Singer's Levels of Analysis

J. David Singer, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, weighs the merits and limitations of the state and system levels of analysis in his essay "The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations." He assesses these levels on their effectiveness in describing, explaining, and predicting phenomena. Below is a brief summary of his basic views on each level:


International System Level of Analysis

  • the most comprehensive level of analysis -- "encompassing the totality of interactions which take place within the system and environment"
  • more holistic analysis
  • more deterministic in nature
  • Effectiveness in describing:
    • primary advantages lie in its comprehensiveness
    • disadvantages lie in its lack of detail
  • Effectiveness in explaining:
    • disadvantage: exaggerates the impact of the system upon the actors and discounts the impact of the actors upon the system
    • disadvantage: requires that "we postulate a high degree of uniformity in the foreign political operational codes of our national actors" → thus we assume that all national actors "think and act in terms of interest defined as power"; however, nations may differ to a large extent in the nature and substance of their national interests → creation of "black box" concept of national actors
    • advantage: adequate for making not causal but correlative statements based on general system level trends
    • advantage: "singularly manageable model"
  • Effectiveness in predicting:
    • advantage: "reasonably satisfactory as a basis for prediction"
    • disadvantage: predictions can only be made in gross and general terms

National State Level of Analysis

  • traditional focus of western students
  • Effectiveness in describing:
    • advantage: does not attribute great similarity to all actors and allows for differentiation → thus greater detail and less homogenization
    • disadvantage: may produce an exaggeration of differences among sub-systemic actors → overdifferentiation
  • Effectiveness in explaining:
    • uses the "decision-making" approach
    • advantage: factors goals, motivation, and purpose of national policies into interpretation and explanation
    • advantage: able to question how and why certain nations pursue specific goals
    • disadvantage: "goals and motivations are both dependent and independent variables" → muddles explanation to a certain extent
    • disadvantage: introduces issue of national perception of objective factors vs. simply "objective factors" as causation for phenomena
    • danger: this overdifferentiation may produce Ptolmaic parochialism
      • what is this?? tendency to attribute these differences as virtues of one's own nation and vices of others (eps. adversary at time)
      • e.g. "we-they" interpretation during Cold War period in America
  • Effectiveness in predicting:
    • "predictive power would appear no greater than the systematic orientation"

Concluding words: utilization of either system depends not on value, but on the purpose of one's research; "one [level of analysis] may well be corollary of the other, but they are not immediately combinable;" the synthesis of both levels of analysis is crucial to the progress and growth of the theory of international relations



World Politics, Vol. 14, No. 1, The International System: Theoretical Essays. (Oct., 1961), pp.
77-92.