Counterfactuals and Conflict

Course Code: 
PLIR 3500
John Setear

This course rigorously explores two related methodologies outside the mainstream of contemporary international relations theory: counterfactual analysis and conflict simulations.

Any statement of causality or contingency implicitly posits a counterfactual situation (in which, absent the cause or contingent event, the effect or some subsequent events do not occur). Yet explicitly counterfactual analysis is rare both for theorists of international relations and historians.  This course examines counterfactual analyses by political scientists and historians; it also develops a typology of such analysis, focusing on considerations of the plausibility and the impact of the counterfactual assumption.  The course also examines the techniques and historical accuracy of a variety of complex (but non-computerized), multi-player simulations of large-scale conflict.  Counterfactual analysis and conflict simulation dovetail in the course’s examination of whether conflict simulations can helpfully generate and illuminate counterfactual analysis of those conflicts.

The course concludes with an assertion that traditional methodologies and the more unusual methods explored here are interdependent: good counterfactual analysis and simulations of conflict depend on a broad and deep understanding of history, and good causal explanations and narratives can generally benefit from the kinds of scrutiny undertaken by authors of counterfactual analysis and the designers of conflict simulations.