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Cambridge Review of International Affairs

ISSN: 0955-7571 (Print) 1474-449X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccam20

What are levels of analysis and what do they


contribute to international relations theory?
Owen Temby
To cite this article: Owen Temby (2015) What are levels of analysis and what do they
contribute to international relations theory?, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 28:4,
721-742, DOI: 10.1080/09557571.2013.831032
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2013.831032

Published online: 25 Nov 2013.

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Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2015


Vol. 28, No. 4, 721742, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571.2013.831032

What are levels of analysis and what do they contribute to


international relations theory?

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Owen Temby
McGill University
Abstract The objective of this article is to clarify the significance and usefulness of levels
of analysis, a central IR concept, but one often used unproblematically. I argue that a level
of analysis should be defined as a social structure that is examined for its effects on
another social structure, or on the same social structure. Therefore, levels of analysis are
also relational, meaning that one is defined, in part, in terms of its associated unit of
analysis. Because this definition conceptualizes levels of analysis as methodological tools
rather than ontological postulates, it is consistent with a wide range of positions on the
agent-structure debate. More specifically, I show that the methodological issue of which
levels of analysis a researcher employs is separate from the ontological issue of whether the
theoretical lens is atomistic (reductionist) or holistic at any given level. One implication of
this definition is that researchers need not view their ontological commitments as overly
methodologically constraining. This article also addresses some questions raised by this
conceptualization, among them the possibility of multiple social structures existing at
a single level.

Introduction
Since at least as early as 1961, when J David Singer published his famous article
on the topic, levels of analysis have been a prominent analytical concept in
international relations (IR) discourse. Neorealists, neoclassical realists and
democratic peace theorists all define their theoretical approaches in terms of the
levels of analysis they employ; Martin Hollis and Steve Smith (1990) use the
concept as their primary means of distinguishing IR theories, and Wendt-inspired
constructivists rely on the distinction between micro- and macro-levels of
structure to provide an account of ideational structural change (Wendt 1999, 2003;
Checkel 2005; Mabee 2007). Despite their common usage, however, there seems
to be little agreement about what levels of analysis actually are, or how they
should be used. It should come as little surprise, then, that some scholars have
insisted that the concept has led to more confusion than it has granted in analytical
precision (Walker 1993; Moravcsik 2003), and that it should be eliminated
altogether (Patomaki 2002).
A previous draft of this article was presented at the 2011 annual conference of the
International Studies Association Northeast in Providence, Rhode Island. I thank Patrick
Thaddius Jackson, Arne Ruckert, Brian Schmidt, Alexander Wendt and the anonymous
reviewers for the many helpful comments on earlier drafts.
q 2013 Centre of International Studies

Owen Temby

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722

Although there is reason to agree with Andrew Moravcsiks (1997) suggestion


that the ontological question of who the actors in international politics are is a
central one for the field, his use of all three images to explain state behaviour
implies that the concept may not be so easily dispensed with. Individuals,
states, the international system and other popular nouns in IR have been
examined as distinct analytically, notwithstanding the fact that their
ontological status is a matter of ongoing debate and division. What we need,
then, and what this article attempts to provide as its main objective, is a
clarification of the meaning and utility of levels of analysis, consistent with
how the concept has already been thoughtfully employed in IR. A robust
definition will help IR scholars to address the ambiguities that arise in
examinations involving multiple realms (or levels) of social organization,
such as the relationship of levels of analysis with agent and structure, global civil
society and the diversity of nonpolitical social systems.1 A secondary objective of
this article is to define levels of analysis in a way that will allow for ontological
and epistemological differences among theoretical approaches, while still
enabling us to talk on the same terms about the nouns that are constitutive of
our field. This is probably unobtainable, but it is at least worth pointing
out that switching the focus from ontology to methodology (which is what,
I argue, levels of analysis do) highlights the similar approaches to social
inquiry used by different theories and points to potential avenues for a dialogue
between them.
I begin by reviewing the usage and debates surrounding levels of analysis in
IR since the idea was introduced into the literature over 50 years ago. The aim is
to give the reader a sense of how levels of analysis have been understood, how
the different conceptualizations of the concept fit together and, most importantly,
what the points of contention in recent debates are that I hope to address. This
will provide the basis for what follows in the second section, which attempts a
definition of levels of analysis and explicates an account of the concepts
relationship with the agent-structure problem. I argue that the concept is best
viewed relationally, as a social structure classified as a level of analysis insofar as
it is analysed for its effect on another social structure. Here I also challenge
Heikki Patomakis assertion that levels of analysis should be eliminated on
the grounds that they are inherently positivistic andeven worse for some
constructivistsanti(critical) realist. I argue that there is nothing inherently
positivistic about levels of analysis, and that the view according to which they
presuppose causal logic or a reductionist ontology is based on an unduly narrow
understanding of the concept. Rather, levels of analysis are arguably compatible
with ontological holism and therefore constitutive reasoning and realist
philosophy of science in general.2 The key point to be explicated here is
that an agent-structure problem exists at every level of analysis; therefore, a
commitment to holism at the level of the state, for example, in no way precludes
1

See Onuf (1998) for a discussion of the indispensability of levels in social inquiry.
Onuf also provides an alternative historical overview of levels of analysis in IR to what is
presented in this article and expresses concerns similar to mine about conflating ontology
and methodology when conceptualizing levels.
2
For an overview of constitutive reasoning, see Wendt (1998); for an overview of
critical realism, see Dessler (1999), Patomaki and Wight (2000) or Jackson (2010).

