cold War paradigm of world affairs. This paradigm could not account for everything that went on in world politics. There were many anomalies, to use Kuhn's term, and at times the paradigm blinded scholars and statesmen to major developments, such as the Sino-Soviet split. Yet as a simple model of global politics, it accounted for more important phenomena than any of its rivals, it was an essential starting point for thinking about international affairs, it came to be almost universally accepted, and it shaped thinking about world politics for two generations.

Simplified paradigms or maps are indispensable for human thought and action. On the one hand, we may explicitly formulate theories or models and consciously use them to guide our behavior. Alternatively, we may deny the need for such guides and assume that we will act only in terms of specific "objective" facts, dealing with each case "on its merits." If we assume this, however, we delude ourselves. For in the back of our minds are hidden assumptions, biases, and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality, what facts we look at, and how we judge their importance and merits. We need explicit or implicit models so as to be able to:

1. order and generalize about reality;

2. understand causal relationships among phenomena;

3. anticipate and, if we are lucky, predict future developments;

4. distinguish what is important from what is unimportant; and

5. show us what paths we should take to achieve our goals.

Every model or map is an abstraction and will be more useful for some purposes than for others. A road map shows us how to drive from A to B, but will not be very useful if we are piloting a plane, in which case we will want a map highlighting airfields, radio beacons, flight paths, and topography. With no map, however, we will be lost. The more detailed a map is the more fully it will reflect reality. An extremely detailed map, however, will not be useful for many purposes. If we wish to get from one big city to another on a major expressway, we do not need and may find confusing a map which includes much information unrelated to automotive transportation and in which the major highways are lost in a complex mass of secondary roads. A map, on the other hand, which had only one expressway on it would eliminate much reality and limit our ability to find alternative routes if the expressway were blocked by a major accident. In short, we need a map that both portrays reality and simplifies reality in a way that best serves our purposes.


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