A Systems-Level Theory of Politics and International Relations

By Dombrowski, Peter | Naval War College Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

A Systems-Level Theory of Politics and International Relations


Dombrowski, Peter, Naval War College Review


A Systems-Level Theory of Politics and International Relations

Jervis, Robert. System E.eds: Complexity tn PoliS and Social Life. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997. 328pp. $45

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY'S ROBERT JERVIS has consistently been one of the most interesting and influential scholars of international relations for nearly thirty years. With such pathbreaking studies to his credit as Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 1976) and The Logic of Images in International Relations (Columbia University Press, 1989),Jervis long ago solidified his place among the elite scholars studying international affairs. System Effects continues this tradition of first-rate scholarship and maintains Jervis's relevance to contemporary international relations debates.

This book explores the possibility of applying "a systems level theory of politics" to the study of international relations, although Jervis is careful to note that the general concepts he develops are applicable to a broader range of social phenomena. Systems-level theorizing holds that "the whole is different from, not greater than the sum of its parts"; in short, we should be able to identify the "emergent properties" of a system and trace "interconnections" among different units within the system at different points of time. Jervis does a terrific job explaining systems-level concepts like positive and negative feedback, path dependence, and nonlinearity, among others.

Paradoxically, System Effects represents an example of both the most modern and the most traditional in international relations research. It is modern in that it demonstrates a daunting familiarity with some of the best research currently under way at the boundaries where the natural and physical sciences meet the social sciences. For example, the author explains ideas developed by such evolutionary biologists as Stephen Jay Gould and suggests how such insights might be applied to political phenomena. He does so in a manner accessible to those unfamiliar with the conceptual and theoretical intricacies of chaos and complexity theories, among others.

A paradox emerges,because although Jervis operates at the cutting edge with his application of natural science concepts to the social sciences, the "meat and potatoes" of System Effects will be largely familiar to most international relations scholars and casual students alike. The specific cases, historical examples, and research used by Jervis to elucidate systems-level thinking are drawn from the international relations canon; in fact, Jervis's evidence comes largely from one subfield of international relations theory-national security studies. …

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