Subjective Perception and the Democratic Peace

March 18, 2009

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[First published September 1, 2005] Our perception, what we see, is influenced by the context, our background, and our beliefs, particularly our “ism.” There is a reality out there to be sure, but what it manifest to us is what we partly create. In this sense, each of us is nature’s conductor, enlarging here, endowing meaning there, ignoring this, inflating out of all proportion that, and so on. Politics, because there is so much at stake, including life and death, is particularly prone to this seeing-what-we-want-to-see or -believe.

There are many metaphors for this general perceptual process, one of the best I’ve recently come across is here. It illustrates vividly how what color we think we are seeing is determined by context — by the adjacent colors.

If our perception is so subjective, how do we ever really see socio-political reality? In the long run through the slow evolution of Truths that stand the test of time and challenge; in the short run through clear scientific tests (like those by Adam Przeworski and colleagues on the durability of democracies that I discussed in the last two blogs) and their presentation such that others can duplicate them. This is the story of the democratic peace. It began in 1795 with Immanuel Kant’s philosophical argument, and entered politics as an assumption of 19th Century classical liberalism — freedom promotes peace. But, this particular perception of reality competed with monarchism and the growing anti-freedom belief in socialism of that era; and in the last century, fascism, communism, and militarism — all different perceptions of the same reality of politics, economy, and peace.

Then came the first scientific tests of the democratic peace by Dean Babst in 1964, to be followed by those of Melvin Small and J. David Singer in 1976 (mistakenly negative), and my War, Power, Peace in 1979 (complete book on my website here.). Then, came my explicit retests published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution (1983), the central journal of conflict studies, and the tests by Michael Doyle appearing in the American Political Science Review (1986), the organ of the American Political Science Association. This all stimulated and provoked a flood of replications and extensions as doubters tried to show how wrong we were, and ended up convinced (see my democratic peace bibliography).

True, perception is subjective and so is any statement of fact. Until, that is, it reflects a long history of challenge and response, or it can be subjected to scientific tests, as has been the idea of a democratic peace. By tests, I mean that all clearly defined cases (or a random sample) of democracies, violence, and wars should be collected (the data available to all for their own confirming tests) and employed to test the democratic peace hypothesis, with statistical tests to determine how likely the results occurred by chance. The emphasis here is on the plural, “tests.” For no one scientific test or empirical study is sufficient (as the major media is yet to learn). It has to be subjected to replication, which is best if conducted by those with different perceptions. Then, if across data sets, testers, years covered, and definitions the results generally agree, then we have perceived a Truth of the political world.

Such is the democratic peace.

Link of Note

CHAPTER 7.”Perception and Reality” By R.J. Rummel. In The Dynamic Psychological field (1975)


. . . there is an active, psychological engagement in perception, a confrontation of external reality with a psychological reality, a clash of two worlds whose battle lines comprise our perception. Therefore, while useful as an initial provisional sketch, the simple view of perception as a unidirectional process running from external object to stimuli to receptors to perceptibles to percept to concept will have to be modified in favor of a dialectical field theory of perception.

God, what incredible prose.
Universal Archive
Democratic peace Q&A/FAQ