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Levels of analysis and IR theory 723


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examining the causal (or constitutive) effects of individual actors. Having
provided an argument about how levels of analysis should be conceptualized
and employed in IR discourse, I then discuss the implications for the
categorization and construction of IR theory. Following this, I attempt to clarify
a couple of ambiguities arising from the definition of levels of analysis presented.
Using modern systems theory (MST) as a touchstone, I show that at least one
theoretical approach which appears antithetical to levels of analysis on the
surface actually provides an elaborated basis for its use. The purpose here is not
to advance the argument that MST (or any other approach) offers superior
theoretical tools; rather, it is to explain how the ostensibly hierarchical levels of
analysis concept can be employed despite the increasingly common suggestion
that theories of IR account for functional differentiation as a property of the
international (or global) system (see Buzan 1996; Albert 1999; Jaeger 2007; Buzan
and Albert 2010). Ontological particularities between different IR theories aside,
it is hard to avoid levels of analysis when providing an account of global social
phenomena.
Levels of analysis in international theory
The level of analysis debate in IR began in the late 1950s when Kenneth Waltz
(1959) published his classic text, Man, the state, and war. In it, he posits three
images as independent variables to explain state behaviour as the dependent
variablein his case, the decision of a state to go to war. The first image is the
individual, in which properties of humans are examined in terms of their causal
impacts on whether a state goes to war. The main property considered is the
material condition of human nature, but this image is also consistent with
ideational properties such as social identities. The second image is the state itself,
in which Waltz considers the argument that the properties of the state matters in
affecting its behaviour. These include its type of government or modes of
production and distribution but, once again, a states social identities could easily
be added to this framework. For the third image, Waltz examines a property of the
international system (that is, its anarchical nature) for causality in state behaviour.
He appears to prefer this image to the others in terms of its explanatory power, but
his ambiguity on the relationship between the three prevents this from being
entirely clear.
The actual term levels of analysis was coined by Singer in his 1960 review of
Waltz (1959). In it, he argues that all three levels are needed, but that the key
variable is not the system itself, but the way in which that system is perceived,
evaluated, and responded to by the decision makers in the several and separate
states (Singer 1960, 461). In other words, Singer initially suggested the individual
level to be the most important. However, by the following year, when he
published his famous article on the topic, Singer had substantially rethought his
positions.
At first blush, it appears that Singer (1961) simply eliminated the individual
level and kept Waltzs other two images. Yet a closer reading reveals that Singer
completely redefined what levels of analysis are. Here, he says that systems
consist of parts and a whole, a micro- or macro-level of analysis (151). Every
system has these two levels, and so the choice to employ the state and

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Owen Temby

international system levels (and apparently eliminate the individual level) is not
arbitrary, but rather flows logically from the decision to study the international
system and the acknowledgement that states are its constituent elements by
definition. This definition of levels of analysis is consistent with Wendts (1999)
distinction between micro- and macro-levels of structure, and as such does not
replace Waltzs (1959) three levels, but instead compliments them. Singers state
level is not the same as Waltzs as the latters is an independent variable and the
formers is a subset of the international system level which portrays that level
from the standpoint of the stateswhat Wendt (1999) and Buzan et al (1993)
refer to as the interaction (or micro-)level.3
Understanding the distinction between the second image state level and the
interaction level is key here. As stated above, the second image uses properties
of states such as their domestic institutions, production processes and
social identities to explain behaviour. The interaction level, on the other hand,
posits a causal mechanism at the level of the international system, but at the microlevel, which depicts the international system from the states point of view and
explains state behaviour with reference to the relationship between states (Wendt
1999). This level has been conceptualized in recognition of the phenomenon of
emergent properties resulting from the interactions of states in accordance with no
properties other than their desires and the beliefs they have about how to meet
these desires when they take each other into account when making choices. These
types of structures are characteristic of micro-economic theorizing and game
theory where, in the latter case, units may bargain and exhibit common
perceptions about the activity that they are engaging in.
Similarly, Singers (1961, 84 85) only posited causal mechanisms are
state goals, motivation, and purpose in national policy, which are consciously
envisaged and more or less rationally pursued.4 He also discusses actor
perceptions, in terms of whether scholars need to account for them
when modelling their behaviour. This appears to be a clear example of the use of
the interaction level since Singer abstracts away all properties of states except those
relevant to their strategic interaction. To understand or predict state behaviour,
then, he need only specify the content of these properties and position states in
relation to one another in the form of a game-theoretic model.
It appears that Singers international system level, also, is a subset of Waltzs
third image international system level, in this case the one which Wendt refers to
as the systemic (or macro-)level of analysis, which he defines as the level of
multiply realizable outcomes since many different combinations of micro-level
interactions will result in the same macro-level outcome.5 Here the posited causal
3
One might reasonably claim that, in fact, Singer is not talking about two levels of
structure, but about agent and structure, another important dichotomy in structural theory.
I disagree with this on the basis that agent and structure is an ontological problem, and
Singers concern is unambiguously methodological. The question he addresses regards the
best way to study things, not the way things are.
4
Even though these are Singers only causal mechanisms (and thus define his state
level of analysis) I admit that he also treats his state as a dependent variable and, insofar as
he does, employs it as a unit of analysis.
5
Wendts language is confusing here, so I shall clarify. According to Wendt (1999),
every structure has two levels, the micro- and macro-level. The international system, as a
structure, is no different. In the case of this structure, the micro-level is called the

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mechanism operates at the level of the population of states, not the level of
individual or interacting states (Wendt 1999, 151, italics in original). This is what
Singer (1961, 80) is describing when he says that the systemic level of analysis,
and only this level, permits us to examine international relations in the whole,
with comprehensiveness that is of necessity lost when our focus is shifted to a
lower, more partial level. The crucial point here is that Singers two levels occur
entirely within Waltzs third image, and that, as I discuss below, Waltzs second
image can also be portrayed as having a micro- and macro-level.
Waltz (1979) reentered the levels of analysis debate with the publication of Theory
of international politics. In it, he offers a structural theory of state behaviour which
represents a significant reevaluation of the views expressed in Man, the state, and war
(1959). Waltzs new formulation of the level-of-analysis (and agent-structure?)
problem consists of two levels, the unit and the international system. The unit level
apparently refers to individual states, that is, the second image, whereas the
international system level, as Wendt (1999) has argued, is the macro-structural level
of the international system, that is, the systemic level. In other words, Waltzs
international system level is essentially the same thing as Singers, but with greater
specification about the causal behaviour it exerts on states.
According to Waltz (1979), IR theories which employ the international system
level of analysis are systemic (a methodological term) and theories which
employ the unit level are reductionist (curiously, an ontological term; more on
this below). Since Waltzs primary concern is to construct a systemic theory of
international politics, he does not spend much space specifying the contents of the
unit level. This is unfortunate, as it leaves a lot of ambiguity as to the definition of
the unit level and its relationship to the international system level. Indeed, as
Keohane and Nye (1987) and Buzan et al (1993) have noted, IR theorists have
treated the unit level as a dumping ground for political phenomena which are not
deemed to be properties of the international system (such as states, interaction
between states, individuals, interest groups and so on).
The fact that Waltzs (1979) revised conception of the international system can
be expressed as a subset of his first is due to the narrow way he defines the
former in relation to the latter. His third image is a permissive condition, which,
analytically, gives us the latitude to fit two different levels of structure within it,
even though he did not conceive of these levels. It is the international system writ
large, since its effects and the way it causes these effects are largely unspecified.
However, in Theory of international politics, his international system level has a
specific effectit describes specific behaviour (such as balancing) from the
standpoint of the system, and without any reference to the utility functions of the
states. As such, it precludes a priori the micro-level, which his initial formulation
permits.
Footnote 5 continued

