Level of Analysis

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Level of Analysis Problem
within the Global System


All human activities are ultimately based on individual behavior.  But individual actions are magnified greatly through the roles individuals play in communities and organizations.

A community is a social group or social grouping that shares common cultural and social values.  A family is a social group that enhances the power, authority, and responsibilities of the mother and father.  In patriarchal societies, the pater familias may have the authority of life and death over his children.  Extended families, like clans and tribes, have traditional leadership positions that exercise influences over other individuals and families.

Ethnic groups, what I have called ‘societal communities,’ various cultural minorities, religious communities, and nationalities are other communities defined by culture.  A nation usually shares a common language, religion, history, and sense of belonging together (nationalism).

An organization is deliberately created. There are at least three types of organizations: Proprietorships,  Voluntary Associations, and Bureaucracies.

Proprietorships are organizations that may be formed by a single individual who runs a business, office, or firm that is distinct from his family life.  A doctor or lawyer may be a single person without even a secretary to make appointments.  These proprietorships and small businesses are organizations with limited numbers of employees and resources.

Voluntary associations are formed when of otherwise unrelated individuals join for a common purpose. Voluntary associations may be formed for any purpose from bowling clubs to charitable groups to labor unions and business associations.  Voluntary associations may have thousands of members, who pay membership dues, and receive periodic newsletters informing them of the work of the group.  The association may hold annual meetings at which an Executive Committee or Board of Directors is elected.  The association may employ a small, paid, professional staff headed by an Executive Director.  This staff is often called a secretariat.  If the staff grows in size to hundreds of employees, then a small bureaucracy becomes associated with the voluntary association.

Similarly if proprietorships and small businesses grow to employ hundreds of workers, then this business will
become incorporated as a legal person and take on the characteristics of a bureaucratic organization.

Bureaucracies are large formal organizations employing from hundreds to thousands of persons.  They are hierarchically organized with a division of labor based on various functions.

The oldest bureaucratic organizations surviving are the Roman Catholic Church and central governments with their various ministries, departments, agencies, and divisions.  Military organizations are bureaucratic.  They are headed by the commander-in-chief, often a king, a central staff with high ranking generals and admirals, and a chain of command from generals, colonels, captains, and lieutenants.  Officers are generally distinct from the enlisted soldiers. 

Other ministries of the government have similar hierarchical divisions.  In the United States, executive departments go from the President, to Department Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Under Secretary, Assistant Secretaries, Bureau chief, Division head, to Section leader.

Over the past hundred years, private bureaucracies have grown tremendously in number.  Giant business corporations have formed and gown into multinationals.  Global business and global finance have more resources available under the control of their Chief Executive Officer than do Presidents of entire countries.  Giant corporations do not yet have their own militaries, although they do hire private security firms to protect their key personnel and installations.

While these organizations are owned privately by their shareowners, who, in theory, control the company, it is their management and employees who really run these enterprises.  The stockholders may be viewed as a voluntary association who elect the Board of Directors.  The Directors hire (and fire) the Chief Executive Officer and other top managers.  But it is the employees who produce the products and generate the profits.  These employees are paid salaries, organized hierarchically by function, and have defined job responsibilities.  They belong to a privately owned bureaucratically organized institutions.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, wrote extensively about bureaucracies and defined them as an ideal type of organization.

These private and public bureaucracies increase tremendously the power, control, and influence of the individuals who head them.  In addition to their organizational roles, these individuals are usually very wealthy in their private capacities independent of their organizational roles.  Their wealth and their position often reinforce each other.  Social status and organizational position go hand in hand.

Bill Gates was not only the CEO of Microsoft Corporation but is also a billionaire.  In most countries there is a power elite composed of families with wealth and position.

When dealing with international politics, we must concern ourselves with what is called “the level of analysis” problem.   

Levels of Analysis

The Global System.  We have defined the global system as a complex system of systems.  It has been shown that this system can be analyzed usefully by differentiating four levels of analysis:  the individual level; the domestic or intrastate level; the interstate level, and the global level of analysis.

            Individual level.  Ultimately all behavior is individual behavior.  Individuals make decisions on whether to go to war or to remain at peace.  National interests are defined and applied by individuals.  Individual soldiers kill and get killed.  But the power of individuals is magnified when they become the leaders and members of large organizations.  Large formal organizations (bureaucracies) are major actors both within states and within the global system.  The President of the United States is a single individual but his power as an individual is amplified by his organizational role.  The office and the man merge. 

