Explaining vs. Understanding: Are they mutually exclusive?

Two major camps of research frameworks, as understood by Hollis and Smith (1992), are outlined as the “outside story” or explanatory research, and the “inside story” or understanding research.  These two camps are defined as mutually exclusive, drawing a stark difference between the understanding of a phenomenon from an external and internal perspective.  The overarching question, however, is whether these two frameworks are truly mutually exclusive, or if the framework presented for each investigation style transcends the technical borders the authors define.

When trying to understand the difference between explaining and understanding we can turn to the example of authoritarian stability.  In an explanatory study, the type of question we would be met with would be similar to “what are the causes of authoritarian stability?”  Causal relationships, variables, evaluation, and, generally, the pursuit of support (or disproof) of a defined hypothesis is entailed in the methods of explanatory study. In this type of study, we would expect the researcher to perform a literature review of the pre-existing research on the topic of authoritarian stability, as well as define and explore variables which the researcher thinks will be important for the final result.  The researcher would delve into research written or utilizing descriptive language from an “outside” or explanatory perspective, such as articles on the economic state of the country and history leading to the current stability (or instability).  This “outside story”-type study is based in a more holistic and non-sentimental line of research, focused on the “how” of a phenomenon more than on the “why”.

On the other hand, a study based on “understanding” would ask a question related more to the “why” of authoritarian stability, or the sentiments of those involved— otherwise understood as those “inside” the phenomenon. This is also known as the “inside story”.  Research of this style typically entails interviews with citizens about how they feel about the phenomenon, including questions similar to “how does the subject view authoritarianism as their political organization?”  Generally, the investigation is centered around personal perceptions and not the birds-eye view of an “outside” investigation.   Considering the two types of studies in comparison to the other, an “outside story” looks at the whole of the phenomenon and tries to explain how and why it came to be.  An understanding study will take a look at the phenomenon and dive inside of it, attempting to explain why the inside parts all relate or make up the whole.  While both studies do attempt to understand the inner workings of the phenomenon at hand, an explanatory study searched for causality, while understanding studies search for sentimentality and the evolution of the meaning of the phenomenon.

However, the separation of the two causes loss on both ends, resulting in an wholly incomplete study.  Studies which are solely focused on explanation generally lose the nuance of each case they examine.  In the authoritarian example, we can see that, without delving into the inside story of each regime we do not understand the sentiments of the citizens, elites, or autocrats.  Citizens can destabilize an unresponsive authoritarian and lead to major international changes.  These dissenting citizens can force changes, and, in this example, the citizens and the leaders represent the parts that help us to understand the whole (the whole being authoritarian stability, or lack thereof).  The personalization of these regimes and the true understanding of what that means to the autocrat and their citizens is lost.  Vice versa, understanding studies are in danger of losing the larger picture, such as holistic changes.  General cause and effect changes can be best seen from an “outside” perspective.  Those trying to perform an understanding study are generally not searching for a greater cause-effect relationship, however, again when considering authoritarianism, power is important to creating stability and the avoidance of larger pictures can create a disjointed understanding of personal sentiments, as well as a gap in understanding of how the driving force of causal relationships in internal events has impacted these beliefs or rhetoric, leading to changes or development in personal conceptualizations.

All of this is to say that explaining and understanding are recognizable separately, but should not be parsed apart so strictly.  There is an overall gain when both methods are combined for a study. The mutual exclusiveness of explanation versus understanding is overall untrue. The reality of the two research designs is that they are based in different directions, but the methodologies used in both— as well as the knowledge gained from both— are important for an all encompassing study.  In the understanding methodology, a greeting impact is placed on the recognition and understanding of personal sentiments.  Especially in the autocratic example, personal sentiments are highly important to understanding a leader’s movements and motivations.  The regime is highly personalized when there is one definitive head of state which can have virtually unchecked power.  Therefore, it would be an injustice by an explanatory analyst to ignore the impacts of the leader’s personal sentiments when trying to explore how the regime in question is stable or unstable.  The use, then, of understanding methodology such as political psychology, interviews, and historical and rhetorical analysis are imperative to an explanatory study.  The leader’s movements and the regime stability inform each other and so, conversely, and understanding study will be contextually limited without expanding to include recognition and comprehension of the causal relationships and their driving forces for creating opportunities for sentimental control in regime change and instability.  

In general, a concession must be made for the nuances in international policy and relations caused by the “inside” story of domestic politics, understood through historically analytical and “understanding” research tactics, as well as the nuance informed by the “outside” story for how the parts of the whole can and chose to interact with each other.  The distinction between the two limits how we interact with our research and increases the likelihood that we will cut important information out of our studies.  General predictions are helpful for creating a research framework, understanding pre-existing causal relations, and categorically defining phenomena based on theoretical approaches, but, when dealing with an increasingly complex world, research still demands careful case-detail engagement.

Hollis, Martin, and Steve Smith. Explanation and Understanding International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1992.

Wohlforth, William C. 2011. “No One Loves a Realist Explanation.” International Politics 48(4–5): 441–59.

Test Post- Introduction

My name is Elise Jones and I am a Global and International Studies major in Political Science and a Spanish minor. I am primarily interested in theoretical stability of autocratic governments and its relationship with Latin American states and their cultural values.