interaction level, and the macro-level is called the systemic level. His failure to more
clearly explicate this point has, arguably, led to a lot of confusion about how these two
levels of the international system contribute to our knowledge of levels of analysis on the
one hand, and agent and structure on the other. See Onuf (1998) for an expression of
uncertainty due to the ambiguity of Buzan et als (1993) conceptualization of the interaction
level.

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Other efforts to reconceptualize levels of analysis were published during the


1970s and 1980s (Moul 1973; Yalem 1977; Andriole 1979; Berkowitz 1986), but,
except for Putnams (1988) article on the topic, none made a substantial and
lasting impact in the literature, and none made any arguments relevant to the ones
I make below. Instead of discussing these, then, I will focus on a lively debate on
the topic between Martin Hollis, Steve Smith and Alexander Wendt conducted
during the early 1990s.
Richard Ashley (1984) and Alexander Wendt (1987) had already argued
convincingly that Waltzs (1979) neorealism is ontologically individualistic rather
than holistic, which raises the interesting question of how a theory can be apparently
nonstructural (since the individualists structure is simply other agents) while
concurrently ascribing causation to the structure of the international system. Hollis
and Smith (1990) address this matter in Explaining and understanding international
relations by simply collapsing the levels of analysis methodological problem of how
to examine what is, and the agent-structure ontological problem of what social kinds
are, together. They do this by insisting that theories using the international system
level of analysis are ontologically holistic, that individual-level theories are
ontologically individualistic, and that the other levels are somewhere between. This
enables them to conclude that Waltzs neorealism is indeed holistic due the level of
analysis it employs, thus sidestepping the problem that Ashley and Wendt had
pointed out about neorealisms individualistic account of that level of analysis.
Hollis and Smiths (1990) conception of levels of analysis is hierarchical groups
of aggregation whose behaviour are independent variables for the level below,
and dependent variables for the level above. This scheme, therefore, represents a
substantial reworking of the notion of level of analysis since it is the first time in
which the dependent variable is not necessarily the behaviour of the state itself.
Between each of the four levels of analysis (the individual, the bureaucracy, the
nation state, and the international system) is a level of analysis problem. At each
stage the unit of the higher layer becomes the system of the lower layer (8).
For example, the bureaucracy level is the system at the individual level and the
unit at the nation state level. Hollis and Smith claim that using the bureaucracy
level implies an acceptance of holism at the individual level and individualism at
the nation state level since it means that the actions of individuals are strongly
constrained by the structure of the bureaucracy, and that the actions of the
bureaucracy are not so constrained by the nation states structure. If they were,
then the nation state would be the appropriate level of analysis.
All of this hinges on definitions of holism and individualism that are amenable
to empirical observation. Holism is defined here as the idea that the parts of
the whole behave as the whole requires, whereas individualism is defined as the
view which take[s] actors as the final authority (Hollis and Smith 1990, 4 5). The
authors state explicitly that, in both cases, the effects of each level may be causal,
or may be viewed interpretively.6 In other words, by categorizing both ontological
6

Hollis and Smith (1990) distinguish between causal (outsider) explanations and
interpretive (insider) explanations, and argue that holism and individualism are
compatible with both. What is important here is that holism and individualism are
placed on the same causal or interpretive continuum and allowed to be a part of either story,
which enables the difference between holism and individualism to be reduced to simply the
magnitude of their constraining effects.

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views as compatible with either causal or interpretive analysis, and distinguishing
them only in terms of the strength of the constraints they place on actors, Hollis
and Smith (1990) reduce ontology to epistemology by claiming that the ontological
question about the correct view of social reality (holism or individualism) is an
empirical question. Neither constitutive effects of structure, nor generative effects
on agents properties, are considered as means of distinguishing holism and
individualism, as they would not enable the authors to make this reduction since
the collapsing of agent and structure into levels of analysis requires limiting the
former to the single dimension of causal or interpretive and constraining effects.
In a review article on Hollis and Smiths (1990) book and in a subsequent
rejoinder to their response, Wendt (1991, 1992) argued that Hollis and Smith
misrepresent what levels of analysis really are in IR, and that they conflate
them with agents and structure. On the first point, Wendt accurately states that
a changing dependent variable is inconsistent with every past conception of
levels of analysis and that, most importantly, to treat the methodological
question of which actors behaviour to explain as an ontological problem
is inappropriate. Here, Wendt argues that Hollis and Smiths assertion about
Waltz as a holist is based on the conflation of ontology and methodology since
Hollis and Smiths definition of holism refers to effects on behaviour rather than
propertiesreflective of a single, individualistic solution to the agent-structure
problem. Hollis and Smiths levels of analysis scheme, then, is inherently
individualistic since the entities at any given level are treated as presocial and
ontologically primitive, rather than every having their properties (such as
identities and interests) generated by social structures.
Wendt (1992, 185) concludes by stating that [w]e can best avoid confusion
about this if we reserve levels of analysis talk for questions about what drives the
behaviour of exogenously given actors, and agent-structure talk for questions
about what constitutes the properties of those actors in the first place. In other
words, Wendt feels that the two problems are not only analytically distinct, but
that the concept of levels of analysis is inherently individualistic, the agentstructure problem deals with an issue which is uniquely holistic and, as such, the
extent to which they can be used together is as a sort of two-step process,
whereby the agent-structure concept tells us how the properties of the actors come
about, and the levels of analysis tool helps us to understand why these actors do
what they do (Fearon and Wendt 2002). Hollis and Smith (1991, 1992) replied to
Wendts criticisms with a particularly insightful and crucial response to his final
point: [t]he level of analysis problem is not simply about how to explain
behaviour, it is also unavoidably about what it means to be an actor, and this
cannot but involve the agents and structures problem (Hollis and Smith 1992,
185). According to Hollis and Smith, then, the question of how to examine the
behaviour of an actor using levels of analysis involves ontological assumptions
about what is.7
7