 International politics can be analyzed in terms of the individual decision makers—the Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, General Secretaries, Foreign Ministers, and Corporate Chief Executive Officers—of the great formal organizations that dominate their countries and the world.  International politics becomes the game played by Bush, Putin, Merkel, and Kim Il-jong. 

       The Domestic or Intrastate Level. Instead of focusing on individuals and individual behavior, we may seek to explain international relations in terms of the domestic pressures that operate on governmental decision makers. 

We have previously defined a state as having a) territory, b) human population, c) central government with effective control over its territory and people, and d) an elusive legal status called sovereignty.  These central governments are the dominant political organizations within that state and its most powerful representatives externally within the international system.  But states are more than their central governments.  Central governments operate within the civil society of their particular country.   In democratic states, the central governments are elected by their citizens, respond to organized interest groups, and are often dominated by a particular political party.  There are many non-governmental actors active in the domestic politics of a particular state. 

 To simplify matters, states may be divided into their central governments and their civil societies.  A given state may be politically divided and the ruling central government may be limited by various opposition groups who, in democratic societies, may win the next election.

Foreign policy may be the product of pressure groups demanding certain economic policies, supporting home governments of immigrants, and helping further special goals like clean air and human rights. 

Countries pursue national interests that are often independent of the political party and leaders in power.  Explanations of international relations may focus on this domestic level of analysis.

        The Interstate Level of Analysis.  Realists continue to view the international system as a state system.  States make up the building blocks of international politics.  This perspective describes the traditional approach to international relations. 

States exercise power.  Each state must establish, defend, and protect its independence, survival, prosperity, and sovereignty.  In a world of states, a balance of power exists between them.  Great powers have more influence than middling or small powers.  Great powers may try to gain hegemonic dominance over the system.

This state system manages conflicts in many ways, most of which are peaceful diplomacy, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise.  But conflicts may lead to violence that can turn into war.  The state system is anarchic and war remains an ultimate recourse to policy makers.

This state system is in the process of transformation.  In 1945, at the end of World War II, the victorious Great Powers established a series of intergovernmental organizations to preserve their own power and to help them manage the affairs of the world.  The United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—GATT) are among the most important of these transnational intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).  World trade and finance has grown under a liberal economic regime so that the entire world has reached new degrees of complex interdependence.  Globalization is both a fact and a transformative force.

While the global system does not have a central government or global culture, it has become so interconnected that questions have been raised about the autonomy of individual states.  Many would argue that the global system can no longer be viewed as a state system. 

Many ideas and concepts developed in relationship to the view that the world is a state system remain powerful.  It is possible to explain a great deal about international relations in terms of the interstate level of analysis.

        Global Level.  The world can be viewed from a global level of analysis as if we were on a spaceship orbiting around our planet and mapping it.   The political divisions of our planet would not be visible from outer space.  They are merely political divisions marked arbitrarily on a map.   What we would see would be mountains, oceans, plains, and rivers.  If we had special sensors we might be able to detect pollution and natural resources.  Are the forests that our infrared scanners show healthy or not? A global level approach to international relation would focus on climate, global warming, pollution, natural resources, ecological systems, and pandemics.  It would focus on question of how we can manage our global economy to achieve world-wide prosperity.  What institutions exist to bring about and manage the changes necessary for our survival.

Various useful concepts have been created to analyze the global political system from a global perspective.  These include terms like the “global political system,”  “global actors,”  ““North-South Divide,”  "complex interdependence," "regimes," globalization," etc.  New decision making models involve not only state actors but also international organizations, multinational corporations, and private non-public non-governmental organizations.

These four levels of analysis are each relevant and provide insights into the global political system.  They must be integrated with each other if we wish to understand this complex system of systems.

Level of the Object to Be Explained to be Distinguished from the Level of Explanation.  There is also an important distinction to be made between the object under investigation and the factors that are used to explain the object.  For example, the global system can be explained in terms of the state actors that dominate the system.  But the global system could also be explained in terms the individual leaders who control these central governments.  Or the global system could be explained on a global level in terms of global warming, resource scarcity, migratory patterns, the clash of civilizations.    If the foreign policy of a given state is under analysis, then the foreign policy can be explained in terms of global restraints (the external environment of the given state), the interstate limits on any one country within the state system, internal pressures (the domestic environment) within a given country, or the idiosyncrasies of the national decisions makers . Thus the level of analysis of the object under investigation must be specified as well as the level of analysis in terms of which the object is explained (global, interstate, domestic, or individual).

Please note that the level of the object whose behavior is to be analyzed differs from the level of explanation.

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 Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Prof. of Government and History
Coordinator of International Studies
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016
Modified November 15, 2010
September 11, 2009

August 24, 2007