Although this was a novel insight in the levels of analysis debate, the proposition that
scientific inquiry presupposes ontology dates at least as far back as Friedrich Nietzsche. In
his words, [s]trictly speaking, there is no such thing as science without any
presuppositions; this thought does not bear thinking through since it is paralogical: a
philosophy, a faith, must always be there first of all, so that science can acquire from it a
direction, a meaning, a limit, a method, a right to exist (1967, 151 152).

728
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The debate between Wendt and Hollis and Smith continued among other
scholars (Carlsnaes 1994; Smith 1994; Jabri and Chan 1996; Hollis and Smith 1996;
Chan 1998), but did not continue to explicitly address the levels of analysis
problem. This is unfortunate since the initial debate left much unresolved, in
particular the specifics of how the ontological question of what is relates to the
methodological problem of how to study what is. How do we reconcile Hollis and
Smiths point about an ontological problem existing at every level of analysis with
Wendts enriched conception of holism defined in terms of generative and
constitutive effects (rather than simply constraining and causal effects) of
structure? I shall attempt to resolve this matter below.
Levels of analysis reconfigured
The fact that levels of analysis have been used in so many different ways indicates
a demand for language that will give expression to these various related concepts.
To grant us sufficient leverage, a definition of the term should be able to clearly
specify how levels of analysis, micro- and macro-structure and agent and
structure fit together. It should be consistent with how the concept has been used
historically since its inception, but it should also enable scholars with different
ontological and epistemological commitments to converse about the nouns which
constitute IR, even if their views about the ontological status of these nouns differ.
Broadly stated, therefore, I define a level of analysis as a social structure which is
examined for its effects on another social structure, or on the same social
structuresuch as when examining the effects of an anthropomorphized states
regime type on its social identities.8 If we wish to limit these effects to causal
effects, we can define a level of analysis more narrowly, as an antecedent social
structure whose properties are examined to explain the behaviour or properties of
a contingent structure.9 Following Nuri Yurdusevs (1993) and John Gerrings
(2004) example, I call the contingent structure a unit of analysis, thus
differentiating it in definition from a level of analysis. An implication of these
definitions is that levels of analysis are also relational, which means that one is
defined, in part, in terms of its associated unit of analysis. This is because a level of
analysis is not the social structure itself, but a social structure (however it is
understood) as it is employed in analysis. Kenneth Waltzs state level is different
than Paul Wapners (1995) because Waltzs unit of analysis is the state, whereas
Wapners units of analysis are corporations and consumers.
8
I will employ Kyriakos Kontopouloss (1992, 389) definition of a social structure
which, following Anthony Giddenss lead, is rules and resources recursively implicated in
the reproduction of social systems, such as humans or other social kinds. The vital question
regarding individuals is not whether they are social structures, but what the ontological
status of this structure is. Are individuals ontologically privileged entities that mediate
between different impulses and, through an act of will, make choices, or are these structures
reducible to the behaviour of their constituent brain cells, atoms, subatomic particles and so
on? This specific question is outside the scope of this article but, as I explain below, its
answer affects the types of question (causal or constitutive) we are able to ask at the
individual level.
9
For a useful typology of causal effects that can be attributed to levels of analysis, see
Buzan (1995). Buzans text also provides an alternative account of the history of the levels of
analysis concept to the one presented in this article.

Levels of analysis and IR theory 729


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Levels of analysis can also have constitutive effects, depending on


the ontological postulates made at any given level of analysis. The reason
ontology matters is that constitutive theorizing presupposes ontological holism,
while atomism and individualism rule it out a priori (Wendt 1999).10 But this
degree of elasticity of the levels of analysis concept seems to be a heavily disputed
claim, as Wendt (1991) and Patomaki (2002) both discuss levels in terms of causal
effects exclusively. Patomakis claim that this fact about levels makes them
anachronistic is worth quoting at length:
[f]rom a critical realist perspective, many IR paradigms and theories are
problematic in that they define their ontology in terms of atomist states as
unproblematic individuals, which can then form systems; or in terms of individual
statesmen, that lead these unproblematic individual states in an international
society based on exclusive possessions (sovereignty). The world becomes fixed,
with the implicit assumptions of closed systems and Humean causality, resulting in
the reification of the hypothesized entities. A corollary of these mistakes is to think
that there are different levels of analysis in the study of IR. Social being is reduced
to statistically measurable factors, with the implicit assumption that the world
is not real, nor differentiated, layered and structured. There are only levels of
analysis and hence perceptions or observations that can be measured and analysed.
(77 78, emphasis in original)

For Patomaki, in other words, positivism,11 atomism/individualism and, indeed,


levels of analysis, are coterminous. Although he is possibly the first IR scholar to
explicitly link the latter to the other two, this dubious claim, I contend, is a
manifestation of the more general and common error of conflating the ontological
and the methodological; that is, questions of what is and practical matters about
how to pursue political inquiry. Levels of analysis are not necessarily based on
atomism or individualism, nor must they be used exclusively with causal
reasoning.
First, to put it in simple terms, the ontological question, who and what are the
actors?, is different from the methodological question, what level of analysis are
we using?. This is itself a contentious claim since ontologies are often expressed
as methodologies which contain ontological postulates. For example, consider the
ontological positions of reductionism and social atomism. Based on the history of
the usage of the terms social atomism and reductionism, they refer to the same thing.
Reductionism is rooted in Rene Descartes (2003) view that objects of inquiry are
best understood as the sum of empirically observable parts. Thomas Hobbes
(1998, 102) represents this line of thought, as well, in On the citizen, with the
admonition that to understand society we must look at men as if they had just
emerged from the earth like mushrooms and grown up without any obligation to
each other. Although this is expressed as a methodology (that is, how to look at
10
The reason that holism is a necessary condition for mutual constitution is that the
latter presupposes the existence of social facts which are not properties of ontologically
primitive individuals.
11
By positivism Patomaki and I are employing the narrow meaning of the term, as a
philosophy of science consisting of Humean causation, the covering-law model of
explanation, an instrumentalist treatment of theoretical terms, and the operationalization of
scientific concepts. See Wight (2002) and Jackson (2010) for an overview of the meaning of
this and other philosophies of science used in IR.

Owen Temby

men) this is because, as mentioned above, methodological statements cannot


avoid at least implicit ontological stances, in this case, an ontological stance on the
nature of society as reducible to individuals. Hobbes reductionism lies not in his
decision to examine society by examining individuals (a methodological choice)
but in reducing society ontologically to individuals and nothing more. Social
atomism is a contemporary social science form of this. Formally, I use Charles
Taylors (1989, 159) definition of atomism, as the doctrine which maintains that,
in order of explanation, you can and ought to account for social actions,
structures, and conditions, in terms of properties of the constituent individuals.12
Again, although Taylor is discussing how to examine social kinds (since it is
impractical to discuss ontology except in terms of how it is used in the practice of
inquiry), his concern is the ontology of the social kinds underlying this inquiry.
According to Taylors understanding of atomism, social structures are reducible to
the individuals of which they are composed. However, this does not mean that
individuals themselves must be the object of analysis, since structures can be
examined in terms of the distribution of properties of the individuals or other
constituent partsjust as Waltz (1979) suggests in his definition of structure as the
distribution of capabilities among state agents.
For a definition of holism, I use one provided by Lewis and Weigert (1985, 455),
who define it as a doctrine that attempts to account for social order by reference to
assumptive or emergent properties of collectivities that are independent of, and
antecedent to interaction among particular individuals. This is an ontological
stance since, regardless of how the methodological question to which level of
analysis do we ascribe explanatory importance? is answered, a choice has been
made to recognize the emergent characteristics of the object under analysis and an
at least implicit position on the agent-structure problem has been established.
The methodological/ontological distinction is shown in Figure 1 where levels
of analysis, as structures, are conceived of in both holistic and atomistic terms. In
the left-hand column, the heading Agent and structure refers to the fact that
holism and atomism/reductionism represent solutions to the agent-structure
problem. Hollis and Smith (1990) and Wendt (1999), instead, place holism and
individualism in opposition to each other. This is a mistake, as individualists are
holists at the individual level of analysis; that is, they believe that brain cells and
Levels of analysis
Individual
Agent and structure

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10

Holism

Folk psychology

Atomism
Eliminative materialism
(reductionism)

State

International system
Unitary actor

States are constructed

Necessary fiction

the distribution of
States are constrained

Figure 1. Comparison of the agent-structure and level of analysis problem.


12

However, I contend that this definition does not go far enough in expressing the
meaning of atomism, which, by the word atom, connotes a commitment to reductionism
that extends deeper than the individual, such that the individual itself is ontologically
problematic.

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Levels of analysis and IR theory 731


11
other body parts have emergent properties, and as such humans are not reducible
to them. But if an agent-structure problem exists at every level of analysis, then
this is true at the individual level too, meaning that even the ontological status of
individuals is problematic. Therefore, following Taylor (1989), I place social
atomism in opposition to holism, and treat individualism as a special case of
atomism in which the individual is privileged.
Under the Levels of analysis heading of Figure 1, I have confined the example
to Waltzs three images, but this is for convenience only. Arguably, and given my
definition of the term, there are as many potential levels of analysis are there are
social structures. At the state level, the structure may be conceived of as an actual
entity, or as a necessary fiction, to use EH Carrs (2001, 137) term, reducible to its
voters, interest groups, government structures and so on. The key point here,
however, is that claiming the state is a real thing, or even a person or unitary
actor, does not in any way preclude the use of other levels. If the state is a person,
this does not mean that domestic actors do not matter or do not have agency, but
rather that their properties as domestic actors are generated and constituted by the
structure that they instantiate (Wendt 2004). Thus, as critical realists have
observed, attempts to reduce the state to domestic actors will fail since these
efforts will result in a bulky conception of individuals forced to carry with them
social facts which really exist externally (Archer 1995).
This is also true at the individual and international system levels. The holistic
ontological stance at the individual level is characterized by folk psychology,
which maintains that individual beliefs and desires are irreducible to the
biological elements of human beings. Eliminative materialism, on the other hand,
is atomistic because it maintains that beliefs and desires are reducible in this
way.13 Holism at the individual level is a defining feature of liberal theory in
general, as it is arguably a necessary logical condition for individual rights.
At the international system level, the holistic position maintains that states are
constructed by the international system, whereas the atomistic position maintains
that only their behaviour is affected. The words the distribution of . . . have been
placed under atomism since this is the language used by both Waltz (1979) and
Moravcsik (1997), and since it captures the idea that the structure is defined in
terms of the ontologically prior states that the international system is reduced to.
Second, if levels of analysis are compatible with constitutive reasoning, the
grounds for Patomakis (2002) claim that they are based on positivism and should
thus be eliminated is undermined. This is because empiricism, that is, the
reduction of ontology to observable phenomena, is an element of the positivist
philosophy of science by definition. However, constitution presupposes the
existence of unobservable and emergent ideational facts that are irreducible to
agents. The reason is that what changes when individuals, states or the system are
constituted are not materials (guns, brain cells and so on), but emergent social
facts such as shared ideas about appropriate behaviour or the cognitions agents
have about who they are, which are endogenous to structured interaction. These
emergent properties are, by definition, irreducible to agents since they are not
13
See Jackson and Pettit (1990), Paul Churchland (1981) and Patricia Churchland (1986)
for descriptions and defences of folk psychology and eliminative materialism, and
Connolly (2002) and Wendt (2010) for explorations of the link between the study of politics
and the study of the brain.

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parts of the agents to begin with. Therefore, to employ constitutive reasoning with
levels of analysis, both the level and the unit must be conceived of holistically. This
arguably violates prominent understandings of positivism (or empiricism) in IR
and instead presupposes some form of ontological realism.
Conceiving of levels of analysis with constitutive effects is complex, so I will
provide three brief examples: (1) one in which a level of analysis structure
constitutes a different unit of analysis structure, (2) a special case of this in which a
level of analysis structure constitutes a unit of analysis structure which is also its
agents and (3) an example in which the level and unit are the same structure. In
these instances, where both structures are understood holistically, the designation
of which structure represents the level of analysis and which represents the unit is
flexible since each is potentially iteratively examined for its effects on the other
and neither is temporally prior.
First, if our level of analysis is the state, and our unit of analysis is a network of
actors in global civil society (GCS), the two entities cannot coconstitute unless they
are actually ontologically privileged. If our state is just voters, members of interest
groups and the government structure and so on, then the properties of this state
can be understood to some extent cause the behaviour of our holistically
understood network of GCS actors, and vice versa, but the states mutual
constitution with the structure of GCS actors has been ruled out since the states
constitutive social facts (for example, mutual understandings identifying the state
and distinguishing it from other social structures) are nonexistent or instead are
properties of its elements. This is not to say that members of domestic interest
groups and government officials on the one hand, and participants of global civil
society policy networks, on the other hand, cannot be understood to coconstitute
through an iterative process of policy learning. Rather, it means that if they are
analysed as doing so, it involves the use of a level and unit of analysis in which
both structures have been conceptualized holistically.
Second, if our level of analysis is the international system and the unit of
analysis is the state, we are arguably examining a mutually constitutive agentstructure relationship (since states are the international system structures agents
or elements). Analyses of this sort include those that use Finnemore and Sikkinks
(1998) norm life cycle (NLC) approach to explaining how the normative context
among states shapes and is shaped by states and their behaviour. For instance,
Matthew J Hoffmann (2005) used the NLC approach to examine the changing
norms of participation in international efforts to address environmental problems
(in particular, ozone depletion and climate change). He argues that ozone
negotiations were initially characterized by North-only participation, but that,
following the suggestion of a norm entrepreneur, Southern states become
involved in subsequent amendment negotiations. As many Southern states
became involved, this altered the normative context within which Northern states
operated, and which constrained their own behaviour regarding ozone
negotiations. Through the process of acting in accordance with these norms,
Northern (and Southern) states internalized them, so that the norms caused their
identities to accord with them and they considered universal participation
legitimate. As is typical for a constructivist analysis in which state agents and an
ideational superstructure are understood holistically and interact in a mutually
constitutive way, the level of analysis and unit of analysis are fluid and changing
depending on the focus of the analysis.

Third, if our level of analysis is the state, and our unit of analysis is also
the state, their constitutive effects could be thought of as what David Campbell
(1998, 24) calls the performative constitution of identity, the reiterative and
citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names
(Butler 1993, 2). Continuing with the environmental theme above, a state that
perceives a particular environmental problem as damaging to its narrowly
defined self-interests may act to ameliorate the problem and, in doing so,
recursively create an identity consistent with these actions, thus redefining
its interests. Robyn Eckersley (2004, 103) argues that the green identity of
several European nations, as evidenced during the 1997 Kyoto climate change
negotiations, is due in part to the long-term realization by these states that
greenhouse gas abatement measures are economically beneficial. Here, a states
identities and interests are mutually constituted through process.

Micro- and macro-levels


If the argument is correct, that levels of analysis are consistent with both holism
and atomism, and constitutive and causal reasoning, it seems that many of the
objections to using the concept are misguided. However, if I want to argue that
levels of analysis are useful to scholars on both sides of the so-called
constructivist-rationalist debate, it is also necessary to explicate how the concept
can be made to accommodate both the micro-level of structure used by
rationalists, and the macro-level used by constructivists. Figure 2 divides each
level of analysis into a micro- and macro-level. Since all social structures are
structured in two ways, and levels of analysis are social structures used in a
certain way, it seems necessary to specify which level of structure we are
employing for explanation. Each of the resulting levels of analysis is categorized
under both holism and atomism since all are compatible with these two
ontological dimensions of the agent-structure problem. It is common to associate
macro-levels with holism and micro-levels with individualism, but there is no
reason to do this since the methodological question of the effects that are assigned
to the levels is separate from the ontological question of how the structures of the
particular micro- and macro-levels are conceptualized. Waltzs (1979) macroLevels of analysis

Holism

Individual

Atomism

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Levels of analysis and IR theory 733


13

State

International system

Macro-individual

Macro-state

Macro-international
(systemic level)

Micro-individual

Micro-state

Micro-international
(interaction level)

Macro-individual

Macro-state

Macro-international
(systemic level)

Micro-individual

Micro-state

Micro-international
(interaction level)

Figure 2. Micro-macro as distinguished from agent and structure and levels of analysis.

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international level is conceived of atomistically, and Fearon and Wendt (2002) and
Wendt (1999) point out that micro-structures are compatible in principle with
constitutive effects, and in such cases are irreducible wholes.14 While constitutive
effects rule out atomism a priori, the macro-structural methodology of explaining
broad patterns of behaviour without reference to the attributes of particular agents
does no such thing if the structure is defined in terms of the attributes of the agents
to begin with, and if it is only granted the capacity to have causal effects (as with
Waltzs neorealist delineation). Therefore, nothing in the selection of which level
of analysis to employ, macro or micro, connotes a solution to the agent-structure
problem.
As mentioned above, the macro-international level is often referred to as the
systemic level, and the micro-international level as the interaction level. It has
become commonplace to regard theory based on either of these levels to be
systemic IR theory (Keohane 2005). Also, democratic peace theory is compatible
with both the macro-state and micro-state levels. Arguments can use the
micro-state of analysis by imputing causation to the utility functions of domestic
groups, or they can use the macro-level and address how democracy programmes
groups to behave within certain boundaries, irrespective of who they are.
Lastly, the micro- and macro- levels can also be used to study the actions of
individuals. The micro-individual level of analysis involves examining the effects
of interactions of brain cells and other biological elements on a unit of analysis, but
this is separate from the question of whether humans are reducible to these
biological elements. The macro-individual level, on the other hand, involves the
observation of human cognitions that are multiply realizable from combinations
of biological elements but, once again, this is separate from the question of
whether these cognitions are emergent and therefore irreducible, as proponents of
folk psychology maintain and eliminative materialism deny.
Implications for international theory
In the interest of space, I will limit my discussion of the implications of my
definition of levels of analysis for IR theory to Waltzs (1979) famous reductionist/
systemic dichotomy and then suggest a categorization of IR theories in terms of
their utilization of levels of analysis and position on the agent-structure problem.
Waltzs reductionist/systemic dichotomy is, arguably, among the more misleading analytical distinctions currently employed in IR discourse. The reason is
that whether or not a theory is reductionist has nothing to do with whether or not
it is systemic.15 The former is an ontological term relating to a solution to the
14

This points to a contradiction in Wendts work. On the one hand, he makes the
argument just mentioned, that micro-structures can generate properties and have
constitutive effects, and can therefore be holistic. On the other hand, he argues that
micro-level dynamics are rooted in individualism, and macro-level dynamics are rooted in
holism (Wendt 2003). Therefore, in this instance, he arguably commits the common error of
conflating ontology with methodology.
15
Waltz (1979, 18) defines reductionism an approach by which the whole is
understood by knowing the attributes and the interactions of its parts. It maintains that
[o]nce the theory that explains the behavior of the parts is fashioned, no further effort
is required (60). Note that Waltzs definition is virtually identical to mine above. This is

Levels of analysis and IR theory 735


15

Individual

Levels of analysis
State

International system

Classical realism

Agent and structure

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Neoclassical realism
Liberal
intergovernmentalism
Holism

Atomism
(reductionism)

World systems theory


Constructivism

Constructivism

Classical realism

Institutionalism

Neoclassical realism

Neoclassical realism

World systems theory

Neorealism

Liberal
intergovernmentalism

Liberal
intergovernmentalism

Democratic peace theory

Systemic IR theory

Constructivism

Figure 3. Agent and structure, levels of analysis, and their relationship to theories of IR.

agent-structure problem, whereas the latter is a methodological term specifying


which level of analysis one is employing for political inquiry. Waltzs lapse in
precision on this matter is further evidenced by his use of the terms systemic and
structural interchangeablyas if the only social structure is at the level of the
international system. As has been argued in this article, any theory that explains
state behaviour by reference to a level of analysis is structural since a level of
analysis is a structure by definition, one that is used to explain the behaviour of
another structure.
Figure 3 shows how existing IR theories fit into the typology first presented in
Figure 1. The inclusion of the term Systemic IR theory in the International
system column indicates that systemic IR theory is a class of explanation of state
behaviour that uses the international system as a level of analysis. Examples of
theories that do this include neorealism (Waltz 1979; Mearsheimer 2001),
neoclassical realism (Schweller 1996), neo-Gramcian Marxism (Cox 1987), world
systems theory (Wallerstein 1974), institutionalism (albeit at the microinternational level) (Keohane 2005), liberal intergovernmentalism (Moravcsik
2003) and English School theory (Bull 2002; Buzan 2004). Because the choice to use
this level is a methodological one, the international system can be conceived of in
either reductionist terms (as in neorealism) or holistically (as in English School
theory, among others). In other words, Waltzs theory is both reductionist and
systemic.
Figure 3 also points out that democratic peace theory, which explains state
behaviour by using the state level of analysis, or with reference to what Waltz calls
internal characteristics, is not a reductionist class of theory per se. It is neither
Footnote 15 continued

an ontological postulate, one which maintains that structures do not have emergent
properties and are therefore reducible to their parts. Waltz (18) defines systemic IR
theory as a class of theories that conceive of causes operating at the international level.
Again, this is a level of analysis, not an ontological stance regarding the agent-structure
problem.

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reductionist nor systemic, as it is defined by its use of the state level of analysis, not
its ontology. There are certainly reductionists who theorize about the
phenomenon (Moravcsik 1997), but so do holists (Kahl 1998). Colin Kahl explains
democratic peace with reference to a collective liberal identity among irreducible
state agents. Similarly, while Bruce Russett and John Oneal (2001) display no
explicit reductionist or holistic commitments in their effort to construct a theory of
democratic peace, they employ Wendts (1999) holistic argument about the
constitutive (and thus irreducible) effects of the international system, which, when
made more peaceful by democracies that believe they can trust each other, further
contributes to the absence of war. Democratic peace theory, then, as theory which
explains state behaviour with reference to the properties of states (conceived in
holistic or reductionist terms), is reduction neutral.
Several of the other classifications in Figure 3 merit clarification and
explanation. First, classical realist Hans Morgenthau et al (2005) uses the first and
second images to explain state behaviour, while Carr (2001) uses only the second,
and both argue that the structure at the second image does not exist. Second,
neoclassical realists and liberal intergovernmentalists use all three levels while
concurrently maintaining that individuals are the only ontologically privileged
entities (Moravcsik 1997; Schweller 2003). Thus, these approaches arguably
have more in common methodologically than is sometimes acknowledged. Third,
although world systems theory is generally thought to be international systemic, it
also uses the second image insofar as Wallerstein (2004) distinguishes between the
behaviour of weak and strong states. It is holistic at the international level due to
the deep generative effects it grants to the structure of the capitalist world system,
and atomistic at the state level since it accepts that states are reducible to the narrow
interests of capitalists. Fourth, it should come as no surprise that constructivists use
all three of these levels of analysis (and more), whereas institutionalists do not, as
the Fourth (rationalist-constructivist) Debate is as much about methodology as
ontology. Constructivists value breadth in their accounts of social life, and in
pursuance of this end are holists ontologically, methodologically imputing
causation to multiple structures. Rational institutionalists, on the other hand,
bracket the holistic effects of many structures (thereby not necessarily denying their
existence) and often use a limited number of levels of analysis, both for reasons of
parsimony.
Ambiguities
Although this article has thus far attempted to clarify many of the ambiguities
associated with levels of analysis, the definition proposed necessarily raises its
own. In this section I will clarify two of the most obvious: (1) multiple structures
existing at a single level of analysis, and (2) social systems or structures that cut
across levels of analysis. To this end, I provide one example of a theory in which
the concept of system and structure, at first glance, render the use of levels of
analysis questionable. However, as I explain, a relational understanding of levels
as methodological tools grants the researcher a degree of independence from the
ontological problem of specifying what counts as the international, for example.
And the fact that nearly all IR theories examine the effects of the empirical stuff of

Levels of analysis and IR theory 737


17
international politicspeople, states, international organizations, agreements, the
public sphere and so onmeans levels are difficult to dispense with altogether.

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Multiple structures at the same level


As stated above, recent IR scholarship has acknowledged the differentiation
of world society into functionally distinct sectors or systems. According to
proponents of MST (one notable branch of theory that does this), what is
sometimes described as the international system would more aptly be called an
international political system, which interacts with other systems operating
based on a different logic, including the global economy, legal system, the global
system of religion and others (Luhmann 1995; Buzan and Albert 2010). If this is so,
the question necessarily arises: how can different levels exist at the same level?
Given a relational understanding of levels of analysis, I argue the concept
allows for the recognition of differentiation since a level is a methodological tool
employed only in relation to a specified unit. For example, if a regime (understood
as an instantiation of the legal system, an issue-area-specific and region-specific
discourse about what is legal and illegal) is examined for its influence on the state,
the regime is the level of analysis and the state is the unit of analysis. If, on the
other hand, we wish to examine how the structure of the international political
system affects the climate change scientific discourse, the international political
system is the designated level, whereas climate change science is our unit.
Whether the level and unit are described at the same levelsuch as the global
economy and the international political systemhas no bearing on our capacity to
examine the effects of one on another.

Systems or structures cutting across levels


This article has defined social structure in a commonly used (in IR) but idiomatic
way, one that is not shared by all theoretical approaches. Modern systems
theorists, for example, conceive as social structure as (1) a description of the
differentiation among world societys functional subsystems, and (2) a description
of the recursive redundancy exhibited by a subsystem. Here, society is not
understood in a way in which social life is structured differently between the three
images, or any other level of analysis an analyst may conceive of. Rather, the
political system or legal system, for example, are systems (or structures) of world
society that cut across levels of social organization.
Despite this ontological complication, there is reason why theorists with such
an expansive view of structure can use levels of analysis in political inquiry.
Namely, the semantics of levels of analysis are arguably compatible with the
theoretical concepts used by modern systems theorists in their account of politics,
even if these concepts are understood differently than in mainstream IR theory.
Modern systems theorists conceive as the political system as differentiated
between the states system (which is itself differentiated among the states
that compose it) and global civil society. Insofar as any of these can be described
as having properties that can be understood as variables, they can be
conceived as levels of analysis. Even though the political system is understood
as encompassing all of these elements ontologically, and even though its structure

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cuts across various levels, this does not preclude employing a state, some
dimension of global civil society, or the structure of the global political system as a
level of analysis. And, although MST does not agree with the ontology of agent
and structure, and does not view the state as an ontologically privileged entity
outside of the discourse that refers to it, the theory has a commitment to
constitutive theorizing, meaning that the ontological question at any given level is
essentially taken for granted in favour of a holistic understanding of social
organization. This is true of the state level of analysis as well since the state is a
proxy for a geographic instantiation of the political systemwhat Luhmann
(2000, 63) in a different context referred to as a program strandwhich is
mutually constituted with other geographical instantiations, as well as with other
systems.
Conclusion
Ultimately, philosophical reflection in IR should serve the purpose of enabling us
to craft accounts of global social life which are coherent and trustworthy. Yet our
subject matter makes this inherently difficult, as a reasonable amount of ambiguity
exists over how to understand IR concepts and the relationships between them. In
this article I suggest that, separate from debating such ontological matters, IR
would benefit from adopting a flexible, yet consistent, understanding of levels of
analysis as methodological tools. More specifically, I have argued for a relational
conception of levels of analysis, as social structures that exist as levels in relation to
a unit of analysis whose behaviour or properties the levels own properties are
examined to explain. As I have shown, this understanding is consistent with the
way in which the concept has been consciously conceptualized in IR discourse,
dating back to Waltzs Man, the state, and war (1959) and extending through the
early 1990s debate between Wendt (1991; 1992) and Hollis and Smith (1990; 1991;
1992). Furthermore, this relational understanding of levels of analysis is consistent
with a range of ontological positions and theories employed in the study of global
social phenomena. This includes theories that explicitly or implicitly address
questions related to agent and structure, as well as at least one theoretical approach
(MST) that rejects such reasoning outright.
That said, existing usage of levels of analysis, and the conceptualization of
their relation to agent and structure, has lacked analytical precision. In a recent
review of the literature on the study of the state, one observer argued that it is
inappropriate to treat the state as a unitary actor (Levi 2002, 53). Her point is that
doing so precludes a priori the examination of domestic politics as an independent
variable on state action. However, as has been shown in this article, this popular
view is based on a conflation of two different issues, one ontological and one
methodological. What the state is need not determine our decision regarding
whether or not to examine domestic actors for their effect on state action or any
other unit of analysis. But since an agent-structure problem exists at every level of
analysis, it is still important to engage the ontological question when making a
methodological choice. This is because, as I have argued, our ontological
postulates determine some of the possibilities open to us when engaging in
scientific inquiry. If we choose to be atomists we cannot engage in constitutive
theorizing because atomism discards the existence of the requisite social facts.

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Holism, on the other hand, rejected by positivists at all but the individual level of
analysis, is perfectly compatible with both causal and constitutive theorizing.
Thus, if levels of analysis and agent and structure do not offer something to
everyone, we should at least recognize that their utility is broader than is often
understood. Nearly every theory of IR uses levels and units, and every theory
solves the agent-structure problem at the levels and units it uses, whether
explicitly or implicitly. The purpose here has not been to advocate the use of
certain levels or a particular ontological view of them, but rather to encourage
their consistent use, in a way that respects their conscious historical development,
so that we can be clear about the relatively distinct issues of agent and structure
and level of analysis and, maybe, have one more common way of expressing
our ideas.

Notes on contributor
Owen Temby (PhD, Carleton University) is a postdoctoral fellow at the
Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, and a research
associate at the Loyola Sustainable Research Centre, Concordia University. His
current research examines domestic and transnational environmental policy
networks in Canada and the United States. Email: owen.temby@mcgill.ca
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